A wry and delicate novel about the ancient human fact of migration.
Journey's End. Review of Mohsin Hamid, Exit West. Financial Times, 25 February, 2017.
The tragedy of Europe today, Mohsin Hamid has suggested in his essays and journalism, is an inability to articulate a desirable future. Whether in Discontent and its Civilizations, his collected dispatches from New York, London and Lahore (the three cities he has called home), or his reflections on Britain’s response to refugees, he sees modern nation states as mired in an illusory nostalgia that forgets an ancient history of human wandering and scattering, of border-crossing and diaspora.
So what might the future look like if the free world extended real freedom of movement to the millions of people who choose to (or have no choice but to) leave their homes and seek a life elsewhere? This is the question that underlies his latest novel, Exit West, a thought experiment that pivots on the crucial figure of this century: the migrant. Read More
Not sure about J. M. Coetzee's Schooldays.
New Statesman | 5 October 2016 | PDF
Finding it very hard to muster any reaction whatsoever to J M Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus, I broke an unspoken rule and quickly clicked through the early reviews. The Australian provided a loyal, deferential description of the latest novel by its best-known literary immigrant, but most responses ranged from the cool to the exasperated. Under the heading “J M Coetzee has lost the plot”, one reviewer suggested that the most affecting page in the book is the one that lists the 2003 Nobel laureate’s previous works.
I had also been pondering this forbidding, vaguely hourglass-shaped litany of literary achievement – flipping back to it repeatedly when coming (generally nonplussed) to the end of the book’s short, gnomic chapterlets. At the top of the list, there are the longish early titles, such as In the Heart of the Country and Life and Times of Michael K; at the bottom, it widens out again into the recent collaborations with Paul Auster (Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011) and Arabella Kurtz (The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy). In the centre, the one-word narrow waist formed by Disgrace: a novel widely lauded abroad but often reviled in Coetzee’s native South Africa, and one that seems to have marked the end of a certain kind of risk-taking in his work.
This latest book continues a retreat into more cerebral, disembodied fictional worlds – novels advanced largely by stilted, rather coy Platonic dialogue through which characters emerge less as verbal approximations of people than philosophical propositions, to be tested in a carefully controlled, not to say sterile environment. Read More
A novelistic re-imagining of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich.
Review of Julian Barnes, The Noise of Time.
Financial Times | 15 January 2016.
On January 28 1936, Pravda carried the most chilling music review of the 20th century. “Muddle Instead of Music” was an unsigned editorial but many suspected that Stalin himself had penned it: only a dictator could get away with so many grammatical errors. Two days earlier he had walked out of an opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, leaving its composer Dmitri Shostakovich white with fear. Until then, the work had been acclaimed worldwide, but now the 29-year-old’s success was turned against him: “Is it not because the opera is non-political and confusing that they praise it? Is it not explained by the fact that it tickles the perverted taste of the bourgeois with its fidgety, neurotic music?” An opportunity for clear, realistic art that could uplift the people had been squandered by this straying into dissonance, cacophony and “formalism”: “It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly.” Read More
The short text changed Shostakovich’s life utterly. He cut it out and started a scrapbook of all the attacks against him orchestrated by the Party, studying them carefully, working out how to survive the coming terror. “Now they were not just reviewing his music,” we read in The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes’s novelistic reinhabiting of the composer’s world, “but editorialising about his existence”.
The postcolonial afterlives of E. M. Forster.
Review of Alberto Fernández Carbajal, Compromise and Resistance in Postcolonial Writing: E. M. Forster’s Legacy, (2014). Journal of Postcolonial Writing, 2015. PDF.
See also Nothing Extraordinary: E. M. Forster and the English Limit.
In Zadie Smith’s 2008 essay on Forster, one novelist considers the difficulty of placing another within literary history: Forster is not an Edwardian but not quite a Modernist either; not reactionary but hardly a radical; in fact, Smith implies, it is far easier to say what he is not than what he is. She goes on to suggest the divergent inflections that can be given to his “middling line”:
At times – when defending his liberal humanism against fundamentalists of the right and left – that middle line was, in its quiet, Forsterish way, the most radical place to be. At other times – in the laissez-faire cosiness of his literary ideas – it seemed merely the most comfortable.
An eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals.
Review of Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes (Umuzi, 2015). Sunday Times, 9 May 2015. Longer version at Books Live.
Now that Cecil Rhodes has been toppled from his plinth and trucked away for safekeeping, the question is what exactly to do with the man. One idea has been to relocate the statue to the Old Zoo just beyond the edge of the University of Cape Town’s campus. It is a lush, unsettling place of stone ruins and overgrown cages, where rough sleepers sleep rough in graffiti-covered enclosures and students sneak off for a joint between lectures. Instead of gazing out toward hinterlands, here the imperialist could himself be gazed at – not unlike like the various animals that he once installed in this 19th-century menagerie. The Old Zoo is at the heart of Henrietta Rose-Innes’s remarkable new novel: an eccentric, dream-like meditation on the lives and deaths of animals. Read More
Rereading Ivan Vladislavić: The Restless Supermarket and Double Negative.
(Much) shorter version at the New Statesman, 9 January 2015: Lost in Joburg: One of South Africa's most accomplished prose stylists gets a timely reissue.
Do copy-editors still use their time-honoured signs: the confident slashes, STETs and arrowheads, the fallen-down S that means transpose? Or is everything now done via the garish bubbles of MS Word Track changes?
Midway through Ivan Vladislavić’s 2001 novel The Restless Supermarket, the proudly anachronistic narrator Aubrey Tearle gives a disquisition on the delete mark. As a retired proofreader, regular writer of letters to the editor, and grumpy but occasionally endearing old man, he suggests that of all his erstwhile profession’s charms, this is the most beautiful and mysterious: Read More
Review of Isabel Hofmeyr, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard University Press) and Archie Dick, The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Cultures (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press).
Edited version published in the Mail & Guardian, 23 August 2013.
Two compelling academic works of recent years – both by South Africa-born scholars, both published by Harvard University Press – are concerned with slowness: as idea, challenge and method...
In Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), it refers to the invisible, unspectacular processes of environmental degradation and climate change: those ‘disasters that are anonymous and star nobody.’ How, he asks, have writers from the developing world tried to bring into conceptual focus those ‘calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans’ – and outside the frame of a spectacle-driven corporate media?
In Gandhi’s Printing Press, Isabel Hofmeyr asks similar questions about activism, political tactics and global media flows, but in a very different context: the colonized Indian Ocean world of a century ago. Training close attention on just one of the ‘experiments with truth’ that made up the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, her book gives a detailed treatment of his time as proprietor of a printing operation, first in Durban and then at the Phoenix ashram outside it. Tracking the work of the International Printing Press and Gandhi’s establishment of the periodical Indian Opinion in 1903, it explores a more utopian idea of slowness. Here this comes to figure the kind of meditative and deep reading that Gandhi and his followers attempted to inculcate as a prelude to effective political action: a reading at the pace of the human body; a resistance to the industrialized tempos of modernity. Read More
Rhodes Journalism Review | vol. 32 | 2012 www.rjr.ru.ac.za [PDF version]
‘A literary battle cry for the creation of a new genre’…‘Raw and gorgeous’… ‘A work of virtuoso banditry’.
The first and most childish reason for me wanting to pick a fight with David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) is that it comes absolutely swaddled in praise from London and New York. My Vintage edition is loud yellow and fire-engine red, like a dangerous wasp, with quotes, puffs and blurbs slathered all over it. ‘A sort of bible for the next generation of culture-makers’…‘an invigorating shakedown of the literary status quo’ and (most cringe-inducing of all): ‘This dude’s book is the hip-hop album of the year’.
Not only do they occupy the back and spill over onto several pages at the front; they also creep onto the cover, even over the title typeface itself, where a critic as tough-minded as Tim Parks salutes this ‘protean polemic’. Other undeniably brainy novelists like Jonathan Safran Foer and Zadie Smith also weigh in respectfully, even as Shields inveighed against their chosen medium in interviews: well-wrought literary fictions à la Jonathan Franzen and Ian McEwan, were, he told The Observer in 2010, ‘antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian novel mode. In no way do they convey what if feels like to live in the 21st century. Like most novels, they are essentially works of nostalgic entertainment’. What exactly was going on here? Read More