Perception of Doors

Perception of Doors

A wry and delicate novel about the ancient human fact of migration.

Journey's End. Review of Mohsin Hamid, Exit WestFinancial 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.

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Could Do Better

Could Do Better

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.

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The Art of Fear

The Art of Fear

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.”

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”.

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A Mighty Fry-Up

A slightly self-deconstructive review of Chigozie Obioma's The Fishermen.

New Statesman | 15 September 2015.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Chigozie Obioma’s debut has been widely and joyously reviewed. The press materials that fell out of my copy show how critics ranging from those at the New York Times to those at have been – as the cliché goes – reaching for the superlatives. The Fishermen is, if I run it all together: searing, incandescent, darkly mythic, long-limbed and elegant writing, awesome in the true sense of the word, showing an unmatched level of intricacy, lyricism and control that makes Obioma the clear heir to Chinua Achebe.

As much as I enjoyed the novel – a searing, incandescent and, yes, darkly mythic tale of familial and social disintegration set in 1990s Nigeria – this pre-emptive barrage of praise inevitably made me seek out dissenting voices...

Read more on the New Statesman website

Confession of the Lioness

A radical call for change framed in semi-traditional forms.

Review of Mia Couto, Confession of the Lioness, trans. David Brookshaw.
Financial Times31 July 2015.

In April of this year, the poet and novelist Mia Couto wrote an open letter to the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. “We remember you in Maputo,” it began, “from that time you spent as a political refugee in Mozambique. Often our paths crossed on Julius Nyerere Avenue and we would greet each other with the casual friendliness of neighbours.” Recently shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, Couto used his platform to condemn the attacks on foreign nationals that had resurfaced in Johannesburg and other cities. He implored the government to do more, and asked fellow Africans to remember a shared history of cultural mixing, migrant labour and liberation struggle — to imagine the fraternity of an “Africa South” that goes beyond national borders.

One of the most remarkable things about the letter was the fact that President Zuma (usually known for laughing off his critics) responded, and responded at length. He addressed Couto as “my dear brother”, remembered him as a courageous journalist, and acknowledged how the vulnerable Mozambiquan state had sheltered combatants fighting against apartheid. So it was surely Couto’s “struggle credentials” that partly invoked the response. Yet I also wonder if it might have been the particular mode of his address: its careful salutations, its formal language, its poetic and even ceremonious quality.

A fierce and fearless critique, but one voiced in customary and coded ways. This is one way of describing Couto’s Confession of the Lioness, first published in Portuguese in 2012 and now appearing in translation by his long-term collaborator David Brookshaw. It reads as a passionate denunciation of patriarchy and violence against women in an east African village, a village that is being menaced by predators both feline and human. But again, it does this without reaching for familiar kinds of critique (the word “patriarchy” certainly never appears). Perhaps rather cunningly, it evades the vocabularies of feminism, environmentalism or human rights — the language of NGOs that some leaders are quick to dismiss as “western” imports when it suits them to do so.

That Middling Line

That Middling Line

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.

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The Marvellous Real

The swiftness of the folk tale combined with sparseness of Raymond Carver.

Review of E. C. Osondu, This House is Not for Sale. Financial Times, 5 June 2015.

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino considers the six properties that he believes are fundamental to literature. The first is Lightness; the second is Quickness. And this is why (he tells us) he has always been attracted to folk tales. Not out of ethnic loyalty or nostalgia (he is a modern, cosmopolitan writer) but because of their narrative economy, the laconic swiftness with which they are set in motion: A king fell ill and was told by his doctors, “Majesty, if you want to get well, you’ll have to obtain one of the ogre’s feathers.” No attempt to explain what illness befell the king, or why an ogre might have feathers. Simply the bare résumé, in which “everything is left to the imagination and the speed with which events follow one another conveys a feeling of the ineluctable”.

It is this kind of narrative fleetness that animates E. C. Osondu’s second work, This House is Not for Sale, right down to the level of its wry sentences: “Children loved him; women loved him; husbands not so much.”

Read more on the FT website

An Unnatural History pt.2

An Unnatural History pt.2

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.

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On the Brink of the Mundane

On the Brink of the Mundane

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:

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The Feather and Stick Method

CarnivalNight Rider| Review of Rawi Hage, Carnival (Hamish Hamilton, 2013). Financial Times | 6 September 2013.

The work of the young Albert Camus was once described as Kafka written by Hemingway – a deft example of the shorthand book reviewers often reach for when trying to pin down new talent. On the cover of Rawi Hage’s third novel, Carnival, a reviewer’s line asks us to “Imagine Camus rewriting Taxi Driver” – which made me think that perhaps this device should be retired for a little while...


Alchemists of the Ordinary

Alchemists of the Ordinary

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.

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Imagining the Cape Colony

ZAH01_100000081_XReview of David Johnson, Imagining the Cape Colony: History, Literature and the South African Nation (UCT Press, Cape Town, 2012). Historia 58 | May 2013.


Imagining the Cape Colony is a slim but dense work which examines how this part of the world has been written up and analysed as a political community by eighteenth-century travellers, thinkers and theorists from Europe; but also by settler rebels, emancipationists and early African nationalists who drew on Enlightenment precepts of equality and governance in various ways, and for various reasons. Surrounding and giving texture to this enquiry is attention to a wide range of historical and literary works, allowing us to see how certain elements of the past come into cultural visibility at certain moments, and why. For “poetical genius”, to quote the young radical Robert Southey who appears in these pages, “is certainly a barometer that rises or falls according to the state of the political atmosphere” (p 21)...   [Read as PDF, pages 246-50]

Train Wreck

Theroux - Last Train to Zona VerdeReview of Paul Theroux, Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola.

A decade after his last African travelogue, Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux picks up where he left off. “What am I doing here?” begins to appear as a refrain. I began asking it, too: “What are you doing here, Paul? Why are you making me rehearse this done-to-death critique of stereotypical versions of Africa?

New Statesman | 30 May 2013.

Nominated for Hatchet Job of the Year 2013: The Omnivore | The Guardian | The Daily Telegraph (with misspelled name).

For real? Arguing with David Shields

For real? Arguing with David Shields

Rhodes Journalism Review | vol. 32 | 2012 [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?  

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Don't say 'problematize'...

For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of yourself; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist.  Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem...

...We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.

Virginia Woolf, ‘The Modern Essay’ (1925).

UCT lecturer in English Hedley Twidle presents the work of his top three graduate students from a seminar he ran this year on writing professional review essays. In this, the first of a three-part feature, SLiPnet presents Twidle’s introductory thoughts on the review essay as a literary-critical form, followed by UCT graduate student Anneke Rautenbach’s review of Dana Snyman’s book, The Long Way Home.

What is a review? What is an essay? And what is a review essay?

We discussed these questions during a recent seminar on (so-called) literary non-fiction at the University of Cape Town. The idea was to explore more varied, public and perhaps more lucrative modes of writing about literature than the research “paper”, or end-of-term “assignment” – both rather insipid terms for the kind of pieces that Honours and Masters students are required to produce.

In bald economic terms, postgraduate study consists in paying someone to read your work (sometimes a couple of external examiners too) and there it ends. But what about getting paid, and so contributing to a wider dialogue, all without sacrificing intelligence, rigour and (if necessary) difficulty? And how much self can one insert into an essayistic response to a text before it becomes self-indulgent? [Continue reading...]

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

How the right-wing co-opts the lexicon of social justice. Review of Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press: 2011. SLiPnet (Stellenbosch Literary Project).

The Future Eaters.  Streamlined version at The Daily Maverick. In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon performs a dense but stylish call to activism, writes HEDLEY TWIDLE.

On Edward Said:

He thrived on intellectual complexity while aspiring to clarity; he taught and wrote as if – and I know this should sound unremarkable for a literature professor – he yearned to be widely understood. His approach felt fervent, luminous when measured against the alternatives: close readings sealed against the world or deconstructionist seminars in which the stakes were as obscure as the language, as we poked at dead-on-delivery prose in the hopes of rousing enough life from it for our exertions to qualify as “play” … He understood that it is far more difficult to theorize with the cunning of lightness than it is to fob off some seething mess of day-old neologisms as an “intervention”. His devotion to style became integral to his political idealism and inseparable from his belief in insurrectionary outwardness.

Rob Nixon, Preface, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011).