Friday, January 30, 2009

From Updike to Queneau - and back again?

It seemed appropriate to write something about John Updike this week, but while I was still planning the perfect angle, I was side-tracked by an email from my friend H who is also a reading writer - or a writing reader - like me. It was simply entitled Updike is dead and consisted of a single line, a link to the writer's obituary in the New York Times:

I read the tribute and was rather amused by the fact that judges of Britain's infamous Bad Sex in Fiction Prize had recently 'honoured' Updike for 'lifetime achievement'. Of course I knew that whatever I wrote about Updike would contain some reference to his sexual, well, not activity - unless one can call writing about sex a sexual activity? - but at least to the way he brought suburban sex to mainstream literature with a novel like Couples in the sixties. I read Couples more than a decade after it had first appeared, when I was finally old enough to appreciate it, and frankly, I found quite a lot to appreciate.

Thanks for the link, I replied to H's email. Wanted to scribble something about him in my blog. It's true that his sex scenes sometimes sounded ridiculous - as most sex scenes taken out of context? - but I have to admit that 'Couples' (especially the sex) made a huge impression on me in my youthful innocence.

I don't know him all that well, H replied, but his short stories are fantastic. His literary essays too. He wrote a beautiful essay, 'Getting the words out', drawing a link between his stuttering and his writing. My partner was also mad about 'Couples'. Have you read Colim Toibin's 'The Master' (about Henry James)? Definitely my book of the past 12 months. Now I also want to read Michiel Heyns and Lodge's books about him. I also read Perec's 'A Void' (originally 'La Disparition' in French). Normally intellectual pyrotechnics don't impress me - but fuck if you can combine intellect with a heart it makes for a great read. It's also extremely funny, a man who gets blown up (assassination) when he has sex with one of those huge sea lion-type things you get in Florida and Mocambique. But I don't think it's everyone's cup of tea.

Then of course I had to respond: It's fascinating to read all 3 those Henry James books in a short space of time. 'The Master' is probably the most 'literary', but do have a look at what Lodge does with exactly the same material. Exactly the same episode from the life of James! Michiel's book uses another angle and an imaginary typist, for me the most 'enjoyable' of the 3, or the most imaginative anyway, would love to hear what you think. And 'La Disparition' I've been wanting to read in French for yeeeears, but I just don't get there... You know how it goes. I remember a long time ago I read in Time Magazine what an enormous task the English translation was. It might be even more difficult in English than in French to write a phrase without an e. You can't even use 'the'??? In French at least you have 'le' AND 'la', so as long as you stick to feminine nouns, you're more or less OK. My partner is mad about Perec and his buddies who did all those wonderful style exercises...

Who are Perec's buddies and are they translated in English? my friend H wanted to know. I discovered him with a detour via Granta - the list of all the food he ate in one year - and then of course I read 'Life A User's Manual'. It's one of those books - like James Joyce's 'Ulysses' - which was supposed to be a total wank but turned out to be total magic for me. Right book at the right time???

So I asked my partner about Perec's buddies and promptly answered H: Raymond Queneau is the most well-known of the group, in France anyway. They called themselves Oulipo, acronym for Oeuvre Litteraire Potentiel or Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle or something like that. Queneau's 'Exercises in Style' must surely be translated in English. I quickly googled his name and found some interesting English entries, for instance on the site He wrote 99 short 'stories' about exactly the same incident (or non-incident), a guy on a bus who looks at another passenger and finds something wrong with the button on his jacket, if I remember correctly. My son had to read the book about 2 years ago as a set work in French high school, and he wasn't what I would call ecstatic about it, but I found it magnificent. The kind of thing any potential writer should try as finger exercises...

As you can see, by now H and I had quite an entertaining literary roadtrip going, meandering away from Updike, taking a shortcut through Henry James, detouring around Perec and Queneau, with no final destination in mind. This is part of the joy of reading, I realised once again. It is always seen as such a solitary act, but the moment you put two enthusiastic readers together, you can be sure there will be a joint voyage to some unknown destination. Which is why, instead of writing just another boring tribute to a dead writer, I decided I'd rather invite you along for the ride by sharing these emails with you.

Who knows, if we keep going, we might even get back to Updike?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Local stays lekker

My patriotism doesn't necessarily extend to my bookshelf. What I mean is that I don't feel morally bound to praise South African books just because I was born in South Africa. So when I say that three of the best books I read during the past year are by authors born in South Africa, please believe me, it is an ode to pleasure rather than an act of patriotism.

I am delighted to realise that local can still be so lekker. For those of you who don't understand lekker, it is the South African version of fabulous, genial, prima, wunderbar... All of these adjectives, in whatever language, apply to Anne Landsman's novel The Rowing Lesson. It is a thing of beauty from beginning to end.

A woman, pregnant with her first child, is summoned from her home in New York to her dying father's hospital bed in Cape Town. From these sad and simple facts Landsman constructs a tale that is anything but simple and, though sad, never sentimental. On the contrary, quite a few passages are laugh-aloud funny, a rare feat in any book.

Landsman's 'language of fire and passion', as Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee calls it, is spiced with Afrikaans, Hebrew and medical terms, producing a truly original new voice. The medical terminology makes perfect sense, not only because of the hospital setting, but also because the dying father has been a small-town doctor for decades. Harold Klein, once dedicated caregiver to a whole community, now needs to be taken care of as he lies in a coma, slowly slipping away from those who love him. The only way his daughter can still 'communicate' with him, is by meditating on his life - remembering, reliving, inventing it.

Thus the whole story becomes an act of imagination, brilliantly exposing the force and the fragility of a father-daughter relationship. It is also, perhaps above all, a book about memory - the many layers, the rich textures, the contradictions of memory.

Anne Landsman was a discovery to me, since I hadn't read anything else she'd written. Breyten Breytenbach, on the other hand, is a famous Afrikaans poet whose work I've been admiring for decades. His latest book, A Veil of Footsteps (Memoir of a Nomadic Fictional Character, as the subtitle has it), is neither poetry nor written in Afrikaans, but still a great read. Here too, as in Landsman's story, memory plays a pivotal role:

This should be kept in mind as I write Breyten Wordfool's black book of impressions. One must not let go of the memories; maggots and grubs are always needed to transform that which has been lived.

As always with Breytenbach, the borders between 'fact' and fiction, 'reality' and imagination, acting and dreaming, are deliberately and delightfully hazy. As nearly always, there is an undercurrent of anger - 'the sort of rage that produces great literature', according to The Washington Post Book World. And this time there are pictures too: simple black-and-white photographs used in much the same way as the melancholic German author WG Sebald had done in books like Austerlitz and The Emigrants. The photographs are supposed to confirm the 'reality' of what is written, but somehow they also convey a sense of alienation, an ambiguous process that seems particularly appropriate in such an undefinable literary work as this.

The third author in my trio of reading pleasure is Michiel Heyns, who only started publishing at retirement age, but is fortunately making up in productivity for all the years that we've been deprived of his talents. He has managed to publish no less than four books in six years, each in a different register, predictable only in its unpredictability, yet always retaining a stylish and ironic voice.

His latest offering, Bodies Politic, does in a way resemble its immediate predecessor, The Typewriter's Tale, in that it is also a historical novel fictionalising the lives of famous figures. In the previous book the famous figure was the English-American writer Henry James, seen through the eyes of his typist. This time we get to know Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, all of them passionate suffragettes and political activists, and the much lesser known younger brother, Harry, who died at the early age of 21.

It is only as I write this that I realise that once again I am describing a book dealing with a death bed, fragile family relationships, and memory - this time the often contradicting memories of three old women looking back at a young man's death many years earlier. What I love most about Bodies Politic, though, is its thoroughly convincing depiction of the personal price often paid for political victory.

Oh yes, and I also admire the fact that an author born and bred and still living in South Africa doesn't feel compelled to write only 'South African stories' - whatever that might be. Heyns spreads his literary wings to fly to other places, other people, other times. As a reader I am only too grateful to be able to fly along.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Pinter of the pregnant pause

Just a short note to end the festive season's blog-fasting. In my previous entry I humbly confessed that I, like millions of other enthusiastic readers, don't know the work or even the names of many of the Nobel Prize for Literature laureates of the last century. Harold Pinter, who passed away on Christmas Eve, was one of those I did know and admire, for his political passion as much as for his powerful plays.

I saw some of these plays on stage or as screen adaptations, and as a drama student I actually read some of them too, which is more than many people can say about the work of well-known modern playwrights. In many of the tributes after his death, he was praised as 'one of the most influential' and imitated playwrights of his age'. After having seen plays like the brilliant Betrayal I can only agree. No one else could use the pregnant pause on stage in quite the same devastating way. In Pinter's work, what was not said always sounded more important than what was actually said.

Therefore the most apt -and witty - tribute I came across, was a letter published in the International Herald Tribune last week. A reader suggested that Harold Pinter's death should be commemorated by a minute of silence - followed by a pause.