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Two men, one novel

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Poets and authors Mike Cope and Ken Barris have known one another for decades. Now they’ve written a novel together. KARIN SCHIMKE interviews them on Facebook.

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Mike (left) and Ken have been friends for over thirty years. Picture: Sky Cope

Ken arrives late for the Facebook date. Karin calls him on his cellphone and reports back to Mike, waiting on-line:

KARIN: I called him and we were cut off, but not before he said “oh” in a way that made me realise he forgot/has the wrong time. It’s engaged now.

MIKE: I’m glad he forgot. During the writing of the book I forgot a meeting or two and felt guilty.

KEN: (Arriving on-line): Schadenfreude, Mike. Goeiemôre!

MIKE: Hi Ken! The very same ; )

KEN: Môre ouks. Jammer ek het vergeet.

KARIN: No sweat. I’m going to ask the questions one at a time and I’d like you both to answer before I ask the next one. So that you don’t crib.

How long have you two been friends?

MIKE: Since some time in the eighties, when we met at various poetry readings and literary events?

KEN: As far as I can recall, we met more seriously around the time Mike wrote a very complimentary review of my first poetry collection – but it was around poetry readings and so on.

So we’re looking at a friendship of some 30-odd years. You’ve just written a book together. Are you still friends?

KEN: Of course!

MIKE: Yes. Why shouldn’t we be?

Artistic differences? Getting to know someone you like in a different way? No. I do know that you’re still friends. But what’s it like writing a book with someone else? All fun and happiness?

KEN: No, we had disagreements, and – I think more from my side – they were resolved with a degree of heat. Mike, in fact, was very diplomatic. Bear in mind that writers (well, this writer anyway) feel very strongly about what they’re doing, it’s fuelled by a great deal of energy. That is the interpersonal side, of course. On the other hand, I got great joy out of collaborating with a creativity like Mike’s, and the technical challenges were unusual, complex, and therefore tremendously interesting.

MIKE: Writing together was mixed but mostly fun for me. It turns out that writing together was a way of giving form to a friendship in the midst of the chaos of regular life. Of course we had some spats, but that’s normal I think, and nothing we couldn’t sort out. And yes, I think we did get to know each other better through it. Without it we would certainly not have spent so much time in each other’s physical and intellectual company.

Let’s move on to the book. Mike, I remember some years ago you wrote a novel and were told that it wasn’t “South African enough”, or something along those lines. What is “South African enough” when it comes to novels?

MIKE: Karin, I have no idea. It was something long ago in a rejection slip. I suppose that there are certain niche markets and “South Africa” is certainly one.

KEN: I think it is a term that has lost its currency. It echoes the demands of engaged literature dating back to the Struggle years, but it doesn’t seem sustainable in a transnational world – which doesn’t mean that I think particularly South African themes/textures, political or otherwise, are out – it just means that there is far more choice for South African writers and readers (and of course publishers).

MIKE: But because I have another job and don’t have to make a living from writing I find that I can write what I am interested in without regard for these ideas.

And the book you’ve written together is called Sunderland. If I take the word as literally as I can, it seems to be a title that cuts to the very heart of South Africaness, so perhaps the book is “South African enough”, whatever that means. Tell me about it.

KEN: It’s a tale about a major South African writer who has died of brain cancer. His family hires a wannabe writer and researcher to reconstruct the fragments of his last novel left on his computer. Everything goes wrong from there.

MIKE: It’s a novel of ideas, and a satire, and a literary experiment. And a few other things.

Why did this book require two authors? Is it because you came up with the idea together one day over a glass of wine? Or did one of you ask the other to help out?

MIKE: I came up with the overall idea, but I needed another voice as I was forced into doing all sorts of ventriloquism by having a character who was a writer, and his texts. Ken’s dry ironic voice was the obvious choice.

KEN: It’s a novel of two voices, and it was Mike’s conception. At his invitation, we met over breakfast and discussed it. I asked Mike the same question – why don’t you write both voices? Mike replied that he only wanted to write the fragmented work of the dying writer, which (I think) was the centre of his original preoccupation, his inspiration. I was immediately fascinated by the idea.

Does that imply, Mike, that you had no idea of how Ken would respond? Or was the unfolding carefully plotted?

MIKE:  Both. Ken had wide scope for the creation of his character and what he got up to, as well as various sub-plots. But it all had to fit with the stuff I was producing, as well as converge on the ending. I did make a few futile attempts to steer his character in my preconceived direction at first, but Ken was unresponsive, it was unnecessary, and I soon gave up.

KEN: We got together over several breakfasts and built up background to the characters in discussion. Their original conceptualisation (as opposed to their characterisation in detail) was pretty much guided by Mike, though in discussion. Then it was my job to plot the younger writer’s narrative in detail (his name is Art), and to write that.

How did the actual writing proceed? Was it ping-pong in the ether, with one doing something, and the other responding?

MIKE: As I recall, we both just wrote when we could, met occasionally for breakfast, and kept files updated on the cloud. I had to write the fragments of my character’s unfinished novel, so that Ken’s character could have something to write about.

KEN: It was more complex than that. We had a shared cloud folder. But Mike wrote his voice in a series of fragments, while I wrote mine as a more traditional narrative – then I would feed sections of Mike’s narrative into mine as both unfolded. Always in consultation, sometimes disagreeing.

MIKE: But mostly agreeing. There were some stages when it was quite exciting, and we felt that we were creating something interesting/good/hot.

When did you begin and how long afterwards did you consider the novel “finished”?

KEN: It was roughly two years, taking up most of 2011/2012. I thought it was finished at the end of 2012, but I was wrong about my part – following feedback from various sources, I added a bit of material around September 2013. But I only feel a novel is “finished” when it’s been published, and been through the cycle of response and reception.

MIKE: We started, I think, in early 2011. My guess is that we were done two years later. I had been thinking about it for a year before that.

KEN: I’m glad we’re agreed on the years. I was getting a bit worried.

MIKE: Years of bad living have taken a toll on both our memories.

KEN: As I demonstrated this morning. Ahem.

MIKE: You can still redeem yourself through prayer.

KEN: I can’t remember any.

MIKE: Karin?

KARIN: Yes, here I am. I was stopping to laugh.

But now the novel has a publisher. Was it hard to find one?

KEN: Not very. We had two rejections first, and the third one bit. It’s being published by Jacana.

MIKE: We did have a couple of rejections.

When will the book appear on the shelves?

KEN: In May this year, they tell us.

MIKE: In May. Jesus, is this an echo chamber?

KARIN: Mike, is that you reminding Ken how to pray?

MIKE: Yes. If you’re a writer you just make it up.

KARIN: Okay, let’s get professional again.

How many novels has each of you written?

MIKE:

I have written two novels and a memoir, which is sort of novel-ish. I have two published volumes of poetry and several chapbooks. And some stuff on the web. I have a volume of poetry under consideration with an editor

KEN: Six. And a collection of short stories, and two volumes of poetry.

You both have “real” jobs (I’ll duck here for the brickbats from the full-time writers). What do you do to put bread on the table? (As an aside, I’m a full-time writer. There is seldom bread on my table.)

MIKE: I make jewellery.

KEN: I work at Cape Peninsula University of Technology, but most of my income is from book reviews.

A question just for Ken: Does book reviewing and book writing have a built-in tension?

KEN: Yes, very much so. I’m aware of how bad it feels to get a crap review, and vice versa. On the other hand, it’s not a critic’s job to make people feel good regardless. So I find the balancing act personally difficult in certain situations. Of course it’s easy when you’re reviewing a terrific book.

When you are writing a book, do you imagine what you, as a critic would say about it?

KEN: I always do, but that happened long before I was a critic. I think there is a valuable split in myself (and probably other writers) between writing and reading sides: it’s so important to try and see your work clearly (to the degree that it’s posisble).

Okay, last question: what question do you wish I’d asked you about Sunderland? And please answer it. 

KEN: You’ve got me stumped.

MIKE: I wish you’d asked about the ending, which was the originating idea of the whole project. I would have been able to be evasive, but say that it’s a great ending.

This seems a good place to stop: at the ending. The book sounds intriguing. I look forward to reading it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Hand-made” – litmag editor on publishing poetry

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Gary Cummiskey – writer, publisher and editor of the literary magazine New Coin

Gary Cummiskey was recently appointed the editor of New Coin, one of SA’s oldest literary magazines – it celebrates its half century this year. Cummiskey is a writer himself, and is the engine behind Dye Hard Press, which has published numerous titles by an impressive array of literary South African writers, including Arja Salafranca, Khulile Nxumalo, Allan Kolski Horwitz, Phillip Zhuwao from Zimbabwe, Gail Dendy, Kobus Moolman, Alan Finlay and Gus Ferguson. He shares his thoughts on publishing and on whether lit mags still have a role to play in the digital age.

Tell us about Dye Hard Press

I started Dye Hard Press in 1994, on a shoe-string budget, if that, and without having a clue what I was doing – I knew nothing about layout or design. But I did know I wanted to publish poetry, I had a computer and access to a photocopy machine … and staples. So I starting producing these chapbooks of A4, photocopied pages, stapled down the side. I called it Dye Hard Press because I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but refused to accept defeat.

dyehardpressIt was a fun time for South African poetry, just after the first democratic election. There were a lot of small journals that started up around that time – like BLeKSEM and Something Quarterly, for example. Home-made jobs. Kitchen-table publishing. People were optimistic and open. They were curious about what we were doing, curious about this poetry that was being written and published – it wasn’t the kind of poetry they had been forced to read at school. It was an exciting and creative time.

Since then, I have gone through periods of giving the press a break, but always coming back to it. Improving the product, as the marketing crowd say, evolving from producing these A4 stapled sheets to producing perfect-bound books, all professionally designed.

I haven’t bankrupted myself through Dye Hard Press, even though it has often been my own money that has gone into publications and most times I have barely covered my costs. But things are getting expensive, and even digital publishing is not as cheap as it used to be. And then trying to sell the books – especially poetry – is another matter. But small presses are important. We not only tend to publish the groundbreaking work, but also keep things going for poetry. Any big publishers putting out poetry at the moment? I don’t see any – only the small publishers, few that they are. But it is definitely getting tough. Bookstores are reluctant to stock poetry. Publishers battle to sell them. Most poetry now is sold at events – poetry sales have to be event-driven. And the poet has to play an active role in promoting the book.

During the three years that I will be editing New Coin, Dye Hard Press will have to take a back seat. But during that time I also want to rethink Dye Hard Press, particularly with regards to poetry publishing. Perhaps it is matter of returning to publishing chapbooks, to reduce the costs, and then sell them direct to readers at events or by mail order. This would also reduce distribution costs. There are many ways to get poetry out there – but it requires a change of mind-set by both publisher and poet.

Tell us about literary magazines in general – what are they for and who sponsors them? Can poetry magazines survived when there is so much poetry on the internet?

Literary magazines play an invaluable role in providing readers with a variety of voices within a culture, or maybe subculture or even subcultures – whether poetry, fiction or nonfiction. They can be almost like a snapshot of what is happening culturally at a given time. Not one voice, or even two voices, but several – all brought together, providing an insight into the diversity and richness of what is being expressed. South African culture is diverse, that is one of its strengths. In the past South Africa has had various literary journals, whether long-established, formal publications such as New Coin or New Contrast, and there was also Staffrider in the 80s and early 90s. But there has also been a wealth of small, home-published journals owned or even produced by an individual – I’m thinking of Lionel Abraham’s Sesame, there was also Gus Ferguson’s Slug News and Carapace, which is still going. There was BLeKSEM and Something Quarterly. We still have Botsotso, and Timbila, plus Kotaz in New Brighton. Some of these are or were sponsored, others not. I don’t think Carapace has ever received sponsorship. I published Atio in the mid-1990s, and then Green Dragon, which ran to six issues from 2002 to 2010.  Some of the journals have never appeared regularly, but so what? Some poetry journals were fairly short-lived, lasting only a few issues, but at least they were published and that is the main thing. And besides, maybe they were not meant to last beyond a few issues.

I would like to see more online publishing initiatives in South Africa – more online platforms for publishing poetry, whether journals or even chapbooks. These can be blog-based and you don’t need a degree in web design to get them going. But there is still a future for print journals. I don’t see the online and print scenarios as being either-or, but rather both-and. Online poetry has tremendous advantages – instant international distribution, for one. But print also still has its benefits. I like to lie on my bed or on a sofa and read from a book. I guess you can do that with an e-reader, but with print there is the physical feel of a book, you can feel and appreciate the texture of its pages. There is a sense of a book – of creation.

However, if print journals are to attract and retain readers they also need to be vital, the content must be seen as vital. They must be regarded by poets and poetry readers are essential reading and cutting-edge – in touch with what is happening.

Tell us about New Coin

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New Coin literary magazine turns 50 this year

New Coin is one of South Africa’s oldest literary journals and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It is published by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA) in Grahamstown. It publishes mainly South African English poetry and reviews, and appears twice a year. New Coin is not available online as such, but is distributed electronically by various organisations, including  Sabinet Online. New Coin is available on subscription but we are looking at introducing the publication for sale at selected bookstores.

Submissions can be made electronically to newcoin@ru.ac.za. You will receive an acknowledgment of receipt. Poets should submit about six poems for selection, ideally as an attached MS Word document.

Do you have any particular desires or ambitions for New Coin?

My main aim is to produce issues containing quality poetry that is alive, exciting and challenging, as well as relevant to the contemporary South African poetry discourse and to poetry readers.

What do you read? 

Poetry, fiction, nonfiction. I recently finished reading DH Lawrence’s novel The Lost Girl, Jim Morrison’s posthumous collection of poems, Wilderness, and am now reading John Fowles’ first novel, The Collector. Last year I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which was one of the best novels I have read for a long time.

In terms of poetry, some of my favourite poets are Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso, Sinclair Beiles, Ira Cohen, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Artaud, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Henri Michaux, Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lautreamont, Baudelaire, Lorca, Wopko Jensma, Seitlhamo Motsapi – the list is endless. Will I ever be able to read everything I want? I doubt it. There is just too much. And that is just the first-time reads – not the books one wishes to read again and again.

What is your own publishing history?

I had my first poems published in one of the final issues of Staffrider – that was such an exciting literary journal. Then Gus Ferguson published poems of mine in Slug News. Gus encouraged me – not only to write but also with my publishing imprint, Dye Hard Press. I have published quite a few chapbooks of poetry through Dye Hard Press, but back in the mid-90s Gus published a collection of mine, When Apollinaire Died, in his Firfield Press series. Have been published by Tearoom Books too – apart from publishing a print chapbook of mine, Romancing the Dead, Tearoom also recently published an e-chapbook of free-form haiku, called I Remain Indoors. I had a chapbook published in India, by Graffiti Kolkata, called Sky Dreaming. Through Dye Hard Press I also published Who was Sinclair Beiles?, which I co-edited with Eva Kowalska, plus my debut collection of short fiction, Off-ramp.

What sort of poems do you write?

I have been influenced very much by the US Beat poets and the French surrealists, so this does have an effect on my approach to writing poetry. I once referred to myself as a “dada-surrealist-madhouse screamer”, which I guess fits the bill. Yet when I Remain Indoors appeared, someone was surprised and said: “These poems are not surrealist!”

But why play in one room when you can play in several?

 

Librarians pick top twenty SA books since democracy

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South African librarians have picked their top twenty South African books published in the last twenty years.

The Library and Information Association of South African (LIASA) has just released the list from nominations across all genres, and which include children’s books.

Here they are:

  • Long Walk To Freedom by Nelson Mandela (Macdonald Purnell, 1994)
  • Country of my Skull  by Antje Krog (Random House, 1998)
  • I have life: Alison’s Story by Marianne Thamm (Penguin, 1998)
  • Disgrace by J M Coetzee (Vintage, 1999)
  • Jamela’s Dress by Niki Daly (Tafelberg, 1999)
  • Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda (OUP, 2002)
  • Madonna of Excelsior by Zakes Mda (OUP, 2002)
  • Confessions of a gambler by Rayda Jacobs (Kwela Books, 2003)
  • Dis ek, Anna by Elbie Lotter (Tafelberg, 2004)
  • Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk (Tafelberg, 2004)
  • Shirley, Goodness and Mercy by Chris van Wyk (Picador Africa, 2004
  • Spud by John van de Ruit (Penguin, 2005)
  • Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred by Mark Gevisser (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2007)
  • Anderkant Pontenilo by Irma Joubert (Tafelberg, 2008)
  • 13 ure by Deon Meyer (Human & Rousseau, 2008)
  • Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony (Sidgwick & Jackson, 2009)
  • Thula Thula by Annelie Botes (Tafelberg, 2009)
  • My father, My Monster by McIntosh Polela (Jacana, 2011)
  • 8 Days in September by Frank Chikane (Picador Africa, 2013)
  • Endings & Beginnings: A Story of Healing by Redi Thlabi (Jacana, 2013)

Learning to read comics

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All I know about comics is why I’ve never liked them. They’re so full of visual information  they make my eyes judder in their sockets. Complete overload. Until recently, I felt so overwhelmed by them that I couldn’t muster the energy required for the combination of verbal and visual decoding they require.

I asked Willem Samuel, author of Mengelmoes, to help me understand that allure of comics.mengelmoescover

Is “graphic novel” just a fancy way to say “comic” – is it intended to edify the concept beyond the perhaps “trashy” throw-away idea conjured by the word “comics”?

The use of the term graphic novel is an attempt to defuse the prevailing idea that comics are, like you said, trashy, cheap and only for children.  Heading into the 80’s, comics with much more serious and adult content emerged, and they demanded recognition. Comics like Maus, The Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns forced people to rethink their ideas about what comics were and what kind of stories and subjects the medium was able to handle.

I personally sometimes shy away from using the word graphic novel, because it has a bit of a highbrow whiff to it. To tell people I am a graphic novelist sounds very pompous to me. But then again, people at least understand what I mean. When I say I am comic artist people either assume that I am a cartoonist (like Zapiro, and yes, there is a difference between what he does and what I do) or worse, that I am a stand up comedian. The word comic intrinsically implies that something is funny  and that it should be taken lightly. You can understand why people seek different terminology. “Comics” are simply an inadequate name for sequential art and is descriptive of only a very small part of the whole, yet it seems to have stuck for now.

Lately, I just tell people that I’m a writer, so that I don’t get weird requests like, “Tell me a joke,” but rather, “What do you write about?” The fact that I use visuals to tell my stories is only a matter of style, really.

Do you have to be “trained” into graphic novels – as I clearly was not – and be exposed from a young age to “get” them?

You need to know what is out there and to discover what suits you as a reader. Comics are just like books in that there are certain genres, styles and writers, and some appeal to you and others don’t. There are comics for kids and some for grownups. Some artists and writers you have to “get into” and others you learn to appreciate over time, and the more you read the better – exactly the same with books. So yes, in a way you have to be trained – but there’s nothing you have to “get.” If someone tells you they don’t “get” books, you would simply think that this person needs some help getting introduced, and not because there is an intrinsic problem to books.

Can graphic novels be considered literature?

MausSince Maus won the Pulitzer prize, I think the debate has been settled, for those who want to still argue that point. For me that question implies that comics have to prove themselves as a serious literary medium and that comics are inherently inferior. It’s the same as when people ask whether comics are art.

Those questions are irrelevant. Comics have to be considered seriously, without having to attach themselves to some higher, more elevated medium. The problem is not that people don’t consider comics to be literature, but that they don’t consider comics at all.

(Willem opted to answer the next two questions together.)

Apart from the obvious, how are graphic novels different to novels without pictures? My judgment  has always been that they must, of necessity, be more superficial in theme, because there are  fewer words. But I realise that this probably has to do with my preference for the verbal over the visual.

What, in a graphic novel, is more important: the words or the pictures? I don’t really understand how they’re supposed to work together. Please explain the relationship as best you can.

Comparing comics to movies would be a lot more constructive than trying to compare comics to novels. As with movies, comics mix a combination of many disciplines into one. You need relatable characters, a good plot and a story line. You need engaging visuals and special effects. You have to set the mood and pick your angles. As a comic writer, you are the director, the set builder, the writer and the camera operator. Any decent comic is not just pictures with words added – it’s a visual journey where art, script, speech bubbles and frames all work together to form a singular experience.

And as with movies, not all comics are action films. There are documentaries, comedy, satire, noir, horror, and yes, even philosophy.

With regards to letters vs pictures: Remember, that letters are essentially pictures, and that when you read, you are deriving meaning from these pictures, or symbols – depending on how they are ordered. Reading a comic page is no different, as you would read each picture after another and, in your mind, start to combine them to form a story. The idea of words vs. pictures becomes arbitrary in comics, because just as you would read the number nine, for instance, you would “read” a happy face, or “read” a character’s body language. There are plenty of comics with no text, but that does not mean the reader is simply “looking” at the pictures one by one: the reader is reading the frames in order, which reveals a story.

How do you know if graphic novel can be considered good? Let’s imagine I’m in a book shop and I see one and I have no external points of reference, no reviews, no Google on hand to guide me. What should I be looking at?

Again…treat it like you would a book. How would you buy a book in a store? If you truly knew nothing about books, I guess you would have a tough time… and probably go to the comics section. That’s what I do.

A mistake I frequently make is to buy a comic book on the basis of the artwork – because great art means nothing if the story is trite and, in the end, the art also loses it’s appeal. But I have started reading comics where I thought the art was okay, and then the art really grew on me because the story was so awesome. So, comics are all about reader experience. Does it flow? Does in engage you? Would you like to know more? So, read page one. If you feel like reading page two, then read that also, and when you feel like you don’t want to stop, then you can buy it. The end is no guarantee, but that’s the way with all books.

There is no  hidden secret to finding good comics – although comic shops are notoriously unfriendly and having everything wrapped in plastic makes for a very frustrating browsing experience – so I’m not sure if the industry is helping itself. But mostly I discover the best comics via friends.

I doubt I’m going to make up for the holes in my graphic novel education by reading Astrix and Tintin (frankly – though I know that you and a host of other people will probably want to beat me over the head with a handful of comics when I say this –  I find them a bit silly). Where do you recommend I go next with my newly awakened hunger?

Yes, you will get beaten over the head, just like people who say that classical music is boring or that they can draw better than Picasso.

I think you expect Tintin to be something that it isn’t. Just because a comic is considered great, will not mean that you will get the same thrills from it as when you read a novel. Comics provide a different experience, and that is also why I’m trying to undermine the comparison to literature, because you cannot trade your books for comics. Comics need their own special time and place, and hopefully a bookshelf too.

Will Eisner (one of the earliest cartoonists to work in the American comic book industry) said that he preferrred his comics in black and white, because they read much more like text. Colours, for him, were just distracting. So, I would suggest you start with comics that are simply drawn, with good stories. But first, in order to educate yourself, you must read:

Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Jerusalem by Guy Delisle

Blankets by Craig Thompson

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman 

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (This one was taxing, but it’s fantastically illustrated and very, very sad.) 

A comic turn

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On the wave of a revelatory storm unleashed by a comic

When first you begin to read, you flop around from book to book, reading whatever comes to hand. With each passing decade, as the piles you’ve read are imagined around you as a small city of skyscrapers, you read with more focus, sometimes following a thread that thickens to a rope and other times frays into nothing.

You work by your university reading lists. You work by the greedy freedom from that list when you begin work. You work thematically. By country. By author. By genre. You work by language.

You rollick along as a reader, sampling and picking and pottering your way haphazardly. If you have no academic inclinations, what you read matters, but not as much as that you read. Not every book is great, but by the time you’ve been reading for forty years, you’ve gotten better – though not perfect – at weeding out the dross. You’re generally reading along the highest percentile: bracing, challenging, exceptional stuff.

Everything you know, and all the stuff you don’t know you know, you feel you’ve learnt from books. What you didn’t expect is that one day you open a book and it lets a storm in.

What you never thought was that – having never been a comic lover – that it would be a graphic novel.

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One of my favourite pictures from Willem Samuel’s comic

It started like this. My friend Willem Samuel is writing a graphic novel in six parts. He sent me the first part when I asked for it. The story is about a boy at school coming into adulthood just as South Africa moves towards and into democracy.

I was, unexpectedly, quite taken by the drawing, the detail, the subtlety of facial expression, the flights into a teenager’s fantasy world. Because I know his family, I often smiled at how, in a few strokes, he he captured so perfectly his father’s annoyance, his mother’s defeat when he  – because it is autobiographical – does stupid schoolboy things.

I told Willem’s brother how much I liked Mengelmoes (the title is Afrikaans, but the comic’s English) and the next day he gave me a hefty graphic novel called Fun House, written by an American author.

DSC02622I was glued to this memoir by Alison Bechdel in which she writes about her childhood and her father.

Unlike during my various childhood attempts to read Asterix, my eyes knew exactly where to go, what to read, how to scan the pictures. Both Bechdel and Samuel manage to draw with what appears to be exceptional simplicity, but neither skips a single visual clue in the environment and people they render.

Bechdel’s book was a revelation. I would never have been able to conceive of such depth and texture in what is, essentially, a comic.

Next I read Are You My Mother? It’s Bechdel’s second memoir, this time about her relationship with her mother. The author’s vast background as a reader of literature and psychology, together with her astounding talent, discernment and thoroughness in lifting out only that which stands in service of the story, have rendered her two books some of the finest works of literature – never mind that they are comics! – I have ever come across. And without qualification best memoirs I have ever read.

Needing guidance in this new world where words and pictures come together, I interviewed Samuel and asked him, amongst other things, whether graphic novels could be considered literature.

“Since Maus (by Art Spiegelman) won the Pulitzer prize, I think that debate has been settled. For me that question implies that comics have to prove themselves as a serious literary medium and that therefore comics are inherently inferior. It’s the same as when people ask whether comics are art. Those questions seem irrelevant to me. Comics have to be considered seriously, without having to attach themselves to some higher, more elevated medium. The problem is not that people don’t consider comics to be literature, but that they don’t consider comics at all.”

I never did. I never considered comics at all.

But that’s in the past now.

  • This column by Karin Schimke first appeared in the Cape Times in March 2014.

 

REVIEW: The Goldfinch

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goldfinch-tarttThe Goldfinch

Donna Tartt

Little, Brown

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

The Goldfinch is long – and its length has come in for some flack.

Is Tartt too precious to allow herself to be edited? Was it necessary for the book to come in at just under 800 pages? Can the modern reader really be expected to double his or her average reading time for a novel to indulge this decidedly non-prolific, but indisputably successful, writer?

Length – where it does not concern lazy editing or author arrogance – is a matter of taste. If long novels bore and frustrate you, then steer clear of Tartt’s third book. If, however, you are undaunted by commitment to a deeply immersive, sensory-heightening, eye-widening, intellectually and emotionally astute story – that also manages to pack in some pretty impressive thriller action – then you will find The Goldfinch rewarding.

New Yorker Theo Decker is thirteen and lives with his mother after his father abandoned the family endeavour and disappeared from their lives. Theirs is a close and friendly bond, and they struggle on – as single-parent families do – in the wake of his Dad’s abandonment.

But then there’s a terrible rupture when mother and son pop into a gallery one day to see a favourite painting of his mother’s.

In one shatteringly vivid scene, Theo loses his mother and gains a painting. The painting is the novel’s hook, the hypnotic and potent secret external centre point of Theo’s haphazard post-trauma life.

Only just a teenager, Theo now bumbles his way through survival, brushing up against a variety of characters as he is passed around like a burdensome package. The action moves from New York (where he is looked after by a rich family, whose nerdiest son was once Theo’s best friend) to Las Vegas (where his errant father now resides with a distinctly non-maternal woman).

His descent from a cherished, respected son of a loving mother, to a neglected irritation in a barren domestic and geographic wilderness is eased by an intense, mad friendship with a multi-lingual Russian boy named Boris. Later, Theo returns to New York and lands softly in the succour of a kindly furniture restorer called Hobie. This is where Theo finds his professional home as an antiques dealer.

And all along, he is weighed down by a small picture Carel Fabricius painted in 1654, which remains in his stealthy possession as both a ball-and-chain that pulls him towards the criminal underworld, and a tether to the comfort of beauty.the_goldfinch_puttertje_by_carel_fabritius_postcard-re2cdccb2d614441191712ba48ca5f938_vgbaq_8byvr_512

The painting – of a goldfinch chained to a small wooden box – exists, and The Frick Collection which resides in New York, has seen a major spike in visitors since Tartt’s book hit the shelves in the States in October last year.

It’s also worth noting that there are rumours that The Goldfinch is being touted as a possible television series. It is that long, and that eventful, that this comes as no surprise, and it can be imagined as a slightly more gritty, more textured version of the popular White Collar series.

Tartt – who has been called The Brigadoon of best-selling authors, because she “appears out of the mist” only once every ten years – first came to public attention with her book The Secret History, which charts the descent of a group of literary students at a privileged American university into Bacchanalian madness. The book was translated into 24 languages and sold over five million copies worldwide.

Her next book, The Little Friend, appearing a full ten years later, was successful, but it left less of a mark on literary imagination. In The Goldfinch, a return to The Secret History themes of aesthetic beauty, of guilt and – to some degree – social class, is warmly familiar.

It is, most particularly, her treatment of the totemic power of things, particularly things of beauty, that most steadfastly, but delicately, holds this novel together.

“And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they cannot connect you to some larger beauty,” asks Hobie. “Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?”

Theo’s obsession with the painting is a form of idolatry, his connection to it a teenage “transitional object” (as per the psychologist Derek Winnicott’s definition) that keeps him connected to his mother.

Later – in the final chapter, the only part of the book that I have problems with because it felt a little glib – Theo recalls that Hobie also said that beauty “alters the grain of reality”.

Theo narrates: “And I keep thinking too of the more conventional wisdom: namely, that the pursuit of pure beauty is a trap, a fast track to bitterness and sorrow, that beauty has to be wedded to something more meaningful. Only what is that thing … how can I see so clearly that everything I love or care about is an illusion, and yet – for me, anyway – all that’s worth living for lies in that charm?”

The Goldfinch is long. But it is also charming: warm, eventful, empathic and engaging.

The Goldfinch is a long, solitary meander through a gallery of ideas about friendship, survival and beauty.

But don’t bother with it if you’re in a hurry.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in February 2014