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REVIEW: Books That Matter: David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years

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41BVsmOHteLBooks That Matter: David Philip Publishers during the apartheid years

Marie Philip

David Philip Publishers,

REVIEW: Karina M. Szczurek

As I see it, in publishing there is a significant difference between accidental and nurtured bestsellers. Nowadays, the market is dominated by the former. But every now and then you get a publisher who will understand the value of the latter.

Reading Marie Philip’s memoir about the famous publishing house she and her husband established in South Africa during the dark years of apartheid, I was reminded of how precious such an approach is in the book world. It is even more precious and definitely rarer when it is combined with a moral and social conscience which Marie and David Philip and their team exemplified.

It is difficult to imagine the South African literary scene without David Philip Publishers (DPP). Over the years, they have launched or assisted the careers of such writers as Richard Rive, Nadine Gordimer, Mandla Langa, Stephen Watson, Alan Paton, Sindiwe Magona, Ivan Vladislavić and Lyndall Gordon. The list of their titles, which Marie Philip includes at the end of her incisive book, is astounding, to say the least. Just to give you a sample, among their seminal publications are: Don Foster’s Detention and Torture in South Africa, Mamphela Ramphele’s A Bed Called Home, Michael Fraser’s A Fynbos Year, The Essential Evita Bezuidenhout, Ellen Kuzwayo’s Sit Down and Listen, and Being Here: Modern Short Stories from Southern Africa (compiled by Robin Malan). Because of their
independence the Philips “had the freedom to take risks and be bold, and even eccentric”, as well as to tune into their “own publishing instincts”. While it was important to survive, money was not their “main concern”. The combination of these factors turned out to be a recipe for great success in all respects.

And it all began with a penguin in the early 1970s. Once they had founded their publishing house and had their logo, Marie Philip wrote the story of a “resourceful penguin” surviving the oil spills of tankers diverted around the Cape because of the closure of the Suez Canal at the time. Published simultaneously in English and Afrikaans, the thin hardback with a dust jacket, Gregory, Jackass Penguin (Gregory, Kaapse Pikkewyn), was a hit in its English edition. It also taught DDP a first valuable lesson about the nature of publishing in Afrikaans in a highly charged socio-political environment.

Soon after the penguin story, manuscripts began to arrive. They decided to accept “any good book that came along”, including the perceived ‘unsaleables’: poetry, essays,
and short stories. As Russell Martin notes, “David’s choices were guided by a feeling for what made a good book and his belief that good books would sell (unlike today’s belief that if a book sells, it is good).” DDP understood and lived by T.S. Eliot’s dictum: “A nation that doesn’t value its poets is in danger of losing its soul.”

With the books came responsibilities way beyond the call of duty in present-day publishing. The Philips joined a group of oppositional publishers and eventually founded the Independent Publishers Association of South Africa (IPASA). They continued producing books which they believed in, even if they were banned and confiscated. Books That Matter documents the courage it took to confront censorship and harassment from the security police under the apartheid regime. Despite hardship, sales and awards followed, and within a relatively short period of time, David Philip Publishers was a firmly established company, not only locally but also on the international publishing stage.

The Philips were publishers who cultivated strong personal ties with their authors to whom their doors were always open. A glass of wine was always ready to welcome visitors. Arderne Cottage, where the publishing venture was initially based, was often a safe house for activists. Lifelong friendships developed. One comes across authors all the time who reminisce about these close-knit relationships which sustained them through all kinds of difficulties, whether of political, literary or personal nature. In 2009, Nadine Gordimer wrote: “David Philip was the kind of publisher every writer would like to have. His dedication was to the Word as literature, not on the calculated Best Seller but as an art in illumination of the mystery of human existence.”

Marie Philip recalls her husband quoting the publisher Faber during a trip to the UK: “Books don’t make money”. To which an Ethiopian librarian who overheard the statement responded: “No, but they make a difference.” DPP’s legacy testifies to the fact.

In his commemorative lecture of 2010, “Let it be known: The heritage of David Philip and the needs of the nation”, Stanley G.M. Ridge stated: “David Philip’s deep conviction made the publisher a vital agent in the process of building the nation and nurturing it to health. Without such publishing, there is a gulf between the promising intellectual growing points in the society and those who need to engage with them. It is by building relationships with writers that those growing points can be discovered and nurtured, and it is often by taking significant risks that the works see the light of day.” To comprehend this role is as crucial today as it was before 1994, but few are up to the challenge. In the same lecture, Ridge said: “In a multicultural society, particularly one in an accelerated process of finding itself, it is vital that people across social boundaries come to see beyond the caricatures and enter imaginatively into other people’s lives.” What better vehicle for such imaginative leaps than the stories we can share through literature? May those who refuse to reach out across those boundaries take heed.

Richly illustrated, beautifully told, Books That Matter is a gem of local literary history. If there ever was a book that mattered, this is certainly one.

REVIEW: Leaving Before the Rains Come

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Leaving Before the Rains Come jacketLeaving Before the Rains Come

Alexandra Fuller

Harvill Secker

REVIEW: Karina M. Szczurek

I must have been quite a disconcerting sight: weeping my eyes out in the middle of O.R. Tambo International Airport. I couldn’t help myself. That is what a good book can do to you. I was passing the wait for my flight home with the final few chapters of Alexandra Fuller’s latest memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come, when the tears just started spilling over. It wasn’t the first time one of Fuller’s books had made me cry. But perhaps it was most fitting since this particular story feels as if it had been written through a lot of intimate pain.

Mostly known for her international bestseller, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Fuller is the author of four other books. She is one of those writers who will either irritate the hell out of you or steal your heart. She stole mine with The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, the incredibly moving story of a young cowboy who died on the oil rigs in Wyoming, and I have been reading her work ever since. My other favourite is Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier in which Fuller captured her haunting encounter with a veteran of the Rhodesian war. In hindsight, the book can be read as a companion to Leaving Before the Rain Comes.

Readers familiar with her other memoirs will know that the Fuller family “gets over it, whatever it is, and they move on.” Accustomed to war, insanity, loss, fear, violence, grief, drinking, death, and the wonder and chaos that are Africa, the Fullers don’t do boring. When Alexandra, or rather Bobo, as she is known, meets Charlie, an American, in Zambia in 1991 and decides to settle down with him and their family in the United States, she believes that she is choosing a life of “certainties, safety nets, and assurances” which all seem terribly alluring after an existence based on “perpetual insecurity”. She is young, she thinks that “the only thing that stood between me and oblivion was love”, but, as we all find out sooner or later, love is hardly ever enough. Even if it is a love that is strong and true as theirs undoubtedly was: “The sudden shock of coming into such sharp focus – the sheer, unlikely, extraordinary luck of being loved by this man – was wonderful, but it was also confusing. The few other men I had been with had found my intensity off-putting, unseemly, alarming, but Charlie calmly, fearlessly turned toward it, as if warmed by the heat I threw off.”

When Bobo gives birth to their first child and nearly dies of malaria, the romance of adventure begins to wear off. Eventually they decide to settle in Wyoming, paying bills, bringing up their kids, and in Bobo’s case, trying to fit in. But with the looming financial crisis of recent years, Charlie’s loss of income, an engulfing silence between them, and Bobo’s ingrained ache for Africa, they begin to feel “undone from one another”.

Many years ago, a friend gave me valuable advice: When in doubt, listen to your body; it never lies. This is something Fuller discovers herself when amidst the crisis she falls seriously ill. She also understands that Africa doesn’t easily let go of her own. And no matter how hard it is to face the possibility, the idea of a divorce begins to creep into their marriage.

In most cases it takes more courage to get out of a marriage than to stay in it. Fuller is no coward; she has been inducted into ‘getting over it’. “We’d come together with too much passion to break apart gently”, she writes. There is unbearable heartache, warfare, betrayal, separation and return: “But in every real way, we steered assiduously away from one another.” Throughout it all, Fuller tries her hand at writing, one rejected novel after another, until one day someone makes clear to her that fiction might not be her métier. She also discovers what it means to be independent, financially literate, and “that for a woman to speak her mind in any clear, unassailable, unapologetic way, she must first possess it.” In the middle of it all something staggering and totally unpredictable happens. Once again it becomes obvious that it is in the face of calamity that we forge our true selves.

Fuller does not hold back. Her ability to expose the most hidden corners of the soul in a way that is respectful and kind, towards herself and others, is beautiful. Her powerful insights are clad in a language to match: “Then there was an abrupt release, and there she was: a long-limbed, waxy, blood-smeared baby unfurling on my chest, her lips a perfect rosebud of query, and everything I had ever thought I knew about pain and love and fear of death raced out of me and was replaced by a fierce, murderous adoration. I looked at Mum in astonishment. ‘I know,’ she said…” The entire book is full of such astounding scenes and observations which leave you breathless, or in tears, or roaring with laughter.

The cocktail of searing honesty, relentless humour and gorgeous storytelling Fuller serves up in Leaving Before the Rains Come is intoxicating.

QUICK REVIEW: The Dig

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dig_front_cover_2The Dig

Cynan Jones

Granta

ISBN-13: 978-1847088789

Karina Szczurek

Cynan Jones is a name to remember. The Dig is his fourth novel. It is an astounding piece of writing. Reading Jones one is reminded of the greats of English-language literature – Hemingway, Steinbeck or Virginia Woolf come to mind, each for different reasons. But Jones has a voice all his own. His prose is pure muscle and yet it conveys the most delicate of impressions and emotions. The Dig encompasses the best and worst of humanity. It tells the story of two men: a grieving Welsh sheep farmer and a brutal hunter involved in the illegal blood sport of badger baiting. The novel does not shy away from the horror of cruelty against animals, nor those moments which are unknowable, just before a life is extinguished. Yet it is most haunting when capturing what remains unsaid, as nature and life continue in the landscape of the human heart.

  • This review first appeared in the Cape Times in November 2014.