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COLUMN: Democracy on the book shelves


I know it is here somewhere, in this shelf. This is where I put it. This is where I saw it the last time I saw it and thought: “Ah, I forgot about you. Hello book.” And yet it is not here.

I am sure the spine is ivory coloured, and just less than a centimetre thick. I could be mistaken though. The other day I was looking for an old favourite, utterly convinced I was hunting a yellow spine with red letters, cursing the thief who stole it, only to locate it as a beige spine with brown letters.

Lately in my home a book’s place is where it comes to rest. The stringent rules I had for organising my books have become sloppy over time.

01-colour-coded-bookshelvesMy dictionary shelf still only contains dictionaries, poetry shelf only poetry, journalism shelf only journalism books, medical shelf only medical books and my very special collection of the illustrated children’s books I have found remarkable and memorable and to which I often return, are on a low shelf in the kitchen where children can reach them too. The kitchen’s where – logically – the recipe books reside too.

Other than that, old and new writers are bedding down together haphazardly. The German and Dutch writers have gravitated to the far upper left shelf in some semblance of continental order, and the Afrikaans and South African English writers are so cosy you’d never believe there to be historical animosity. South Africans of all languages and races are mingling with Australians and Indians and Nigerians. There’s a loose, happy democracy going on in my bookshelves and it seems oblivious to my need for order, and the sometimes pressing urgency to find a book very quickly.

I often read several books at once and I read everywhere. This book untidiness leads to books sometimes being hurriedly squeezed into any available space on the shelves in the house.

How people arrange their bookshelves is always of interest to me. Bookshelves themselves hold great fascination and I even own a small collection of books about bookshelves.

Some people arrange them by theme (like I do), some by size, and the more methodical go for the library option of arranging by author’s surname.

A friend of mine recently designed and built his own enormous bookshelf, using Piet Mondrian as inspiration for the size and shape of the shelves. Then he proceeded to arrange his entire collection – again a la Mondrian – according to the colour of the books’ spines. His main motivation was that it would make it easy for the family to put books away.

At first I found this funny. Now I think it might be quite a wise idea when you’re an anytime, anywhere reader.

This month’s books however, are still scattered around the house, but mostly around the bed on already heavily laden side-tables. Bed always feels like the most appropriate place to finish a novel.

Craig Higginson’s The Landscape Painter, Michiel Heyns’ Ground Work and Rayda Jacobs’ Joonie, wait patiently for shelving along with Wuthering Heights, a recent bargain purchase, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which I have finally come around to.

I must remember to memorise the colour of their spines before I pack them away though.

COLUMN: Whittling the library for a new life

I am grateful I became an adult in a time when – and a suburb where – one was not expected to have grand material ambition. Whether our parents had money or not was tested purely against the critical question of whether there’d be enough of it for us to study after school without having to get bursaries or loans on our mediocre marks.
The desire to study was based not so much on any sense that we were clever enough to be great, but on the desire not to have to spend our adult lives in the dreary shops and offices where our parents tried to earn enough money to help us avoid having to do so when we left school.
Books were acquired in three ways: for birthdays and Christmas, at the library and by borrowing. At university for a spell my friends and I cottoned on to second-hand book shops and we’d make little bundles of cheap used books for one another’s birthdays.
We were undiscerning readers. What landed in our hands, we read. If it was ours, we kept it. The literature those of us who studied languages bought with our hard-earned waitressing money sat happily alongside cheesy love stories and other pulp on our slow-growing book shelves.
The idea of getting rid of books never arose, that I can remember. Books were read and kept, and shared, and – hopefully – returned.
At some point the collection gained its own momentum, its own raison-d’être. Having books on shelves, displayed and easy to get to, became a thing separate and equally as important as reading a book. It also became, I realised in my twenties, a kind of status symbol: visitors were either enthralled and envious, or appalled and a little repelled that I spent my money on books and actually read them all. It became, in short, a way of refining friendships and alliances – that head-cocked sideways stance of a stranger in your home perusing your bookshelf is, often, the thrill of recognising a kindred spirit.
Five years ago my husband and I embarked on house renovations which were, in essence, an attempt to accommodate our books. Two weeks ago – because life never quite works out the way one plans – I had an enormous book sale at my house and that which didn’t sell must go to charity. My collection – which numbered in the thousands – has been whittled down by about three-quarters.
A few years ago, the idea of getting rid of my books would have filled me with anxiety so acute I would immediately have turned my thoughts elsewhere. And yet the culling now was good, even a little joyous as I passed on some loved tomes to other book lovers.
What I kept were my favourite authors, all my poetry, all my dictionaries, all my favourite children’s book illustrator and authors, books I bought or read in faraway places, books signed by authors or inscribed by friends, and those books which – for sometimes inexplicable reasons – subtly changed the course of my life…like Jonathan Livingstone Seagull which I read at a very young age and was the book that made me want to write.
The rest have gone away, but they’re not gone. They’re stored in the folds of my brain, under my fingernails, between each vertebra – the dust of their words are lodged in my wrinkles. Their work with me is done. But their work is not finished.


REVIEW: No Time Like The Present by Nadine Gordimer

2012-10-24 13.34.49

2012-10-24 13.34.49No Time Like The Present

Nadine Gordimer

Picador Africa

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

Sweeping, cohesive, almost epic – and I use the word advisedly – in its scope, No Time Like The Present is the literary thermostat under the tongue of democratic South Africa. But to get the reading you first have to break an almost impossible code.

Nadine Gordimer remains the nation’s one true instrument for taking the political and sociological temperature, but in this, her fifteenth novel, she makes no concessions to the reader; appears to have no truck with stylistic niceties; considers – it seems – no-one and nothing  in a fever to get down what must be gotten down.

The reader must simply learn to read over, through and under the convoluted stream-of-consciousness writing. The prose is inconsistently and oddly punctuated. Truncated sentences contain subordinate clauses which contain their own subordinate clauses. Points of view flit and alight not just from chapter to chapter, but sometimes within paragraphs.

It’s rough going. It is very, very rough going.

And yet, here it is: the one novel that sums it all up, that combs through the knots and lice of democracy’s tangled hair and seems to smooth it all out for our stunned observation. Minutia swept together – sparkles and shards and the dust of a thousand post-freedom political storms and intimate tussles of conscience in a book which balks at nothing.

Steve and Jabu are the poster post-apartheid couple – he, white, middle-classed, born to a Christian father and a Jewish mother; she, the educated Zulu daughter of a church elder and school principal from KwaZulu-Natal. Their children are coloured, their friends, ex-Umkhonto We Sizwe cadres, their values and ideals in line with the struggle they fought for freedom in South Africa.

Now they are in “the present time”, finding a way to live “(a) normal life. (At last?) What is that. In what time and place?”. (This irregular punctuation is Gordimer’s).

They move from a flat to a suburb, she from teaching to law, he from working in a paint factory after making bombs in the underground, to being a science lecturer at university. Each grapples earnestly with the challenges of a split country, doing extra work – for free – in their attempts to help knit together a badly fractured society.

In a very general way, post-apartheid writing has followed two main, decidedly uncheerful themes: in non-fiction the tomes that record the rotten arms deal; in fiction crime, that burgeoning genre garnering our authors international book deals.

Gordimer manages a far wider range, her riff more perplexed, more doleful and more poignant than her cerebral, biltong-tough writing makes apparent. There are zero simple answers – there is no black and white in freedom, though black and white underpins it all – that will account for the dismaying turn the country’s fortunes  has taken.

“For this we fought?” asks a character.

She is thorough, punctilious and meticulous as she lays out the map of free South Africa, pointing bluntly at that which sickens and appals. And she does this – convincingly – through the eyes of former freedom fighters, loyal supporters of the ANC.

There is no public event or concern she avoids: capitalism, poverty, degradation of the environment, HIV/Aids, crime, corruption, immigrants and xenophobia, emigration, school bullying (and the underlying reef of violence that nudges sickeningly above ground at various times), education, electricity, service delivery protests, affirmative action.

There is no personal emotion that she doesn’t lift out of the mess to examine: responsibility, duty, betrayal, patriotism, the desire for a “a normal life” (which, questions Steve, might also include for him and his privileged family the Epicurean “right to happiness” – and the guilt this produces in one who, like all freedom fighters, put the greater good before personal satisfaction), the shame of racism, the horror of watching principled men and women fall to greed and genuflect to the requirements the ascension to power lays before them.

Gordimer speaks eloquently to the development of the self – “The synthesis of the self” – portraying the country too as a self that must grow. The country is an adolescent, she has one of her characters think, offering it not as an excuse for bad behaviour, but an almost exasperated, perhaps even hopeful, observation of the obvious.

She also reflects on the dismay when the thing that is being grown (a person, a self, a country) grows skew, gnarls in unexpected ways, showing selfishness, and dangerous concessions to cult of the individual.

Marriage, making whole, growing up – these are leitmotifs trailed by both the characters and the milieu.

In public Gordimer has spoken clearly and consistently against the government’s Protection of Information Bill, colloquially known as the secrecy bill. In the privacy of her disciplined dedication to daily writing, she has laid out why in this novel. Just like apartheid South Africa needed her and her courageous ilk then, so we continue to need our vociferous, critical writers and artists now.

There is no time like the present. The past is – in all ways but the most critical, in its legacy – a different country. What happens now – what has happened in the past 18 years – is where Gordimer has pointed her merciless beam.

In doing so she again will make herself a tolerated – not welcomed individual – amongst the touchy, over-sensitive rulers, just like she was in apartheid SA. Good. She’s our golden thorn in the government’s flesh.

Like loyalty to a country in the face of extreme disregard for its citizens, this book is hard work. But its rewards are far more certain and immediate. It must be read.  – Schimke is the Cape Times books editor.



REVIEW: Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns


Michiel Heyns

Jonathan Ball

REVIEW: Karin Schimke

There is the story of the story, and then there is the writer’s story, of which the reader is often not aware. Sometimes, the writer too, remains ignorant of how his or her story underpins and overlaps journalistic observations; moves and feints around the building blocks of the narrative they are constructing.

Peter Jacobs, the narrator of Lost Ground is a writer who trips over his own story in an attempt to write a long feature article for an international newspaper. Of course, the elements for involvement are already there: he is a man returning to the Little Karoo town he grew up in because his enchanting cousin  Desirée has been murdered.

The richness of the material for a piece that would interest an international audience is easy to spot: Desiree comes from a conservative white Afrikaners family, her father a former mayor of the tiny town of Alfredville. Desirée’s husband is the coloured police chief of the town and former ANC activist Hector Williams. He is also the suspect in the murder and has been arrested, leaving the town’s law in the hands of his deputy Bennie Nienaber.

Explaining his writerly interest in the story, Peter tells his new friend in town – a psychologist called Nonyameko – that the press covered the events of the murder but “I want to find out what the facts mean, what they tell us about the possibilities or impossibilities of a non-racial South Africa”. He believes that the murder is more than just a “bad marriage” gone wrong, but that there was also some “significant confluence of events”.

There was indeed a significant confluence of events that lead to Desirée’s skull being bashed in by a small household statue: Peter’s involvement with the ‘characters’ in his story is not merely as the inquisitive eye of social analyst, but he finds that, in spite of his twenty year absence from South Africa and the fact that he has not had contact with his cousin or other family, nor with his school best friend Bennie, he is central to – even it seems implicated in – Desirée’s death.

It all sounds very heavy, doesn’t it? Where history and politics of a country crash into the history and politics of the individual, the consequences are seldom gentle sentimental waves, but devastating emotional tsunamis. And yet, Ground Work doesn’t give off any of the airs one sometimes expects from novels that deal with Important Topics. It grows lushly, in fact, out of the simplest elements of successful story-making: interesting basic  “facts”, believable and entertaining dialogue, well-paced information release, a gentle tension that builds gradually, an acute sense of time, place and character and, most triumphantly, humour.

It is, however, Heyns’ style – his dry, funny scrutiny of his characters, his narrator’s self-effacing and slightly self-mocking personal insights, his ability to convey the grainy texture of even the simplest emotion – that makes Ground Work  an unmitigated novelistic happiness to stumble into. Not that one stumbles into Heyns – not, in any case if one is an avid reader of South African literature. That he is enormously and impressively awarded for both his novel writing and his translation of major Afrikaans novels into English is no secret.

Readers who may “stumble” into him by way of alluring book displays in airport books shops or in mall shop windows are likely to buy the book because of its – richly fulfilled – promise of a mystery/murder story, but will be pleasantly surprised by the multi-facetted, diamond-like quality of this wonderful work of fiction.


Simple needs

“Oh let me live my own, and die so too

(To live and die is all I have to do)!

Maintain a poet’s dignity and ease,

And see what friends, and read what

books I please.”

Alexander Pope

COLUMN: Looking is also a kind of reading

This month I did a lot more “looking at” than “reading” books. This is probably because I was a little bored with my novel– Kristen Tranter’s book The Legacy – which was decidedly un-thriller-ish despite the cover shout claims.
Because I kept thinking I was going to finish it quickly, I didn’t read what I have been chomping at the bit to, which is Ariel Dorfman’s Writing The Deep South, of which I snuck only the preface – a copy of the 2010 Nelson Mandela Lecture he delivered in Joburg last year.
The section is already underlined and notated and scruffy…I sense the whole book is going to be an exercise in furious pencil conversation with this bilingual, intense, prolific, questioning and vigorously political writer. I am enjoying the parallels he draws between Chile and South Africa and my long-standing desire to visit that country for writing and research has surfaced again in an urgent way.
I also managed to read about four stories from the collection Jonathan Jansen put together with Nangamso Koza and Lihlumelo Toyana called Great South African Teachers. The stories are short and most are written by people who are not writers, but who felt moved to remember the teachers that made them think or feel or see differently. I was delighted to find a story about a teacher I knew at school and who was universally adored by her students. This  is required reading for anyone who’s ever been to school, known a teacher, taught, or railed against their education. The book requires me to use that tired word “inspiring”, one I do not bandy easily.
I also finally got around to reading Ivan Vladisclavic’s Double Exposure, which in turn lead me back to one of my most treasured birthday presents ever, David Goldblatt’s Some Afrikaners Revisited. The book contains – apart from his stark, cool black and white pictures – essays by Ivor Powell and Antjie Krog, both of which are prime examples of that most thoughtful and stimulating of genres.
But it is the photographs I go to most enthusiastically. They  draw the reader (or “looker”) into a time and place that feels like both like yesterday and several centuries ago; that is at once hauntingly familiar and disturbingly alien.
My next “looking” book was a small, fat, colourful thing called Faceless. It is a collection of cartoon strips by South African Bruce Sutherland.
Even though I’d rather write about edifying or truly entertaining creative works, I must pause before this galling piece of rubbish to note that Sutherland’s work is profoundly unfunny and pathetically unoriginal (ancient regurgitated jokes from the frontline of the war between the sexes). Labelling it “Non-PC” does nothing to excuse this ridiculous waste of paper.
Sutherland’s cartoons would do better to remain on the net which has perfect side rooms for the people with unevolved sensibilities I imagine are his famed adoring audience. It did not surprise me to find that Sutherland makes knives by hand as a hobby…all that pent up misogyny cannot be calmed by simply making stupid cartoons in which blow jobs, anal sex and the desire to kill your wife are about the highest expression of your, um, creativity.
In order to refresh my bored eyes I then returned to picture books I will never tire of looking at: all the work of the Australian illustrator Shaun Tan and Colin Thompson – who lives there but was born in the UK – Tony DiTerlizzi’s wonderful black and white interpretation of the “The Spider and the Fly” (based on the cautionary tale by Mary Howitt) and the most delightful of all possible antidotes to Sutherland’s pathological fear and hatred of women, Anthony Browne’s Piggy Book.
This appeared Cape Times on 25 November 2011 and also appears on Books SA