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Words are toys, and Mark Forsythe of The Inky Fool knows how to play. Just got The Horologicon to review. Happyhappy, because I so enjoyed his previous book The Etymologicon.

The Horologicon is organised around our wakeful times and it begins, as it should, with dawn. I’ve only just read the first chapter and have already added a few useful words to my lexicon. Like “hypnopompic” – those “strange half-dreamful, half-conscious delusions and illusions”. And “day-peep”, a word eighteenth century farmers used for “dawn”. There’s also “dayening” and “early bright”.

A bit of a horror in the modern English ear, but a joyously precise word, is “uhtceare”. It’s not a word for dawn, but for pre-dawn worries. “Uht” is the word for “the restless hour before dawn”. “Ceare”, which Forsythe tells us is pronounced key-are-a, was an Old English word for care and sorrow, “emotions that have an annoying habit of striking during the uht”.

This is etymology dressed for a party while it wittily inserts asides on history and social development.

I’m not sure I retained that much new information from The Etymologicon, except the memory of amazement and laughter. I’m making a point of remembering “uhtceare” though – so that I can sigh dramatically when the sky is “day-raw” and console myself that at least there is a name for my pre-dawn affliction.

COLUMN: Violence to the reader

girl with book

Violence has many modes.

Subtle, sly and underhand. Overtly, erratically aggressive, or relentlessly “gently” teasing.

It is the unquestioned daily terror of powerful institutions against individuals, and the small daily terrors of weak individuals displaying their intellect, muscle or money like weapons to cow others.

It can be passive, psychic, verbal, physical, sexual, global, local. It can mask itself as “Mommy knows best” or “Daddy is the boss” or “God says”.  It is not gendered. It has all colours, all dogmas, all cultures in its thrall. It is doesn’t only hold sway in the province of human interaction, but thunders in the sky, from under the earth, in the wind and on the waves.

We can let life pass us by by every moment fearing it. Many do. We can do our best to avoid it. We can assert (and believe) that we are incapable of it. We can resist it, plot ways to neutralise it. Narrowly sidestep it, or crash right into by accident. We can even use violence against it, pre-emptively or in response to it.

But violence remains. Violence is.

The story of extreme violence – the kind the religious might pray fervently to avoid, while the irreligious engage in other forms of magical thinking – is what one Eli Sanders wrote about in her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning feature article entitled The Bravest Woman in Seattle. She reports on the testimony of a woman in court, who must comb-through and nitpick, under cross examination, a night of such chilling brutality, it almost seems unreal.

Sanders’ writing is so simple that its effects on the reader seems disproportionately perverse. Before the reader’s un-avertable eyes, a woman speaks in court, and Sanders reports on it.

No violence is done to the reader, but to read it, is to absorb violence. Its diminishing aftershocks – washing on to my shores years later, from a place I have never been, done to a woman whose name I do not know, and conveyed through the miracle of satellite and fibre-optic cable – made me heave. Where my hand was clapped over my mouth, tears pooled. I will never forget that story. Not its details, nor how it was told.

In my German novel, In Zeiten des Abnehmenden Lichts by Eugen Ruge, I read about institutional violence, enforced through fear of betrayal and personal disgrace. It is the multi-generational story of a politically active family in the DDR and spans several decades. It is painfully beautifully written, each voice so idiosyncratically personal  in tone and content, it seems impossible it was written by only one person. It is also my favourite kind of novel: one which explores the inevitable intersection between the political and the personal.

The English translation of the title is “In times of diminishing light”. It won the Deutscher Buchpreis, and translation rights have been sold, so it should soon be available in English.

I was briefly interrupted in this when I picked up When in Broad Daylight I Open My Eyes, by Greg Lazarus, to assess which reviewer to give it to, but got hooked in by its menacing undercurrents of violence. It consumed me quickly.

In between I judged short stories for the South African Writers College annual short story award (all violent), and read This is my Land.

And I began to thoughtfully chew on the flavoursome, knotty gristle of Johann de Lange’s poems in his latest collection, called Vaarwel my effens bevlekte held.

Content, tone, imagery, reaction. It was a month of violent reading. I continue to wrestle.

This piece first appeared in the Cape Times and can also be read here: Books SA

Image Pictoral Review by Nickolas Muray (American 1892-1965) from George Eastman House Collection



COLUMN: That’s it!


Roland Barthes

Before analytical cogs shift into gear, before thought and response, feelings arise in the reader of a novel or a poem. If I do not know what I am about to read – bring no expectation except a wish for a basic pleasure – I will be engaged before I am committed.

Unless the text repels me.

Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist and philosopher, said “…the text…can wring from me only this judgment… : that’s it!”

It seems an over-simplification, but it feels true for me.Text – writing – has several sneaky ways of repelling the reader and few of them have to do with subject matter. The off-putting things in a book are myriad and could be minor and are sometimes hard to pin precisely: a lack of authenticity; repetition; cliché; staccato sentences or their opposite – the long-winded, single-sentence paragraph; inconsistencies in punctuation; incorrect grammar; a lack of musicality in language; one-dimensional characters; plot holes; incredible turns of event – it’s a long list.

Sometimes small, almost invisible doses of a combination of these things undermine the reader’s ability to lose him or herself in the story. The story or poem lacks the magic required to hold its audience.

Books are meant to be a conversation: the author “speaks” expecting to be “heard”. The retorts will be private and the author will seldom come to know how an individual reader has responded. But a good, caring author will always know that they are not engaged in a sole enterprise. They will keep their reader in mind, care to communicate something as well as they possibly can.

Real writers, writers who care about communicating, write as a first step, knowing that their text is not sacred, that for it to be ready for a reader it will have to pass through many hands. Hands that will tinker and temper, slash and hack, pull and push, until the writing, the information, the poem, the story is in its best possible form.

Real writers respect and love – fight with, resent, get irritated by, but essentially love – editors. Editors are what stand between writers being taken seriously or falling by the wayside on that long and unforgiving road of publishing.

I say this because I have come into contact, in various ways, with the sticky issue of self-publishing in the past few weeks. I am not against self-publishing per se, but I am hard-pressed to say why not since no self-published book has ever made me say “that’s it!” They are too riddled with mistakes and ego, too self-aggrandising in length and pompous in tone to stimulate anything other than a desire to move on to the next book on my pile.

I will not speak of those. Let me tell you what did make me say “that’s it!” this month, a list topped by an Afrikaans book which, if it is never translated will be a sore loss to world literature.

Sirkusboere by Sonja Loots – with its striking cover design, a yellow poster advertising a circus show which features real Boer War heroes – is an many-legged triumph of caring publishing. The story (I won’t give it away – but it is based on astounding fact) is told with humour, with a tail-swishing elegance of language deployed to entertain and engage, with pace and with brio.

I also read the new Joyce Carol Oates novel Mudwoman which lured me away from any task that seemed pointless in comparison to knowing what happens.

I have been slowly working my way through the newest poems by Kelwyn Sole in Absent Tongues, truly one of South Africa’s foremost poets, whose poems are filled with anger and poignancy over his homeland – with uncomfortable feelings gently worded for those of us who are stumm with sadness.

These books cared deeply about being read. They are well written. More critically: they are well edited.

This column can also be read here: Books SA