Margery Sharp Lise Lillywhite and Virginia Woolf The Years

One of the things I do in Geneva is hang out at the local flea market trying to suppress my urge to preserve dead lives. Every week you’ll see people disrespectfully pawing over the beloved libraries of the deceased, libraries which with possibly indecent haste, have been taken away by market vendors who, I can imagine, don’t pay a cent for them. It is merely enough that they are willing to cart them off. There in the market they sit in boxes, 2CHF a book. Amongst them will often be intimate belongings such as photo albums, travel diaries or autograph books. Every time I see this, I want to save the memory even if nobody else does. Could I not keep just a skeleton of the library’s existence?

As it is, my own library is, as much as anything else, a cemetery of book bones, nothing as whole as a skeleton no doubt, but each death provides my shelves with something more. There are many reasons for loving a book. Some of mine I love simply because they belonged to people who cared about them and I have inherited them if only by chance. Not least, the library remnants of the Hautevilles’ library.

When the sale of the chateau and its contents was first mooted, the best of the books went to a posh auction house. The refuse of that process ended up at the local flea market. Each time I see one of these discarded deceased estates, lying higgledy-piggledy in boxes, I don’t just look at the books one by one, deciding which small treasure to take home. I also read the story of the library itself. Ah, so and so was a jazz and cinema lover, as I see a record collection, the reference books lovingly collected on its side, now the junk man’s province. This Swiss person made trips to Australia in the 1950s, here are the photo albums, the travel books of the period. Oh, and he was into….

So it goes on. Most of these deceased book lovers leave only a small tale. The Hautevilles, however, were a prominent family for many generations and their story is told via important legal battles, their castle and through the auction of the contents of that castle. They loved theatre and put on productions, so the auction included the costumery collected over the years. At the ‘junk’ end, ordinary books not worth anything, was a lovely collection of children’s and adult’s fiction from the pre and post WWII period. It contained many gems of the period including an author, almost forgotten these days, Margery Sharp. She is perhaps due for the requisite revival, not least because it would not be entirely unreasonable to call her the Jane Austen of her day. I hesitate to do that, but as it may get somebody to read her, and as almost nobody on GR – none of my friends – have read this, I will take the chance.

I always hope, going back to writers of this period, not to be disappointed, but often am. Approached with some trepidation, therefore, I am pleased to announce that Lise Lillywhite is a total winner, surpassing even optimistic expectations. Sharp by name, sharp by nature, the author most wittily and insightfully dissects social life and manners of the immediate post-WWII period. London is not what it was. As in every war, men took bullets whilst young girls acquired freedom. As after every war, no doubt the men wanted everything to go back to what it was, but it never does. The story is tight, with surprises I guess I should have predicted but didn’t – maybe that is a mark of a good writer, maybe it’s only if you are bored into thinking ahead that you pick up the clues. I don’t know!

The author has sympathy, if not empathy, for everybody in the story and I expect that makes all the difference in the depiction of character. Is it not so that while you read fiction that you have in your mind’s eye a clear picture of each character and yet, that clarity is in actuality an evasive phantom. That’s how I always am, at any rate. And so on the occasion of a film or play being made of such a book, there are the characters you feel are perfectly cast and the ones that aren’t. You are totally sure about this and yet you could never have made so much as a pen stroke yourself to draw the people you imagine as you read.

As it happened, I read Lise Lillywhite straight after The Years, by Virginia Woolf. The contrast could not have been greater. Some of these differences are per force. The Years is a work which has no plot, whereas Lise Lillywhite is driven by one. But in particular, whilst Sharp’s characters live, and do so now, seventy odd years after being created, Woolf’s are wooden collections of description which for me evoked nothing. Whereas I ‘know’ or perhaps ‘feel’ is more accurate, all of Sharp’s characters, even though I can’t put a finger on exactly what they are; in the case of Woolf’s, I have no mind’s eye picture at all. And being aware of this and trying to assemble a picture from the clues provided, for it isn’t as if there is no physical description, I come up with blankness.

A few days ago a shocking exposé appeared in The Guardian, “VS Naipaul: shockingly disloyal to his literary friend, claims Spurling. Biographer Hilary Spurling unmasks ‘vengeful’ posthumous reviews of Anthony Powell novels by onetime fan”. I suppose when news was a finite thing printed on paper, this never would have seen the day, but now that ‘news’ is an infinite black abyss, it requires a never-ending attempt to fill it. Naipaul wrote to Powell when he was alive saying how much he’d liked what he had so far read of Dance to the Music of Time. After Powell died, he wrote what he really thought. One fails to understand what Spurling finds difficult to comprehend about this. She seems to think that because Powell helped Naipaul, that Naipaul has an obligation to be nice to his writing, rather than to speak his mind. She thinks, in other words, it should be rather like so many people conduct themselves on social media these days. I’ll vote for you if you vote for me. You can read the whole story here.

Somehow I doubt that Spurling would have found it any better if Naipaul had trashed Powell whilst he was alive, which presumably would have been a worse act of ‘betrayal’ as she likes to see it. Pretending that your friend can write is all but impossible to avoid. Certainly my experiences have taught me to err on the side of discretion at such moments. Spurling doesn’t seem to understand, if it comes to that, the significance of Naipaul declining to praise Powell in public – if he did so, she fails to mention it. Rather Naipaul sent Powell a discreet fan letter, which left him all the freer to speak his mind when the obvious moment came.

I, fortunately, having the acquaintance of neither Powell or Woolf can say what I like about them. I have no idea if Powell was equally unrestrained in his opinion of Woolf while she was alive. Certainly he made his distaste loudly known post her demise. I wonder if his stealing from her had anything to do with it, the old idea that we behave badly towards those we have wronged. (Of course, it may be as simple as his liking his upper class women to be cleaner than Woolf.)

For as I read the unfailingly tedious and instantly forgettable The Years, it was impossible not to dispel the boredom with speculation as to the similarities between this and Dance to the Music of Time. Similarities that go well beyond the tedium they share. Indeed, look at this passage by Woolf and surely all but the most one-eyed supporter of Powell for the Cup will see what I mean:

But his glance was a little vague. His attention was distracted. He was looking at a lady who had just come in; a well-dressed lady, who stood with her back to the bookcase equipped for every emergency. If I can’t describe my own life, Eleanor thought, how can I describe him? For what he was she did not know; only that it gave her pleasure when he came in; relieved her of the need of thinking; and gave her mind a little job. He was looking at the lady. She seemed upheld by their gaze; vibrating under it. And suddenly it seemed to Eleanor that it had all happened before. So a girl had come in that night in the restaurant: had stood, vibrating, in the door. She knew exactly what he was going to say. He had said it before, in the restaurant. He is going to say, She is like a ball on top of a fishmonger’s fountain. As she thought it, he said it. Does everything then come over again a little differently? she thought. If so, is there a pattern; a theme, recurring, like music; half remembered, half foreseen? …a gigantic pattern, momentarily perceptible? The thought gave her extreme pleasure: that there was a pattern. But who makes it? Who thinks it? Her mind slipped. She could not finish her thought.

‘Nicholas…’ she began; but she had no notion how she was going to finish her sentence, or what it was that she wanted to ask him. He was talking to Sara. She listened. He was laughing at her. He was pointing at her feet….But they are very happy, Eleanor thought: they laugh at each other.

‘Tell me, Nicholas…’ she began again. But another dance was beginning. Couples came flocking back into the room. Slowly, intently, with serious faces, as if they were taking part in some mystic rite which gave them immunity from other feelings, the dancers began circling past them, brushing against their knees, almost treading on their toes. And then someone stopped in front of them.

‘Oh, here’s North,’ said Eleanor, looking up. [Sally and Nicholas dance off.]

‘What an odd-looking couple!’ North exclaimed. He screwed his face up into a grin as he watched them. ‘They don’t know how to dance!’ he added. He sat down by Eleanor in the chair that Nicholas had left empty.

‘Why don’t they marry?’ he asked.

‘Why should they?’ she said.

‘Oh, everybody out to marry,’ he said. ‘And I like him, though he’s a bit of a – shall we say ‘bounder?” he suggested, as he watched them circling rather awkwardly in and out.

”Bounder’?’ Eleanor echoed him.

‘Oh it’s his fob, you mean,’ she added, looking at the gold seal which swung up and down as Nicholas danced.’

‘No, not a bounder,’ she said aloud. ‘He’s -‘

But North was not attending. He was looking at a couple at the further end of the room. They were standing by the fireplace. Both were young; both were silent; they seemed held still in that position by some powerful emotion. As he looked at them, some emotion about himself, about his own life, came over him, and he arranged another background for them or for himself – not the mantelpiece and the bookcase, but cataracts roaring, clouds racing, and they stood on a cliff above a torrent.

The question which naturally presents itself, as it does when we look at Powell, is whether it is bad on purpose. As in Dance to the Music of Time, The Years is populated by an entire tribe of unpleasant upperclass bores who seem between them to have no good reason for existing. At the same time, O’Neill’s Strange Interlude came to mind. Just as his characters address the audience in those frozen asides, it seemed to me in some odd way that Woolf’s characters in their stream of consciousness delivery do the same thing with us. It’s a very long book of sentences and conversations and thoughts that never end, and it is really we who know that. The characters in the book are always oblivious to what they miss. They are just living (if you call that living) whilst we see the inadequacy of it all. The unfinishedness of it. Nothing ever ends, not thoughts, not conversations, meetings. Things simply fade away, and then flush back in.

This may be an interesting idea, but the execution is lacking. If you need evidence of the shortcomings of the skills of Woolf in this book, look at a section where she hangs her anti-semitism out for all to see. It’s not just morally repugnant, it’s badly written. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know the characters. Nor do we who  have the the book. The characters are unknowable.

“That’s Eleanor,” said North. He left the telephone and turned to Sara. She was still swinging her foot up and down.

“She told me to tell you to come to Delia’s party,” he said.

“To Delia’s party? Why to Delia’s party?” she asked.

“Because they’re old and want you to come,” he said, standing over her.

“Old Eleanor; wandering Eleanor; Eleanor with the wild eyes . . . ” she mused. “Shall I, shan’t I, shall I, shan’t I?” she hummed, looking up at him. “No,” she said, putting her feet to the ground, “I shan’t.”

“You must,” he said. For her manner irritated him — Eleanor’s voice was still in his ears.

“I must, must I?” she said, making the coffee.

“Then,” she said, giving him his cup and picking up the book at the same time, “read until we must go.”

She curled herself up again, holding her cup in her hand.

It was still early, it was true. But why, he thought as he opened the book again and turned over the pages, won’t she come? Is she afraid? he wondered. He looked at her crumpled in her chair. Her dress was shabby. He looked at the book again, but he could hardly see to read. She had not lit the lamp.

“I can’t see to read without a light,” he said. It grew dark soon in this street; the houses were so close. Now a car passed and a light slid across the ceiling.

“Shall I turn on the light?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “I’ll try to remember something.” He began to say aloud the only poem he knew by heart. As he spoke the words out into the semi-darkness they sounded extremely beautiful, he thought, because they could not see each other, perhaps.

He paused at the end of the verse.

“Go on,” she said.

He began again. The words going out into the room seemed like actual presences, hard and independent; yet as she was listening they were changed by their contact with her. But as he reached the end of the second verse —

Society is all but rude —

To this delicious solitude . . .

he heard a sound. Was it in the poem or outside of it, he wondered? Inside, he thought, and was about to go on, when she raised her hand. He stopped. He heard heavy footsteps outside the door. Was someone coming in? Her eyes were on the door.

“The Jew,” she murmured.

“The Jew?” he said. They listened. He could hear quite distinctly now. Somebody was turning on taps; somebody was having a bath in the room opposite.

“The Jew having a bath,” she said.

“The Jew having a bath?” he repeated.

“And tomorrow there’ll be a line of grease round the bath,” she said.

“Damn the Jew!” he exclaimed. The thought of a line of grease from a strange man’s body on the bath next door disgusted him.

“Go on —” said Sara: “Society is all but rude,” she repeated the last lines, “to this delicious solitude.”

“No,” he said.

They listened to the water running. The man was coughing and clearing his throat as he sponged.

“Who is this Jew?” he asked.

“Abrahamson, in the tallow trade,” she said.

They listened.

“Engaged to a pretty girl in a tailor’s shop,” she added.

They could hear the sounds through the thin walls very distinctly.

He was snorting as he sponged himself.

“But he leaves hairs in the bath,” she concluded.

North felt a shiver run through him. Hairs in food, hairs on basins, other people’s hairs made him feel physically sick.

“D’you share a bath with him?” he asked.

She nodded.

He made a noise like “Pah!”

“‘Pah.’ That’s what I said,” she laughed. “‘Pah!’— when I went into the bathroom on a cold winter’s morning —‘Pah!’— she threw her hand out —”‘Pah!’” She paused.

“And then —?” he asked.

“And then,” she said, sipping her coffee, “I came back into the sitting-room. And breakfast was waiting. Fried eggs and a bit of toast. Lydia with her blouse torn and her hair down. The unemployed singing hymns under the window. And I said to myself —” she flung her hand out, “‘Polluted city, unbelieving city, city of dead fish and worn-out frying-pans’— thinking of a river’s bank, when the tide’s out,” she explained.

“Go on,” he nodded.

“So I put on my hat and coat and rushed out in a rage,” she continued, “and stood on the bridge, and said, ‘Am I a weed, carried this way, that way, on a tide that comes twice a day without a meaning?’”

“Yes?” he prompted her.

“And there were people passing; the strutting; the tiptoeing; the pasty; the ferret-eyed; the bowler-hatted, servile innumerable army of workers. And I said, ‘Must I join your conspiracy? Stain the hand, the unstained hand,’”— he could see her hand gleam as she waved it in the half-light of the sitting-room, “’— and sign on, and serve a master; all because of a Jew in my bath, all because of a Jew?’”

She sat up and laughed, excited by the sound of her own voice which had run in to a jog-trot rhythm.

“Go on, go on,” he said.

“But I had a talisman, a glowing gem, a lucent emerald”— she picked up an envelope that lay on the floor —“a letter of introduction. And I said to the flunkey in peach-blossom trousers, ‘Admit me, sirrah,’ and he led me along corridors piled with purple till I came to a door, a mahogany door, and knocked; and a voice said, ‘Enter.’ And what did I find?” She paused. “A stout man with red cheeks. On his table three orchids in a vase. Pressed into your hand, I thought, as the car crunches the gravel by your wife at parting. And over the fireplace the usual picture —”

“Stop!” North interrupted her. “You have come to an office,” he tapped the table. “You are presenting a letter of introduction — but to whom?”

“Oh, to whom?” she laughed. “To a man in sponge-bag trousers. ‘I knew your father at Oxford,’ he said, toying with the blotting- paper, ornamented in one corner with a cartwheel. But what do you find insoluble, I asked him, looking at the mahogany man, the clean-shaven, rosy-gilled, mutton-fed man —”

“The man in a newspaper office,” North checked her, “who knew your father. And then?”

“There was a humming and a grinding. The great machines went round; and little boys popped in with elongated sheets; black sheets; smudged; damp with printer’s ink. ‘Pardon me a moment,’ he said, and made a note in the margin. But the Jew’s in my bath, I said — the Jew . . . the Jew —” She stopped suddenly and emptied her glass.

Yes, he thought, there’s the voice; there’s the attitude; and the reflection in other people’s faces; but then there’s something true — in the silence perhaps. But it was not silent. They could hear the Jew thudding in the bathroom; he seemed to stagger from foot to foot as he dried himself. Now he unlocked the door, and they heard him go upstairs. The pipes began to give forth hollow gurgling sounds.

“How much of that was true?” he asked her. But she had lapsed into silence. The actual words he supposed — the actual words floated together and formed a sentence in his mind — meant that she was poor; that she must earn her living, but the excitement with which she had spoken, due to wine perhaps, had created yet another person; another semblance, which one must solidify into one whole.

The house was quiet now, save for the sound of the bath water running away. A watery pattern fluctuated on the ceiling. The street lamps jiggering up and down outside made the houses opposite a curious pale red. The uproar of the day had died away; no carts were rattling down the street. The vegetable-sellers, the organ- grinders, the woman practising her scales, the man playing the trombone, had all trundled away their barrows, pulled down their shutters, and closed the lids of their pianos. It was so still that for a moment North thought he was in Africa, sitting on the verandah in the moonlight; but he roused himself. “What about this party?” he said. He got up and threw away his cigarette. He stretched himself and looked at his watch. “It’s time to go,” he said. “Go and get ready,” he urged her. For if one went to a party, he thought, it was absurd to go just as people were leaving. And the party must have begun.

I was willing, whilst reading the tawdry anti-semitic tripe, to think okay, that’s the story talking, but it isn’t. Woolf simply felt like that, and talked like it all the time. She didn’t just talk in this way about Jews. The lower classes coped it too. Her opinion of Ulysses was based entirely on her upper class snobbery:

An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?

Enter Sharp. Sharp who is as economical with words as Woolf is loose, whose structure is tight, who makes useful observations about life in interesting and hilarious ways, and who hates nobody. Sensing while reading Lise Lillywhite, that Margery Sharp is the sort of writer who has affection for all those in her work, I was pleased to come across genusrosa’s Sharp-dedicated website, which confirms this trait: ‘It is obvious that Margery Sharp loves people; equally obvious that she understands them very well and forgives them a great deal.’

The literary canon being the opinion of males, for whom humour and observation of society is never a comfortable choice, it is no wonder that Sharp is forgotten. But how wrong that is. To quote genusrosa again:

We relate to the work of the humorist because he/she deals with reality. They distill their own experience through a fresh vision that enables us to recognize (with a thrill) that it is our experience, too.

If it is true, as Marcel Proust said, that ‘in reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self’, then the task of the humorist makes our touch with that awareness more palatable. We feel we know these people they write of….However removed we are from the era or geography of the story, we welcome the feeling of identification that we can have with the characters.

Humor establishes continuity. If we can share a laugh with someone who lived fifty years or two hundred years ago; if we can identify with the scenes or people chronicled there, then we have formed a bridge with the past. The resulting sense of interrelatedness can be reassuring. In an ever-changing, sometimes frightening world, this is by no means a ‘light’ accomplishment. So even while we laugh with the humorist, we take their work and their vision very seriously.

To live at all as a writer is a small miracle. To do it when your metier is humour, so much the more impressive. However, it would be wrong to suggest, despite how often I found myself laughing out loud during this book, that it is straightforwardly funny. Its observations of human behaviour are not only acute, they are also poignant. Both Woolf’s The Years and Sharp’s Lise Lillywhite end up in the same place, a sense of wasted lives. I shall say no more on that for fear of spoiling the latter. It is interesting, however, to compare the delicacy of the one with the flatfootedness of the other.

I am  now on the hunt for all of Sharp’s books. I shall leave it to others to convince me that I should give Woolf another shot.


The Calvin and Hobbes 10th anniversary book, or: Bill Watterson’s adieu.

A few years ago I thought having a cartoon book sitting by my bed at night would be the best way of going to sleep. For a  long time now it’s been this Calvin and Hobbes collection, but today I binged on it, finishing it with a cup of tea after breakfast.

The publication is a treat, not only because it consists of the choices of the author along with his commentary, but also for his account of the industry as a whole. In retrospective, it shouldn’t surprise, reading this book, to see that he was about to throw in the towel. Like many comics and cartoonists, he is an utterly earnest type, but poignantly so here, energy bypassing the creative process to fuel his constant fights with big corporations. One can only admire his utterly moral stand throughout on all these issues. Not everybody is motivated by money – easy to feel like that when it isn’t in front of you, but he had it waved at his nose and still turned it down. Good to know that every time you see a Calvin and Hobbes ‘product’ it’s a piece of thievery which should be given a wide berth. One can also admire his resolve to give up while he was ahead.

I wish cartoonists weren’t so sad – at least my favourites, the others being Schultz and Leunig – but I guess that’s what makes them funny and wise and makes  us laugh and become wiser.

Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee

“I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency.”

Perhaps an epitaph for our world. If you like your Kafka with a large dose of morality in it, step this way. I wonder if there has ever been a period in human history in which this little work would not have its place however particularly apt it may seem right now.

This is the third Coetzee I’ve read now and all of them are economic in terms of paper spent, this one a mere 170 pages. And yet there is nothing in the prose to indicate a miserly attitude to words or to story line. Indeed, there is much wonderment in the book.

Nor could I always see why one part of my body, with its unreasonable cravings and false promises, should be heeded over any other as a channel of desire. Sometimes my sex seemed to me another being entirely, a stupid animal living parasitically upon me, swelling and dwindling according to autonomous appetites, anchored to my flesh with claws I could not detach. Why do I have to carry you about from woman to woman, I asked: simply because you were born without legs? Would it make any difference to you if you were rooted in a cat or dog instead of in me?

Who wouldn’t like the answer to this question? At the same time, does it beg innocence when we should be conferring guilt? I think back to the movie Disgrace, the early scenes between teacher and student. Yes I must read it too! Having read Waiting for the Barbarians, I feel like maybe after all I will understand/empathise with the book in a way that I couldn’t while watching the movie. Perhaps there is no difference really between The Magistrate here and the girl in Disgrace. I’m anxious to find out now!

As we offer up our liberties, Coetzee has it, our decency, in exchange – we hope – for safety, this wonderful piece on what happens when we fear our victims. Compulsory reading for 2017. Five stars.

To the Wedding by John Berger

Check goodreads, one friend has read it, none have written about it.

True he’s won the Booker, which could explain it. But on the other hand, surely one has a heart for his subsequent actions? Upon discovering that the Booker is a prize generated from slave money, he gave half of it to the Black Panthers. The other half was, I believe, earmarked for a project for farm labour in Europe. If all Booker prizer winners are guilty of sharing in the spoils of slavery, surely he comes off best of them.

Is it for the reason I think kicks in most often, he is in the period that is just before this one and therefore to be disdained. That is to say, a greater period of time between the reader and the artist may see him reinstalled. We despise the recent past.

Is it because he is communist and therefore holds an attitude to life currently scorned?

Is it because he is stand alone good at several things – writing, painting, art criticism – and therefore to be looked down upon? We hates all rounders don’t we precious.

Is it because he is communist and there is an automatic presumption of heavy handed didactism? But nothing could be further from the truth. He writes with a light touch of sad things. He writes as (all?) artists write, he paints the page with words. You see through his painter’s eyes. And yes, you also see through the eyes of one who cares for the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalised.

There are two endings here, the storyteller’s woven ending which softens you up for the real one, which made my stomach crumple. But I don’t know one person who has read it – and in general online as far as I can see nobody gets it, obvious as it seems to be.

I hope some people read it. Please let me know if you do – or have!

Boyhood by JM Coetzee

Make note to learn something about South African history and culture. It does the reader no favours to be as ignorant as I while reading this.

Underline note of some years ago to read Disgrace. Watched twice, but still not read. Boyhood has given me an idea as to how one might understand the odd scenario of that book, woman raped by black men and consequently pregnant, determines to become the 3rd wife of one of the rapists. Perhaps this will afford her some degree of safety and the possibility of staying in her home…though it will no longer be her home. We are given to believe that the woman is doing this as penance for being white. It is her necessary apology.

Here in Boyhood, there is much discussion of the difference between groups, including the Coloured people who are part of his life in a mysterious and  uncomfortable way.  Clearly Coetzee was a child disturbed by the racism that was part of his life. I wonder if, as an adult writer, he assuages his own guilt by this story. What can white men really give up, compared with white women? The total humiliation of the woman in Disgrace, perhaps that’s the sacrifice he can make. The author makes amends.

The more I read of fictionalised memoir, the more I come to the realisation that it is free to be truthful when factual memoir is not. Coetzee is ruthless in his descriptions of all in this account, including himself. Nobody is nice, his childhood is horrible but when I could imagine myself whining as I told such a story, he is merely dispassionately descriptive.

I hope that doesn’t make the book sound cold or uninviting. It is utterly gripping for its brief life in the hand. Having read his two memoirs back to front, starting with Youth – heaven knows why since they were both on the shelves – I don’t know what topsy turvy way to continue with his work, but no doubt I shall. Coetzee  may be a Nobel Prize winner, but he is still a great writer.

Noting that Coetzee is an Australian citizen who moved from South Africa to Adelaide quite some years ago, I am tempted to speculate that it was this Boyhood, which sounds so horrible, that made him fall in love with Adelaide’s niceness. This edited extract has been snipped from The Australian, which took it from his biography. I thought it was worth preserving in full, as it also shows the qualities in his real adult life that he attributes to his fictional young self.  AND it says nice things about Adelaide.

MY letter of June 9, 2008, to John Coetzee, in which I asked his permission to undertake his biography, must have reached him while he was still writing away at Summertime. My request may have raised a smile.

Here he had been since April 2005 in Adelaide writing about a fictional English biographer, Mr Vincent, engaged in the preliminaries for a biography of the dead author J. M. Coetzee. And here appears a real biographer applying to write a real biography.

This biographer does not, as one would expect, emerge from the ranks of the English literary world but from the much smaller province of Afrikaans literature. Perhaps the very fact the request was coming from outside the sphere of English literature may have appealed to Coetzee, with his contrarian take on things.

When I was in Adelaide in March 2009 to conduct interviews with Coetzee, he was on his second revision of Summertime. He answered all my questions meticulously and impressed me as a man of integrity.

From the manuscripts that I perused in his office in the second week of my stay, I also got the impression of an incredibly hard worker who had spared no effort to develop and deploy his talent.

The various versions, up to 14, that had been produced of Disgrace provide some measure of the demands Coetzee makes of himself as a writer. A student interested in the genesis of his novels would find wonderful material here.

In the course of our conversations I also developed a certain compassion with this intensely private and reserved man.

Even on highly sensitive topics, he kept strictly to the facts. Only when he spoke of the illness of his daughter, Gisela, was there a measure of emotion and, at first, reticence.

On this topic I got the impression – for the only time in our conversations – that he was withholding certain information from me (which he later provided).

Add to this the sorrow he experienced at his father’s dishonesty and alcoholism, the life and death of his son Nicolas, in an accident at 23, and the death from cancer of his first wife Philippa, and one stands amazed that someone could experience so much unhappiness and yet sustain himself and continue his work.

IT is commonly believed that Coetzee’s decision to leave South Africa for good in 2002 and settle in Australia was in direct reaction to the African National Congress’s negative comments about Disgrace, which won the Booker Prize in 1999. Although this could have tipped the balance, it would be an oversimplification to ascribe his departure exclusively to that.

Coetzee had experienced often enough incomprehension of and negative reactions to his work. During the State of Emergency of the 1980s, he said in a letter that he would like to remain in South Africa as long as it was possible for him to do some good, in whatever way. “As a writer,” he continued, “I don’t want to go into exile, if only because I have seen what exile does to writers.”

In any case, the preamble to his change of country and especially the chronology of events tell a different story.

As long ago as November 1989, Coetzee had been invited to act as writer-in-residence at the University of Queensland. This visit took place in 1990. Coetzee was accompanied by his partner, academic Dorothy Driver, and they used the opportunity to explore the country. In 1991 Driver was on an academic visit to Adelaide, and she was impressed with the city and the warmth with which she was received.

In August 1991 they were in Australia again, this time as guests of the department of English at the University of Melbourne, where they stayed in Ormond College.

They travelled around, spent some time at the artists’ colony on Arthur Boyd’s former estate, took part in arts festivals and visited Adelaide, whose setting and layout made a strong impression on Coetzee. On a later visit, Coetzee attended a writers colloquium in Canberra, and in 1996 he and Driver visited Adelaide for a Writers Week in which they both took part.

From his very first visit, Coetzee was charmed by Australia.

“[F]rom the beginning, in a way that is hard to explain,” he said in August 2001 in an interview with Anne Susskind, the South African-born Sydney-based literary critic, “I have felt a strong pull toward the land and the landscape. I come from Africa, where the land tends to have a similarly mysterious, dwarfing power over people.”

Australia appealed so strongly to Coetzee on his repeated visits in the 90s that he decided it might be an “adventure” to settle there. In an email to a friend, he wrote that, sitting on a bench at Whale Beach in northern Sydney, he had to admire the idyllic scene before him: the families with their picnic baskets, the green bay with its orange sand, and the absence of danger.

Furthermore, as he said to Susskind in their interview, he was impressed with Australian egalitarianism, “the way in which Australians relate to each other, spontaneously as far as I can see, as equals. You might say that anyone from South Africa, with its huge social and racial divisions, would have that reaction. But egalitarianism in Australia is, in my experience, quite unique in the world. Obviously it is a consequence of a particular social history. Nevertheless I find it profoundly admirable”.

On March 29, 1995, more than four years before the publication of Disgrace, Coetzee was asked by Robin McMullan of Canberra to submit his CV to the Australian embassy for consideration. So he was already considering a move, with Adelaide as his preferred destination and Melbourne as a second choice. It was, however, only in October 1999 that he approached various contacts to support his application for immigration. On December 13, 1999, he appealed also to David Malouf, the prominent Australian author, to support his application.

On February 1, 2001, Coetzee wrote to Wayne Purcell, the Sydney lawyer handling their immigration applications:

I have good news. 
If I can get to the Australian High Commission in Pretoria before closing time tomorrow, Friday 2 February, bearing Dorothy’s passport and my own, I can get immigration visas stamped into them. We will then catch a flight on Saturday 3 February and present ourselves to the immigration officials at Perth airport on Sunday 4 February, and we will be landed as immigrants. 
I can’t tell you how happy I am.

By early 2001, some newspapers were already referring to Coetzee’s imminent departure, and journalists were trying to get confirmation from him of his intention and the reason for his move. He was not, however, willing to discuss his emigration with journalists intent on sensation. The story of his and Driver’s imminent move had reached the Australian press the week before and had been taken over by the South African papers.

“My motives,” he writes, “are what I would consider to be personal, and nobody’s business but my own and those of a few people close to me; but of course journalists prefer to give the move a political spin. I have thought it best not to get drawn into a haggle.”

That Coetzee’s decision to leave South Africa had not been taken lightly is evident from his reply to a further question by Susskind: “An interview is perhaps not the best medium in which to explore moral or intellectual complexities. And leaving a country is, in some respects, like the breakup of a marriage. It is an intimate matter.”

Although Coetzee nowhere commits himself as to the reasons for his emigration, it may be possible to draw certain conclusions from his life and his work. When he left South Africa at the end of 1961 and settled in England, he was appalled at the political course his country was steering with apartheid and he intended never to return. When, in 1966, he was studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Texas, and later lecturing at State University of New York in Buffalo, he wanted to settle permanently in the US.

However, his participation in Buffalo in a peaceful protest at the time of the Vietnam War against the presence of police on campus, and his arrest with 44 other members of staff, led to his visa not being renewed, even though he and his co-accused were acquitted at the subsequent trial.

There was for a while the possibility of a permanent position in Canada or Hong Kong, but he preferred to return to South Africa, perhaps even feeling intuitively that his real task as a writer and as a human being lay in the South Africa that he was trying to escape.

Whatever the case, his decision to return led to a series of novels giving unique form to problems of the country and its people, while at the same time being prime contributions to contemporary literature.

With the dismantling of apartheid, the “disgrace” that he had resisted in his own way was considered something of the past, yet residues of conflict remained.

In his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 1987, Coetzee had suggested that the racial conflict in South Africa usurped the writer’s psyche to such an extent as to leave no scope for other themes. In the apartheid years he had not been a political activist; he would now still not want to intervene actively but would continue to make his contribution of words, even from another country. Having for much of his life written books in which South Africa featured centrally, he realised that he had never really succeeded in escaping the country. This was why he repeatedly told people that he had not left South Africa but come to Australia.

When, in February 2004, Coetzee symbolically received the keys of the city from a cheering multitude of its citizens, he described Adelaide as a paradise on earth. For the 2004 Adelaide Writers Week, thousands of people gathered on the lawns in the centre of the city to listen to their favourite writers from Australia and elsewhere. An unusual guest that year was a writer straddling the divide: the South African John Coetzee, who had settled in South Australia.

Taking his cue from At the Gate, the last section of his 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee read from an unpublished text, in characteristic tribute to the city of Adelaide:

It was March, it was hot, but there were shaded walks to be had along the Torrens River, where black swans glided serenely.
What kind of place is this, I asked myself – is this paradise on earth?
What does one have to do to live here?
Does one have to die first?

After signing a number of books for admirers, Coetzee vanished, happy to let his books speak on his behalf.

On March 6, 2006, on the opening day of the Adelaide Writers Week, Coetzee officially received Australian citizenship at a special ceremony in a tent. Festivalgoers watched the new citizen take his oath of allegiance to Australia and heard him address the crowd:

“In becoming a citizen one undertakes certain duties and responsibilities. One of the more intangible of those duties and responsibilities is, no matter what one’s birth and background, to accept the historical past of the new country as one’s own.”

Coetzee, however, kept his South African nationality and he reiterated the sentiment he had repeatedly expressed before:

“I did not so much leave South Africa, a country with which I retain strong emotional ties, but come to Australia. I came because from the time of my first visit in 1991, I was attracted by the free and generous spirit of the people, by the beauty of the land itself and – when I first saw Adelaide – by the grace of the city that I now have the honour of calling my home.”

This is an edited extract from J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, by J. C. Kannemeyer, published by Scribe on Monday ($39.99), The Australian

The Longest Book Table in the world

I assumed last Sunday, that we were at a weekly open air book mart when we happened upon tables of books for sale on Drottninggatan in the centre of Stockholm. Little did I know. Each year there is one special day in August which is called Världens längsta bokbord which marks the end of the Summer Culture Festival.

We were there quite late in the day and still found lots of things we wanted, as mentioned in my last post. Maybe the slightly out of temper weather accounted for that. Some of the books were a little wet.

For a detailed report on this annual day, including pictures, I recommend Danielle Blackbird’s post here.