August 31, 2010

aryan kaganof reviews Johan Van Wyk’s “Man Bitch”

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 12:24 am

“There is such a vast difference between a thought, and writing a thought. The gap between them can never be bridged.”

I have never read a book that so perfectly describes the abject uselessness of being an academic as does Johan Van Wyk’s “Man Bitch”.

“Literature that is moral is boring.”

Man Bitch is structured as a tryptych – Durban/Europe/Durban followed by a lengthy coda – Durban/Mozambique/Durban/Poland/Durban. The European sections of the book describe the protagonist Johan Van Wyk’s journeys as a traveling literature Professor. The inanity and emptiness of “Professing”; of literature itself as a means of making a living – is excoriatingly portrayed.

“I read Dostoyevsky’s Possessed, an old Everyman’s edition. I was surprised by the relevance to my own situation. I felt like his character, Stephan Trofimovitch, who was overtaken by historical events, and who felt that all the social changes amounted to was ‘that he was forgotten and of no use.’, I thought that, similarly, my life was useless, and my book was an attempt to remind the world of my existence.”

The real life of protagonist Johan Van Wyk takes place in the seedy bars, clubs and hotels of Durban where he meets a succession of women whose working hours are after dark but not once in the book does he refer to them as “prostitutes”. He loves these women, or at least experiences the nausea that would appear to be the most consistent symptom accompanying the condition of love; and the many women that he is variously engaged in relations with all confess to varying degrees of love for him. But what is this love? Perhaps the book’s most important project is to try to understand what love means in the context of a life as unrelentingly grim as is lived by these characters who share a great deal in common with the ubiquitous cockroaches that, according to Van Wyk, “only fucked.”

“Why does one write a diary, why duplicate what is already in the mind, and why if you are only writing for yourself, I asked myself as I walked back from the consulate. Memory needs refreshing, I thought. Back at the flat, an Indian in the lift told his girlfriend: “Kaffirs like ants here. Need a can of Doom to spray.” I opened my flat window; the breeze, the voices of an excited drunken crowd and sirens floated in. I heard the sounds of hell. I sat on the toilet, trampled a small cockroach, and thought that cockroaches cannot communicate. They only fucked.”

That the women Van Wyk loves are all black is important. (There is one exception – Polish Ewa – “and for the first time in years my fingers traced tenderly the outlines of a pale white body…”) That Van Wyk is a boer is important. When, after many years away, Van Wyk returns to Bloemfontein to visit his parents, he is physically repulsed by his own kind. “In the early morning, the geese woke me. I played tennis against a wall until the retarded boy from across the road, joined me. He told me how he assaulted a maid with a golf stick, for misplacing the keys to his fishing trunk. I felt nauseous. Even the innocent and the disabled had internalized the abusive behavior of the place.”

Van Wyk’s monotone, his unhurried, dispassionate descriptions of the dystopia he finds himself in, echoes the best of Georges Bataille’s fiction (Madame Edwarda; The Dead Man) while his ruthless self analysis (of the protagonist “Johan Van Wyk” as well as of the author “Johan Van Wyk”) brings the early Céline to mind. This brief novel is on par with Raymond Radiguet’s “The Devil In The Flesh”. Nothing in South African literature prepares one for the scalding jolt of reading this book. Van Wyk has written from outside the paradigm of the geographically South African literatures that have appeared to date.

“Love is a kind of hell.”

This is not a cheerful book and the unrelenting detail of the filthy environment can bog one down and yet the overall achievement of Van Wyk is to populate this landscape with real human beings and a real sense of collective humanity. He is one of very few so-called white South African writers who has achieved this when writing about so-called black characters. Reading Van Wyk exposes the inhuman cyphers that pass for “blacks” in Brink and Coetzee as just that – cyphers. “Man Bitch” is also fascinating in its rich evocation of the underbelly of the city of Durban and it would be appropriate if the book is filmed by Claire Angelique, whose autobiographical film “My Black Little Heart” is a perfect companion piece for this unique and essential novel.

“I returned to South Africa through a misty Swaziland. The rivers were overflowing, and raindrops were gliding like sperm on the front windscreen. There was a feeling of elation, when the city of Durban became visible with its neatly painted high-rise buildings and shopping centres. I did not have money for a taxi, so I decided to walk to my flat. I walked past a tramp looking dead and rotting in a flowerbed next to the pavement. Back in my flat, the power was off, and the place was filled with a strong smell of death. I opened the fridge, and realized that it was blood from meat that smelt. I opened a bag of cashew nuts, to discover that it was full of maggots. On the switchboard, I saw that the electricity had tripped out. It must have been lightning. I was tired and collapsed on the bed, and then took a cold bath.”

First published in 2001 by Van Wyk himself, it remains scandalous that this book has not been picked up by a major South African publishing house.

Aryan Kaganof

August 29, 2010


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:24 pm

From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

As part of Stores Administration, the Verification Section occupied an office on the second floor. But Ivan Schroder, Chief Verification Officer, conducted his research and experimental work in a basement situated deep under the Carpenter Shop. Formerly it had been a wood store with access to the sea via a sloping tunnel. In this tunnel the heavy hardwoods had lain curing in brine. Now only minesweepers were constructed from wood and there was no need for a large stockpile of timber, and the space stood empty.

There were four other Verification Officers: Old Tommy, Young Tommy, Mister Snow and Captain White. They were lazy good-for-nothing degenerates whose existence Henry chose to dismiss as irrelevant. Certainly they posed no threat. The desk he was assigned had been the workstation of another degenerate who had quit this world suddenly after a bad bout of multiple organ failure. In the bottom right hand drawer Henry discovered nine empty half-jack gin bottles. Before dumping them in the wastepaper basket he carefully drained their dregs into his coffee. In the bottom left he found some mysterious blood-stained rags. He held them up and his look of revulsion was met with eager jocularity. He was informed that the deceased man had suffered from prolapsed haemorrhoids. The strangulated, unretractable type, you know. Excruciating. Henry let the rags drop, slammed the draw shut and never reopened it.

The Dockyard was a perfectly controlled world – as near to perfection as Man can make. Everything there, everything, had both a number and a description. Nothing was permitted to subtract from or add to this world, and all was as it should be, and all was entirely predictable. It was the task of the Verification Officer to help maintain this state of orderliness by constantly verifying the continued existence of hundreds of thousands of items. Armed with a weighty ledger and swaggering with self-importance, he had the run of the Yard. At any time of the day he was entitled to enter, unannounced, any workshop, store or warehouse, and demand to be shown such and such an item as described in the tome. And if it couldn’t be found the entire structure trembled. It HAD to be found. And it always was found, with a little ingenuity and deviousness. Then the item could be ticked off and all involved heaved a sigh of relief. This was Henry’s new job, but only part of it.

Harry Bergson had promised him something more stimulating, and a month after joining the Verification team he was summoned to Ivan Schroder’s office.

“Are you fond of cats, Mister Fuckit?”

“You mean as a delicacy?” He liked this question. It was wide open. “Or do you mean as a substitute for beef in something like a nice, freshly baked steak and kidney pie?”

“No, no. I’m talking about the domestic cat, Felis catus, kept since ancient Egyptian times as a household member and prized and pampered and petted as both adornment and companion.” Schroder was not displeased with Henry’s initial response to his question. If one was to discuss something, then one should do it thoroughly. “Anyway, if I had meant it as food I would have said ‘cat’, and not ‘cats’. Are you fond of cat?”

“Quite so. Point taken. Funny you should broach this subject though, for only the other day I bludgeoned a cat to death whilst under the influence of a particularly cold and vicious rage. I suppose that’s a measure of the antipathy I feel towards the species. Broke my bloody chair, too. No, Mister Schroder, I can’t say I am fond of cats.”

“I see. Well that’s a good thing. Bodes well. A cat-lover might feel a little squeamish about conducting the experimental work I have in mind.”

The Chief Verification Officer occupied a small room on the shady south side of the building, facing away from the yard. Beyond the perimeter wall and a line of gum trees the hillside rose steeply to meet the base of Simonsberg, and on days like this, when the cloud was low, the mountain loomed close and seemed overbearing. This was a very different aspect to the one Henry was used to and he idly wondered whether one’s thought processes were significantly affected by the view. On the wall behind Schroder was a framed certificate from Charlatan College conferring on Ivan O. Schroder a Master’s degree in nuclear physics. On the back of the door hung an academic gown, and on the wall behind Henry a bookcase bore the weight of some astonishingly varied reading matter.

Ivan Schroder was a tall, fit looking man in his mid forties. His long, dark, almost black hair was worn off the forehead in a brylcreamed profusion of finger-raked strands. His clean-shaven face was elongated and rectangular, as were his incisors, which gleamed white and demanded the viewer’s attention. Equine, definitely equine, Henry thought. Half expect him to tip his head back, flair his nostrils, roll his eyes, and whinny. And Henry had already spotted a distinguishing mannerism: the sudden loud laugh. It was always unexpected and jarring, acting as a precursor to its own explanation. Most people laugh AFTER something has occurred. Not Schroder. He laughed, thought of something funny, then verbalised it. Could be damned irritating.

“On the other hand,” he continued, “I hope this dislike for cats isn’t pathological.” He paused, then laughed suddenly and loudly, causing Henry to jump.

“Fuck it, man, I wish you wouldn’t do that. What’s so funny?”

“It wouldn’t do to have you going about thumping all our laboratory specimens over the head, now would it?”

“Humph! Don’t imagine I’m some kind of psychopath. I’m not given to violent outbursts.” He looked thoughtful, almost melancholy. “Took me by surprise, actually. Most unlike me. Strange, no remorse though.”

“You’d probably had a bad day or something.” Schroder was vaguely sympathetic. “You could have had something on your mind troubling you. A build-up of frustration maybe, waiting to boil over. You’re not married, are you? Could have been something like pre-menstrual tension. You know, the male equivalent.”

Henry regarded him suspiciously. A bit of a wiseacre? Bit of an oddball, for sure. He chose to ignore the remarks.

“I suppose it serves to further confirm an impression I’ve had of late that I don’t really know much about myself. I’m twenty-five years of age and yet sometimes when I look in the mirror it’s as if I’m seeing a stranger there. How much do I understand myself? What am I capable of? Does one really get to know oneself?”

“Know oneself?” Schroder felt something funny coming his way but managed to stifle another loud and sudden laugh by placing his left hand over his mouth. “All the holy men in history have spent their lives trying to get to know themselves, and here you are, an intemperate nonentity skulking in a dark corner of nowhere, worrying about not knowing yourself at twenty-five. You’re familiar with the famous last words attributed to Jesus Christ on the cross?”

‘Famous last words’ was one of those phrases which Henry found irresistible, regardless of circumstances.

“‘Oh Allah! Pardon my sins. Yes, I come.’ No? Silly me, It couldn’t have been. That was Mohammed, peace be upon him. And it couldn’t have been ‘Is that you Dora?’ Because I’m pretty sure that was croaked by one of the great poets. And it certainly wasn’t ‘Kiss me, Hardy.’ Ha, ha, ha. No, It was something like ‘Let down the curtain, the farce is over.’ But it wasn’t, because it was Rabelais who came out with that one.”

“Most amusing, Mr Fuckit. But to get back to Jesus, it’s quite clear from his final question that even HE was afflicted with self-doubt. He too must have been surprised at himself after all that build-up!”

“Yes, I see what you mean. I’m not alone. It should be a comfort to know I’m in such illustrious company. But I’m afraid it doesn’t really do anything to settle this growing unease that I feel. It’s a kind of whimpering inside me.”

He fell silent and Schroder waited patiently, sensing the young man’s need to ameliorate his anguish by describing it from every angle. Henry, however, was hesitating before launching into a lengthy monologue. He was mindful of the exasperation he had detected in Harry Bergson’s voice the last time they had spoken. “Henry,” he had said, ushering him from the office, “there’s nothing I can do to help this internal whimpering, whining and winging of yours. I’ve told you a hundred times what I think: you are in need of spiritual revitalisation. It could happen tomorrow, or it might be years before you experience an awakening. In the meantime I must get on with the task of tracking down the central source of Oxyastonishing energy flows.” That had been more than three weeks ago. He decided to spare the Chief VO a conducted tour of his tortured soul.

“The whimpering inside me,” he continued, “Is probably the result of mental and physical, not to mention emotional, exhaustion caused by overwork. I repeat: OVERWORK. That unrelenting tyrant, Alf Whitehead, is to blame for my condition. It’s a good job I insisted on a transfer from Central Store to Verification. Otherwise I dread to think what would have become of me. A complete breakdown culminating in suicide, probably.”

It was common knowledge in the Dockyard that Alf Whitehead had threatened to shoot himself if Henry Fuckit were to return to Central Store after his expedition to South West Africa. He had also made it clear that before shooting himself he would first shoot Fuckit.

“Yes, that man’s a total maniac. Completely off his rocker. And a brain the size of a pea.”

Ivan Schroder could be relied on as the staunchest of allies in any verbal attack on the said Whitehead. It was Schroder who had been assistant to A. W. before Henry took up the post five years ago, and the two men had rowed bitterly over the interpretation of time. Schroder had been forced out on the assertion that the Morgan’s Pomade with which he plastered his greying hair was causing the Senior Stores Officer to come out in an allergic reaction. Instant anaphylaxis at the faintest whiff of Morgan’s Pomade. Agitation, flushing, heart palpitations, tingling, prickling, itching, a throbbing in the ears, coughing, sneezing and wheezing. All at the same time. It suddenly occurred to Henry that the man sitting opposite him had just raked his fingers through a dark head of hair entirely devoid of grey. Funny it had never struck him before. Five years ago he was greying. There were three possible explanations. Had Morgan’s Pomade lived up to the extravagant claims on the bottle? Had the ageing effect of constant attrition been the root cause of depigmentation, and had the removal of the cause allowed for rejuvenation? No. It was more likely the man was dyeing his hair black. Huh! The long hair raked back off the forehead. The Brylcream. Must be a potent streak of vanity in him. Henry was entertaining some doubts concerning this man. Could signify a sexual perversion, this. Probably indulges in a bit of sodomy in his spare time. Hairless young fellows with narrow hips and tight balls. Or flagellation? Henry summoned up a vision of a woman in boots and military helmet wielding a long whip.

“Mister Fuckit? Mister Fuckit! You seem distracted.”

“Ahh, yes. Yes, quite so. As I was saying, or rather, as you were saying, brain the size of a pea. Mmm. Yes, I’m quite prepared to assist you in your important research which involves quantum mechanics, as I understand it, as well as some squeamish business with cats. Sounds most intriguing. And it’ll be a relief to get away from those degenerate colleagues of mine. As long as the work isn’t too demanding. Please bear in mind the fragility of my constitution.”

“Don’t worry. Although this research work will one day result in a profound shift in the way the international scientific and philosophical communities view their separate disclipines, it could hardly be called burdensome work. It’s the ideas which we are concerned with, not the physical work expended in attempting to illustrate the veracity of our suppositions. Do I make myself clear? If it’s a good idea it will stand on its own two feet anyway, without having to be propped up by volumes and volumes of explanation, hypothetical conjecture, experimental shenanigans, spurious conclusions and co-masturbatory congratulations. Ninety-nine percent of our work can be accomplished whilst reclining in a comfortable armchair. Once the concept has been formulated it is up to the acolytes to pounce, seize the idea, bear it on high, and proceed with the sedulous labour. They must explain, proclaim, and disseminate. That’s the thankless work. We don’t have to have anything to do with that.”

Henry nodded his head thoughtfully. The man’s enthusiasm was infectious. And he found the ‘comfortable armchair’ analogy most alluring. In the past month he had not been required to over-extend himself. He was prepared to concede this, cautiously. It had been a month of orientation mostly, and he had only verified one item in the course of the four weeks. He had chosen the item carefully after perusing many a ledger and after much deliberation. The foreman of the Heavy Plate Shop had led the way to the centre of the workshop, raised his eyes to the steel roof trusses high above them and pointed with a theatrical gesture reminiscent of the one employed by Cecil John Rhodes when designating which corner of Southern Africa should be plundered next.

“There she is,” he had declared with pride. “Crane – gantry type – complete with 25 ton hoisting mechanism – 2 synchronised electric motors for self-propulsion – 2 by 120 metre steel tracks. As per the description in the inventory.” Henry had viewed the towering machine from different angles and then called for a welder’s chipping hammer. In due course the hammer was placed in his hand and he tapped one of the steel uprights, listening attentively.

“Alright. No evidence of fatamorganic distortion or unauthorised metallurgical debasement.” And he had handed back the tool, noting with satisfaction the open-mouthed bafflement on the faces around him. Then he had required the foreman to climb the service ladder and call out the number stencilled on the winch housing. Fortunately for the foreman this number tallied with the one in the ledger and Henry was able to pencil a tick next to the entry. All present sighed with relief. The gantry crane had not been stolen, mislaid, lost or destroyed. Back in the Verification Office he had poured himself a coffee cup of Vrotters, lit his pipe and put his feet on the desk, content with a job well done. And that was enough for the first month.

“So you’re at loggerheads with the other chaps in the team, are you? That’s unfortunate.” Schroder felt it his duty to familiarise himself with what was going on in the Verification Office, even though his real interest lay in quantum mechanics and an entirely different type of verification.

“Well, no, not exactly. Can’t say I’m at loggerheads with them. It’s just that we don’t seem to have anything in common. Their interests are so commonplace, their opinions so bigoted and inconsequential, their emotions so shallow and inappropriate, that I view their behaviour as childish to a degree verging on the infantile.” And to illustrate his point Henry described an incident which had occurred on the previous Friday.

The last two hours of the day, from afternoon tea until the final siren, were regarded as playtime in the Verification Office, especially on a Friday. Noughts and Crosses, Battleships, Hangman, Matches, Rock-Paper-Scissors – any game which could be played at one’s workstation without detection in the event of a surprise inspection by Commodore van der Rektum of the Productivity and Diligence Branch. And in addition to games there were pranks, which were more dangerous.

One of the stock tricks played by Young Tommy was to leave the room and, from an adjoining office, phone Old Tommy. When Old Tommy picked up the phone and said “Verification Office,” a voice would say something like “Wake up, you old cunt.” Or, “This is your Captain speaking. Gaan kak in die mielies!” Old Tommy never failed to be irritated and the other degenerates always fell about laughing.

On the Friday afternoon Henry was referring to, the phone rang just after three o’ clock. Young Tommy was out of the room. Old Tommy snatched up the instrument, shouted “Go pull your wire!” and slammed it down. A minute later hurried footsteps were heard in the corridor. They all jerked into working stances, pulling ledgers over dirty magazines and games they were busy with. (Henry had been reading Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Philosophical Investigations’, and finding them as dull as ditchwater.) The door burst open and Commodore van der Rektum stood glaring from one miscreant to the next. He had worked himself into a rage and was spitting venom – BAIE GIFTIG. He demanded to know who had answered the phone. Fortunately, Captain White had the presence of mind to take charge and declared that he had put down the receiver just as Sir opened the door. (Captain White was the ex-skipper of an ill-fated fishing trawler which had sunk under mysterious circumstances whilst trying to enter Durban Harbour shortly after rounding Cape Point. Damn Admiralty charts!)

“A spot of trouble down at the Machine Shop you know, Sir. The foreman was having difficulty in accounting for two items without numbers on them. All in order now though, Sir, thank you.”

The wind was taken out of the sails of the vessel of vengeance. The Commodore spluttered ineffectually as the implication sank in: he must have had the wrong number. His bloodshot eyes seemed to be smouldering and his fists clenched spasmodically.

Again the telephone began to ring. He lunged for it, placed it against his ear and heard a loud and cheery voice say “This is the Admiral here. Pull your finger out, cocksucker!”

When Henry reached this climactic point in his relating of the incident Ivan Schroder threw back his head and brayed like a donkey. For a moment every tooth in his upper jaw was clearly displayed, as if inviting orthodontic examination.

“You know, two months ago I too would have been incontinent with laughter at this buffoonery.” Henry shook his head ruefully. “But I seem to be losing my sense of humour, and it worries me. Instead of laughing at the idiotic antics of my colleagues I gasp in fear. The future is beginning to terrify me. I ask myself, Is this what I have to look forward, to day in and day out, year after year? Is this all there is? I try to tell myself that this is merely an interlude and my life will change and become charged with meaning and interest. But I know I’m lying. Apart from the odd extraneous detail nothing will alter. This is the pattern, to be repeated over and over.” He slumped forward on the desk, head on hands, a picture of dejection.

“Haw-haw, ho-haw!” Schroder’s sudden loud laugh was quite different to his donkey mirth. That was “Hee-haw-haw, hee-haw-haw-haw!” Henry flinched and raised his head.

“For Christ’ sake. Now what?”

“Sorry, but you look just like the poor bugger in one of Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos aquatints. Maybe you know it. Number 43. The Sleep of Reason.”

Henry sat up. “La fantasia abandonada de la razon, produce monstruos impossibles. Do I know it, you ask me. My mate, all eighty of them are engraved upon my imagination. They have been catalogued and neatly stored in the archives of my memory, awaiting effortless retrieval at the twitch of a nerve. Certainly I know it, and it does indeed seem rather apposite right at the moment.” He already looked brighter, and as the moments passed he became increasingly animated and cheerful. It was as if the mention of Goya’s drawing had acted as a catalyst in his brain, causing a large quantity of neurotransmitter to be released. Now his head was abuzz with fusillades and barrages of synaptic firing, and he was suffused with a feeling of alertness and euphoria. This was better than amphetamines. Who needs Benzedrine when there’s Goya?

“Yes,” Schroder was looking at Henry with guarded interest. This fellow might turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help if his better qualities couldn’t be harnessed. ” ‘ Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters.’ The weird owl-bats and that huge cat. I suppose it’s a cat. But imagination allied with reason is the source of great wonders. I think we might have stumbled upon something here, young Fuckit. A rampant imagination, undirected and undisclipined, might be what you’re suffering from.”

“You think so, do you?” Henry was quite prepared to discuss his malaise and its origins. “You might be right, Sigmund. I must admit to spending much of my life in a world of fantasy. I always have, as far back as I can remember. It’s probably the reason why I’m such a misfit in the real world where one is required to ‘work for a living’. I can see from your general demeanour that you’re about to make a recommendation. How do you suggest I get my imagination under control? Has it anything to do with quantum mechanics?”

Schroder grinned toothily and admitted his thoughts were camped in that area. But he needed more time to formulate his ideas.

“Anyway,” he said, “it’s already Thursday and there’s no point in starting something so important right at the end of a week.” He rose to his feet and Henry reluctantly followed his example. “Have a nice restful weekend and we can start fresh on Monday”.

As he made his way back to the Verification Office he could feel the exuberance, burning fiercely only a few minutes ago, beginning to gutter and die down. He resolved to take the train to Cape Town on Saturday morning and visit the art library. He was in need of stimulation.

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

August 28, 2010

francis bacon and william burroughs

Filed under: art,just good friends,literature — ABRAXAS @ 1:37 pm

August 26, 2010

man bitch: johan van wyk interviewed by judith coullie

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,poetry — ABRAXAS @ 10:02 am

published in “selves in question: interviews on southern african auto/biography”, edited by Judith Coullie, Stephan Meyer, Thengani Ngwenya, and Thomas Olver, University of Hawai Press, Honolulu,2006, isbn-13: 978-0-8248-3047-2

August 25, 2010

fred de vries reviews “hectic!”

Filed under: 2002 - hectic!,literature,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 10:50 pm

August 24, 2010

kathy acker

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 2:29 pm

chris dunton reviews uselessly

Filed under: 2006 - uselessly,literature,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 9:29 am

buy uselessly now (in south africa)

ISBN 1-77009-100-9
published by JACANA


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:24 am

From The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

He climbed the stairs to his room. Olympia Residentia, Kalk Bay. Five years now he had been climbing these filthy stairs to the dark and airless corridor. The foyer and stairs were never swept. Cigarette butts and spent matches mingled with dust and grit, and the southeaster blew scraps of paper in from the street. They whirled in an eddy and were sucked out again. The stairwell smelt of rancid cooking oil from the fish and chips shop and there was the sharp sour stink of cats’ piss.

He let himself into his room and shoved the door closed behind him. He immediately saw the cat curled up on the bed. Fuck it, he had left the balcony door on its hook. They stared at one another for a moment and then both moved. He sprang to the door, knocked aside its hook, and slammed it shut. Thin and mangy and grey, it crouched in a corner, a miserable specimen, a useless failure of a creature. A cold, unstoppable hatred welled up in him. He sought about for a weapon. There was only the straight-backed wooden chair. He picked it up, raised it, advanced on the cat. It cowered for an instant and then leapt sideways across the room. As it tried to climb the wall he swung the chair against it and it fell to the floor, screeching and hissing. One of the chairlegs had broken off. He picked it up and smashed it down on the feline skull. He hit the animal several times until it stopped twitching.

He felt warmer after the exercise and lay down on the bed as the light began to fade.

When it was dusk outside and dark in the room he roused himself, feeling stiff and cold. He turned on the light, it was after seven. Glancing at the cat in the corner he wondered what to do with it. Out on the balcony the wind was blowing without pity. In the street below Basil’s lorry revved, its indicator lights flashing, waiting to feed into the evening traffic. Swinging it by its tail, he sent the dead cat sailing out in an arc to land amongst the empty crates as the vehicle pulled away.

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

August 23, 2010

A South African Nation?

Filed under: andile mngxitama,literature,politics — ABRAXAS @ 4:38 pm

‘[South Africa's] past [is] a paradise lost that nobody wants to go back to,’ says Lewis Nkosi, a South-African writer based in Switzerland

Depite Mandela’s ‘Rainbow Nation’, Lewis Nkosi, a South-African writer based in Switzerland, claimed that the people of South-Africa cannot be described as a nation. “The idea is so unfamiliar, so very astonishing even in contemplation, that the existence of a South African nation, rainbow-coloured or not, is like some rumour that has yet to be confirmed,” said Nkosi. Referring to the past as a paradise lost that nobody wants to go back to, he quoted Jonathan Steinwand, who claimed that “nations make use of nostalgia in the construction of national identity” and pointed out that the South-African novel, for one thing, has traditionally been homeless and characterized by a striking lack of nostalgia. “Until now the principal expression of our South African literary culture has been a novel of refusal and resistance, apartheid its particular cross and its affliction,” said Nkosi.

first published here

fred de vries reviews johan van wyk’s “man bitch”

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 1:00 am

August 21, 2010

Koekemakranke: die pad van Vernie February (1938-2002)

Filed under: literature,vernie february — ABRAXAS @ 6:06 pm

Erik van den Bergh and C.J.M. Kraan (eds.)
Leiden: African Studies Centre, 2004.


This publication has been put together in memory of Vernie February, a former ASC staff member, who died in November 2002. It consists of a comprehensive bibliography and of contributions written especially for this book by some of his friends. The main section is made up of Vernie’s own writings, some previously published, some not, and includes, amongst others, the columns he wrote for Die Suid-Afrikaan under the titles ‘Brief van ‘n Bolandse balling’ and ‘Hulle pad het myne gekruis’, and also some poems. The main article and the one that provides the book’s title, ‘Koekemakranke’, is published for the first time here. The volume gives a good impression of Vernie as a scholar, a poet and an exile from his beloved South Africa – the country where, at the time of his death, he was planning to settle permanently.

August 20, 2010

joan hambidge reviews johan van wyk’s “man bitch”

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 4:05 pm

on good writing

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 10:26 am

I more-than-half suspect that all “good” writing, or all prose and poetry that one wants to read more than once, proceeds from a kind of “alteration in consciousness,” i.e. a kind of controlled schizophrenia. [Don't become alarmed -- I think good acting comes from the same place.]

Robert Anton Wilson

August 19, 2010

johan van wyk

Filed under: johan van wyk,literature,poetry — ABRAXAS @ 2:00 pm

Johan van Wyk was born in Jansen Street, in the suburb Dagbreek of the mining town, Welkom in 1956. The family moved to Mozambique in about 1968, and he continued his schooling at Bothashof in Salisbury (now Harare), Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The family returned to South Africa around 1972/3 and he enrolled as a first year at the Rand Afrikaans University in 1974. He changed to study at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1975, leaving the university at the end of 1976, fleeing the country as objector to military service. His first volume of poetry Deur die oog van die luiperd was published in 1976. He lived in Swaziland in a tent for a few months and was arrested during a return to his parents farm in 1977. He was in military prison3 for a day and during a breakdown was taken to the military hospital where he was for a few weeks. He was returned to prison where he eventually agreed to join the army, knowing that without basic training he would be sent back home, which would give him the opportunity to seek outside help from psychologists and enroll at the university again. He was eventually discharged from military duty based on his psychological condition. He returned to university and completed his BA and Hons degree. He then enrolled at Rhodes University for an MA degree, which was eventually changed into a Ph.D. The MA had as its topic Die dood, die minnaar en die Oedipale Struktuur in die Ingrid Jonker-teks. His second (Heldedade kom nie dikwels voor nie 1978 ) and third volumes of poetry (Bome gaan dood om jou 1981) appeared. He was appointed as a junior lecturer in Afrikaans at the University of Durban-Westville in 1983. He left in 1988 and was appointed again in 1990. In 1989 he compiled, with Pieter Conradie and Nic Konstandaras, the anthology SA in poësie/ SA in poetry. After returning to the University of Durban-Westville, he soon became the director of the newly established Center for the study of Southern African literature and languages until promoted to the position Head of the School of Languages. In 1996 his fourth volume Oë in ‘n kas: Aantekeninge van ‘n onbewuste appeared. He married Elizabeth Brazelle Grobler in 1985 and had two children, Andreas and Katrina, with her. He also has a child, Tembelani, with Spilile Ndlela. His English novel Man Bitch (2001) is about the people of the Point Area, in Durban. He had a stroke in 2002, and about two months later was attacked in his flat by a lover. His output diminished dramatically after this. The photo book Trollop slaap te veel was published belatedly in 2006.

more info about johan van wyk on his website

ben okri discusses his approach to writing

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 10:22 am

in translation: walter benjamin on the task of the translator

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:59 am

“The intentional, innermost relationship between languages is that of a particular convergence. It consists in the fact that languages are not ‘foreign’ to one another but instead are a priori and regardless of any historical links related to one another in what they are trying to say.

“The task consists in finding in the language into which the work is being translated the intention on the basis of which, in the translation, the echo of the original will be struck.

“A proper translation is transparent, it does not cover up the original, does not stand in its light; instead it permits pure language, as it were reinforced through its own medium, to fall the more fully on the original.

“To redeem that pure language that is banished into otherness in one’s own language, to release the language held prisoner in the work by rewriting it – that is the task of the translator.

“As the tangent touches the circle fleetingly and only at a single point, and as that contact (though not that point) is prescribed for it by the law in accordance with which it continues its straight course into infinity, so the translation touches the original fleetingly and only at that vanishingly small point of sense before (obedient to the law of fidelity) pursuing its unique course in the freedom of linguistic usage.”

Benjamin then quotes Rudolf Pannwitz, a beautiful passage without punctuation:

“the fundamental mistake of the person translating is to set the fortuitous state of his own language in stone instead of letting the foreign language shift it by force, particularly when translating from an extremely remote language he must push his way back to the ultimate elements of language itself where word image tone merge into one he must widen and deepen his language with the foreign language people have no idea how far this is possible”

August 18, 2010


Filed under: johan van wyk,literature — ABRAXAS @ 12:45 pm

Shanta Reddy takes a look at the book behind the scandal as author Johan van Wyk receives death threats for his controversial novel, Man-Bitch.

For months, much of Durban’s intellectual community has been gripped by battered photocopied versions of an unpublished novel by the respected Afrikaans poet, Johan van Wyk. And the word has been spreading. Book shops have asked Van Wyk to read from his book and the country’s leading writers have been knocking on Van Wyk’s door. The book, Man-Bitch, is an account of Van Wyk’s relationships with a number of black women, some of whom take money in return for his love. A Sunday newspaper recently published an article sensationalising Van Wyk and his novel. He has since received death threats and there have been strident calls from certain quarters for his dismissal from his post at the University of Durban-Westville.

So here’s an author who loves sex – no problem. In true red-blooded hormone-bursting style, he’s attracted to beautiful and sexy women – nothing wrong with that. He wants to be loved for who he is – nothing out of the ordinary. He can barely exercise control over his spending – with the weak rand and the high cost of living who can? He’s outgrown his parents – don’t we all at some stage? He’s middle-aged and balding – no cause for concern.

So why the self-righteous outrage at this Man-Bitch? The answer is multi-layered and interwoven. But it starts with the fact that Van Wyk is white and Afrikaans-speaking and many of the beautiful, sexy African women, with whom he associates are members of the world’s oldest profession.

Van Wyk is uncomfortable with the words “prostitute” or “sex worker” and the layers of stereotypes and connotations they invoke.
Likewise, the easy association of an Afrikaans-speaking male with the routine Christ-worshipping, apartheid-supporting persona persists for many of us. It’s as crisp and clear as any other stereotype.

Like the common assumption that poor Africans and women who have sex for money (and especially poor African women who have sex for money) are filthy, disease-ridden and immoral. We might acknowledge their presence but they are South Africa’s untouchable caste.

It is also difficult to separate the artist from the work of art. How, we wonder, lying on our hire-purchased Sealy Posturepedic, can a middle class, Afrikaans-speaking university professor and father of two abandon his home and family in Glenwood to live in a seedy building in Gillespie Street, even if it is a declared monument? Why does he spend more time with the children of his streetwalker lovers than with his own flesh and blood? Where did good education and religion go wrong? The questions don’t stop pricking at the bourgeois balloon.

Then there are the images, created with cinematic clarity that a reader must deal with: the worms that tickle his arse, the maggots in his fridge. His descriptions are sometimes crass and vile, but they are relentlessly honest. He refuses to seek refuge in middle class euphemism. He is never politically correct nor boorish – reare and exquisite attributes in any man. More so in a professor.

But what do we do with these images? How do we become reconciled with the idea of a man who has chosen this life?

For me the images are purified by their spontaneity. Van Wyk’s attention never waivers from detail of the here and now – this Durban, this cockroach, this orgasm. What remains however, is the truth that while he has freed himself from suburban regime, he is still in a state of unfreedom.

He is caught between desire for a conformist relationship with a woman (he wants to be the sole provider; the only man in her life, the master to whom she must explain the spending of money and the time she spends away from him – ironically killing the sense of freedom which he found appealing in the first place) and a greater and more absolute defiance of the role that conventional morality has assigned to him (father, pedagogue, wise man, white.)

His thoughts oscillate between the freedom he has earned and the indecision that weighs him down as a result of that freedom. He floats around in a haze of depressed anxiety, awaiting the bounty that sexual and moral liberation is supposed to bring.

His exasperation sometimes courts death (“Then I went to bed lying curled up in the dark and crying, muttering “It would be good to be dead, but how to get there?”). One gets the sense, sometimes, that he cannot deal with this vertigo of freedom.

But it’s not all bleak. Van Wyk is immensely entertaining. The cling-wrapped penis episode is an eye opener (apparently it’s better than a Viagra-condom combo: it’s cheaper; stays on longer; allows for prolonged pleasure and is an excellent contraceptive). What more could the new, improved globalised South Africa want?

Despite the book’s title, it’s not all about sex. The women who trade their bodies for money exist on more complex levels than we are prepared to acknowledge.


They fight to realise the same aspirations and dreams that the average home-owner merely steps into by accident of birth. They are intelligent, street-wise and more in touch with the Rainbow Nation than any politician. On the street, stories are told and lessons are taught more effectively than in any Outcomes-based education system. Man-Bitch takes the humanity of the “bitches” very seriously and I would venture that Van Wyk’s portrayal of them is more dignified than the unctuous and paternalistic studies one gets from well-meaning but antiseptic university researchers.

The book is profoundly and powerfully philosophical. Without uttering a phrase of economics, it’s one of the most powerful critiques of our economic system I have ever encountered. Van Wyk’s narrative wrenches the reader’s breath away. Man-Bitch is about more than a mid-life crisis. He hasn’t just abandoned his family, reputation and home in a secure neighbourhood in a search for sexual excitement. (Which, in any case, he doesn’t always sustain – the odd erectile dysfunction interrupts). He’s looking for meaning too. For wisdom, which he defines, with captivating eloquence, as “reason without institution”.

People are calling Man-Bitch everything from “sensationalist pornography” to “the best critique of neo-liberalism yet written” to “nothing more or less than art”. Because it is necessary to separate the author and the protagonist (in order to read without stereotypical prejudices) and to unite them (in order to fully appreciate the philosophical impact of this book), the book unsettles easy judgements. But the message that burns so brightly is that our lives are not our own until we choose to disintegrate into who we want to be – irrespective of the consequences. Van Wyk has done this. Our streets are filled with the living dead but Van Wyk has defended the life of his soul.

Sensational it may be, but that’s not reason enough to discard it as cheap pornography. We listen to rap artists and rock stars chant the words “bitch, fuck, devil, whore” and don’t bat an eyelid. We see pornography on soapies but don’t turn the telly off. His expressions are sometimes grammatically incorrect and simple. His lovers cannot converse fluently in English. Yet, admirably, his challenge to conformity rears its head again when he includes their compositions in Man-Bitch.

Insofar as shocking but widely read literature goes, Man-Bitch can be compared to the likes of Lolita, Incest, Tropic of Cancer and the depraved masterpiece The Story of O. Lolita was banned. Tropic of Cancer was not published in America until it became a worldwide best-seller. Incest was not published until after Nin’s death, for fear of reprisals. We don’t cast aspersions on any of these books and now we call them literature.

We may be unable to fathom the reasons for Van Wyk’s exclusive attraction to African women. It may be foreign to what our institutionalised, pro-forma thought process would make us accept as proper, righteous and moral.

“Progressive” women I’ve spoken to scoff at this professor’s attraction to African women. They concede that physical beauty plays a role, but argue that one can only be attracted to an intellectual equal. Both the assumption of an intellectual imbalance and the blindness to communication beyond language, and beyond English, sentence many of us to being foreigners in our own country and in our own bodies. Other critics point to the obviously exploitative nature of his buying the “love” of women in need.

What this Man-Bitch brings home is that the words “sexy” and “beautiful” are both relative and fluid. Van Wyk challenges, yet again, the Western idea of beauty. For him the image of an appealing woman is different to the image historically forced onto him and also something which changes over time.

Man-Bitch is a record of a man’s journey through the barriers of convention. It is inspiring and jolting. I was jarred and unsettled for days after the first reading. The second reading focused me on the reality that our only duty is the duty to be free.

It is absurd that no publisher has yet had the courage to publish this book and sad that the public is missing out on an honestly written and truly remarkable story of a spirit that is at one with conformicide.

this article first published here

August 17, 2010

henry miller on new york

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 11:07 pm

Obituary: Ernst Junger

Filed under: bo cavefors,literature — ABRAXAS @ 10:41 pm

by james Kirkup

Wednesday, 18 February 1998

ERNST JUNGER first beheld Halley’s Comet during its 1910 passage, when he was a boy of 15. In 1987, he made a special journey to Malaysia for a second glimpse. He was one of the very few writers to have seen the comet twice in his lifetime.

All this is described in Zwei Mal Halley (“Halley Twice”, 1988), a book filled with Junger’s characteristic meditations on time and place, on dreams, nature, crystals, stars, mountains, the sea, wild animals and insects, especially butterflies, a passion he shared with Nabokov. Throughout his very considerable body of work, there is an obsession with time, with dates, with temporal coincidences, with the fatidic power of numbers over our birth and death. In a volume of his journals covering the years 1965- 70, Siebzig verweht (“Past Seventy”, 1980), he makes this revealing entry at Wilfingen, his home between the Danube and the Black Forest, in sight of the castle of Stauffenberg, on 30 March 1965:

I have now reached the biblical age of three score and ten – a rather strange feeling for a man who, in his youth, had never hoped to see his 30th year. Even after my 23rd birthday in 1918, I would gladly have signed a Faustian pact with the Devil: “Give me just 30 years of life, guaranteed, then let it all be ended.”

A similar expression of his fascinated awe of time and numbers appears in an earlier work, An der Zeitmauer (“At the Wall of Time”, 1959). But one of the most extraordinary examples of this obsession can be found in a journal entry for “Monday, 8.8.1988″ -

a date with four units. 8 is special (four 8′s, and a fifth one by subtracting the 1 from the 9). Odin rides an 8-legged horse . . . Dates have often brought me surprises.

One of his many hobbies was the collection of antique sandglasses, on which he was an authority. He also collected sundial inscriptions.

Ernst Junger’s birth at Heidelberg is recorded precisely. It fell on 29 March 1895 on the stroke of noon, under Aries, with Cancer in the ascendant. He was the eldest of seven children, one of whom, his beloved brother Friedrich Georg (who died in 1977), was also a writer, a poet and philosopher.

Junger spent the greater part of his childhood and adolescence in Hanover, where his prosperous parents settled shortly after his birth. They possessed a beautiful villa by a lake, where Ernst made his first entomological investigations. He soon developed a dislike for bourgeois life, and spent a couple of unhappy years in boarding schools, whose reports complain of his dreaminess and lack of interest in the boring curriculum. He was later to write:

I had invented for myself a sort of distancing indifference that allowed me to remain connected to reality only by an invisible thread like a spider’s.

He spent hours reading unauthorised books, and with his brother lived in an exalted universe of their own. They would go wandering round the countryside, and Ernst struck up happy friendships with tramps and gypsies. He was already the Waldganger (wild man of the woods), the anarchist hero of his 1977 novel Eumeswil.

It was the beginning of an unending passion for travel and exotic lands. He took the first big step in 1913 by running away from home to join the Foreign Legion, in which he saw service in Oran and Sidi-Bel-Abbes. After five weeks, his father bought him out. Ernst was to write about this escapade in Kinderspielen (“Children’s Games”, 1936). His father promised that if he passed his Abitur (school-leaving examination) he would be allowed to join an expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro. So Junger swotted away at the Gildermeister Institut, whose grim atmosphere is evoked in Die Steinschleuder (“The Catapult”, 1973), a novel in the great tradition of German school stories.

Junger passed his exam in August 1914 and at once volunteered for the army, in which he fought on the French front with exceptional courage all through the First World War. Wounded four times, he received the highest German military honour, the Order of Merit created by Friedrich II: he outlived all those who also received it. Out of his wartime experiences was born Stahlgewittern (“Storm of Steel”, 1920), which he had to publish at his own expense. This story of the horrors of modern warfare was drawn from his wartime notebooks, often written in the heat of battle on the Western Front. It remains one of the greatest works about the First World War, along with those by Erich Maria Remarque, Henri Barbusse, e.e. cummings, David Jones and Lucien Descaves.

Junger stayed in the army until 1923, when he left and began studying zoology at the University of Leipzig and at Naples. He married Gretha von Jeinsen and his son Ernst was born in 1926. In 1927 they moved to Berlin, where he became a member of the national revolutionary group led by Niekisch (arrested by Hitler in 1937 and kept in a concentration camp until the end of the Second World War). He also got to know Ernst von Salomon, Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Toller and Alfred Kubin, as well as the publisher Rowohlt. He began travelling widely, to Sicily, Rhodes, the Dalmatian coast, Norway, Brazil and the Canaries, and made the acquaintance of Andre Gide in Paris. These travels had a great influence on all his writings, most noticeable in his superb novel Heliopolis (1949) – the most elegantly learned, eloquently written and hauntingly convincing science- fiction story ever written.

Goebbels tried in vain to draw him into the ranks of the Nazi hierarchy in 1931, and he refused to be elected to the German Academy of Letters because it was dominated by national socialist timeservers. In 1932 Junger produced a very significant book, Der Arbeiter (“The Worker”), which is nevertheless one of his least-known works. It was long out of print until Martin Heidegger, himself besmirched with Nazi collaboration, persuaded him to risk letting it be reissued in 1963. It presents the mythical figure of standardised modern man as “The Worker” whose pragmatism and nihilism destroy the old traditional categories of peasant, soldier and priest, foretelling an unprecedented reversal of temporal power in our collapsing cultures where an intellectual and artistic elite has no place.

Related to this theme is a later work, Das Aladdinproblem (1983), in which he asks who will rub the magic lamp of destructive science and dehumanising technology: “With the heavens empty, we live in the Age of Uranium: how can we believe our modern Aladdin’s lamp will not produce some unimaginable monster?”

Der Arbeiter is also an important theoretical study of the political history of the Thirties in Germany, and has been considered by critics like Georg Lukacs and Walter Benjamin to have been the ideological matrix of national-socialist ideas. But Junger’s links with national socialism were infinitely complex. He was a serving officer, partisan of the revolutionary right, a sort of conservative anarchist, hostile to the Weimar Republic, yet he refused all honours and promotions.

Unable to bear the rising tide of Hitlerism, he left Berlin for the quiet of the countryside at Kirchhorst, where in February 1939 he began the painful drafting of Auf den Marmorklippen. Its anti-Nazi tone is obvious, but the book was published in September, the month war was declared. On the Marble Cliffs was part of my wartime reading, and I well remember the excitement it caused when the translation was published by John Lehmann just after the war.

With the outbreak of war, Junger was given the rank of captain and took part in the invasion of France, during which he did his utmost to spare civilians and protect public monuments. Posted to Paris, he became a well- known figure in the literary salons of the time like the Thursday reunions of artists and writers at Florence Gould’s. He made good friends of authors like the acid-tongued critic Leautaud and above all Marcel Jouhandeau, whose scholarly ease and wit in writing seemed to Junger exceptional at a time of growing artistic barbarity. Even after their condemnation for collaboration with the Nazis, Junger praised the characters and writings of Chardonne, Celine (whom he did not like), Brasillach and Drieu de la Rochelle, while his admiration for Cocteau, Sasha Guitry and actresses like Arletty was as sincere as that for artists like Braque and Picasso, whose studios he frequented.

His journals of this period are studded with all these famous names. However, he was indirectly implicated in Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944, and requested to leave the army and return home to Kirchhorst, where he spent the rest of the war, composing a text on Die Friede (“Peace”). His son Ernst, in prison for opposition to Hitler, was despatched to the Italian front and killed on 29 November in the marble quarries at Carrara by Allied snipers.

After German defeat and capitulation, despite his firm denials of having supported Nazism, Junger encountered the shrill hostility of Marxist and so-called liberal critics who accused him of being its predecessor. They even criticised his scholarly, noble, refined style, calling it frigid, elitist and academic.

He writes of his experiments with drugs in Annaherungen (“Approaches”, 1970), influenced by Aldous Huxley’s works on the same subject. He finally settled at Wilfingen in the house of the Master Forester attached to the ancestral home of his executed friend Graf Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, where in 1959 he founded the literary review Antaios with Mircea Eliade. By 1977, his father, mother, brother and wife had all died. He remarried, taking as his wife Liselotte Lohrer, a professional archivist and literary scholar.

All through the Seventies and Eighties Junger travelled widely. In 1979, he visited Verdun and was awarded the town’s Peace Medal. In 1982 he received a final literary consecration with the award of the City of Frankfurt’s Goethe Prize, which aroused violent protest among his detractors. In 1984, he again made a pilgrimage to Verdun, with Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President Francois Mitterrand to pay homage to the victims of two world wars.

In 1992, there was extraordinary confirmation of Junger’s anti-Nazi stance with the discovery of a top secret document proving that his fate was in the balance just before the Third Reich’s capitulation and during the final days Hitler spent in the Wolfs-Schanze, the very headquarters where he was wounded by the Stauffenberg bomb.

The document is dated December 1944. It is addressed by Dr Freisler, president of the Volksgericht (People’s Court) to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s right-hand man. Freisler informs Bormann that the proceedings to be taken against Captain Junger are to be cancelled. Junger had been indicted on account of his novel On the Marble Cliffs and the “defeatist” opinions he had expressed at his old colleague Commandant Stulpnagel’s HQ in Paris, not long before the latter’s suicide. Freisler reveals that on 20 November 1944 the Fuhrer himself had given the order by telephone from the Wolfs- Schanze that the matter was not to be pursued any further. Freisler ends his letter with “Heil Hitler!”, then adds a postscript: “I am sending you three dossiers on the affair. The Fuhrer wishes to have his orders executed immediately.”

In his Journals, Junger notes that the Gestapo had described him at that period in Paris as “an impenetrable, highly suspect individual”. He comments in a 1992 interview:

It was no surprise to me. After all, it conformed to the pattern of my horoscope. Ever since my schooldays I’ve been accustomed to that kind of unpleasantness.

Ernst Junger’s work is all of a piece – highly literary, beautifully sonorous, excitingly visual, intellectually profound and stimulating. It is the life work of an aristocrat of letters, and one of the best tributes to it has been made by another literary patriarch, Julien Gracq:

The hard, smooth enamelling that seems to armour his prose against the touch of too great a familiarity would seem to us perhaps a little frigid if we did not know, and if we never lost consciousness of the fact while reading, that it has been tempered in an ordeal of fire.

That is a fitting eulogy for one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Ernst Junger, writer: born Heidelberg, Germany 29 March 1895; married 1925 Gretha von Jeinsen (died 1960; two sons deceased), 1962 Liselotte Lohrer; died Wilflingen, Germany 17 February 1998.

this article first published on independent.co.uk

lolita, nabokov & i by Maurice Girodias

Filed under: censorship,literature — ABRAXAS @ 6:22 pm

One day in the early summer of 1955, 1 received a call from a literary agent, a Russian lady by the name of Doussia Ergaz. She told me about an old friend of hers, a Russian émigré now a professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University. He had written a book with a rather dangerous theme which had, for that reason, been rejected by a number of prominent American publishers.

The man’s name was Vladimir Nabokov and his book, Lolita, dealt with the impossible amours of a middle-aged man with a girl of twelve who belonged to the seductive species for which Nabokov had invented the word “nymphet.”

I asked Madame Ergaz to send me the manuscript, which promptly turned up complete with a curriculum vitae in which I read:

“Born 1899, St. Petersburg, Russia. Old Russian nobility. Father eminent statesman of the Liberal group, elected member of the First Duma. Paternal grandfather State Minister of Justice under Czar Alexander 11. Maternal great grandfather President of Academy of Medicine.

“Education: Private School in St. Petersburg. Cambridge University (Trinity College), England. Graduated with Honors, 1922.

“Family escaped from Communist Russia in 1919. England, Germany, France.

“Acquired considerable fame in émigré circles as a novelist and poet,

“Married in 1925. One son, b. 1934. “Emigrated to the United States in 1940. Became an American writer. American citizen since 1945.

“Since 1940 taught literature at various American universities, combining this with a Research Fellowship in Entomology at the Museum of Comp. Zoology, Harvard (1942-48). Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University since 1948.

“Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing in 1943, and again in 1952.

“American Academy of Arts and Letters award in 1951.

“List of published works attached.”

There was a certain disarming naïveté in the writer’s insistence on such points as “father eminent statesman,” or the “considerable fame acquired in émigré circles,” which I found to be not devoid of charm, but I quickly succumbed to the much more compelling attraction of the book itself, which developed before me in its near absolute perfection. I was struck with wonder, carried away by this unbelievable phenomenon- the apparently effortless transposition of the rich Russia-n literary tradition into modern English fiction. This was, in itself, an exercise in genius; but the story was a rather magical demonstration of something about which I had so often dreamed, but never found: the treatment of one of the major forbidden human passions in a manner both completely sincere and absolutely legitimate. I sensed that Lolita would become the one great modern work of art to demonstrate once and for all the futility of moral censorship, and the indispensable role of passion in literature.

I immediately wrote Nabokov and we proceeded to negotiate a contract. I bowed to all the terms imposed on me, paid an advance much larger than I could afford at the time, and did not even insist on reserving for my firm a share of the eventual film rights, as is the usual practice. The truth of the matter is that I was delighted by the book itself, but I doubted that it had any of the qualities which make a best seller. Nabokov himself wrote to me that he would be deeply hurt if Lolita were to obtain a success de scandale: as the book had quite another meaning for him. He did not believe that it would ever be published in America, and he repeatedly expressed his gratitude for my acceptance of the book, as I had provided the only chance left for him ever to see it in print.

Madame Ergaz told me that Nabokov, somewhat frightened at first by the reaction of the American publishers to whom he had submitted it, was reluctant to let the book appear under his own name, and that she had had to use all her influence to make him change his mind. His career at Cornell was important to him, obviously, although he had written a number of books before, but they had all met with mediocre reception, and he did not believe that Lolita would ever pull him out of obscurity.

I wanted to print the book immediately, but, before I did, I decided that we had to obtain a number of changes from the author. On July 1, 1955, I wrote to Nabokov that the “excessive use of French sentences and words gives a slightly affected appearance to the text,” and submitted a list of suggested changes; to which he immediately responded by making numerous corrections on the proofs. I had hardly received the proofs back when Nabokov sent me a cable saying: “When is Lolita appearing. Worried. Please answer my letters…” – an entreaty which has been repeated so often in so many cables sent by so many authors to so many publishers…

Lolita appeared a few weeks later, in September 1955, but was not noticed or reviewed anywhere, and sold very poorly. It was only at the end of the next year things started to happen- strange things indeed. In an interview made by the London Times Literary Supplement, Graham Greene mentioned Lolita as one of the “three best books of the year.” That immediately provoked a demential reaction on the part of John Gordon, editor of the popular Daily Express, who accused Graham Greene and the Times of helping sell pornography of the lewdest variety. A very absurd and comical exchange followed-including even a very drunken public debate-in which Graham Greene fought gallantly and cleverly for the book; and the overall result of that commotion was to create a great deal of interest in Lolita among partisans and detractors, an infinitesimal number of whom had read the book. At the same time, I heard that one or two copies of Lolita, having been sent to persons residing in America, had been confiscated by the Customs, and then released after a few weeks, without any explanation. I decided to write to the New York Bureau of Customs to investigate, and received a rather miraculous letter signed by a Mr. Irving Fishman, Deputy Collector for the Restricted Merchandise Division, dated February 8, 1957, which said: “… You are advised that certain copies of this book have been before this Office for examination and that they have been released.” In lay language, that meant that the U.S. Customs had had the remarkable mental – and may I say political- courage of finding Lolita, a book printed in Paris by my disreputable publishing firm, admissible in the United States… That decision by one of the two Federal departments to exert moral censorship (the other being the post office) on literary material, was naturally of extreme importance: Lolita could now legitimately be published in America with practically no danger.

The third fact was of a less favorable nature at least at first sight. The British Government had several times already invoked the International Agreement on the Repression of Obscene Publications to prevail on the French Government to look into my publishing activities. Nothing much had been done about those requests by the French, until the dispute between Graham Greene and John Gordon in London gave new dimensions to the issue. More pressing demands were made on the Ministry of the Interior in Paris by the British Home Office which provoked the intervention of the French police. Lolita was thus banned in its English version by the French government (on December 20, 1956) only a few weeks before it was found to be no longer objectionable by the U.S. authorities.

My relations with Vladimir Nabokov and his wife Vera, who helped him in his work, had up to that point been remarkably courteous and pleasant, if sometimes a little strained, although we had never yet had occasion to meet. When I decided to fight the Lolita ban, my first thought was to ask for Nabokov’s help. I was rather surprised to receive a very adamant refusal to participate in what he called, with blithe unconcern, the “lolitigation.”

“My moral defense of the book is the book itself,” he wrote on March 10, 1957. “I do not feel under any obligation to do more…. On the ethical plane, it is of supreme indifference to me what opinion French, British, or any other courts, magistrates or philistine readers in general may have of my book. However, I appreciate your difficulties.”

Somewhere else he wrote: “I would very much prefer if you did not stress too much my being a professor at Cornell … I do not mind being referred to as a ‘university professor teaching literature in a great American university.’ But I would prefer you not to call Cornell by name…”

All Britain and all America were now aware of Lolita, and in the United States all the big publishers who had turned down Nabokov’s manuscript a few years before were biting their nails in chagrin. The prize was still there for any one of them to seize, but naturally there were quite a few bidders now, and the rights had to be bought from me, not from Nabokov. One publisher spontaneously offered a 20 percent royalty to get the book, but was then apparently frightened away by Nabokov’s attitude when he met him later in New York; and Nabokov’s attitude had indeed changed quite substantially as Lolita’s glory expanded on the horizon. There were no more haughty denunciations of the philistine masses coming from that supple pen, but only tortuous controversies over the terms of our agreement, which was now weighing heavily on Nabokov’s dreams of an impending fortune.

In spite of my disappointment at Nabokov’s indifference, I went on with my single-handed fight against the French authorities’ Progress was slow, as the case was most unusual, and to make the issue known to the French public I printed a pamphlet (L’Affaire Lolita) which elicited from Nabokov a volley of enthusiastic adjectives. Soon after, on August 3, he was still writing: “I shall always be grateful to you for having published Lolita.”

Alas, those were his last nice words to me. After that came more and more morose exchanges on the subject of the American publication of the book and I finally received a registered letter from Nabokov, dated October 5 of the same year “to declare the Agreement between us null and void.” I was already half prepared for that, but the shock was felt nevertheless. Nabokov’s excuse for his action was futile and ineffective, but our relationship was irreparably damaged by it, at a time when we should have been acting more than ever in close agreement. The bickering over the American contract became even more ludicrous since Nabokov had persuaded himself that he no longer had a contract with me.

At last I received a cable from Walter Minton, head of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, announcing: “Nabokov has agreed contract.” That was on February 11, 1958. A few days later I won my lawsuit against the Minister of the Interior: the ban was lifted … in France. Nabokov did not feel it necessary to acknowledge that event. In August, Putnam released their edition of Lolita, which immediately conquered the top place on the best seller list, to be dislodged only a few months later by Dr. Zhivago.

It was very gratifying, and I was receiving Minton’s crescendo reports of our successes with a feeling that I had really earned the right to relax a bit and enjoy life. But the more sales increased the more Nabokov remembered that he hated me for having stolen a portion of his property. His harassment was thorough and all-encompassing: he refused to let Putnam acknowledge my firm as first publisher of Lolita in their edition of the book; a new argument flared up over the British contract and Minton reported that Nabokov was again contemplating lawsuits (more lolitigation). I had made great plans based on my share of American royalties, but Minton was constantly writing to me that he could not pay me as agreed, due to the Nabokovs’ opposition: “They feel you did nothing to help the book and they think you have taken a lot of the royalties,” was his explanation (November 6, 1958).

I became so disgusted that I asked Nabokov to submit his ghostly grievances to arbitration. But after the British contract was signed with Weidenfeld and Nicolson, which was finally achieved when I agreed to pay Nabokov’s commission to his own agent out of my own pocket, Walter Minton again wrote to me (November 19, 1958): “I have also talked with Nabokov about the question of arbitrating your difficulties. I must confess I don’t think there is anything to arbitrate . . .” And a few days later (November 29, 1958): “Incidentally Mrs. Nabokov is highly suspicious of a tie-up between you and Weidenfeld even though I told her I picked him and you did not even meet him… Actually it is she, I think, who is at the bottom of most of the troubles between you and her husband. She is a lovely lady of a very actively suspicious turn of mind which just complements her husband’s…” Aye, aye, sir.

The next episode came when I wrote again to Nabokov on January 14, 1959, a long letter meant as an effort to dissolve the bad feelings, in which I said: – “I was greatly relieved to hear from Madame Ergaz that you see no point in the arbitration I suggested in order to eliminate the legal differences which seemed to persist between us…. Now that the legal aspect of that enigmatic conflict is happily settled, I would very much like to settle its other aspects. I am still at a loss to understand your reasons for so much resenting your association with me, and feel we should make a genuine effort to eliminate misunderstandings…” and concluded thus: “I admit that my satisfaction in having done my job well is marred by your attitude towards me. The only purpose of this letter is to ask you to think the matter over and to reconsider your judgement.” To this I received a twelve-line answer saying: “I have received your letter of January 14th. I am sorry that lack of time prevents my commenting upon it in detail…”

Three weeks later I received a letter from Minton chiding me for having given my agreement to sell the Israeli rights on Lolita to a man named Steimatzky. I had nothing to do with that as it had been Mrs. Nabokov herself who had insisted on having us offer the rights to Steimatzky. I said so but nobody thought of apologizing to me for that silly incident.

In France, since the advent of the Fifth Republic, the status of Lolita had again changed. The Minister of the Interior had appealed against the earlier judgment of the Administrative Tribunal lifting the ban, and had won an easy victory against me at the Conseil d’Etat: under a strong regime, you cannot win against the police. Lolita was again under a ban restricted in its application (by accident, I assume) to the English version as published by me. If strictly interpreted, it did not preclude the possibility of publishing a French version in France. The Librairie Gallimard- France’s foremost literary publishers-had bought the French rights long before, but they had been very hesitant to release the book, which had been translated by my brother, Eric Kahane. The release of the Putnam edition in America was a powerful argument which I used to convince Gallimard finally to publish the French version, which came out in April 1959.

I had asked Gallimard to mention in their version that my firm was the publisher of the original version, as this was very important to me in my litigation with the French government. Such an acknowledgment was a simple enough matter, but Nabokov heard of my request and opposed it violently. Gallimard’s editor, Michel Mohrt, wrote me on February 27, 1959, a pathetically embarrassed letter in which he quoted Nabokov: “You are mistaken in thinking that the French translation of Lolita has been made from the Olympia edition. This is not so. When last spring I prepared the Putnam edition I changed an entire paragraph in the Olympia edition and made several other corrections throughout the book…” Etc., etc.

I was descending the stairs of hell, feeling like the much-hated Quilty with the nuzzle of a maniacal revolver pointed at my back. However, I was still fighting. There was no way of appealing against the final judgment of the Conseil d’Etat and of having the ban lifted on the English version of the book by direct litigation: in its verdict, the Conseil had stated that the Minister of the Interior’s power not only to apply but even to interpret the law was absolute and could not be questioned even by the Conseil (a strange conclusion, incidentally, as the Conseil’s function is precisely to verify the lawful regularity of the government’s acts and decisions). But since the French version of Lolita had been authorized while my own English edition was still under a ban, I had yet another way open to me: to sue the government for damages, under the pretext that an unjust application of the law had been made, and that the republican principle of equality between citizens had been violated. Surprisingly, that worked. I was called to the Ministry of the Interior, and a compromise was proposed to me: the Minister was willing to cancel the ban if I agreed to withdraw my request for damages. I agreed and the ban was finally abrogated on July 21, 1959, signed by Mr. Maurice Bokanowski himself.

The ban had hardly been lifted in France on the English version when the Belgian government decided to forbid the sale of the French version on its own territory. Apparently, Gallimard was not in a hurry to do anything about that, and I took it upon myself to write to the Belgian Minister of the Interior, Mr. René Lefebvre, protesting against his decree. Mr. Lefebvre immediately responded to my request and wrote to me that he would look into the matter: the Belgian ban was in turn abrogated by royal decree a few weeks later.

A few days after that I received the visit of a Mr. Godemert, who acted as legal adviser to Gallimard. I knew him well, and he stated the reason for his visit with as straight a face as he could manage. Mr. Nabokov did not want to spend money on French lawyers, and had therefore asked Gallimard to see if there was any legal possibility of breaking his agreement with me. So, Godemert explained, in view of the fact that you know all the aspects of the case better than I do, I have come to ask you if you could please give me the elements of an answer, and suggest some method to attack you on Mr. Nabokov’s behalf.

We had a drink together, and I wrote to Nabokov (April 27, 1960): “I have just seen Mr. Godemert, Gallimard’s legal adviser, who came to ask on what grounds you could possibly sue me. I need hardly draw your attention to the irony of the situation,” etc.

Nabokov, meanwhile, had instructed his much-harassed agent, Doussia Ergaz, to suspend all payment to me of my share of certain foreign royalties due me as a result of our contract. I reciprocated by informing her that I would suspend payment of the royalties owed by my firm to Nabokov on our own edition. With mechanistic determination another registered letter soon issued from the tireless typewriter dated August 13, 1960, in which I was told: “I must call to your attention, therefore, that as a result of such failure and as provided in paragraph 8 of such Agreement, such Agreement between us, effective as of the last day of July, 1960, automatically became null and void and all rights therein granted reverted to me. I, therefore, demand that you immediately cease publication of Lolita and distribution and sale of any copies thereof,” etc., etc.

What could I do but patiently attempt to refute once again the fine legal metaphysics, and helplessly resort to the habitual conclusion of my letters to Vladimir Nabokov: “Allow me to say again how deeply I regret this turn of events, not only because it cannot, in the long run, fail to harm our mutual interests, but also because I consider your personal attitude to be profoundly unjust in view of my constant efforts in favor of a book which I have always admired…” Nabokov’s final consecration by the American Establishment had come in the form of a long panegyric in Life International of April 13, 1959, entitled “Lolita and the Lepidopterist” and announced by a large portrait of the author himself appearing on the cover in his butterfly-hunting costume, with the wily, innocent grin of the traditional Russian society clown painted on his face.

That article could have been conceived as a pastiche by a clever journalist of an article written for Life by Mr. Nabokov on Mr. Nabokov. In particular, the earlier career of Lolita is dismissed with a series of stylistic shrugs of strictly Nabokovian obedience but the distortion of facts was such that I sent a protest, which Life felt obliged to print in full (Life International, July 6, 1959), although they attempted to water down my pitiful true-life account of facts by framing it between two pieces of prose, the first being a letter from Vladimir Nabokov himself; and the latter being an exhaustive editorial comment which appeared as a postscript, and, which, although signed with the initials of our mysterious friend ED., seems to carry on its forehead the beautiful silver aura of Vera Nabokov’s distinguished scalp. However unjustly trying for the reader, I cannot refrain from quoting Nabokov’s letter which was obviously intended to temper the effects of Life’s reporter’s excessive adulation:

“There are two little errors in your fascinating account of me and Lolita…. In the photograph showing my brother Serge and me in boyhood he is on the left and I am on the right, and not vice versa as the caption says. And towards the end of the article I am described as being ‘startled and . . . indignant’ when my Parisian agent informed me that the Olympia Press wanted to ‘add Lolita to its list.’ I certainly was neither ‘startled’ nor ‘indignant’ since I was only interested in having the book published-no matter by whom.”

In my own letter, I had protested against Nabokov’s innuendoes concerning Lolita’s “unhappy marriage” with The Olympia Press, adding that: “Were it not for my firm, Lolita would still be a dusty manuscript in a nostalgic cupboard. I might add that I do not regret having published this admirable book; in spite of many disappointments, it has proved to be a rather exhilarating experience.” Life, in its closing comments, deemed it right to express regrets for having given “the mistaken impression that Vladimir Nabokov was ‘a little indignant’ at the Olympia Press offer to publish Lolita-an impression that Mr. Nabokov himself corrects in his letter above. As for the somewhat more important question of whether or not Olympia Press publishes pornography, it may depend upon one’s viewpoint.”

After that last scuffle, I began at last to accept the fact of the Nabokovs’ hostility as a permanent part of my difficult publisher’s life. The career of Lolita had been wonderful, and although my role was being represented in the darkest colors, I really did not mind. May I say that I was quite happy to see Nabokov pursuing his literary career so masterfully, with Pnin, Pale Fire, and the heroic translation of Eugene Onegin. Many years spent in this profession, publishing, teach you that no great writer can be less than a monster of egomania. And that seems indeed to be an absolute requisite: literary genius can only derive from superhuman concentration-and who cares if a few people are abused and hurt along the way?

Some time after the Life incident, I heard that Nabokov was coming to Paris. He wrote to my brother Eric that he was anxious to meet him to discuss the French translation of Lolita. Gallimard decided to celebrate Nabokov’s arrival in this conquered city with one of their traditional cocktail parties. I learned that a heated debate and taken place between the directors of the firm when somebody had asked whether I should be invited or not. My conflict with Nabokov was so notorious that some unpleasant incident was bound -to happen if we were ever to face each other in the flesh for the first time in the history of our relationship. Some argued that it would be unseemly to exclude me; and in the end caution prevailed, and it was decided to- eliminate my name from the guest list. But Monique Grall, Gallimard’s P.R. lady, thought it would be amusing to transgress that decision, of which she had not been properly informed. She sent me an invitation.

I was very perplexed when I received it. I did not want to embarrass my friends at Gallimard; and I did not want to look like a coward, being quite as able as anyone else to digest a punch on the nose in case of necessity. I discussed this rather exquisite point of ethics with Eric, who said that he was to meet Nabokov shortly before the party at his hotel, at his invitation, and it would be ludicrous for me to abstain; he later called from the hotel, insisting that Nabokov had showered him with compliments for his translation, and although he had not breathed a word about me, it did not seem that the old boy would be shocked to meet me. I therefore duly made my appearance in the gilded salons of the rue Sébastien-Bottin, and I must add in all proper modesty that the stupor painted on so many faces made me feel a little conspicuous. Monique Grall was doubled over in helpless mirth, in a corner, but the other Gallimard dignitaries were all rather pale, and the many press photographers present had that determined, ferocious glint in their eyes which means so much to celebrities in danger of being caught at a disadvantage.

I immediately identified Nabokov who was surrounded by a tight group of admirers; not too far away Madame Nabokov was impersonating dignity, destroying by her pale-fire presence the myth of her husband’s entomological concern for the race of nymphets. I found, hiding in a corner, my dear suffering, terrified friend Doussia Ergaz, choking on a macaroon. I asked her kindly to introduce me to the master, our master, as was her duty being our mutual friend, as well as the dea ex machina who had, with her magic wand, generated such a sumptuous train of literary facts. She at first protested, then complied. We made our way through the crowd. Nabokov was speaking to my brother in earnest, but he had very obviously recognized me. At last we reached the presence, I was introduced, expecting at all moments a blow, a screech, a slap, anything-but not that vacuous grin which is all the papperazzi were able to capture, much to their disappointment. As if he were seized by some sudden urge, Vladimir Nabokov pivoted on himself with the graceful ease of a circus seal, throwing a glance in the direction of his wife, and was immediately caught up in more ardent conversation by a Czech journalist. I was both relieved and disappointed, and I went to down a few glasses of champagne before I plunged back into the crowd, unassisted this time, in the direction of Madame Nabokov. She was standing very quiet, very self-possessed. I introduced myself, but she did not acknowledge my presence even with the flicker of an eyelash. I did not exist; I was no more than an epistolary fiction, and I had no business wearing a body and disturbing people in a literary cocktail party given in honor of her husband, Vladimir Nabokov.

The next day, Doussia Ergaz called me, chuckling with delight and relief. She had had dinner with the Nabokovs after the party, and asked Vladimir what he thought of me. “And do you know what he answered,” she added: “He said: ‘Was he there? I didn’t know.’”

But so many things have happened since then. There is nothing much now to quarrel about, and when the project of publishing a volume (of selections from books published by Olympia Press) came to be discussed with the directors of Grove Press, I told them that the only difficult author they would have to approach would be Nabokov, but that he would certainly agree after all these years, even if a little reluctantly, to let them print an excerpt from Lolita in this compendium. They said that they would try to approach Nabokov through his American publisher, Walter Minton, who obligingly accepted to forward their request. The answer was no, certainly not. I then wrote to Barney Rosset to tell Minton that if Nabokov were to persist in his refusal, I would have no choice but to write the story of our relationship. The answer came by return mail: “This is blackmail. And you know what you have to do with blackmailers: sue them.”

robert berold on laduma

Filed under: 2004 - laduma (ak thembeka),literature,reviews — ABRAXAS @ 12:13 pm

August 16, 2010

James (Arthur) Baldwin (1924-1987)

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:36 am

American writer, noted for his novels on sexual and personal identity, and sharp essays on civil-rights struggle in the United States. Baldwin also wrote three plays, a children’s storybook, and a book of short stories. He gained fame with his first novel, GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN (1953), a story of hidden sins, guilt, and religious torments. In this and subsequent works Baldwin fused autobiographical material with analysis of social injustice and prejudices. Several of his novels dealt with homosexual liaisons.

“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sigh, No more water, the fire next time!” (from The Fire Next Time, 1963)

James Baldwin was born in Harlem, New York City, as the son of a domestic worker. Illegitimate, he never knew his own father and was brought up in great poverty. When he was three, his mother married a factory worker, a hard and cruel man, who also was a storefront preacher. Baldwin adopted the surname from his stepfather, who died eventually in a mental hospital in 1943. In his childhood Baldwin was a voracious reader. When he was about twelve his first story appeared in a church newspaper. At the age of 17 Baldwin left his home. After graduation from high school, he worked in several ill-paid jobs and started his literary apprenticeship.

“And it seemed to me, too, that the violence which rose all about us as my father left the world had been devised as a corrective for the pride of his eldest son, I had declined to believe in that apocalypse which had been central to my father’s vision; very well, life seemed to be saying, here is something that will certainly pass for an apocalypse until the real thing comes along. I had inclined to be contemptuous of my father for the conditions of his life, for the conditions of our lives. When his life had ended I began to wonder about that life and also, in a new way, to be apprehensive about my own.” (from Notes of a Native Son, 1955)

In the early 1940s Baldwin was in defence work in Belle Meade, New Jersey, and in 1943 he began writing full-time. His book about the store-front churches in Harlem with the photographer Theodore Pelatowski did not gain success. In 1945 he had his first encounter with the FBI, in Woodstock, where he was living in a cabin the the woods. He was interrogated by two men about a deserter. Baldwin had met him at a party, very briefly, and gave the agents the name, Teddy. Afterwards Baldwin felt like being gang-raped, “but they made me hate them, too, with a hatred like hot ice…” (from The Devil Finds Work, 1976)

Although publishers rejected his work, Baldwin’s book reviews and essays in The New Leader, The Nation, Commentary, and Partisan Review, together with the help of Richard Wright, won him a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1948. Baldwin’s strained relations with his stepfather, problems over sexual identity, suicide of a friend, and racism drove him in 1948 to Paris and London. Armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter Baldwin finished the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in Switzerland. It was followed by the play THE AMEN CORNER (1955). Baldwin lived in Europe ten years, mainly in Paris and Istanbul, and later spent long periods in New York. In 1957 he returned to the U.S. in order to become involved in the Southern school desegregation struggle.

Go Tell It on the Mountain was based on the author’s experiences as a teenage preacher in a small church. Baldwin had found release from his poor surroundings through a Pentecostal church. He was converted at age fourteen and served in the church as a minister for three years. Baldwin depicted two days in the life of the Grimes family. The 14-year- old John is a good student, religious, and sensitive. “Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself.” He has a long series of conflicts with his brutal stepfather, Gabriel, a preacher, who had fathered an illegitimate child in his youth. His mother has her own secrets. John’s spiritual awakening unites the family but only superficially – John becomes ready to carry his own weight.

Feelings of strangeness and helpless anger troubled Baldwin during his years in Europe. In an essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’ (1953), he depicts his visit to a tiny Swiss village. He realizes that the people of the village cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world. The children consider him an exotic rarity and shout Neger! Neger! in the streets without being aware of his reaction under the smile-and-the-world-smiles-with-you routine. Despite the saluts and bonsoirs, which Baldwin changed with his neighbors, he also sees in their eyes paranoiac malevolence – there is no European innocence, and the ideas which American beliefs are based on, originated from Europe. “For this village brings home to me this fact: that there was a day, and not really a very distant day, when Americans were scarcely Americans at all but discontented Europeans, facing a great unconquered continent and strolling, say, into a marketplace and seeing black men for the first time.”

In Baldwin’s second novel, GIOVANNI’S ROOM (1956), the theme was a man’s struggle with his homosexuality. David, the narrator, tells his story on a single night. He is a young, bisexual American, Giovanni is his Italian lover, who is to be executed as a murderer, and Hella his would-be wife. “But people can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.” NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME (1962), a collections of essays, explored among others black-white relations in the U.S., William Faulkner’s views on segregation, and Richard Wright’s work. Wright had encouraged Baldwin when he was an aspiring writer but they never became close friends.

The book became a bestseller as THE FIRE NEXT TIME (1963), in which the author appraised the Black Muslim (Nation of Islam) movement, and warned that violence would result if white America does not change its attitudes toward black Americans. Baldwin’s reports on the civil rights activities of the 1960s made him special target of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, that alone accumulated a 1750-page file on him. In the title essay of NOTES OF A NATIVE SON (1955) Baldwin took examples from his own family and the Harlem riot of 1943 to describe the experience of growing up black in America. ANOTHER COUNTRY (1962), a novel, was criticized for its thin characters. The protagonist is a black jazz drummer, who kills himself in despair after disappointments in love and life.

TELL ME HOW LONG THE TRAIN’S BEEN GONE (1968) was according to Mario Puzo “a simpleminded, one-dimensional novel with mostly cardboard characters” (The New York Times, June 23, 1968). Again Baldwin had an artist as the protagonist: he is now Leo Proudhammer, a famous actor. Leo’s early years in Harlem are depicted in flashbacks. He shares in Greenwich Village a living space with a white, unmarried couple, Barbara and Jerry. Leo and Barbara become lovers but ultimately Leo gains a new life through his love for a young black militant named Christopher, a Malcolm X-like figure.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and drawbacks in civil-rights movement, Baldwin started bitterly to acknowledge that violence may be the only route to racial justice. Some optimism about peaceful progress would later return, but in the early 1970s he also suffered from writer’s block. “Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent–which attitude certainly has a great deal to support it.” (Baldwin in Collected Essays, 1998)

In a review of Alex Haley’s novel Roots Baldwin looked the work through the possibilities of a presidential election year and stated that “the black people of this country bear a mighty responsibility–which, odd as it may sound, is nothing new–and face an immediate future as devastating, though in a different way, as the past which has led us here: I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the black diaspora, which mean that I am speaking of the beginning of the end of the world as we have suffered it until now” (The New York Times, September 26, 1976). IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK (1974) showed Baldwin’s artistic renewal in a moving and poetic love story of a young talented sculptor, Alonzo Hunt, called Fonny, and his pregnant girlfriend, Tish, the narrator. Fonny is twenty-two, Tish is nineteen. He is accused of a rape, but he is innocent, and Tish struggles to get him free. Baldwin emphasized the importance of family bonds and the simple power of love as a means of survival.

Music, which played a minor role in Go Tell It on the Mountain, moved to the fore in JUST ABOVE MY HEAD (1979), Baldwin’s sixth and longest novel. It focused on the lives of a group of friends, who start out preaching and singing in Harlem churches. Among the central characters is Arthur Montana, a gospel singer. Arthur’s story, the decline of his career, is told by his brother Hall, whose balanced middle-class life is far from the religious turmoils of the Grimes family. African American music in general influenced deeply Baldwin, which is seen also from the titles of his books and their allusions to traditional African American songs. EVIDENCE OF THE THINGS SEEN (1983) was an account of unsolved murder of 28 black children in Atlanta in 1980 and 1981. The work, written mostly as an assignment for Playboy, again disappointed the critics.

In 1983 Baldwin became Five College Professor in the Afro-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He spent his latter years in St. Paul de Vence on the Riviera, France, where he died of stomach cancer on November 30, 1987.

For further reading: The Furious Passage of James Baldwin by F. Eckman (1966); James Baldwin, ed. by Keneth Kinnamon (1974); James Baldwin, ed. by Therman O’Daniel (1975); James Baldwin, A Reference Guide by Fred L. Standley (1979); Stealing the Fire: The Art and Protest of James Baldwin by Horace A. Porter (1988); Conversations with James Baldwin, ed. Fred L. Strandley (1989); James Baldwin: The Legacy, ed. by Quincy Troupe (1989); James Baldwin: An Artist on Fire by W.J. Weatherby (1990); Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin by J. Campbell (1991); The Racial Problem in the Works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin by Jean-Francois Gounard (1993); Commitment As a Theme in African American Literature by R. Jothiprakash (1994); James Baldwin by Randall Kenan (1994); James Baldwin by Ted Gottfried (1997); Cliffsnotes Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain by Sherry Ann McNett (2000); Re-Viewing James Baldwin: Things Not Seen, ed. by D. Quentin Miller (2000); The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy by Katharine Lawrence Balfour (2001); Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson by Keith Clark (2002) – American writers in Paris in the 1950s: Richard Wright, Chester Himes – See also: Baldwin and Alex Haley

Selected works:

* BLUES FOR MISTER CHARLIE, (a play, produced in 1964)
* A RAP ON RACE, 1971 (with Margaret Mead)
* COLLECTED ESSAYS, 1998 (ed. by Toni Morrison)

this article first published here

August 15, 2010


Filed under: ian martin,literature — ABRAXAS @ 9:01 pm

from The Life of Henry Fuckit, 1950-2015
by Ian Martin

“Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

“Yes, quite so. Most profound. Verily, it takes an atheist to plumb the depths of these arcane utterances.”


“That’s it. A disbeliever. One who denies the existence of God. Or any other deity, for that matter. Feet on the ground, clear-eyed, in possession of all his marbles. It takes an atheist to discover the usefulness hidden in these obscure statements.”

Harry Bergson would have preferred to be discussing the success of Henry’s Oxaston expedition to Namibia. Now there was irrefutable evidence: there existed a network of subterranean conduits capable of conducting telepathic messages. This was of significance to the whole of mankind. And here they were bogged down in a mishmash of psychoanalysis, philosophical conjecture, unable to move away from Henry’s obsessive preoccupation with his mental and emotional condition.

“Henry, the reason why I quote from the book of John is in order to encourage you to seek some kind of renewal. Or at least to acknowledge the necessity for renewal. I’m certainly not suggesting you become a born-again Christian. God forbid!”

He went to the window and looked out over the harbour and Simon’s Bay. It was one of those grey, early summer days when the clouds hung low and motionless. The air was humid and a hint of thunder muttered in the distance. On the concrete quay around the dry-dock he could see where a scattering of heavy drops had made dark splotches. A quiet, listless day, he thought. Hard to feel inspired on a day like this.

Henry lay back on his folding lounger and sighed languidly. (This piece of outdoor furniture was on long loan from the Officers’ Club terrace.) He was well aware that his boss’s thoughts were not concentrated on the topic of conversation. His mind was busy with Oxaston and not Henry’s pain – hence the feeling that they were talking at cross purposes.

“Harry, when I say something inside me is whimpering, like a lost puppy or a frightened child, I don’t mean it quite as figuratively as you seem to think. This is a physical sensation and it worries the hell out of me. The accumulated experiences of twenty-five years on this planet have shaken me badly. I don’t want to alarm you but I think I might well be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” Bergson didn’t look the slightest bit alarmed so Henry continued. “It’s as if a reservoir deep within me had sprung a leak and my inner strength had seeped away. I feel vulnerable and anxious, no longer able to muster enough bravado to sneer at fate.”

Bergson strode away from the window, seated himself behind the empty expanse of office desk and fixed Henry with a hard gaze. The conversation had to be rounded up, pointed in the right direction, and herded along at a brisk pace. Or they would never reach the end of it and Oxaston would remain waiting out in the corridor forever.

“That’s why I say you’re in need of spiritual renewal. Having been in a similar condition myself I recognise the telltale signs of boredom and apathy interspersed with loathing and panic. I sincerely hope you haven’t long to wait for that critical, catalytic moment of transformation. Until it arrives you’re going to have to plod on resignedly I’m afraid. Just try not to descend too deep into the abyss before you come up.”

“The abyss.” Henry wagged a forefinger in emphasis. “Ah, the abyss. You seem to understand. It’s the black bottomless pit beneath me which causes me to quake within and whimper like…”

“Yes, Henry, yes.” Bergson pushed on, a note of urgency in his voice. Or was it impatience? “There’s no profit in it for any of us, this staring into the pit. I’ve decided to try and alleviate matters by providing you with a change of scene. I’m moving you out of Central Store down to the Verification Office. You’ll be assisting Ivan Schroder with a very interesting project exploring the philosophical aspects of quantum mechanics.”

“Quantum fucking mechanics!?” Henry had sat up and risen to his feet. “Did you say QUANTUM MECHANICS?” His eyes had a wild look in them as he leaned across the desk and thrust his shaggy features towards the Director of Naval Stores. Bergson was gratified to note the stimulating effect his words had produced. He also noted, with disdain, the sour smell of wine being breathed into his face. Ten o’clock in the morning. He coughed and covered his mouth and was relieved when Henry straightened and began to pace before the big window. “What’s quantum mechanics got to do with anything, for Christ’s sake? What do I know about quantum mechanics? Apart from what my dear old insane uncle Fritz Friedemann told me when I was no higher than two tickeys and a sixpence?” The cogs of his mind meshed together and began to turn with Rolls Royce dependability. “Yes, it was way back, in the study at Ingachini, in the earliest days of my tender youth, uncle Fritz actually had quite a lot to say about quantum theory, now I come to think of it.” His eyes had become glazed and unseeing like those of a freshly landed snoek just after its neck has been broken. Hands in pockets he stood facing the drab green ocean beyond the Eastern Mole. Blind to the rapid progress being made by the SAS President Kruger and oblivious to impending drama about to be played out below him, he began to dredge his memory.

“It’s all about subatomic particles and man’s pathological drive to describe, define and classify. Started with the ultraviolet catastrophe back in 1900 when some experimental results differed from theoretical expectations. Threw a spanner in the works, it did. They used to think the energy emitted in electromagnetic radiation occurred as a wave-like flow. Then along came Max Planck with his theory that, yes, energy was a wave-like flow, BUT, at the same time it was a stream of particles which could be measured as individual packets. He called these packets quanta. According to my Uncle Fritz this was terribly perplexing because it didn’t take a genius to ask the obvious question, how can energy be a wave and a particle AT THE SAME FUCKING TIME? Some smart-arse English egghead even suggested that the electron is a particle on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and a wave on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Hilarious, isn’t it?”

Over the five years of their acquaintance Harry Bergson had grown accustomed to the encyclopaedic breadth of the Fuckit store of knowledge. Even so, he was not a little surprised and amused at how much Henry seemed to have learnt from his boyhood mentor about this particular topic of speculation.

“Did your learned uncle have anything to say about Niels Bohr or Werner Heisenberg?”

“Mmmm.” The SAS Kruger had made its turn and was about to enter the calm waters of the harbour. At the back of Henry’s brain a voice was murmuring something about knots, pilots and tugs. “Ah, I think I might have picked up your tracks, Harry. I’m beginning to suspect quantum mechanics could well have something to do with Oxyaston and global telepathic communication. Wasn’t Heisenberg the one with the uncertainty principle?”

“Well done! Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not possible to be certain about the position and velocity of a particle at any one moment. Nor its position and momentum. More importantly, there can be no certainty about energy and time when examined simultaneously. Certainty lies with the one or the other – not both. Which means that Science moves from being a discipline of certainties to one of probabilities. If one is unable to identify a particle positively and unable to be sure what will become of it in the future, one cannot say whether or not it is obeying the law of cause and effect.”

“Resulting in a fundamental breakdown in our ability to define the world around us. Sorry to interrupt the train of thought Harry, but do come and look at this. Jesus! I can say with one hundred percent certainty we’re about to witness a fuckeration of catastrophic proportion.”

Bergson joined him at the window in time to see half the crew of the frigate diving overboard in a vote of no confidence in their commanding officer, Captain Fanie Plaasboer. The churned up foaming water at the stern of the ship indicated a sincere desire to halt forward passage by reverse propulsion from the screws. When the bow hit the quayside just to the east of the caisson the ship was travelling at six and a half knots. Up on the second floor of the Central Store Henry Fuckit and Harry Bergson experienced the impact as a tremor powerful enough to rattle the window. The horrible thud and the shriek of tearing metal came to their ears and elicited a gasp from the one and a groan from the other.

“Unbelievable!” shouted Henry. “This must be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To actually have seen this colossal fuck-up play out in front of our very eyes! The art of coarse docking performed for our benefit. What an unmitigated arsehole! What a command performance!” He was laughing and punching the palm of his left hand and then clasping his head as if it might burst.

“The tragedy is in the aftermath, not the immediate action. Action, action. We’ve just witnessed an action scene. But the cost!” Bergson too was speaking in raised tones. Henry’s excitement was of the manic type whilst the older man was boiling over with anger. “That criminal buffoon couldn’t command a rowing boat, let alone a modern warship. And this isn’t the first time he’s tried it.”

As they descended in the lift and joined the throng of Dockyard workers hurrying to the scene of the disaster, Burgson offered an explanation of what had occurred. In the days when the RN had still used Simonstown there had been a certain Captain Arbuthnot of the HMS Daring who had inspired many with his displays of nautical skill. With a sure confidence in his vessel, his crew and his own ability, he had, on no less than four occasions, steamed into port without assistance from pilot or tug. With precise timing he barked out his orders. The bells rang, the water churned, the wheel spun and the ship would slow to a halt, gently drifting broadside to the quay.

“And I suppose this Dutchman thought he could do the same.” Henry shook his head in contemptuous disbelief.

“Exactly. The first time he tried it he nearly ran aground on Admiralty Beach. The second time he was intercepted by three tugboats and several launches. But this time …” Bergson left the sentence unfinished.

The dead and injured were being loaded into ambulances and the President Kruger settled a little lower in the water. Then the ship’s Tannoy crackled and the familiar strains of Die Stem came wafting in a slow goose-step over the crowd. Ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika. Some of them were even standing to attention. Jesus. Fok Suid-Afrika. This was actually bloody amusing and yet, as the man said, at what cost? Henry’s earlier mood, which had been dispelled by quantum mechanics and then this fiasco, slowly began to return and weigh down upon him. He tried to remind himself that life was a joke, or a series of jokes, and he wasn’t supposed to dwell on the irony which made the joke work. He was just supposed to laugh. Was he losing his sense of humour?

Ian Martin’s controversial novel Pop-splat is now available from http://www.pop-splat.co.za.

boris vian’s i spit on your graves reviewed by ken wohlrob

Filed under: literature — ABRAXAS @ 12:01 pm

When Jean d’ Halluin first published I Spit On Your Graves in 1946, he was looking for a bestseller to kickstart his new imprint, Editions du Scorpion. Written by an African-American writer named Vernon Sullivan, the book was a visceral, often misogynistic, and (once it gets rolling) violent pulp novel offering a gritty commentary on racial injustice in the United States.

The plot centered on Lee Anderson, a light skinned black man seeking revenge for the murder of his brother at the hands of whites. Anderson, takes his revenge by infiltrating southern society as a white man (he has light skin and blond hair), bedding every white woman he can, and ultimately selecting two of those women to murder as payback for his brother’s death. Despite being considered too controversial and subversive for U.S. publishers, the French public devoured the novel. By 1947, it outsold work by Sartre and Camus, giving d’ Halluin the bestseller he craved.

That alone would’ve made for interesting literary history. But there was more to the story…

Vernon Sullivan never tried to have the book published in the United States.

Vernon Sullivan did not exist. I Spit On Your Graves was in fact written by a Frenchman. A white Frenchman. Said Frenchman had never actually visited the United States.

Then there was the law suit filed against the author by Cartel d’action sociale et morale, the same right wing organization that tried to censor the work of Henry Miller.

Last but not least, there was the grisly murder committed by a Parisian man who strangled his mistress. The authorities discovered a copy of I Spit On Your Graves at the scene of the crime with a part where Lee Anderson dispatches one of his victims circled.

Hence its bestseller status. Who didn’t want to read the “murder book,” as the introduction Marc Lapprand calls it?

And then of course, there was the bigger question: what if the book was not about racial injustice at all?

On the surface, I Spit On Your Graves is a pulpy, not expertly written tale of murder and sex. And upon first reading, I Spit On Your Graves comes across as that – a cheap pulp mystery, lacking only the cover illustration of a woman screaming, hands raised against her face, as an unseen stalker comes at her with a knife.

It is overflowing with graphic sex (for it’s time) where Lee takes the female characters in every scenario imaginable (barring midgets and donkeys). At first one would take it as a sub-par Tropic of Cancer, except that the reader’s knowledge of Lee’s racial identity gives the book a taboo that is non-existent in Miller’s novels. Lee gets his hands on every white woman he possibly can, and they are all to willing to be taken, even if they don’t admit it at first (as is the case with Lou Asquith). As Lee relates early on in the story, “I had all the girls, one after the other, but it was a bit too easy, it turned my stomach.” It comes off like a line from a 70s Blaxploitation film. And in many ways, I Spit On Your Graves reads like a Blaxploitation script. However, as the book goes on Lee flips from bragging of his conquests to being disgusted at how far he has sunk to achieve his revenge. He becomes increasingly sickened by his seduction of the Asquith girls and this drives him further towards the violent outcome.

And that is where the book starts to turn from pure pulp sadism and gratuitous sex into a more layered, psychological exploration. We know Lee is seeking revenge. We know he is going to kill. It is only a matter of time and the reader is forced to travel down the road, dragged further and further into Lee’s madness, strapped in, unable to change the course.

Keep in mind, Vian was no pulp writer. He was a contemporary of Sartre and Camus, who wrote the incredibly well received Froth on the Daydream (also translated as Foam of the Daze). He was also a translator, poet, music, critic, and jazz musician who was close with Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

In many ways, it is similar to Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, forcing you to see the world of the book through the eyes of a very twisted and violent narrator. We immediately find ourselves repulsed by the narrator’s narcissism, their ruthlessness, and most importantly their penchant for extremely grisly acts. And yet, it is this grotesque, amped, psychotic, bloodthirsty humanity that captivates us.

I’m not the first person to make such a comparison between these two books. However, there is a major difference between them. Whereas Ellis was satirizing society, specifically the Reagan-worshipping stockbrokers of the 80s, Vian was going deeper – he was satirizing publishing and ultimately, the reader.

After all, sex and murder were rampant in novels published circa 1946. Both are still widely used as devices and plot points today. In fact, one could argue that both are necessary lynchpins of all modern literature. Sex and death is what it’s all about.

The book is so overly violent and misogynist because Vian is parodying pulp writing, a form very prevalent in post-war France when he wrote I Spit On Your Graves. Like Swift’s A Modest Proposal, it takes the argument to its fullest extreme, giving readers the ultimate in literary-noir: a story so extremely violent and disgusting to modern thinking that the reader can’t put it down.

Much has been said about the social commentary perceived within I Spit On Your Graves. Of this one can look literally. Lee, a black man who’s brother was murdered by whites, seeks revenge by wreaking havoc on white society. In the end however, without giving anything away, there is no justice for Lee. So it is easy to see I Spit On Your Graves as a biting commentary on racial injustice in America during the 20th Century.

But in many ways, Vian is still having his fun with us. After all, he’s not trying to convince us that Lee is an unfortunate character of racial injustice that we should pity. He’s getting us to hate Lee Anderson in spite of his quest for justice. After all, Vian’s audience was white, educated, French society. And it is Lee’s racial identity, his status as `black’ that made (and still makes the book) so controversial. If Lee was a white man bedding a bunch of women and then murdering two of them, it would be a Harry Crews novel. Vian however spins the tables, serving up a tale of a violent, lustful black man out for revenge, one that horrifies and yet draws us in, convincing a repulsed and outraged public to keep on reading. Ultimately the joke is on us. We are thinking of racial injustice, clinging to the social message seemingly contained within the book, and yet it is the titillating bits – the sex and death – that keep us reading. Swift would’ve been proud.

james baldwin – sonny’s blues (extract)

Filed under: literature,music — ABRAXAS @ 5:51 am

One Saturday afternoon, when Sonny had been living with us, or anyway, been in our house, for nearly two weeks, I found myself wandering aimlessly about the living room, drinking from a can of beer, and trying to work up courage to search Sonny’s room. He was out, he was usually out whenever I was home, and Isabel had taken the children to see their grandparents. Suddenly I was standing still in front of the living room window, watching Seventh Avenue. The idea of searching Sonny’s room made me still. I scarcely dared to admit to myself what I’d be searching for. I didn’t know what I’d do if I found it. Or if I didn’t.

On the sidewalk across from me, near the entrance to a barbecue joint, some people were holding an old-fashioned revival meeting. The barbecue cook, wearing a dirty white apron, his conked hair reddish and metallic in the pale sun, and a cigarette between his lips, stood in the doorway, watching them. Kids and older people paused in their errands and stood there, along with some older men and a couple of very tough-looking women who watched everything that happened on the avenue, as though they owned it, or were maybe owned by it. Well, they were watching this, too. The revival was being carried on by three sisters in black, and a brother. All they had were their voices and their Bibles and a tambourine. The brother was testifying and while he testified two of the sisters stood together, seeming to say, amen, and the third sister walked around with the tambourine outstretched and a couple of people dropped coins into it. Then the brother’s testimony ended and the sister who had been taking up the collection dumped the coins into her palm and transferred them to the pocket of her long black robe. Then she raised both hands, striking the tambourine against the air, and then against one hand, and she started to sing. And the two other sisters and the brother joined in.

It was strange, suddenly, to watch, though I had been seeing these meetings all my life. So, of course, had everybody else down there. Yet, they paused and watched and listened and I stood still at the window. “‘Tis the old ship of Zion,” they sang, and the sister with the tambourine kept a steady, jangling beat, “it has rescued many a thousand!” Not a soul under the sound of their voices was hearing this song for the first time, not one of them had been rescued. Nor had they seen much in the way of rescue work being done around them. Neither did they especially believe in the holiness of the three sisters and the brother, they knew too much about them, knew where they lived, and how. The woman with the tambourine, whose voice dominated the air, whose face was bright with joy, was divided by very little from the woman who stood watching her, a cigarette between her heavy, chapped lips, her hair a cuckoo’s nest, her face scarred and swollen from many beatings, and her black eyes glittering like coal. Perhaps they both knew this, which was why, when, as rarely, they addressed each other, they addressed each other as Sister. As the singing filled the air the watching, listening faces underwent a change, the eyes focusing on something within; the music seemed to soothe a poison out of them; and time seemed, nearly, to fall away from the sullen, belligerent, battered faces, as though they were fleeing back to their first condition, while dreaming of their last. The barbecue cook half shook his head and smiled, and dropped his cigarette and disappeared into his joint. A man fumbled in his pockets for change and stood holding it in his hand impatiently, as though he had just remembered a pressing appointment further up the avenue. He looked furious. Then I saw Sonny, standing on the edge of the crowd. He was carrying a wide, flat notebook with a green cover, and it made him look, from where I was standing, almost like a schoolboy. The coppery sun brought out the copper in his skin, he was very faintly smiling, standing very still. Then the singing stopped, the tambourine turned into a collection plate again. The furious man dropped in his coins and vanished, so did a couple of the women, and Sonny dropped some change in the plate, looking directly at the woman with a little smile. He started across the avenue, toward the house. He has a slow, loping walk, something like the way Harlem hipsters walk, only he’s imposed on this his own half-beat. I had never really noticed it before.

I stayed at the window, both relieved and apprehensive. As Sonny disappeared from my sight, they began singing again. And they were still singing when his key turned in the lock.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey, yourself. You want some beer?”
“No. Well, maybe.” But he came up to the window and stood beside me, looking out. “What a
warm voice,” he said.
They were singing If I could only hear my mother pray again!
“Yes,” I said, “and she can sure beat that tambourine.”
“But what a terrible song,” he said, and laughed. He dropped his notebook on the sofa and
disappeared into the kitchen. “Where’s Isabel and the kids?”
“I think they want to see their grandparents. You hungry?”
“No.” He came back into the living room with his can of beer. “You want to come some place
with me tonight?”
I sensed, I don’t know how, that I couldn’t possibly say no. “Sure. Where?”
He sat down on the sofa and picked up his notebook and started leafing through it. “I’m going to sit in with some fellows in a joint in the Village.”
“You mean, you’re going to play, tonight?”
“That’s right.” He took a swallow of his beer and moved back to the window. He gave me a sidelong look. “If you can stand it.”
“I’ll try,” I said.

He smiled to himself and we both watched as the meeting across the way broke up. The three sisters and the brother, heads bowed, were singing God be with you till we meet again. The faces around them were very quiet. Then the song ended. The small crowd dispersed. We watched the three women and the lone man walk slowly up the avenue.

“When she was singing before,” said Sonny, abruptly, “her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes-when it’s in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And- and sure.” He sipped his beer, very deliberately not looking at me. I watched his face. “It makes you feel-in control. Sometimes you’ve got to have that feeling.”

“Do you?” I sat down slowly in the easy chair.
“Sometimes.” He went to the sofa and picked up his notebook again. “Some people do.”
“In order,” I asked, “to play?” And my voice was very ugly, full of contempt and anger.

“Well”-he looked at me with great, troubled eyes, as though, in fact, he hoped his eyes would tell me things he could never otherwise say-”they think so. And if they think so-!”
“And what do you think?” I asked.

He sat on the sofa and put his can of beer on the floor. “I don’t know,” he said, and I couldn’t be sure if he were answering my question or pursuing his thoughts. His face didn’t tell me. “It’s not so much to play. It’s to stand it, to be able to make it at all. On any level.” He frowned and smiled: “In order to keep from shaking to pieces.”

“But these friends of yours,” I said, “they seem to shake themselves to pieces pretty goddamn fast.”

“Maybe.” He played with the notebook. And something told me that I should curb my tongue, that Sonny was doing his best to talk, that I should listen. “But of course you only know the ones that’ve gone to pieces. Some don’t-or at least they haven’t yet and that’s just about all any of us can say.” He paused. “And then there are some who just live, really, in hell, and they know it and they see what’s happening and they go right on. I don’t know.” He sighed, dropped the notebook, folded his arms. “Some guys, you can tell from the way they play, they on something all the time. And you can see that, well, it makes something real for them. But of course,” he picked up his beer from the floor and sipped it and put the can down again, “they want to, too, you’ve got to see that. Even some of them that say they don’tsome, not all.”

“And what about you?” I asked-I couldn’t help it. “What about you? Do you want to?”

He stood up and walked to the window and I remained silent for a long time. Then he sighed. “Me,” he said. Then: “While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through-to sing like that. It’s repulsive to think you have to suffer that much.”

I said: “But there’s no way not to suffer-is there. Sonny?”

“I believe not,” he said and smiled, “but that’s never stopped anyone from trying.” He looked at me. “Has it?” I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence-so long!-when he had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the window. “No, there’s no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem-well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you’re suffering for it. You know?” I said nothing. “Well you know,” he said, impatiently, “why do people suffer? Maybe it’s better to do something to give it a reason, any reason.”

“But we just agreed,” I said, “that there’s no way not to suffer. Isn’t it better, then, just to-take
“But nobody just takes it,” Sonny cried, “that’s what I’m telling you! Everybody tries not to.
You’re just hung up on the way some people try-it’s not your way!”

The hair on my face began to itch, my face felt wet. “That’s not true,” I said, “that’s not true. I don’t give a damn what other people do, I don’t even care how they suffer. I just care how you suffer.” And he looked at me. “Please believe me,” I said, “I don’t want to see you-die trying not to suffer.”

“I won’t,” he said flatly, “die trying not to suffer. At least, not any faster than anybody else.”
“But there’s no need,” I said, trying to laugh, “is there? in killing yourself.”

I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about will power and how life could be well, beautiful. I wanted to say that it was all within; but was it? or, rather, wasn’t that exactly the trouble? And I wanted to promise that I would never fail him again. But it would all have sounded-empty words and lies.

So I made the promise to myself and prayed that I would keep it.

“It’s terrible sometimes, inside,” he said, “that’s what’s the trouble. You walk these streets, black and funky and cold, and there’s not really a living ass to talk to, and there’s nothing shaking, and there’s no way of getting it out- that storm inside. You can’t talk it and you can’t make love with it, and when you finally try to get with it and play it, you realize nobody’s listening. So you’ve got to listen. You got to find a way to listen.”

And then he walked away from the window and sat on the sofa again, as though all the wind had suddenly been knocked out of him. “Sometimes you’ll do anything to play, even cut your mother’s throat.” He laughed and looked at me. “Or your brother’s.” Then he sobered. “Or your own.” Then: “Don’t worry. I’m all right now and I think I’ll be all right. But I can’t forget where I’ve been. I don’t mean just the physical place I’ve been, I mean where I’ve been. And what I’ve been.”

“What have you been, Sonny?” I asked.

He smiled-but sat sideways on the sofa, his elbow resting on the back, his fingers playing with his mouth and chin, not looking at me. “I’ve been something I didn’t recognize, didn’t know I could be. Didn’t know anybody could be.” He stopped, looking inward, looking helplessly young, looking old. “I’m not talking about it now because I feel guilty or anything like that-maybe it would be better if I did, I don’t know. Anyway, I can’t really talk about it. Not to you, not to anybody,” and now he turned and faced me. “Sometimes, you know, and it was actually when I was most out of the world, I felt that I was in it, that I was with it, really, and I could play or I didn’t really have to play, it just came out of me, it was there. And I don’t know how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times, sometimes, to people. Or it wasn’t that I did anything to them-it was that they weren’t real.” He picked up the beer can; it was empty; he rolled it between his palms: “And other times-well, I needed a fix, I needed to find a place to lean, I needed to clear a space to listen-and I couldn’t find it, and I-went crazy, I did terrible things to me, I was terrible for me.” He began pressing the beer can between his hands, I watched the metal begin to give. It glittered, as he played with it like a knife, and I was afraid he would cut himself, but I said nothing. “Oh well. I can never tell you. I was all by myself at the bottom of something, stinking and sweating and crying and shaking, and I smelled it, you know? my stink, and I thought I’d die if I couldn’t get away from it and yet, all the same, I knew that everything I was doing was just locking me in with it. And I didn’t know,” he paused, still flattening the beer can, “I didn’t know, I still don’t know, something kept telling me that maybe it was good to smell your own stink, but I didn’t think that that was what I’d been trying to do- and-who can stand it?” and he abruptly dropped the ruined beer can, looking at me with a small, still smile, and then rose, walking to the window as though it were the lodestone rock. I watched his face, he watched the avenue. “I couldn’t tell you when Mama died-but the reason I wanted to leave Harlem so bad was to get away from drugs. And then, when I ran away, that’s what I was running from-really. When I came back, nothing had changed I hadn’t changed I was just-older.” And he stopped, drumming with his fingers on the windowpane. The sun had vanished, soon darkness would fall. I watched his face. “It can come again,” he said, almost as though speaking to himself. Then he turned to me. “It can come again,” he repeated. “I just want you to know that.”

“All right,” I said, at last. “So it can come again. All right.”
He smiled, but the smile was sorrowful. “I had to try to tell you,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. “I understand that.”
“You’re my brother,” he said, looking straight at me, and not smiling at all.
“Yes,” I repeated, “yes. I understand that.”

He turned back to the window, looking out. “All that hatred down there,” he said, “all that hatred and misery and love. It’s a wonder it doesn’t blow the avenue apart.”

We went to the only nightclub on a short, dark street, downtown. We squeezed through the narrow, chattering, jampacked bar to the entrance of the big room, where the bandstand was. And we stood there for a moment for the lights were very dim in this room and we couldn’t see. Then, “Hello, boy ” said the voice and an enormous black man, much older than Sonny or myself, erupted out of all that atmospheric lighting and put an arm around Sonny’s shoulder. “I been sitting right here,” he said, “waiting for you.”

He had a big voice, too, and heads in the darkness turned toward us.

Sonny grinned and pulled a little away, and said, “Creole, this is my brother. I told you about him.”

Creole shook my hand. “I’m glad to meet you, son,” he said and it was clear that he was glad to meet me there, for Sonny’s sake. And he smiled, “You got a real musician in your family,” and he took his arm from Sonny’s shoulder and slapped him, lightly, affectionately, with the back of his hand.

“Well. Now I’ve heard it all,” said a voice behind us. This was another musician, and a friend of Sonny’s, a coal-black, cheerful-looking man built close to the ground. He immediately began confiding to me, at the top of his lungs, the most terrible things about Sonny, his teeth gleaming like a lighthouse and his laugh coming up out of him like the beginning of an earthquake. And it turned out that everyone at the bar knew Sonny, or almost everyone some were musicians, working there, or nearby, or not working, some were simply hangerson, and some were there to hear Sonny play. I was introduced to all of them and they were all very polite to me. Yet, it was clear that, for them I was only Sonny’s brother. Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or, rather: his kingdom. Here, it was not even a question that his veins bore royal blood.

They were going to play soon and Creole installed me, by myself, at a table in a dark corner. Then I watched them, Creole, and the little black man and Sonny, and the others, while they horsed around, standing just below the bandstand. The light from the bandstand spilled just a little short of them and watching them laughing and gesturing and moving about, I had the feeling that they, nevertheless, were being most careful not to step into that circle of light too suddenly; that if they moved into the light too suddenly, without thinking, they would perish in flame. Then, while I watched, one of them, the small black man, moved into the light and crossed the bandstand and started fooling around with his drums. Then-being funny and being, also, extremely ceremonious- Creole took Sonny by the arm and led him to the piano. A woman’s voice called Sonny’s name and a few hands started clapping. And Sonny, also being funny and being ceremonious, and so touched, I think, that he could have cried, but neither hiding it nor showing it, riding it like a man, grinned, and put both hands to his heart and bowed from the waist.

Creole then went to the bass fiddle and a lean, very bright-skinned brown man jumped up on the bandstand and picked up his horn. So there they were, and the atmosphere on the bandstand and in the room began to change and tighten. Someone stepped up to the microphone and announced them. Then there were all kinds of murmurs. Some people at the bar shushed others. The waitress ran around, frantically getting in the last orders, guys and chicks got closer to each other, and the lights on the bandstand, on the quartet, turned to a kind of indigo. Then they all looked different there. Creole looked about him for the last time, as though he were making certain that all his chickens were in the coop, and then he jumped and struck the fiddle. And there they were.

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny’s face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn’t with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up
there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny’s witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing-he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.

And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It’s made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

And Sonny hadn’t been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn’t on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I’d never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there.

Yet, watching Creole’s face as they neared the end of the first set, I had the feeling that something had happened, something I hadn’t heard. Then they finished, there was scattered applause, and then, without an instant’s warning, Creole started into something else, it was almost sardonic, it was Am I Blue? And, as though he commanded, Sonny began to play. Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins. The dry, low, black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horn insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old. Then they all came together again, and Sonny was part of the family again. I could tell this from his face. He seemed to have found, right there beneath his fingers, a damn brand-new piano. It seemed that he couldn’t get over it. Then, for a while, just being happy with Sonny, they seemed to be agreeing with him that brand-new pianos certainly were a gas.

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make
us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.

And this tale, according to that face, that body, those strong hands on those strings, has another aspect in every country, and a new depth in every generation. Listen, Creole seemed to be saying, listen. Now these are Sonny’s blues. He made the little black man on the drums know it, and the bright, brown man on the horn. Creole wasn’t trying any longer to get Sonny in the water. He was wishing him Godspeed. Then he stepped back, very slowly, filling the air with the immense suggestion that Sonny speak for himself.

Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones of the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moonlit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise. And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky.

Then it was over. Creole and Sonny let out their breath, both soaking wet, and grinning. There was a lot of applause and some of it was real. In the dark, the girl came by and I asked her to take drinks to the bandstand. There was a long pause, while they talked up there in the indigo light and after awhile I saw the girl put a Scotch and milk on top of the piano for Sonny. He didn’t seem to notice it, but just before they started playing again, he sipped from it and looked toward me, and nodded. Then he put it back on top of the piano. For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling.

« Previous PageNext Page »