There can be few in South Africa who live the life of letters like André Brink.
His bibliography is intimidating; his contributions to South Africa’s public conversations on art and politics are plainspoken and vigorous; he is one of a handful of South African writers who produce a book a year, year after year.
The latest work is freighted with significance. A Fork in the Road is his memoir, a long look back over people, places and books – which curiously ends at a curious, yet very endearing beginning, Brink’s “Letter to Karina”, in which we learn that the Karina in question, who needs no introduction to BOOK SA readers, inspired Brink to overcome his leeriness of memoirs, and write one.
The person whom this excerpt concerns also needs no introduction; the chapter is called, simply, “Ingrid”:
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from chapter 5: “INGRID”
It is now more than forty years since Ingrid Jonker died, yet, through her poetry, there may be more people to whom she is a living presence than she was during her short lifetime. In other respects she may be more remote than ever. She was drowned in the night of 19 July, 1965 when she walked into the fiercely cold Atlantic Ocean at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town, and moved straight into myth. The myth of the maligned, rejected, abused, misunderstood nymph of sea and sun who had foretold her death in her poetry since she’d been a teenager, finally canonised when Nelson Mandela read her poem ‘The Child’ at his inauguration in parliament in May 1994. How little could we, could anybody, have expected this life after death in that dark time when she opted out of the world?
Until recently, I have chosen not to be drawn into discussions or evocations of her life, notably in documentary films, some unforgivably bad. But precisely because of these I have begun to believe that perhaps I owe it to her at last to unfold, without drama or melodrama, some of the things I have kept to myself. Not the icon but the person. The woman I loved. And who nearly drove me mad. In some respects, it should be done to set the record straight; in others, simply to remember. To hold on.
There is a photo of that sad, obscene funeral, four days after her death, with family massed in a dour black bank on one side of the grave and windswept friends on the other. Her long-time lover Jack Cope tried to jump into the grave like a latter-day Laertes, and everything threatened to implode in low drama. What strikes me when I look at it today, is the realisation that almost everyone in that photo, in fact, everyone involved with Ingrid in one way or another, is now dead. Her father, the arrogant loser, followed her to the grave within a few months. Jack, who knew, as I did, the agony of being with her and constantly losing her, and who faced, long before I had to, the dread of growing old, is dead. Uys Krige, the perennial golden boy of South African letters and the one who averted the most vulgar of explosions on the day of the funeral, is dead too – unbelievable as it still seems to all of us who have heard him reciting poetry or talking non-stop in five languages. Jan Rabie, beachcomber and romantic, the first modern writer of Afrikaans fiction, is dead. So is his wife, Marjorie Wallace, who sang the joys of life in sprightly colours on canvas. So is the gloomy and suspicious sister, Anna, who was prepared to do everything she could to cherish her own narrow view of Ingrid at the cost of everybody else’s. And Ingrid’s husband Piet, always a lone stranger among the artists surrounding his wife. So are Bartho and Kita, the friends who so anxiously urged Ingrid and me to have a baby they could adopt to exorcise their own childlessness. So are many others from yesteryear.
So many people have claimed her for their own purposes over the years, transforming her into South Africa’s own poète maudite, another Anne Sexton, another Sylvia Plath. Songwriters have used her poems as lyrics on which they could ride to their own easy fame. Broadcasters and cineasts and playwrights have tried to trace her light footsteps on soundtracks and in films – sometimes, but not always, with the best of intentions. All the vultures Ingrid had scorned and feared so passionately during her life.
It was in the late afternoon of a blue and golden late summer’s day, Thursday 18 April, 1963, that Ingrid walked into my ordered existence and turned it upside down. Until that moment I was ensconced in an ultimately predictable life as husband and father, lecturer in literature; dreaming about a future as a writer after the early surprising shock of a novel, Lobola vir die lewe (Dowry for Life) that caught the Afrikaans literary establishment unprepared, but painfully aware of the claims and the curtailments of domesticity, the threat of bourgeois complacency, of being a small fish in a small pond. And afterwards? A world in which nothing would ever be sure and safe again, and in which everything, from the most private to the public, from love to politics, was to be exposed to risk and uncertainty and danger.
We were in the dusky, dusty front room of the rambling old house in Cheviot Place, Green Point, were Jan and Marjorie lived, perhaps the only truly bohemian artist’s house in the Cape – a group of writers gathered to plan a protest against the new censorship bill which was then taking shape in parliament. Several of us had already launched individual attacks on the proposed onslaught on the arts sponsored by a prominent right-wing parliamentarian, Abraham Jonker, whose own early forays into realist fiction had failed to live up to their initial promise, and who had become notorious for proclaiming that even Shakespeare could do with some censoring. But it was now time for organised resistance on a larger scale. The discussion was energetic and passionate, but there was nothing yet to mark the day as exceptional.
And then she came in, small and quiet, but tense, her blonde curly hair unruly, her dark eyes guarded but smouldering. The daughter of the would-be chief censor, Abraham Jonker. She was wearing a white, loose man’s shirt several sizes too big for her, and tight green pants, a size or two too small. She was smoking. Her bare feet were narrow and beautiful. I would never again meet a woman without looking at her feet.
In the course of the weekend that followed I saw her eyes move through an amazing range of expressions, from cool and detached to flashing with ferocity, from serene to exuberant to apathetic to disillusioned to eager, from brazenly challenging and defiant to outraged and contemptuous, from widening with childlike wonder to burning with passion, from quietly content to scathing and vicious. And her sensitive, sensuous, mouth: cynical, content, angry, vulnerable, playful, bitter, mocking, tranquil, raging, happy, generous, wild. Unpredictable and endlessly fascinating, those quicksilvery changes of mood and expression.
It was love at first sight, for both of us – even though I was married and she had been, for several years already, but unbeknown to me, in an intimate if unstable relationship with Jack Cope, twenty-odd years older than either of us.
Even in the course of that first tumultuous weekend, before I had to return to Grahamstown where I taught Afrikaans at Rhodes University, our head-over-heels conversations introduced me to the landscapes of her life – often in brief, cryptic, unsettling flashes of almost blinding intensity, sometimes in longer, sustained journeys of discovery. Landscapes, moonscapes, seascapes, bodyscapes, eyescapes. How could I have had the faintest intimation of the ways in which this small person with her large eyes and her unkempt hair would change the course of my life, and of my writing, how my choice of female characters in my books would be affected for the next forty years, how my notions of plot and my involvement with other people would be altered? To what extent all my perceptions of relationships would, from that moment on, be defined by the awareness – the fear – of betrayal, a scepticism about permanence, a mistrust of commitment, or guilt feelings about turning my back on stability and security?
It was not just because Ingrid was Ingrid. But surely also because, in an uncanny and unsettling way, meeting her was like being suddenly confronted with the living incarnation of a character I’d just written in a novel: Nicolette in The Ambassador. There was still time before the book was published, to introduce a few small references to Ingrid: the way she had of twirling a little curl on her forehead, whenever she was upset, until she fell asleep; a small birthmark on her thigh . . . There was even more ‘evidence’ of Ingrid in the character of Gillian, in the tempestuous relationship with her father, her excessive raging against religion . . . But these were almost irrelevant compared to the full reality, and the full impact, of the girl-woman Ingrid. The real problem is that from the outset it was almost impossible for me to see her clearly, cleanly, as she was, rather than as the projection of a preexisting fictional character.
How could I ever again keep life and fiction apart? How could I prevent myself from attempting to turn my life into a series of stories, or to project imagined stories into events in my life? Perhaps, it seems to me now, more than forty years later, my only solution was to divide my own life into innumerable compartments – each friend, each acquaintance, each woman sealed off behind locked doors of memory and imagination from all others. It was the only way in which I could remain in control of my world.
The simple backbone of facts about Ingrid is all too familiar by now; it has become the fibre of the legend, the image, the icon: the depraved innocence, the abused child, the misunderstood waif, the yearning for a father figure, the lure of death, the urge for self-destruction. All of it true. All of it just a bit too easy?
Ingrid was born in September 1933 on the farm of her maternal grandfather Fanie Cilliers, near the small North-Western Cape town of Douglas, close to the confluence of the Vaal and Orange rivers, where I myself had spent some of the most formative years of my youth. In one of her earliest photographs, she stands naked on the edge of the swirling, muddy water, a small nymph escaped from another world, scowling defiantly at the camera, clutching one of the lips of her little cleft between a thumb and a forefinger.
At that stage her mother, Beatrice, had just been abandoned by Abraham Jonker, who had accused her of carrying another man’s child. In due course he remarried twice and eventually started a new family in Cape Town with a woman who couldn’t stand the two ‘unruly’ little girls from his first marriage – Ingrid and her sister Anna, born two years before her. Beatrice remained ailing for several years: leukaemia, and a nervous condition which was to deteriorate so drastically that in the end she had to be committed to the mental institution of Valkenberg where, like Ingrid herself much later, she was confined more than once. ‘I saw my mother going mad in front of my eyes,’ Ingrid told me during that first weekend, and often afterwards. And then she would continue, ‘I remember how she would sit at the window with a rug on her lap, picking at a frayed edge, and talking to herself: “If I pull out this one, a strange woman comes. If I pull out this one, a strange man comes. And if I pull out this third one, Abraham Jonker comes!” And how she would then start howling and screaming hysterically.’
After the grandfather’s death Beatrice, her mother and her two daughters moved to Durbanville, near Cape Town, where they lived in ‘the house with the pepper tree’; and from there to Gordon’s Bay, where Ingrid was to spend most of her early childhood. The girls played on the beach and in the sea – ‘like two small otters’, Ingrid said – or buried themselves in the fantasy world of books, or spent hours gathering and then hiding ‘secrets’ in the pine forest. These hidden or buried secrets became an indispensable part of her life – not just as a treasure trove, but as a repository for memories, a self-made subconscious to the ordinary world. Many years later, she would cryptically, in her poetry, refer to a lover’s sperm as ‘secrets’ too, as traces of a private space all her own. The sea was the background music to her verse. She was passionate about it and could swim like a fish. And yet there was often an ominous undertow. As a small girl, even before she moved to Gordon’s Bay, Ingrid had two frightening experiences of nearly drowning – once in a river, once in a dam. This, in a strange but significant way, linked in her mind the forces of life and death. And over the years all of it would find expression in her writing.
The childhood world beside the sea brought the girls such bliss that they were hardly aware of the dire poverty in which their mother and grandmother had to eke out an existence. On many days there was only soup or fish-heads to eat; and when there was nothing at all, the fervent faith of the grandmother somehow saw them through. She used to preach to the coloured fishermen’s families on Sundays, which provided Ingrid with an early inspiration for writing doggerel with a determined religious slant. Throughout her life the Bible remained a major frame of reference for her writing, not only in content but even more so in her choice of words, imagery, style. It provided the dark and the light, the dread and the exultation, the fear of hell and the expectation of heaven, as an answer to Ingrid’s need to find a mythology of her own. And where the Bible ended, Ouma’s elaborate commentaries, in the form of a Thought for the Day, took over. Often, while we were together, Ingrid would take out Ouma’s Thoughts and read from the small blue pages covered in meticulous handwriting, collapsing in laughter as she adopted the declamatory voice of a dominee; religion became even more important to her after she had broken away from all organised forms of it. In a curious way the rejection of religion made her even more dependent on it. And as I myself was right then in the throes of breaking with the church, meeting Ingrid was probably the decisive event in my own process of ‘moving out’.
Death had first invaded Ingrid’s world when her grandfather passed away. In 1944, only a year after her mother, her beloved grandmother also died. This placed a barrier between the young girl and her most precious memories of an Edenic youth. From now on death would be a dark undertone to almost everything she wrote, but often in very ambiguous terms: sometimes as a dream-state she continued to yearn for, sometimes as a fearsome, threatening presence, as lover or dreaded enemy, as darkness or ultimate light.
Abraham returned out of the blue to reclaim his daughters. He did his best to integrate them into his new family (he soon had two new children with his new wife) and sent them to good schools; but Ingrid continued to feel neglected, and in later years complained – perhaps with some exaggeration – that she’d been made to work like a Cinderella for a stern and forbidding stepmother. It was, as I now see it, part of her construction of herself as the rejected and misunderstood outsider. Whatever happened on the surface of her life, she found more and more of a refuge in writing poetry, encouraged by a sympathetic teacher; and before she turned sixteen she had written most of the poems subsequently published in Ontvlugting (Escape), in 1956.
The small volume was dedicated to Ingrid’s father. But when she took the first copy to him, his tight-lipped reaction was: ‘My child, I hope there’s more to it than the covers. I’ll look at it tonight to see how you have disgraced me.’
At the end of 1951, Ingrid had completed her schooling with a not very impressive D aggregate – but with an A in Afrikaans. She was eager to go to university, but her father would not hear of it. She could enrol for a secretarial course to qualify herself for a job, but that was that. ‘If you are old enough to write, you’re mature enough to fend for yourself,’ said Abraham, prompted by his new wife. And so Ingrid moved out of the parental home. ‘There was space in the house, but not in the heart,’ she explained laconically. She moved into a flat near the city centre, where for three years she did proofreading and copy-editing for various printers and publishers.
Her life entered a new phase in 1954 when she met Piet Venter, seventeen years older than herself, with two failed marriages behind him; a businessman with ambitions to become a writer. And two years later, soon after the publication of Ontvlugting, they were married – which was more her decision than his. What she had always desperately desired, after the disruptions of her childhood, was the security of marriage. And one of her long-cherished dreams, to have a child, now came within reach. Still, an illogical fear of a miscarriage cast a pall over that eager expectation, as witness one of her best-known poems, ‘Pregnant woman’, which dates from 1957, the year of her pregnancy: it is dominated by the hallucinating, surreal image of a woman lying singing under the dark water of a sewer with her bleeding offspring. Ingrid had just moved into a cosmopolitan circle of creative artists among whom Piet, in spite of his ambitions, or perhaps because of them, felt sadly out of his depth. Among these friends were Jan Rabie, who had recently returned from a seven-year stay in Paris, and his Scottish wife Marjorie Wallace, the painter Erik Laubscher and his French wife Claude Bouscharain, and the young art student Breyten Breytenbach, with the renowned bohemian poet and world traveller Uys Krige as primus inter pares. Through Uys, who spent days and nights introducing her to his translations from the poetry of the French surrealists, or of Lorca, or the South Americans, she would soon meet his close friend Jack Cope, with whom Uys shared a bungalow on Second Beach at Clifton and who in due course became her lover. This circle transcended all the boundaries and taboos of the then newly established apartheid state, by including a number of coloured poets and writers as well: Piet Philander, Richard Rive, Peter Clarke, Adam Small.
The birth of Ingrid’s daughter Simone was a watershed. The fulfilment of motherhood was accompanied by a discovery which she confided to me in the rather seedy lounge of the Clifton Hotel soon after we met: that at a house party on the day she returned home from the hospital, she surprised Piet with another woman. And less than eighteen months later the company he worked for transferred him to Johannesburg, which Ingrid was to describe as ‘probably the most primitive city on earth’, and which, moreover, meant leaving behind all the friends who had come to give sense to her world. Whether there was any direct link or not, it comes as no surprise, with hindsight, that an early attempt at suicide dates from this period. But one should bear in mind a memory evoked by Marjorie Wallace: that on the very first day she met Ingrid, the fledgling poet interrupted a carefree, happy conversation on Clifton beach by asking totally out of the blue, ‘Do you think I will commit suicide one day?’ This was one of the key questions she persistently asked me during our first weekend together.
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