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Sunday Read: In Celebration of Andre Brink

andre brink young

With the passing of André Brink yesterday, Books LIVE would like to celebrate his writing this Sunday morning.

JM Coetzee and André BrinkWe have compiled a selection of excerpts from Brink’s more recent work, including The Blue Door (2007), Ander Lewens (2008), A Fork in the Road (2009) and Touch: Stories of Contact by South African Writers (2009), and concluding with JM Coetzee’s impressions of Brink, from Encounters With André Brink (2010), which was edited by Karina Magdalena Szczurek.

But first, listen to Brink reading from his last novel, Philida, in a Vintage Special Edition podcast commemorating it being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize:


The Blue DoorFrom The Blue Door:

She is already in bed when I arrive, lying on her side, reading, her back turned to me, the outline of her body gracefully traced by the sheet, one smooth brown shoulder exposed.

But it is quite an obstacle course before I get there. First there is the bathroom. Automatically I go to the one where I bathed the children, but it is immediately evident that this is meant for the children only, or possibly for guests. Playing Blind Man’s Buff, I have to feel my way along the main passage where the lights have already been turned off, past the bedroom where the children have been tucked up for the night, towards a glimmer halfway to the left. From the passage door I can see another door leading from the bedroom, to my right, opposite the bed. To my great relief it turns out to be the en-suite bathroom. But this is by no means the end of my problems. I decide to spend a few minutes under the shower first: although I have already had a bath with the children, that was a rather hurried affair, and furthermore I need time to reflect on my immediate challenges. Which of the two toothbrushes – one blue, one red – am I supposed to use, which towel is mine? And afterwards, should I proceed to the bedroom naked, or with a towel around my waist, or wearing pyjamas? (Which will be where?)

In the end I decide not to aggravate the situation by wondering about what her expectations may be but simply to follow my inclination, doing what comes naturally to me.

So I am naked when I come into the bedroom and furtively slide in behind her back, trying to hide the evidence of my state of anticipation.

She glances over her shoulder and says, ‘Oh.’ Which may mean anything.

Ander LewensFrom Ander Lewens:

As I lay in our crumpled bed this morning, fondling memories, I heard a car arrive downstairs, then the front door slamming, and footsteps. Silke was back from the school where she’d deposited the children. It really was time for me to move on into the day.

I threw off the still-fragrant sheet, swung my legs over the edge of the bed, and remained sitting like that for another few moments, allowing my eyes to gaze through the wide window across the sweep of the bay far below before I walked across the deep pile of the carpet to the en-suite bathroom opposite. There were puddles on the white tiles, and Carla’s dark green towel lay crumpled in the middle of the floor. I stooped to pick it up and drape it over the chrome rail, then removed my own, which I put on the thick white mat in front of the shower cubicle, and stepped inside, bracing myself against the copious spray of steaming water from above.

I took my time to work my way through the strict routine of the daily shower: soaping and washing and rinsing my hair, then up the lengths of my arms and down under them, my chest and stomach, lingering with satisfaction along my genitals, then my buttocks, and finally down my legs to my feet: all of this with my eyes closed to protect them against the foam. A few last minutes of pure cold water as I gasped for breath and yodelled with shock and primitive pleasure, before I stepped out, picked up the towel, and vigorously dried myself until my whole body glowed with replenished vitality.

It was my shaving day. I took the razor from its shiny container beside the elegantly shaped double basin, ran in hot water, tested the temperature, then luxuriously lathered my face and prepared to proceed from there.

This is where I stop.

I stare into the art nouveau mirror, into the harp shape of the glass held up in the gracefully curved arms and hands of the nude pewter girl with the flowing long hair.

Uncomprehending, petrified, shivering in a sudden rush of coldness, I keep staring.

Then lean forward until my forehead touches the steamed-up surface of the mirror.

I see my eyes, stricken and wide, then screwed up into thin slits.

With one wet hand I stroke across the mirror, trying to clear the surface.

The nude girl embossed in the pewter frame stares back at me. Is there a grimace on her shapely face which I have never noticed before?

I drop the razor, bend down to rinse all the lather off my face, before I straighten up again.

Once more I peer into the mirror. It is a face I have never seen before in my life. Involuntarily I bring a hand up to my cheek. The reflection in the mirror does the same.

I can feel the astonished touch of my fingers on my cheek. It must be me.

Yet it cannot be. It cannot possibly be me.

The face staring at me from the mirror is black. So is the hand touching the cheek.

And as I turn away from the reflection to look down at myself, across my chest and stomach, the vulnerability of my penis still half-distended from the exuberance of the shower, along my legs, all the way to my feet, my whole body is a clear, clean, shiny, deep, dark brown.

A Fork in the RoadFrom A Fork in the Road:

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.

TouchFrom “Surprise Visit” in Touch: Stories of Contact by South African Writers:

There is no one at the reception desk to welcome him. This suits him perfectly. One can only assess the standard of care-giving in an old-age home if they aren’t alerted to your coming. Even more important is that he wants to surprise her. He has something to tell her, something he has spent a lifetime looking for and which he must share with her. It is now almost two years since his last visit. One doesn’t feel good about these long intervals, but what else can one do? Princeton is not exactly round the corner from Cape Town. And, anyway, his sister Jolene is living right here in the city, close by, in Claremont, and since her husband’s death she hasn’t had much to occupy her. In any case, it isn’t as if Mum is really aware of what is going on around her. For at least three years now, since the last stroke, she has just been lying here. Waiting. For ‐ well. Still has some lucid moments, says Jolene, but fewer and further between. Hardly ever recognises anybody.

He goes through the reception area to the corridor, where he quickly makes sure that nobody is approaching from either end. Then, following Jolene’s instructions, he turns right. The last time he visited her was with his family, just before they left the country. Her room was to the left then, three doors down. But the home likes to shift them around. A change of scenery? Hardly. His own feeling is that the old people ‐ Mum, undoubtedly ‐ find these shifts deeply distressing. Every time it becomes a radical displacement. As bad as those moves in his youth, from one town to the next, as the bank authorities in their wisdom transferred them across the map of the country. Every time a new school, new friends, new teachers, new everything. He never really learnt to cope with that. The only constant in those years was Mum. His father was always more of an absence than a presence. But Mum, yes, she made the difference. Which was why he finally had to make the effort to come all this way to see her. For the last time? Before he went to the States he had already paid her a number of visits, of which each could have been the last. But she held on. Not without some perversity, he sometimes thought. Always a contrary old bird.

Encounters With André BrinkFinally, read JM Coetzee’s impressions of Brink, from Encounters With André Brink:

JM Coetzee
Colleague and collaborator

I first heard the name André Brink in the 1960s, when I was living and studying in the United States. From home came rumours of a changing of the guard in Afrikaans letters, of the rise of a new generation led by André and Jan Rabie and Etienne Leroux. I had heard of Jan Rabie (he was a friend of Uys Krige’s, I knew, one of the Onrus circle), but not of the other two. I searched out the only Brink book available, an English translation of Die ambassadeur.

In 1971 I returned to South Africa and was able again to read the South African newspapers. In the Sunday Rapport I came across lengthy literary articles under André’s name, which stood out from the rest of the literary journalism. They reviewed new poetry and fiction with what seemed to me total command of the field, yet were engagingly enough written to entice the ordinary educated reader. Their author was clearly familiar with what was going on in contemporary letters in Europe and America.

I had no actual contact with André until the early 1980s, when he and I were brought together by Koos Human to collaborate in editing a new anthology of South African writing. This anthology, which would eventually be published by Faber in the UK and Viking in the USA, was planned to bring together within the same covers English-language and (in translation) Afrikaans-language South African writers; I would be responsible for the former, André for the latter. The selection was to be as up to date as possible.

Knowing of André’s reputation as the superstar and enfant terrible of Afrikaans letters, I was expecting a stormy time: tantrums, ultimatums, missed deadlines. Instead of which I found the perfect collaborator, a man who swiftly and efficiently and without fuss did a first-class job. The product of our collaboration, A Land Apart: A South African Reader (1986), still seems to me a good book of its kind, offering the wider world a snapshot of South African writing at a time of crisis in the country’s history.

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