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The Books that Built Me, by Mark Winkler


Published in the Sunday Times

mark winklerThe first real book I read – and by that I mean one with no pictures in it – was The Little Iron Horse, from the Bobbsey Twins series, given to me when I was six.

It was hardly the stuff of high literature, and back then I was unable to critique the jingoism and prejudice that lay thick behind the story. But as I mouthed the words, I realised I was holding something precious in my hands.

After that, I raced through The Hardy Boys and my dad’s collection of Louis L’Amour’s Westerns. This was SA in the ‘70s, without TV, and beyond your bicycle and pellet gun, you had to make your own entertainment. The Quick and the Dead and Sackett’s Land brought violence, sex, and formulaic story-telling into my lowveld bedroom, and with them the addictive aroma of ink and paper and binding glue.

Wilbur Smith followed. Such a cliché, I suppose, this literary path, but books like When the Lion Feeds and its certain well-thumbed passages were fodder of all sorts to a 12-year-old.

Later, my high-school English teacher leant me a copy of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It opened my eyes to a different kind of writing, and through it I glimpsed a different way of seeing the world. After dipping into a few more modernists, I came to love how they were able to take a dry dictionary of words and, like a palette of Gauguin’s paint, turn it into Technicolor magic on the page, using only black cyphers that numbered just 26.

Of course there was Salinger and Kerouac and Burroughs. I discovered Gordimer and wrestled through her works. And while doing my national service, I came upon JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, which took me somewhere I’d never been before.

The turning point was Etienne van Heerden. I was a student at Rhodes, he was a lecturer, and we were both pissed. He described a scene in which a man was showering with a woman and he licked her nipples and they tasted like soap. Then he admitted he didn’t know where to go next. I could offer absolutely nothing, and Etienne bought me a drink to make me go away.

20 years later I read Michiel Heyns’ beautiful translation of Van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam and something in it flipped a switch. I could do this, I thought. Nowhere near as well, perhaps, but I could do it. I’ll never know what exactly it was, but something in that novel convinced me it was time to jump on and try to pedal for myself, even if I never would win the Tour de France.

WastedMark Winkler’s second novel, Wasted (Kwela), has just been released.

Book details

Follow Winkler on Twitter @giantblackdog

Picture credit: Simone Scholtz


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