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“The Truth of Unwelcome Things” – Read Bill Nasson’s Foreword to the New Edition of A Writer’s Diary by Stephen Watson

Invitation to the relaunch of A Writer's Diary

A Writer's DiaryElectric Book Works has shared Bill Nasson’s Foreword to the new edition of A Writer’s Diary by Stephen Watson.

Watson, who passed away in 2011, was a distinguished and influential poet, essayist, academic and creative writing teacher at University of Cape Town.

Nasson is Professor of History at Stellenbosch University. His most recent book is World War One and the People of South Africa.

In the Foreword, Nasson calls A Writer’s Diary both “fresh and timeless, both immediately local and soaringly universal”, adding that “its contents continue to resonate almost two decades later”.

The new edition of A Writer’s Diary will be launched at The Book Lounge in Cape Town on Wednesday, 26 August, with Nasson in conversation with UCT academics Peter Anderson and Hedley Twidle.

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Read the Foreword:

For me, the word “diary” dredges up a very distinctive undergraduate memory, which does not involve Anne Frank. It is reading, as a student of Victorian English literature, The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, the classic comic creation which chronicles the humdrum and absurd daily life of a pushy bank clerk, Charles Pooter. That was a gently mocking celebration of life as the sum of all that is mundane and half-baked, as a barely-conscious and snobbish Pooter is wounded deeply by tradesmen who do not doff their caps to him.

Leaving aside the fact that Diary of a Nobody is fiction and that A Writer’s Diary is an acutely self-observant record of a year in an actual life and of an actual consciousness, it is hard to think of more polar opposites in the idea of what a diary can mean as a literary creation. For trivial ramblings about food, drink and who got to sit in the best chair, you could do worse than look up the Grossmiths of the 1880s. To savour the diary as a vehicle for the expression of a unique and extraordinarily imaginative sensibility, go back a couple of decades and discover – or renew an unforgettable encounter – with the late Stephen Watson’s A Writer’s Diary.

Both fresh and timeless, both immediately local and soaringly universal in its concerns, what is it that makes Stephen Watson’s 1997 Diary unique? The answer is provided by its author early on, in this book’s third entry of 16 December, 1995. In a New York winter, with thoughts of the companionable Cape as ever on his mind, he reflects on his craft, declaring that “to write is, if nothing else, still among the best means available for forcing the individual to encounter those impulses of hope and despair, vanity and humility, hubris and humiliation, meanness and generosity of spirit, which work almost simultaneously in anyone’s life.”

What follows is the unfolding of a truth to which this diarist bears consistently cool and discerning witness, that writing is “something of a moral education”, for all the trouble that it may bring. Equally, in that contrary voice which also oils the contradictory tone – or the hinge of doubt – upon which Stephen Watson’s Diary turns, he is always alert to the element of choice and the possibility of other consequences. Here, the undeniably valid alternative argument is to be glimpsed by his dipping into the Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosiński, whose father clung absolutely to “the sanctity of privacy. To him, the most rewarding life was one that passed unnoticed by the world.”

There lay a less bumpy path, not that of paying a price for reeling in the world through the exercise of personal creativity. Otherwise, for the writer, it is, to quote from one of the poems of WB Yeats’s 1914 collection, Responsibilities (a chilling title), to be worn “in the world’s eyes” by having something disconcertingly truthful to say to them. The truths for which this Diary reaches – about the meaning of bigotry, laziness, conformity, liberty, and much more besides – are conceived through crisp interrogation, so that the habit of mind which percolates this volume is instinctively sceptical and frequently iconoclastic.

It is, I think, in that sense that A Writer’s Diary is more than just a scrupulous examination of the abiding preoccupations of one of contemporary South Africa’s most eminent English-language poets, essayists and critics – arguably the most observant, humane, and digressive of his generation. For Stephen Watson’s insights into language, culture, landscape, ideologies, writers, painters, politics, society, and the baffling nature of the human condition nail his colours to the mast. In this, his small volume is also a manifesto. As an approach to life as an intellectually serious business, it presents a rich and engaging range of beliefs which fan out from a primary impulse. That impulse is to grasp at the heart of the matter, with unsparing candour.

The subtle, reflective, and interrogative emotional intelligence which percolates through these pages also makes this an unusually long short book. Why? Because, on every page, something flashes up to say, “pause here, and think”. Thus, with a kind of caustic world-weariness, a March 1996 entry is an arresting example of limpid thoughtfulness. Stephen Watson reflects that it took “one man and one book” to do “for the Soviet Union what it has taken an entire Truth and Reconciliation Commission to do for South Africa”. That modest Russian combination was, of course, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. After that painful full stop, he resumes with the effortless, woodpecker-style that he cultivates here, to what it is that makes the closing in of a Cape autumn so distinctive.

I happened to have first met Stephen in an autumnal Cape month over three decades ago, in a Rondebosch house appropriately downwind of the prestigious school that he had left never to be counted as a consenting old boy. Midway through the dinner party to which my wife and I had been invited, the electricity failed, leaving as the only illumination the colourful beam of table gossip to which Stephen contributed a memorably delicious portion. Then, as always, he was never one to be tolerant of pompous fools and their humbug. Thirty years on in South Africa, and among its large current failings we count electricity supply, if now on a more desperate national scale than the odd municipal stutter of the earlier 1980s.

Rereading A Writer’s Diary to pen a few modest words to accompany this wonderful reissue in 2015, one cannot but be struck by just how much of its contents continue to resonate almost two decades later. If this is a literary diary that illuminates “life”, it is also a work that is contaminated by the kind of implicit historical consciousness that illuminates “life” in many striking ways. It may seem a large claim to make, but the depth and unfaked quality of its observations have the curious effect of making its year seem somehow current – of making it close to our time, removing the almost twenty years that lie between our South African world now, and a year of the world inhabited by, and reflected upon, by Stephen from December 1995 to December 1996.

For one thing, there is the long shadow thrown by South Africa’s baleful history, and its lingering legacy. In a searing explanation in August 1996, the latter is defined as “guilt on the one hand”, and “emotional blackmail on the other”, making up the “psychic glue” that binds the country. In a stark understanding, it all boils down to mutual “bad faith”. In one part, “guilt is that ever-inflationary wage that inaction pays to conscience”; in another, the answer to it is “extortion by bad faith which is emotional blackmail”. Together, they form the miserable “psychic cost of a nation that continues to be marked by an abyss of inequality – scandalous wealth on the one hand, criminal poverty on the other”. Is it not still ever thus?

At the same time, the Diary stays in the mind for much else besides such stabs at the sorry state of the nation. To take another theme at random, there is the dramatic awareness of light, and its interplay with calendar time and the creation of the physical world into a place that can be apprehended by human beings. Light, ponders a September 1996 entry, “furnishes the illusion of colour … without which the visible world would be invisible”, imprinting it “as perhaps our only image or symbol of God”. With a sense of religiosity rather than the conventional pieties of religion, it is probably no surprise that Stephen clasps the Impressionists, such as JMW Turner, for their painter’s understanding of light. Armed by the entry for 18 September, 1996, go and see the British film director Mike Leigh’s 2014 biographical drama, Mr Turner. It will make the personal life of that flawed and coarse artist feel more like some sort of unintended epiphany.

Equally, no short preface of any kind to Stephen’s writing can omit the continuing relevance of his highly developed alertness to the use and abuse of language. Rightly, in December 1995, he rails against human spaces that have become “clotted with words in the same way that certain landscapes are polluted by filth”, words that have become drained of meaning through overpopulation. His is a trenchant voice against language inflation, be it the “dead wood” of South Africa’s intoxication with cliché (“stakeholders”) or the mumbo-jumbo of intellectual fads which involve never using a single plain word when two or three arcane ones will do. “Postmodernism”, he grumbles on the 21st of December, at times strikes one “as simply a way of shifting the word-garbage around when it’s grown too deep to be disposed of”.

As one of the Diary’s most tough-minded battles, its stand against the degeneration of language is also fought with other, more general, broadsides. These hits are heavy and telling, and if anything have more targets today than when they were directed. Many remain with us. As we are reminded on 26 July, 1995, despite the overblown hopes of their intellectual fellow-travellers, “liberation movements seldom create liberatory (still less libertarian) cultures if only because their struggles demand a high degree of militarisation, conformity, as well as suppression of individual dissent”. As we ought to know all too well from history, “harbingers of freedom in one area can often be minions of repression in another”.

Accordingly, fine-sounding terms like “national democratic culture” and “people’s culture” amount to little else but “an image of collective control rather than one of freedom and individual liberties”. Against that, the Diary declares, reach for the best weapon available, the truth. It is impossible not to love a writer for whom the spectacle of “cultural apparatchiks” debating the future of the South African novel resembles something akin to some matter of state, “like ensuring a supply of clean water for mass housing projects” (5 October, 1996).

The zenith of this acerbic vein is reached with Thabo Mbeki’s fraudulent claim at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the notorious slogan, “kill the boer, kill the farmer”, was really just theatrical word-play, or a “form of art”. As Stephen observes on 12 October, 1996, he seems to have been “criminally unaware” that his meretricious words were “an insult to all South African artists and writers, as well as to art in general.” The light cast on this topic – not only here, but in his other writings – stemmed from what was one of this expertly controlled and careful writer’s feelings about the use of language as a dubious instrument – as the numb grammar of brutality and violence. In my own small craft, that of history, Stephen’s awareness of such danger signs remind me of the view of the late Eric Hobsbawm, one of the most powerful historical minds of our time. He was a Marxist, if of a special kind. In a collection of essays published, as it happens, also in 1997, one message was: beware of being fast and loose with words. For “the sentences typed on apparently innocuous keyboards” may be sentences with deadly human consequences. What matters is that, like Stephen Watson, he set his face against a slide into a contemporary barbarism that threatens to gut the sense of a humane world civilisation that remains the legacy of the European Enlightenment.

I have reached the end of the Foreword to this republication of A Writer’s Diary. Every fond and admiring word of it is absolutely true. Like all who knew Stephen, I am immeasurably richer for having known him and his talent, and am the poorer for his passing. I realise that I am concluding without a single mention of his umbilical attachment to those special Western Cape South African places, Cape Town and the Cederberg, both of which loom prominently in this Diary. But never mind. Look out for the twists, like Stephen’s disarming understanding of the bigotry and reactionary attitudes of the eminent English poet, Philip Larkin. As he reflects in September 1996, that bloody-mindedness towards what he did not like, “reveals itself as a creative resource as much – if not more so – than any empathy”. For this diarist, that is not a consolingly aesthetic rationalisation. It is the truth of unwelcome things.

Bill Nasson
Professor of History, Stellenbosch University

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