The Barry Ronge Fiction shortlist: Bronwyn Law-Viljoen talks about the origins of her novel The Printmaker
Published in the Sunday Times
Bronwyn Law-Viljoen (Umuzi)
The character of the printmaker March Halberg is loosely based on an artist whose life and work I became aware of through a series of coincidences. The artist was little known in commercial art circles, though he does get a single line in Esmé Berman’s Art and Artists of South Africa (1969), one image in FL Alexander’s South African Graphic Art and its Techniques (1974) and a mention in the list of printmakers in the back of Philippa Hobbs and Elizabeth Rankin’s book, Printmaking in a Transforming South Africa (1997).
I did not know the artist, and had not encountered his work before the moment in which this “story” begins. My desire to create a character roughly based on him was also not out of any sense of obligation to his memory or because I wanted to assess his place in South African art history (this question was singularly unimportant to me), though I did feel an odd burden of responsibility towards the work, if only because of its insistent (and, to me, moving) presence in the world.
What engaged me most, however, was the possibility of understanding, through the writing of the novel, some part of the process of making art. More specifically, I was curious about the making of art in a particular moment in South African history.
But more than these quite lofty questions, the real heart of the story had to do with a semi-reclusive artist who simply felt compelled to make images – thousands of them, and for many years, with apparently little need of recognition.
I was interested in this compulsion and also in the repetitive technical processes of printmaking that would have dominated the life of such a person. I thought that by getting inside the head of the character March I would solve some of the riddles of his life.
All of the other characters were created to help me do this and so the novel developed as a series of reports, anecdotes, reflections on the life of the printmaker at the centre of the story.
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I am afraid there’s nothing left to draw. The feeling has been coming and going now for months, receding when I’m in the studio but creeping up on me when I’m in the house or garden, or walking to the shops. On some occasions, however, it doesn’t creep but actually jumps me, and gives me a fright like a sail unfurling suddenly in a strong wind with a sharp snap of fabric. When this happens I try to think about lines and shadings, perspective and form and all of that, but also to summon the whole pictures I see when I close my eyes, pictures that have always seemed to be there, always present to me, fully formed, flickering through like movie frames.
Perhaps it’s not that there is nothing to draw but rather the question of why I should draw anything at all that bothers me. And then too, there’s the fear that I don’t know how to draw things any more, how to join lines to make something materialise on the paper. All of this can be quite debilitating and make me wander about the house aimlessly. Whole mornings go by in this way.
I am also, it should be said, troubled by a terrible plague of ants that has invaded the house following weeks of rain. Indeed, Johannesburg seems to have been overrun by ants. When I am out walking, I see armies of them going down the road, traversing garden walls, marching down pavements, even swarming over the trunks of the jacarandas.
I worry too about the door handles and the light switches, and cannot touch them without going to the bathroom to wash my hands, which is a great waste of time. I try to keep my hands firmly in my pockets to avoid this idiocy, but I often forget. I touch a handle and the thought comes immediately that there are germs gathering on my palms. Of course, I try to suppress the idea, make tea, do some mundane thing as distraction, but finally it’s too powerful a sensation, bordering on panic, and so I give in and wash my hands. I have to turn the taps closed with a paper towel to avoid having to go through it all again.
Sometimes I see a strange huddle of figures at the edge of my vision, an optical disturbance — a kind of visual tinnitus — that I have to shake my head to banish. At night, when I’m dropping off to sleep, or at odd moments in the day when I’m engaged in some mindless activity, I see this circle of figures, whispering and shuffling. I see them more and more these days. They come uninvited — well, of course, who would want such spectral visitors? — intruding with their whispering. Strange ghosts who seem, nonetheless, real enough to touch or talk to, though I try not to do that and so far have not, thank God, caught myself doing so. Once or twice I’ve imagined one of them turning to look straight at me, and then I’m not sure that I haven’t in fact spoken to them. Crossed over into their circle.