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Listen to five short stories by Nadine Gordimer (including Loot read by the author) via @openculture:

Archive for the ‘South Africa’ Category

David Attwell Reveals the Four “Surprises” he Discovered in Reading JM Coetzee’s Manuscripts

David Attwell

The UCT Summer School Extension programme welcomed South African academic David Attwell, visiting Head of English at the University of York, to the Kramer Building earlier this month for a series of two lectures on JM Coetzee.

The first seminar was titled “Autobiography Into Fiction: JM Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K”, and was attended by a cohort of Attwell’s students visiting Cape Town from the University of York.

Life and Times of Michael KJM CoetzeeDoubling the PointAttwell based the talks on an expanded analysis of the reclusive author’s papers. His exploration into Coetzee’s private world was facilitated by the opening of the JM Coetzee Archive by the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center last year.

Attwell, who is highly regarded worldwide for his in-depth analysis of Coetzee’s oeuvre, is the author of JM Coetzee: South Africa and the Politics of Writing (Perspectives on South Africa). He edited Coetzee’s Doubling the Point, co-edited The Cambridge History of South African Literature with Derek Attridge, and Bury Me at the Marketplace: Es’kia Mphahlele and Company. Letters 1943–2006 with Chabani Manganyi.

Finuala Dowling welcomed Attwell, noting that since he edited Doubling the Point, Coetzee’s intellectual autobiography, it has been “almost impossible to write about either Coetzee or South African literature without beginning one’s bibliography at ‘Attwell’”.

“Soon,” she added, “we’ll be able to place besides Doubling the Point, as its matching book-end, David’s critical biography, JM Coetzee and the life of writing, face to face with time.” This manuscript is scheduled for publication in 2015 by Jacana Media.

Dowling said Attwell’s work was the result not just of his scrutiny last year of the original notebooks and manuscripts but “a unique and enduring rapport between a writer and his critic”. She said that relationship was an ongoing dialogue between two remarkably attuned minds, which began many years ago at UCT, when Attwell registered for an MA under Coetzee’s supervision. “It is particularly fitting that the subject of tonight’s lecture is The Life and Times of Michael K, a novel which was set in Cape Town, had its genesis in this city, and was written on this university’s stationery!” Dowling added.

UCT exam books bound between a piece of cardboard, and held together with what appears to be a
segment clipped from a wire hanger. Photo by Alicia Dietrich, courtesy of the Harry Ransom Centre.

Attwell began by expressing his delight to be back on the UCT campus, and to be speaking on Coetzee where the author had spent most of his academic career. “Coetzee’s studies are a global project, a global undertaking,” he said. “There are centres named after him, centres of creative writing, centres for creative and performing arts named after him, in places at other ends of the world – Adelaide, Australia, and Bogota, Columbia. There is even an asteroid named after Coetzee.”

In his talk, Attwell discussed the four main surprises that had emerged in the process of reading Coetzee’s manuscripts, and the interrelationship of fiction and autobiography, particularly in the genesis and development of The Life and Times of Michael K, which won the Booker Prize in 1983.

“The first surprise appearing in Coetzee’s manuscripts has to do with impersonality,” Attwell said. “For a writer who is so famously guarded, who polemicises against the idea of fiction being a simple expression of reality, Coetzee’s manuscripts reveal him to be much more autobiographical than one would have imagined.” With some exceptions, such as Foe, which is a reworking of Robinson Crusoe, Attwell believes Coetzee’s fiction often derived from personal experience, with his “confessional impulse at least as strong as the impulse to self-masking”.

Attwell said this discovery reminded him of the true meaning of aesthetic detachment: “It’s not a point of departure, it’s a point of arrival, a progressive writing out of the self. The taboo in literary criticism is that the text is a public document, but that taboo disables us from appreciating that the disappearance of the author into the work is actually a cultural artefact, the result of a particular orientation towards the creative process.

“The arch-theorist of impersonality was TS Eliot. His influence on literary criticism was very strong because of this. That influence was so strong that we’ve actually forgotten what he meant. For Eliot, the creation of a work of art was actually a process of self extinction. The self must be present before it can be extracted from the text, as it were, before it can be extinguished. This is the direction that Coetzee followed in his early and mid career.”

The second surprise was insecurity: “Coetzee’s famous control, his minimalism, his taut management of materials, is related to procedural indirection, to an acute self-consciousness. We’ve known this because he’s spoken about writing as a matter of awakening the counter-voices in oneself. Carrol Clarkson’s study of Coetzee’s linguistics confirms this. What is seen in the papers, is just how much insecurity this version of creativity entails. At times it is almost debilitating insecurity. Getting through passages of self-doubt often involved Herculean levels of effort.”

The third surprise articulated by Attwell related to the metafictional quality of Coetzee’s writing. “Metafiction is writing about writing, the building into work of an implicit commentary on the work itself,” he said. “Coetzee is renowned for doing this but the metafiction is not developed programmatically as a way of making general statements about language or art or fictionality. Even though this is a widespread assumption of literary criticism – there is even a popular view that Coetzee writes novels to expound principals derived from post-structuralist theory, for example.”

Attwell believes this is wide of the mark: “There’s an existential impulse that informs the metafiction. A typical question he would pose for himself in his notebook, for example, would be, ‘Where in this work is there room for me?’ That was something he often writes to himself. Or, in a more sophisticated form, ‘When is this book going to achieve self-consciousness?’”

Attwell then referred to Robert Alter’s Partial Magic: The Novel as Self-Conscious Genre, finding an observation recorded in Coetzee’s notes: “Alter correctly observes that the self-conscious novel is aware of impermanence and death in the way that realism cannot be. He’s on the right track. As a result of this strand of thinking in Coetzee’s work, I’ve subtitled my book, ‘Face to Face with Time’. The key element of his authorship involves pushing himself to the point at which he begins to confront existential questions, about himself and about authorship too.”

For Attwell, the fourth and final surprise had to do with the intertextuality that peppers Coetzee’s work. “However, these references don’t precede, rather, they follow the work of invention,” Attwell said. “The allusions enter only once the project has found its own feet. Often this intertextuality is a result of a reading campaign which he will embark on in order to resolve particular difficulties that have arisen in the development of the work.”

Should these surprises even be surprises? Or are they are startling only because of the myths that circulate about Coetzee? “Really,” said Attwell, “it should not come as a surprise to us to discover that Coetzee is human, after all.”

Attwell enjoyed discovering some of the “disarmingly personal gems” he’d come across in the archive. He shared an image of Coetzee’s school notebook dating back to 1948, when the author, aged eight, did a project on bees. “Critics write about his interest in animals, in particular his interest in insects,” Attwell observed. Another of Attwell’s favourites was a photograph of the top of an oak tree in the Coetzee home in Rosebank, which he says he hopes to use on the cover of his next book.

On screen, Attwell showed another remarkable find, a detailed hand-drawn map Coetzee had made as a young man visiting the British Museum. Coetzee, who was reading Burchell’s Travels in the Interior of South Africa, “constructed a beautiful map of where Burchell had been through the country. The isolated boy with an Afrikaner background was reinventing himself in London, but hanging on to a South African identity somehow, realising that that identity was fundamental to the writing”.

The next notebook entry, which illustrated the germination of Coetzee’s idea for The Life and Times of Michael K, was dated 17.X.79 in Coetzee’s neat, orderly script. The provocation was a household burglary in suburban Cape Town.

“Coetzee spent most of 1979 in the USA on sabbatical leave from UCT, refreshing his linguistics, attending seminars on syntax in the departments of linguistics at the University of Texas, at Austen, and at Berkley. He was also finishing Waiting for the Barbarians during those travels,” Attwell said.

Soon after returning to his Rondebosch home, Coetzee experienced a burglary. “The following month he sketched a plan: A man of liberal conscience returns home to discover his home has been broken into and vandalised. He reports the incident to the police but he quickly learns that they are more interested in keeping the lid on the suppressed classes than they are in petty crime. Having effectively no recourse to the law he succumbs to rage. He recklessly drives into the townships posting notices offering rewards, too angry to notice the squalor around him. Matters come to a head when there is another house invasion when he is present and he shoots the intruder. Inured to violence now, and out of control, he calls down a plague on both houses and begins a vendetta.”

Attwell outlined the model Coetzee chose for this story: Heinrich von Kleist’s Romantic novel of 1810, Michael Kolhaus. “Set in the late medieval period, a horse dealer is stopped on the way to market and a license is demanded. Unable to produce one, his horses are confiscated. It turned out the officials are corrupt so Kolhaus becomes an outlaw, embarking on a campaign of robbery and insurrection.”

Attwell described how the style of Kleist’s book interested Coetzee, and offered further extracts from journal entries that outlined the novel: “Michael K started with concept of vendetta, and Coetzee briefly imagined Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country rewritten as vendetta with the theme of the theft of the good land underpinning the novel. The protagonist’s rage was to be fuelled by the discovery that burglars used the typescript to wipe their backsides! Michael K then drifts from being an intellectual to being a working-class coloured.”

Attwell read out Coetzee’s fiery self-scrutiny about the state of the country: “I am outraged by tyranny, but only because I am identified with the tyrant, not because I love (or ‘am with’) their victims. I am incorrigibly an elitist (if not worse); and in the present conflict the material interests of the intellectual elite and the oppressors are the same. There is a fundamental flaw in all my novels: I am unable to move from the side of the oppressors to the side of the oppressed. Is this a consequence of the insulated life I lead? Probably.”

Attwell further examined the spiritual difficulties and contradictions Coetzee wrestled with. The notion of how to attach an outlaw narrative to the outrage he felt as a white victim of crime was one Coetzee pondered deeply. Attwell suggested that in the questions “How do I find my own voice?” and “How do I attain consciousness?” Michael K’s innocence existed as an expression of Coetzee’s own need to attain consciousness. He also explored Coetzee’s need to move away from verisimilitude, with his utilisation of the second narrator in the novel crucial to that requirement, enabling Michael K to become an elusive figure.

The lecture took place just days before the death of Nadine Gordimer, and Attwell mentioned how she had argued in a review that Coetzee did not recognise victims. Coetzee had felt the smart of her criticism, which he perceived as an expression of his lack of political courage.

Attwell’s focus turned to the different literary critical elements in Coetzee’s work, to his elusiveness, insecurity and impersonality. “He was a very guarded figure, tremendously self masked. In each category we learn something new about his authorship. There’s a different game now. Pursue the making of art as much as it is to pursue the art.”

A vibrant question and answer session commenced with interesting responses and queries from some of the academics in the audience. Dowling, Leon de Kock, Lucy Graham and Herman Wittenberg offered in-depth insights, and Attwell fielded questions about intertextuality, as well as the ethics of scrutinising Coetzee’s journals. He posited that Coetzee was “such an enormous figure” and mentioned that Hedley Twidle’s Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize. In the essay Twidle, who was also in the audience, had written about “getting past” Coetzee in a South African context. Attwell suggested that perhaps we had, rather, to “go through him, to immerse ourselves in him, to try to understand the James Joyce of South Africa”, adding that nobody in Dublin would trash Joyce, and nobody in the USA would want to circumvent William Faulkner. “It’s not the same, but Coetzee is as big a figure in our literary firmament,” he insisted.

“The notebooks are a rich resource for the students of the future. The entire archive, some 155 boxes of his papers, are now in the public domain and are very revealing. Some personal letters have been restricted and Coetzee has written humorously about this. He said that the literary executors sit with an author’s material after his or her death. The world wants the material but the literary executors make a decision that the author wasn’t competent to agree to make them available, so they disregard the author’s wishes. That just happened with Patrick White. If you want to destroy your papers, make sure you do it yourself, while you still can, so that somebody else doesn’t!”

In conclusion, Attwell said that the full disclosure available from these documents will enable a vital debate to continue: “The integrity of Coetzees’s overall life, completely immersed, will shine through.”

* * * * * * * *

Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks

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Rian Malan Reviews Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political Jungle by Richard Poplak

Until Julius Comes: Adventures in the Political JungleVerdict: carrot

Comparisons are odious, but Mr Poplak has clearly looked at Thompson’s craft and adapted aspects of it for his own devious purposes, which makes Until Julius Comes some sort of far-flung spawn of Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail. Many are called to emulate the Thompson gonzo. Almost all fail. But Until Julius Comes can stand shoulder to shoulder with its illustrious ancestor and not feel in the least ashamed. Odds are therefore that it too will be read and remembered long after the details of who won what in 2014 are forgotten. If I were Malusi Gigaba, I might just be a bit worried about that.

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Helen Schöer resenseer Love Tastes Like Strawberries deur Rosamund Haden

Love Tastes Like StrawberriesUitspraak: wortel

Lees lekker stadig aan Strawberries, want die leidrade oor Ivor se dood (al dan nie) is subtiel. Die boek bied egter veel meer as net dié raaisel. Die hoofkarakter, Stella, ’n trae joernalis, krap in haar eie verlede rond ná haar ma se dood. Sy hoop om genesing te kry, maar kry veel meer.


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Fransjohan Pretorius resenseer Ons oorlog deur Klaas Steytler

Ons oorlogUitspraak: wortel

Die puik navorsing val op. Feite strook met die werklikheid, selfs tot in die kleinste besonderhede. Daar het egter ’n aantal vergissings deurgeglip. So byvoorbeeld was genl. De Wet nie by die Slag van Magersfontein teenwoordig nie. Daar was nog nie in Desember 1900 kampskole nie – dié stelsel het eers in Februarie 1901 beslag gekry. En in Maart 1900 het die Vrystaters nog nie die Kakies uitgeskud nie – dis eers teen Mei 1901 in die Vrystaat gebruik.

Hierdie ontroerende verhaal is daar vir lees en weer lees, ’n trotse kommando-maat vir P.G. du Plessis se Fees van die ongenooides.


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Lise Swart en Louis Awerbuck gesels oor hul boek, Wie is ek?

Wie is ek?“Die vinnig veranderende wêreld en hoe dit ons denke, gevoel en gedrag beïnvloed, veroorsaak dat die vraag ‘Wie is ek?’ nie meer ‘n saak van interessantheid is nie, maar ‘n saak van oorlewing.” Só het Louis Awerbuck, medeskrywer van die wegholtreffer Wie is ek? onlangs in ‘n onderhoud aan Naomi Meyer gesê. Sy het met hom en sy kollega Lise Swart gesels om meer uit te vind oor hierdie publikasie wat by Naledi verskyn het asook hul gelyknamige program op RSG.

“Dit is eenvoudig so dat mense oor die algemeen oningelig is oor die betekenis en behandeling van sielkundige probleme. Omdat nog minder mense toegang het tot privaat behandeling, is dit vir my verstommend dat dit nie vroeër gedoen is nie. Een uit drie van alle Suid-Afrikaners ly aan ‘n geestestoestand!” sê Swart.

Lees die artikel vir meer oor Wie is ek?:

Hallo Louis en Lise. Julle boek, soos jul program op RSG, se titel is ‘n belangrike vraag wat min mense lus het om te beantwoord. Hoekom is dit belangrik om die vraag te vra?

Louis: Deel van die evolusie van bewussyn is die ontwikkeling van ‘n metaperspektief, waar die mens vanuit ‘n sogenaamde objektiewe waarnemingsposisie na hom- of haarself kyk. Nog nooit vantevore was ‘n “buiteperspektief” van jouself en jou interaksie met andere en jou omgewing so relevant soos vandag nie. Die vinnig veranderende wêreld en hoe dit ons denke, gevoel en gedrag beïnvloed, veroorsaak dat die vraag “Wie is ek?” nie meer ‘n saak van interessantheid is nie, maar ‘n saak van oorlewing.


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Anita Worrall Reviews How to Fix South Africa’s Schools by Jonathan Jansen and Molly Blank

How to Fix South Africa's Schools: Lessons from Schools that WorkVerdict: carrot

This very moving book, described as a “short and simple manual any community of principals, teachers and parents can use to ‘turn around’ a dysfunctional or ineffectual school” is anything but “simple”. It represents the combined efforts of Professor Jonathan Jansen, who identified 19 “successful” schools around South Africa, and researcher Molly Blank, who travelled around the country filming the schools and talking to their principals, teachers and students.

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Koos Kombuis Plays Small but Critical Role in Tess Gerritsen Suing Warner Bros Over Gravity

I-TjiengGravityA blog post Koos Kombuis wrote back in January for Channel24 about the similarities between the film Gravity and Tess Gerritsen’s novel of the same name has proved prescient, as the Chinese-American author is pursuing legal action against Warner Bros., makers of the film.

The film, a science fiction thriller starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, won seven Oscars, including a Best Director gong for Alfonso Cuarón, and a Golden Globe, also for Best Director. In his January article for Channel24, Kombuis calls it “one of the best damn movies that had ever been made”. However, a chance purchase in a second hand bookshop raised his suspicions that the film’s premise might not be an original one:

Then something happened which, unfortunately, completely changed the way I saw the film.

I bought a paperback. In a small Book Exchange in, of all places, Jeffrey’s Bay. A novel by Tess Gerritsen, also called Gravity.

I have read other books by Gerritsen. She is an accomplished author, and her books have been translated into many languages. Yet after reading the book, Gravity, I must admit I felt cheated. Cheated, not by Gerritsen, but by the guys in Hollywood.

Kombuis goes on to say of the incident: “In my mind, this could very well be one of the most blatant and brazen acts of plagiarism ever seen in Hollywood!”

Despite Gerritsen’s response in September 2010 – “I have to admit, these coincidences do happen sometimes” – she released a statement in April confirming that she was planning legal action.

At the time, Ms. Gerritsen was unaware of any connection between those persons responsible for the film and those who had worked to develop her novel into a film. Ms. Gerritsen believed that as improbable as it appeared, it was at least within the realm of possibility that an independent storyteller could come up with the same specific setting, character, situation, and give it an identical title.

Then, in February 2014, Ms. Gerritsen received startling new information from a reliable source. She was told that at least one individual who was key to the development of the film Gravity had also been connected to her project while it was in development, and would have been familiar with her novel.

As the case slowly progresses, Gerritsen has written to Kombuis thanking him for “speaking his mind” when even she did not believe the accusations, and the two authors have been discussing the case on Twitter. Kombuis tells Books LIVE the incident “has got me really excited”, especially “to have received a letter from the great author herself!”

This is not the first international literary incident Kombuis has found himself involved in this year. He recently unknowlingly caused Cambridge students “sheer terror”, when they were faced with his “Tipp-Ex-Sonate” – a poem without words written in protest against apartheid censorship laws – in their exams.

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Book Bites: 27 July 2014

Dear BulletDear Bullet – Or a Letter to my Shooter
Sixolile Mbalo (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
Book buff
Sixolile Mbalo was 13 years old when a young man arrived in her village and began to abuse her – ultimately leaving her for dead in a pit. She clawed out of it and crawled 300 meters for help. This biography is her therapy session; it is also the face of what happens to our young girls each and every day, made to serve life sentences in the prisons of their minds, victims of bullets and knives. Dear Bullet is not a cry for help, it is a wail.
– Kgebetli Moele

The Side of the Sun at NoonThe Side of the Sun at Noon
Hazel Crampton (Jacana)
Book buff
A sumptuous, entirely engaging quest narrative that opens at the Cape of Good Hope in the mid-17th century, revealing the complex dynamics of the Dutch settlers’ interactions with the Khoikhoi – particularly the relationship between Jan Van Riebeeck and the young Eva. The Dutch set off to reach the fabled Chobona people, believed by the men from the Netherlands to stem from Monomotapa, the rich and gold-bearing southern empire that traded with the Portuguese. What emerges is a piercing inquest into the fraught relationships of colonial times.
- Jonathan Amid

Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate)
Book fling
It’s Manchester, sometime just before the London Summer Olympics, and Laura and her best pal/housemate Tyler love the nightlife, love to boogie – and love take drugs and drink until they reach oblivion. They’re just a couple of girls, innit, having fun. But their friendship is being tested: Laura is now engaged to the recent teetotaler Jim, a serious man, concert pianist and a bit of a prick who wants her to stop her wild ways. Unsworth’s second novel is a frenetic, filthy account of chicks behaving badly. As Caitlin Moran blurbs, it’s “Withnail with girls”.
– Jennifer Platt @Jenniferdplatt

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Karina M Szczurek Reviews The Three by Sarah Lotz

The ThreeVerdict: carrot

The Three, Lotz’s first independent international success, is the culmination of her savvy talent and hard-won experience in which she’s honed her craft. Set around the globe, The Three tells the story of four planes which crash on the same day (not recommended for in-flight reading). There are three survivors, perhaps four; all are children. There is also an ominous message from a passenger who lived long enough to record it on her cell phone. A world-wide media frenzy erupts around the aviation tragedies. The families and friends of victims have to come to terms with the reality of unbearable loss. Those connected to the surviving children have to deal with traumas of an entirely different kind.

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Gert van der Westhuizen resenseer Call It Like It Is deur Jonathan Kaplan en Mike Behr

Call It Like It Is: The Jonathan Kaplan storyUitspraak: houtwortel

Hy vertel ook dat O’Brien hom basies gedwing het om vroeër af te tree as wat hy wou. Kaplan kon darem sy loopbaan as blaser in die Curriebeker-eindstryd afsluit.

Teen dié tyd het die leser al soveel saam met Kaplan deurgemaak dat jy saam met hom bly en hartseer is. Jy hoop selfs daar is nog baie Jonathan Kaplans in ons rugby-toekoms.

Jy het ook baie meer waardering vir dit wat skeidsregters moet deurmaak. Net dít maak al die lees van Call It Like It Is die moeite werd.


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