Ivan in bite-size complexity
Marginal Spaces—Reading Ivan Vladislavic edited by Gerald Gaylard (Wits University Press)
Should you be one of those unhappy about the insufficiency of reviewing in South Africa, this book will certainly provide your money’s worth.
It is a collection of reviews, essays and interviews by literary academics and other intellectuals in which they examine the works of Ivan Vladislavic, whose pre-eminence grows with each book he writes. This is because although his writing is engaging and easy enough to read on one level, it is also complex and deep, and funny in a way that both exhilarates and satisfies readers, from the tender-hearted nostalgic to even the most sardonic cynic.
This review is partly a response to the comment in a Mail & Guardian article (”So much talent, so few readers”, August 26, 2011) by Craig MacKenzie that academic books attract almost no critical response, or fall into a deep black hole of silence. I will not attempt to evaluate these pieces by professors and the like, but try to assess the book more generally in terms of its accessibility to “the common reader”, or the average M&G reader, especially one who admires Vladislavic’s work. This collection is not a book to read from start to finish in one go, but it is certainly one to have at hand for reference when you read or reread one of Vladislavic’s eight books.
Including Gaylard’s introduction, there are 28 pieces. Some of them are quite short and not written for fellow academics; others are long, dense and quite theoretical, clearly intended for the realm of literary studies. Some of the latter take issue with each other; for example, over whether or not the narrator in Portrait with Keys is a flâneur or not. Only two or three of these are really hard work for those of us unaccustomed to accommodating Derrida, Foucault and even Walter Benjamin in our daily thinking.
Given the decline of the study of the humanities, even the decline of reading for pleasure, this collection of critical pieces, no less than Vladislavic’s books themselves, should be regarded as a sort of national treasure, a bulwark against a rising tide of worldwide ignorance. Even academics and addicted readers have found Vladislavic challenging to read, especially initially. Not that he is difficult to read, but a full apprehension of his meaning is not always that simple. So for a better appreciation of his extremely clever, disarmingly funny, serious and passionate work, these critiques are worth owning.
There are several interviews from which one learns something of the real Ivan Vladislavic, who is not to be confused with any of his protagonists and narrators, though he does admit there are some overlaps. He is a second-generation South African, on both sides of his parentage, of Croatian and Anglo-Irish extraction.
This is something of a surprise because he seems so rooted in his home city, Johannesburg, and so thoroughly conversant with South African speech and thought patterns and our social history. His father was a motor mechanic, but, as often happens with the children of immigrants, he was expected to go to university, which he did in the early 1970s.
At the University of the Witwatersrand he studied both English and Afrikaans literature, finding the Afrikaans department far more radical and interesting. At the time, he says, he was reading “early postmodernists” like Barthelme and
Kurt Vonnegut, as well as Etienne le Roux, early Breyten Breytenbach and John Miles.
After a brief foray in advertising he fled to the more congenial publishing house, Ravan Press, where he worked for eight years, an experience he says was “really crucial to my whole sense of the world”.
One of the earliest interviews he did was with Shaun de Waal for the M&G in 1996, in which De Waal described him as having “sprung to life as a writer fully formed”. The interview has been quoted and referred to often by other academics, because it contains early comments by the author on what he thought important in his work. He stated then that he thought his work was “not so much elitist as marginal”—an idea that has informed his writing through the next two decades.
He has avoided overtly political or big stories in the realist tradition, saying that “the small and peripheral have come to me to seem a positive value”. And he prefers a text that makes “no claim to completeness”. As readers of his works may know, they are often presented in fragments or short stories, even small scraps of text; these are surprisingly potent and, as they accumulate over the years and from book to book, also persistent in memory.
Apart from his writing work, Vladislavic is also a much sought-after editor and he describes how he balances the two parts of his working life, with some interesting comment on the differences between the two.
It took South African readers a while to get used to Vladislavic’s radically strange satirical humour.
His first novel, The Folly, received rather mixed reviews from luminaries such as Ivor Powell and Ingrid de Kok. In the section of writings that relate to this novel I found the most illuminating piece to be Gerald Gaylard’s Fossicking in the House of Love, in which he examines notions of masculinity, homosociality and male camaraderie, and the “machismo of South African nationhood”, which he traces back, through the current obsession with sport, to national service in the military, the two World Wars and the Anglo-Boer War.
He sees the novel as a “devastating critique of apartheid” and notes that it is. Mrs Malgas, the only female character, laughs when the house (The Folly) collapses. Perhaps it is easier now than it was in 1994 to see that “insurrectionary laughter” is the only “sickeningly appropriate” response to an “oppressive social system”.
In the section on The Restless Supermarket, Stefan Helgesson’s essay is a wonderfully clear take on how others see us. Helgesson, a professor at Stockholm University, has focused not only on South African but also Brazilian and other postcolonial literature. His concern here is with language and he examines what has happened to South African English since the decline of the British empire, which brought the language here in the first place, and its seeming reduction in status now to just one of 11 official languages.
He calls the influence of these languages on the still-ubiquitous and powerful English language “minoritisation”. He looks at how Vladislavic examines what is happening through the eyes of Aubrey Tearle, retired proofreader and frequenter of Café Europa. Lionel Abrahams, in his charming piece on this novel, refers to Tearle as “that paralytically conservative old curmudgeon”, resisting minoritisation with all his might. Once again Vladislavic is showing us change, transition and history through the eyes of a character with whom some may be rather embarrassed to find they have much in common.
The second strand of Helgesson’s piece deals with the “spurious authority of commercially produced language”, a phenomenon he calls logocentrism.
Fred de Vries’s article on an appallingly bad Dutch translation of The Restless Supermarket makes for amusing, if shocking, reading. It does also look at issues of translating things that are essentially impossible to translate: “wordplay, dialects, linguistic wizardry, neologisms, mix of languages, names, accents”.
The insights of several South African academics have been included. In addition to those already mentioned, they are Zoë Wicomb (though she is now in Glasgow again), Tony Morphet, Sally-Ann Murray, Peter Horn and Sarah Nuttall. It is impossible here even to touch on most of what they have said, and I hope I will be forgiven for cherry-picking a few more snippets.
In Words First, Tony Morphet, a most elegant and illuminating writer, uses a conceit from a later book, Portrait with Keys, to examine an earlier one, specifically The Exploded View. This conceit is a tomason, an object that has outlived its usefulness but is still hanging around, taking up space.
The history of tomasons is given in detail in the book and Morphet remarks ruefully that in the period of radical change we have been living through “Everyone is now his own kind of tomason; the patterns of the past still visible but the forms of the future not yet stable or secure”.
He also comments on the general state of our cultural life in transition, and, of course, Vladisavic has done the same in his own intense and extraordinary way in his novels and stories.
Nuttall comments towards the end of her article on the absence of cross-racial friendships in Vladislavic’s work, noting that he alludes to the difficulties in this area. In what is rather a serious critique, she says: “Can one write oneself into a city one feels to be receding from one’s grasp unless one inhabits at least the beginnings of a cross-racial world —” She notes also: “The text is marked by its register of complexity in relation to the transitioning of the racial city, but perhaps also by a generational aporia that requires our deconstruction”.
In plain English she seems to be saying, in part, that older white South Africans find it insurmountably difficult to establish normal friendships across racial barriers.
Whether or not this is so now, and it was not so before 1994, the common reader may find this an interesting point to consider, especially because Vladislavic, insofar as he inhabits his narrators, observes a generational difference in his deadpan mocking of Branko’s racism in Portrait with Keys, and another character, Janey, in Double Negative, who is delighted to find a whole village of shacks behind a high suburban wall.
Despite the mooted “generational aporia”, Vladislavic has written her into the (imagined, fictional) city. This brash and excitable young journalist cannot possibly consider herself her own tomason as she tweets and blogs relentlessly.
The final piece is an interview by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen with both Vladislavic and David Goldblatt on the origins and making of the dual book, TJ/Double Negative. It seems to have been not the easiest of collaborations, but both of them retain a good deal of respect for the other’s work. In this interview Vladislavic states that although Double Negative is set in Johannesburg, it is not, like his other books, about Johannesburg.
This happens to be my favourite at the moment and I read it as a straight novel: that is to say, sans its photographic other half. One rather wishes that Gaylard’s collection could have been delayed long enough to include a few reviews and articles on this most recent, and most poignant, of Vladislavic’s novels.