Journey of a lost story

On May 14 1962, Athol Fugard wrote in his notebook: “The novel has aborted. Read what I had written to Sheila last night. Her silence and my own feelings as I progressed from one muddle paragraph to another were enough. I don’t consider the work wasted. The characters are with me now. They’ll come out one day. In any case this business of writing ‘prose’ because a publisher wants ‘prose’, is wrong. I’m a playwright.”

He was writing about his novel, Tsotsi, which finally went to print in 1980.

Speaking two-and-a-half decades later, from Del Mar near San Diego in Southern California, where Fugard spends part of each year, he points out that credit must go to writer and scholar Stephen Gray for the novel ever seeing the light of day. “I owe him a profound debt of gratitude.”

Gray tells the story: “It was in 1978, when we were looking for newsworthy items for what would become the National English Literary Museum [NELM] — then the National English Documentation Centre — in Grahamstown, that we got the tin trunk from the Fugards. It was quite a coup. I remember a colleague and I driving back after a pleasant lunch with Athol and Sheila Fugard, them saying it was stuff that they were no longer interested in, they just wanted to get it out of the house, and they were happy to give it on loan to the NELM collection. We flipped open the lid, it was in the back seat of the car, and pulled out some pages. It was, in fact, one of the drafts of Tsotsi. It was a scene about this little Tsotsi character killing Father Trevor Huddleston, in Sophiatown, with a crucifix.”

Gray edited the manuscript and saw it through to publication. But he modestly reminds me that “there are many backstage stories” behind any work coming to fruition. And in turn he credits two young scholars, sadly no longer alive, with playing important roles in the process.

“At around that time, Don Maclennan, a long-standing friend of Fugard’s, had a student called David Hogge. Maclennan persuaded Fugard that Hogge should discreetly look at his writing of the Fifties, where you’d find what we now call the Sophiatown trilogy: his first major play, No-Good Friday [1958]; Nongogo [1959 — currently being revived for the umpteenth time, at the Market, directed by John Matshikiza]; and the novel, Tsotsi. So Hogge examined that period, and was the first to write about Fugard’s only novel, Tsotsi.

“At the same time,” says Gray, “I also had a student, [the late] Barrie Hough, who became the arts critic for Beeld and Rapport and an author in his own right. Well Barrie did his master’s on the same period, and also wrote about Tsotsi. And Barrie got special permission from Athol to copy both versions [there were two], and bring them to Jo’burg, and I had to read them in order to assess what Barrie was writing. I then asked for permission to edit and collate them.”

Fugard, he says, was “cautiously guarded … His go-ahead was conditional: I could proceed provided that he would not be called upon to revise or rewrite — or even read — the novel, and that he would have the final power of veto over its public circulation.”

“At that point I had to face a certain choice,” Fugard explains: “Am I a playwright, or a novelist?” There was no way Tsotsi could have been a play. The canvas was too big to be a play. But by then I had made a commitment to being a playwright. I don’t think there’s a single instance of someone being both. And I honestly didn’t think the manuscript was worth anything.”

It was, as Gray says, “a crazy wager”, but he decided to pursue it nevertheless. At the time he and artist, Cecil Skotnes (whose art work appears on the cover of the first edition), had established a publishing and editing service to try and promote lost South African works.

“I also owe an enormous debt of gratitude to my wife, Sheila,” says Fugard. “She had saved the manuscript in the suitcase, and I told her, I’ll take your advice. So she and Ross Devenish read it.” Devenish, the film director who was working on his third collaboration with Fugard at the time, Marigolds in August, after Boesman and Lena and The Guest, was both a friend of Gray’s and someone who Fugard trusted and respected.

The scene that Gray had read that first day in the car, the “climactic scene, which featured a lurid and melodramatic confrontation between the troubled Father Ransome and Tsotsi … culminating in the latter gruesomely impaling the former on a crucifix … they decided should be cut”. And then, as Fugard recalls: “They said I should allow it to go into print.”

“What Stephen did was really remarkable,” Devenish comments. “A labour of love that not many people would have done. With all the hoo-ha about the film, I thought he was the one person who was being neglected.”

Extraordinarily, Fugard still hasn’t read the novel. “I’m too sacred!” he chuckles. “I’ve read bits of it. I was invited to a literary festival in Toronto, and I had to read something, and I didn’t want to read a play. So my wife said, why not read something from Tsotsi? There’s one episode, with a beggar, which is basically a standalone piece. And then I thought, it’s not so bad!” When I press him for what he’s scared of, he admits soberly: “I’m scared of regretting that I didn’t become a novelist.”

Gray took the manuscript to the late Ad Donker, “who had his own take on the book”, he recalls. “There were some things that he insisted be changed, or rewritten. And then came the great moment to present it to Fugard himself. It felt like a sort of illegitimate child, trying to persuade him that he had fathered it. (Which, funnily enough, is the theme of one of his recent plays, Sorrows and Rejoicings.) He said go ahead, provided you do not promote it as a new work. So that’s why the early editions had a disclaimer at the back, which was later deleted. It explains that it’s a 20-year-old book. It’s not to be taken as a mature work by our foremost playwright, and that it’s a white man’s vision of the black ghetto, and it should be read in that context.”

I ask Gray if criticism about “appropriation” might account for Fugard’s reservations about resurrecting the novel. “I think so,” Gray says. “He had had some criticism about his participation in plays like Sizwe Bansi is Dead, where he awarded co-authorship to John Kani and Winston Ntshona. He was very sensitive on that point of a white man writing about blacks.”

“I’ve been bugged by that issue for most of my career,” Fugard agrees. “How can you, as a white man, write about a black man? But I’ve come to the conclusion that an artist is endowed with the skill to leave behind his own experience and enter into the lives of others. It took me a long time to realise that I’ve got an imagination and it’s up to me to find the truth of those worlds.

‘But I must say,” he adds as an afterthought, “it is in America that I have encountered the most vociferous criticism for writing about the black experience. Infinitely more than I experienced in South Africa. In South Africa the literary environment, though cliquey, is imbued with a certain tolerance.”

“Why I felt Tsotsi was so important,” Gray continues, “… well, those were dark days. And at that time there was no literature whatsoever available on this fabulously rich Sophiatown period. Everybody was banned, or in exile, or had died in exile. All the major figures of the day were unavailable to their South African readers, so there was this huge absence which I felt, as an interim measure, could partly be filled by Fugard, who was pretty well untouchable by then. He’d become such a noted figure by the late Seventies. And he was so independent-minded anyway, that I felt he could carry this little venture, that would remind people of what had been lost.

“Anyway, then it took off. Random House accepted it in the States, and Rex Collings in the United Kingdom. In the UK they referred to it as Tootsi, because they couldn’t pronounce it!

“I’m interested in how the word tsotsi’s become so familiar since the Oscar,” Gray muses. “Now it’s known to the whole world.” A Google search yields 12-million results. “But in the late Fifties it was a minor cult word that people had difficulty with … Drum saw the potential of the posed zoot suit. You know tsotsi’s meant to be a corruption of zoot suit … fashionable clothes, Florsheim shoes, white hats that came from gangster movies … By April 1956 there was a character that Drum launched, called Willie Boy, which was given to Richard Rive, Peter Clarke and James Matthews to write about. And then Alex le Guma took it up as well, for the first of his beautiful books. So it became a media feature, this juvenile delinquent tsotsi-boy. And now of course we have musicals about Sophiatown, and university presses publish dictionaries of tsotsi-taal for academic scrutiny.”

Returning to his thoughts about Gray, Fugard concludes: “Watching his work, and reading his writing, I’ve had unqualified admiration for the man over the years. I’m struck by his wonderful gift as a scholar and literary critic.”

First edition becomes collectable

Johannesburg book collector Ronald Levine, who owns a sizeable collection of South African first editions, says that the earliest publication of Athol Fugard’s novel Tsotsi, “has not up till now been in great demand and is not widely read. With the film now being awarded an Oscar demand for the first edition may pick up. But it is not one of Fugard’s more valuable titles.” However, Levine notes that Fugard (73) is “absolutely collectable”, and became desirable abroad, in 1989, when Time magazine rated him “the greatest living playwright in the English world”. Levine says that even so, “prices are not huge. His early published play Blood Knot is quite a rare book but Tsotsi was always freely available.” Levine estimates the value of the Tsotsi first edition, with its woodcut cover portrait of the main character by Cecil Skotnes, to be between $50 and $100. The condition of the book is, of course, critical in evaluating its worth. — Matthew Krouse

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