As you lay dying

It has been a decade since Anne Landsman’s well-received first novel, The Devil’s Chimney, came out. Perhaps that time lapse accounts, at least in part, for the fact that her second novel, The Rowing Lesson (Kwela) feels like a quantum leap, a move to a new level.

This story of a daughter at her dying father’s bedside—intuiting her way into his life, blurring memory and imagination—is beautifully written, tough, tender, funny, scary and deeply moving.

The richness of the language and the storytelling, as Betsy Klein all but channels the voice of her father, the Worcester family doctor Harry Klein, certainly made me feel that the novel could be drawing only on a deep seam of autobiography and family history.

Fiction has an amazing capacity to invent, but somehow pure invention does not sound or feel like this. Harry Klein’s voice is so strong, so textured, that it could only have been heard.

Landsman, when I spoke to her, confirmed that the novel draws heavily on her own experience.

‘Betsy’s situation in the book is somewhat similar to my own,” she said. ‘I was pregnant with my second child when my father fell and broke his arm. Something went wrong in the operation and he started to fail ...”

Betsy, in the book, is pregnant with her first child. And, unlike Landsman herself, she heads for her father’s bedside.

‘I was in New York,” Landsman told me, ‘and I had to decide if I was going to come back and see him before he died and for the funeral. I decided to stay in New York. My doctor said to me: ‘What would he have said to you?’ Clearly he would have said ‘Choose life.’

‘I wrote a letter to him as he was dying that my brother read at his bedside and then it was read later at the funeral. Years later I realised that this was the spark of the book.”

Indeed, Betsy addresses her comatose father directly and much of the novel is written in the second person ‘you”. But it goes further. As she retells his stories, his anecdotes, his jokes, in his voice, Betsy intuits her way into his own private history and the novel opens out magnificently, memory expanding into imagination.

‘For me,” said Landsman, ‘it was important to find the most immediate way to bring him to life before he was completely gone, before the memories were gone.

‘I don’t know if imagination leads memory by the hand, or memory leads imagination by the hand, but it was almost an attempt to resuscitate him in the imagination. It had to be done through the imagination; it couldn’t be done just through memory, so those two things are twinned.”

Landsman’s mother also had a role to play. A ‘passionate reader”, she ‘had a lot do with me becoming a writer,” said Landsman.

During her childhood in Worcester her mother got her an adult reading card for the library ‘when I was about eight”—beginning a life’s passionate reading for Landsman too. Perhaps that’s the source of her superb literary imagination.

In the novel the flow of memory and imagination is embodied in its language, studding the recreation of Harry’s life with nutty puns and medical terms refigured as landscapes, all merging and surging into a powerful stream of consciousness. This tidal feel is also mirrored in the novel’s structure. There are four journeys up a river, from its mouth at the sea, each taking Harry Klein towards a place appropriately called Ebb ‘n Flow.

‘The book is really in the shape of a river,” said Landsman. ‘It needed to be written in that way — I guess it’s part of the grieving process, which is quite an internal, ambiguous, complicated thing in and of itself. When someone passes away they don’t disappear, they’re not gone. My father became a collaborator. We were doing this project together.

‘The characters are not identical, obviously—there are many things that are invented in the novel, but he was definitely there with me, working on this, talking a lot. It’s like the ancestors speaking to you. It’s a combination of really frightening and really reassuring.”

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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