/ 4 October 2013

Richard Rive biography: Where’s the roistering braggart?

Shaun Viljoen's biography of Richard Rive left out the bits in which his subject would have gloried.
Shaun Viljoen's biography of Richard Rive left out the bits in which his subject would have gloried. (Stephen Gray)

BIOGRAPHY by Shaun Viljoen
(Wits University Press)

Here at last is the long-awaited account of ­Richard Rive, that strongman and polemicist of the 1960s generation of South African letters. Some 15 years in the making, it has won its subject's friend and collaborator, Shaun Viljoen, a doctorate and a position on the staff of Stellenbosch University.

It is handsomely packaged and comes garlanded with commendatory shouts from the correct ­academic luminaries and key followers, although whether they have actually read the text must remain in question. Unfortunately, it is replete with evasions and even plain errors.

Viljoen himself subtitles the work A Partial Biography, but whether that means he is biased in favour of his amicable old subject, or that the work is incomplete, keeps the persistent reader in suspense until the very epilogue. The latter is the case.

Rather than your standard literary biography, which would traditionally fill the next generation in on essential points of an extraordinary individual life – perforce from his cradle, if there ever was one to alas, in this instance, a gruesome grave – this effort piffles on and on with humourless ideological problems over pinheads. This serves only to make his subject ever more ungraspable.

Where is that roistering braggart, born in 1930, who rose out of your typical so-called coloured family of hungry, fatherless children in the ghetto, and who outshone his origins as an intellectual with global reach? With a master's from Columbia and a doctorate from Oxford no less, that this unique icon should be murdered by two house guests over his own dinner table needs more than a passing mention.

After putting up a fight, the fact is that Rive was stabbed to death, with a single brought-in knife, no less than 22 times. The perpetrators were vengeful "rent boys" evidently belonging to a "moffie" subculture that had always flourished in the Cape slums. Now that same-sex relationships have been legalised post-1994, this new climate of freedom helps to bring in more to the gross domestic product than the gold mines.

Viljoen is too prim to specify any of this. But irked at having to strip down before Rive's Polaroid by the pool, these types now turned on him, demanding the keys of his air-conditioned Toyota Cressida.

Unaware that their target was one of the country's most famous, much translated fiction writers, essayists and playwrights, they stole the car to make their getaway with his goods, intent on finding their own fortunes elsewhere. Instead of being hanged, five years apiece is what they served.

So what must that say about ­poverty eroding morals, jealousy motivating crime? On such issues of interpretation Viljoen remains ­disengaged.

Instead he settles for quoting bits of the horrified epitaph by Rive's old buddy Alf Wannenburgh in what he lists as the Mail & Guardian Review. However, on February 7 1991, this paper was still called the Weekly Mail, and anyway his source is actually the review section of the Guardian in Britain.

Such casual slips should not have been allowed to proliferate: the index should have been checked, data organised chronologically to avoid whiplash and the ongoing, annoying repetitions blue-pencilled.

For example, the question: Was Rive what we now call gay? is asked frequently. Yes, so what? If he had come out then, obviously he would have lost his teaching posts and gone to prison.

When the police caught his early influence, the artist and poet John Dronsfield at it, as Viljoen should have pointed out, Dronsfield was obliged to jump off a building into Greenmarket Square.

With his first three books banned by the thought police, Rive could not tactically put a foot wrong. The first of these was published behind the Iron Curtain in communist East Germany, after all, and the Cold War was in progress. Buckingham Palace – to quote the title of his only work to be reprinted today – was situated in District Six, which was demolished.

In Viljoen's book I find myself often quoted and without acknow-ledgement on the genial sponger, yet he gives no sense of the context from which such snippets come. They were from periodicals such as Current Writing and Staffrider, which were all part of a long-standing and massive counterculture resistant to apartheid. They should not be forgotten, because such outlets made Rive what he was.

Nor in a book published by Wits University Press is there a single note of that institution's Special Senate Lectures of 1980. There Rive neatly and unforgettably laid out exactly what should be known about him, as if it were his testament.

Similarly missed is Rive's crucial story, The Man from the Board. This detailed his recurring, utter terror of being evicted from his whites-only flat in Cape Town's Claremont – merely on account of his obviously being the product of some darkie ship's cook who moved in on his poor mother. Before sailing on from the Tavern of the Seas, that is, leaving her to deliver the result.

Hence Rive's last bitter capitulation of principle, moving into a villa of his own in "Windsor Park", which it needs to be emphasised was a Group Area prescribed for the likes of him. There, as visiting scholar Albert Gerard remarked, while only cathedrals in Europe had carved front doors, Rive's, which were by Cecil Skotnes, were on display to make an up-yours compensatory show.

No mention either of the impact of the uncollected last story featuring his louche alter ego: "Janet September", unleashing her whacky brogue. That is, while Rive's pupils crouch on the classroom floor to evade real bullets meant to kill. They inhale through their shirt-tails to avoid the teargas. But from the pedant they keep learning their Shakespeare. Same old story. But it did merit being retold. In full.

And where on earth is any remark about Heinemann's African Writers Series, which had in that era to be launched by an educational publisher? Rive's Modern African Prose anthology became their runaway bestseller, setting the fashion for an entire post-war literature that is now accepted worldwide. Yet when Heinemann duly asked him to revise it – and to remove his "white" contributors – he simply refused, despite the loss in royalties.

Those are the kinds of stories in which Richard Rive himself revelled. They should have been recorded in order to make his life story not only more complete, but also comprehensible to any fresh readers.