Flights of fancy from the colony


On a recent trip to the mysterious region of Kya Sands, I discovered at Thorold’s an interesting book: Birds of Passage by Madeleine Masson.

It’s a collection about famous people who visited the Cape in the colonial era — that’s the only thing these luminaries have in common, as Masson admits. Some of these accounts are valuable, even in the highly stylised form of Masson’s retelling; others are no more than what one might call flights of fancy. The book as a whole, says the dust jacket, is “lightly and amusingly written”. I think they mean heavily fictionalised.

But, first, who was Madeleine Masson? All we are told about her on the back of this book is that she is the author of “two other famous books”, namely a biography of Lady Anne Barnard and a novel titled The Narrowing Lust, which sounds uncomfortable.

Wikipedia provides. Born Madeleine Levy in 1912 in Johannesburg, she met her future husband, a French baron, on a Paris holiday when she was 18. (He was 40.) That didn’t work out, so Masson went bohemian in 1930s Paris, got involved in the Resistance to the Nazis, and so on. On a visit to Napoleon’s tomb (romantic spot!) on St Helena she met her second husband, a “sea captain”.

Settled in Britain, she wrote and wrote: an autobiography, plays, film scripts and the aforementioned novel. She died in 2007, aged 95. Birds of Passage, published in 1950, shows Masson returning her attention to the land of her birth, though obviously the Cape was more interesting than Johannesburg. The colonial nostalgia is pervasive.

It’s interesting that Alexander Selkirk — “the real Robinson Crusoe” — visited the Cape in 1710, especially because it was on his way home from the island where he’d been marooned. He hadn’t yet met Daniel Defoe, who’d rework his tale into a novel in 1712.

The French poets who visited Cape Town were just passing through: Charles Baudelaire on his way back to France, where he’d launch a poetic career, and Arthur Rimbaud, also on his way home, but having abandoned his poetic career years earlier. Neither had anything interesting to say about the Cape, so Masson has to draw heavily on Enid Starkie’s biographies of the poets and add a great deal of imaginative syrup too.

The cake is taken, however, by her account of the French Empress Eugénie’s visit in 1880, when she retraced the steps of her son, the Prince Imperial Louis Napoleon (“Loulou” to her), who had been slain in the Zulu wars. Eugenie hurried on from Cape Town, so most of the story is set in the Zululand bush. Her experience is so overdramatised by Masson that it becomes hilarious — tormented stream-of-consciousness and all.

Ticklingly, the original seller of Birds of Passage (as we’re informed by a red sticker on the flyleaf — 12 shillings and sixpence), was Random Books, 73 Rissik Street, Johannesburg.

I like a random book.

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Author 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.

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