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Obituary: Literary allrounder Stephen Gray was a scholar, critic, novelist and poet

OBITUARY: STEPHEN GRAY 1941-2020

Stephen Gray, who died at the age of 78 on 22 October, was a major South African literary figure whose work in many forms continued across six decades. He did an extraordinary amount of work: he was a poet, novelist and playwright, as well as a considerable literary scholar and critic. His literary journalism appeared in this paper from the 1990s to the 2010s.

Born in Cape Town in 1941, Gray studied there, at Cambridge, and in Iowa, where he was a member of the writers’ workshop led by Kurt Vonnegut. On his return to South Africa he became an English lecturer at the Rand Afrikaans University (later the University of Johannesburg), where he taught until 1991. Reactions to his death on social media show that he was a fondly remembered and often inspiring teacher. He was persistently encouraging of younger writers, always ready with advice, and a sensitive but perspicacious critic of their work. He was also a sparkling conversationalist, with a ready store of literary gossip (he knew everyone) and a feline sense of humour.

He wrote eight novels, beginning with Local Colour in 1975, including the controversial Time of Our Darkness (1988), and two collections of short stories and novellas, the last of which was My Serial Killer (2005). He dealt often with racial and sexual issues in a divided South Africa. 

His novels were, however, less well received than his poetry, which kicked off with the volume titled It’s About Time (1974). His collection Love Poems: Hate Poems (1982) addressed contemporary South African social realities, as did Season of Violence, 10 years later. He also had a fine historical sense, and many of his poems take on and re-envision historical moments. His Selected Poems, covering 1960 to 1992, came out in 1993, and was followed by two more collections. 

His chief subjects, he said, were “love and apartheid”. Gray worked in various styles, but said his two central modes were “the lyric and the satire, never disconnected one from the other”. The “effect of this combination”, he hoped, was “transgressive”. 

Gray was also a vital scholar of South African literature. His work in this area proceeded in tandem with, and was partly driven by, his teaching career. Apart from the first comprehensive introduction to South African literature in 1979, he produced collections of South African writers in the short-story form, several of which became setworks at university level. Modern South African Stories, published by Donker and updated in 2002, represents a broad swathe of such work, and he produced similar collections for Penguin and Picador. 

He anthologised South African poets of the 1970s and 1980s, and his Penguin Book of Southern African Verse (1989) was both a popular success and “influential in shaping the canon”, as the editors of The Columbia Guide to South African Literature in English since 1945 put it. He wrote dedicated studies of Athol Fugard and Herman Charles Bosman.

Bosman was particularly fruitful for Gray. He devised a play based on Bosman’s prison memoir, Cold Stone Jug, that was a long-running and much-revived success. He edited the 1986 collection Bosman’s Johannesburg and in 2005 produced what has to be the definitive biography, Life Sentence: A Biography of Herman Charles Bosman. He also wrote a hit one-woman play based on the life of Olive Schreiner, and revived the theatrical work of Stephen Black and Geraldine Aron. His substantial biography of Beatrice Hastings appeared in 2004. His own autobiography, Accident of Birth (1993), delved into his complex affiliations, but was studiedly ambiguous about his sexual ambivalence.

Gray edited C Louis Leipoldt’s only novel, Stormwrack (1980), which had been left incomplete at Leipoldt’s death. It is a fascinating study of the Afrikaner writer’s responses to the South African War. In 1978, Gray produced a new edition of Sol Plaatje’s novel Mhudi, attempting to restore what he believed the missionary press Lovedale had expected Plaatje to cut out. The results were controversial, but placed a renewed emphasis on Plaatje’s work, particularly this novel, and Plaatje’s take on colonialism and tribalism. 

More recently, Gray edited a series of South African works for Penguin, bringing back into print several half-forgotten classics, including Ruth First’s jail diary, 117 Days, Es’kia Mphahlele’s stories, In Corner B, and Can Themba’s Requiem for Sophiatown
Despite all that voluminous literary scholarship, Gray described poetry as “the main activity of my life”. In Veldfire, he wrote: “There’s no averting the kind of gale / that smears fire beneath it / … / hold on – because tomorrow / it turns black and grey and green.”

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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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