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Karin Schimke

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Gordimer’s merciless beam

No Time Like The Present

Nadine Gordimer

Picador Africa

Sweeping, cohesive, almost epic – and I use the word advisedly – in its scope, No Time Like The Present is the literary thermostat under the tongue of democratic South Africa. But to get the reading you first have to break an almost impossible code.

Nadine Gordimer remains the nation’s one true instrument for taking the political and sociological temperature, but in this, her fifteenth novel, she makes no concessions to the reader; appears to have no truck with stylistic niceties; considers – it seems – no-one and nothing  in a fever to get down what must be gotten down.

The reader must simply learn to read over, through and under the convoluted stream-of-consciousness writing. The prose is inconsistently and oddly punctuated. Truncated sentences contain subordinate clauses which contain their own subordinate clauses. Points of view flit and alight not just from chapter to chapter, but sometimes within paragraphs.

It’s rough going. It is very, very rough going.

And yet, here it is: the one novel that sums it all up, that combs through the knots and lice of democracy’s tangled hair and seems to smooth it all out for our stunned observation. Minutia swept together – sparkles and shards and the dust of a thousand post-freedom political storms and intimate tussles of conscience in a book which balks at nothing.

Steve and Jabu are the poster post-apartheid couple – he, white, middle-classed, born to a Christian father and a Jewish mother; she, the educated Zulu daughter of a church elder and school principal from KwaZulu-Natal. Their children are coloured, their friends, ex-Umkhonto We Sizwe cadres, their values and ideals in line with the struggle they fought for freedom in South Africa.

Now they are in “the present time”, finding a way to live “(a) normal life. (At last?) What is that. In what time and place?”.

They move from a flat to a suburb, she from teaching to law, he from working in a paint factory after making bombs in the underground, to being a science lecturer at university. Each grapples earnestly with the challenges of a split country, doing extra work – for free – in their attempts to help knit together a badly fractured society.

In a very general way, post-apartheid writing has followed two main, decidedly uncheerful themes: in non-fiction the tomes that record the rotten arms deal; in fiction, crime – that burgeoning genre garnering our authors international book deals.

Gordimer manages a far wider range, her riff more perplexed, more doleful and more poignant than her cerebral, biltong-tough writing makes apparent. There are zero simple answers – there is no black and white in freedom, though black and white underpins it all – that will account for the dismaying turn the country’s fortunes  has taken.

“For this we fought?” asks a character.

She is thorough, punctilious and meticulous as she lays out the map of free South Africa, pointing bluntly at that which sickens and appals. And she does this – convincingly – through the eyes of former freedom fighters, loyal supporters of the ANC.

There is no public event or concern she avoids: capitalism, poverty, degradation of the environment, HIV/Aids, crime, corruption, immigrants and xenophobia, emigration, school bullying (and the underlying reef of violence that nudges sickeningly above ground at various times), education, electricity, service delivery protests, affirmative action.

There is no personal emotion that she doesn’t lift out of the mess to examine: responsibility, duty, betrayal, patriotism, the desire for a “a normal life” (which, questions Steve, might also include for him and his privileged family the Epicurean “right to happiness” – and the guilt this produces in one who, like all freedom fighters, put the greater good before personal satisfaction), the shame of racism, the horror of watching principled men and women fall to greed and genuflect to the requirements the ascension to power lays before them.

Gordimer speaks eloquently to the development of the self – “The synthesis of the self” – portraying the country too as a self that must grow. The country is an adolescent, she has one of her characters think, offering it not as an excuse for bad behaviour, but an almost exasperated, perhaps even hopeful, observation of the obvious.

She also reflects on the dismay when the thing that is being grown (a person, a self, a country) grows skew, gnarls in unexpected ways, showing selfishness, and dangerous concessions to cult of the individual.

Marriage, making whole, growing up – these are leitmotifs trailed by both the characters and the milieu.

In public Gordimer has spoken clearly and consistently against the government’s Protection of Information Bill, colloquially known as the secrecy bill. In the privacy of her disciplined dedication to daily writing, she has laid out why in this novel. Just like apartheid South Africa needed her and her courageous ilk then, so we continue to need our vociferous, critical writers and artists now.

There is no time like the present. The past is – in all ways but the most critical, in its legacy – a different country. What happens now – what has happened in the past 18 years – is where Gordimer has pointed her merciless beam.

In doing so she again will make herself a tolerated – not welcomed individual – amongst the touchy, over-sensitive rulers, just like she was in apartheid SA. Good. She’s our golden thorn in the government’s flesh.

Like loyalty to a country in the face of extreme disregard for its citizens, this book is hard work. But its rewards are far more certain and immediate. It must be read.  – Schimke is the Cape Times books editor. This reviewed appeared in the Cape Times on 23 March 2012).



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E-book can be a bit e-rritating but a good story triumphs

I like my books dirty.

The reverence that some hold of the product – the paper thing between covers – is not something I appear to be capable of.

I came to this realisation because I read my first ebook this month on a tablet given to me as a gift.

After fiddling around with the new contraption I realised that I wasn’t going to use it much unless I did something with it I really wanted to. So I ventured into the mysterious world of on-line book buying and came away with Jeffrey Eugenides new book The Marriage Plot.

I’ve written before that I don’t see myself as someone who would easily convert to ebooks. So I tested the hypothesis and my main finding was that I’m not very nice to my paper books. It won’t do to balance a cup of coffee on the e-reader on the way to the stoep. I can’t let it drop to the floor next to the bed as I do when I start nodding off, or read it in the bath or on the beach or in the park or while I am frying onions.

I’m all precious about the thing, causing somewhat of a distance between myself and the book it holds. Instead of the book becoming an extension of me – like my hair clips or flip-flops or battered handbag – it is an expensive little gem that requires care and attention I feel unable to give.

I don’t feel that way about paper books. I know this is anathema to many people. It’s also why I am loathe to borrow books because I know I work them hard, that my consumption of them requires them to negotiate the rough terrain of careless hands, pencil scribbles, dog ears, and my obsessive reading habits which require me to take the thing everywhere – meaning it gets stuffed into grubby handbags and gets read over solitary lunches and during chocolate binges.

When I am being careful with a book, I read less, slower and with greater difficulty.

Another draw-back of this e-book awe is that I feel limited by carrying around something that is so desirable to so many people. I didn’t take it to the park with the kids. I didn’t leave it on the passenger seat when I went hopped out at the shops. In short, I became more furtive about reading because I was worried someone was going to bop me over the head and carry away my gift.

I am not dismissing ebooks though, and have come to the conclusion that this is not an either/or debate. The point of all books is to convey the story. The vehicle is almost secondary. And once Eugenides hooked me, I read with appetite and delight, sometimes even forgetting I was holding a mini computer instead of a paperback. And he – Eugenides – was the second author of the month (after I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna) that made February a dazzler the other months this year are going to have a hard time outshining.

Eugenides ended rather abruptly, what with me being unable to assess how the close the end of the book was from the little bar at the bottom of the reading pane. From there I splashed into Milan Kundera’s Immortality with too much lightness, the philosophical themes being unaligned with the ones I am currently engaged in – and splashed right out again into something fizzier, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – a radical and surprisingly enjoyable departure from my usual reading preference. Now I am swimming in a placid lake of a book: The Fox In The Attic by Richard Hughes, epic and atmospheric.

Over lunch just now some crumbs fell on to the page and the cheese left a tiny smear of grease. The book and I are now bonded by the mess of the prosaic. – Schimke is a poet and writer, and editor of the Cape Times books pages.

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Options rather than answers: the rewards of novels and non-fiction

The narrator of The Lacuna (Barbara Kingsolver) sheepishly admits to the character of Leo Tolstoy that he is writing a novel. “It’s nothing that will liberate the people,” he says.

Tolstoy replies: “A novel! Why do you say this won’t liberate anyone? Where does a man go to be free, whether he is poor or rich or even in prison? To Dostoyevsky! To Gogol!”

It’s an imagined conversation, but Tolstoy’s exclamation rings true to the character Kingsolver has created.

The novel, that oft-denigrated – but tenacious – genre; when will people stop looking down their noses at it? When will they acknowledge that it creates a safe space for slipping sideways from our own confining lives and that that is a good thing?

Whenever someone tells me in sniffy tones that they can’t be bothered with fiction, I have to bite my tongue just a little, as I often must when I encounter other examples of dense arrogance.

There’s no doubt that personal reading history, psychic developmental leaps, personal taste, age and perhaps even (I say this gingerly) gender, all colour people’s reading preferences. I am more partial to fiction than to non-fiction  in general, but at times I tire of what fiction offers and find my reading needs more adequately met by non-fiction.

Usually my needs are met by variety. So, while I’ve been reading The Lacuna, I’ve also been consulting a very old book of mine on Frida Kahlo (Kingsolver’s novel is about Kahlo and her communist artist husband Diego Riviera), called Kahlo (by Andrea Kettenmann and published by Taschen), as well as the thorough Reader’s Digest Facts at your Fingertips (because I needed to remind myself of Russia’s leaders in the twentieth century). This last is faster and more reliable than Google.

Before The Lacuna I was swept like so many millions around the world into Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife, where the shards of magic dazzle in the blanket weave of a rich and eloquent modern fable.

My books seem to have a travelling pattern: the novel is intrepid, travelling everywhere with me in my handbag or the crook of my arm – a charm against wasted reading time and boredom (all that waiting around in cars and queues when I could be reading). There’s only ever one novel on the go.

Non-fiction is more domesticated, but more restless, staying home but shifting between the rooms of the house and places I sit (or stand – I sometimes read while stirring pots). Currently there are two of them open and face-down in various convenient places, the most compelling being All About Love, by Lisa Appignanesi (Virago), a magisterial, humane and astoundingly researched work, girded and bolstered by Appigananesi’s intelligent, brawny prose.

The other one arrived in the post one day in December: a gift from a male friend of mine who has a son the same – rather spiky – age as my own pre-pubescent son. We’d been talking about their odd mood swings, intermittent testosteronal surges that flop into poignant moments of hold-me-I’m-just-a-little-boy.

My son was next to me when I opened the unexpected package: Raising Boys by Australian psychologist Steve Biddulph. He raised a sceptical eyebrow and said: “Not every answer can be found in books, you know.”

He’s right of course. Neither fiction nor non-fiction have The Answer to everything, maybe even to anything. They just offer varieties of options, little soupçons of possibilities, and – if we’re lucky –clumps of truths that will never be ours, but settle, as only truth can, in the corners of the heart. If you have a mind at all you will absorb, digest and reject everything you’ve ever read in the lifetime’s span of reading. And found your own answers.

Speaking of my son: he is the fussiest of readers. When he can’t find anything by one of his favourite authors he mopes around complaining about the dearth of reading material and refusing to be to be drawn down unexplored reading avenues. He has his own mysterious reading road map.

For months, while waiting for the next Rick Riordan novel to come out and make him happy for the two days in which he disappears from this world into Percy Jackson’s, I have been trying to get him to read Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There.

He refused on the grounds that it’s not fiction and (this one unspoken) it is recommended by his mother – whose general intelligence he is currently regularly questioning.

Yesterday he flumped into my office, barely able to speak from laughing. “Mom! Mom! Listen to this…” and he read me a paragraph from Neither Here Nor There.

Either his desperation for something to read, or a moment of weakness in his will to resist me and non-fiction, had brought him around finally.

And so begins, I hope, a new relationship with a new genre for one ardent reader. – Schimke is a poet, author and columnist, and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.


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Home is where books go plop and shelves for uncanny alliances

I know it is here somewhere, in this shelf. This is where I put it. This is where I saw it the last time I saw it and thought: “Ah, I forgot about you. Hello book.” And yet it is not here.

I am sure the spine is ivory coloured, and just less than a centimetre thick. I could be mistaken though. The other day I was looking for an old favourite, utterly convinced I was hunting a yellow spine with red letters, cursing the thief who stole it, only to locate it as a beige spine with brown letters.

Lately in my home a book’s place is where it comes to rest. The stringent rules I had for organising my books have become sloppy over time.

My dictionary shelf still only contains dictionaries, poetry shelf only poetry, journalism shelf only journalism books, medical shelf only medical books and my very special collection of the illustrated children’s books I have found remarkable and memorable and to which I often return, are on a low shelf in the kitchen where children can reach them too. The kitchen’s where – logically – the recipe books reside too.

Other than that, old and new writers are bedding down together haphazardly. The German and Dutch writers have gravitated to the far upper left shelf in some semblance of continental order, and the Afrikaans and South African English writers are so cosy you’d never believe there to be historical animosity. South Africans of all languages and races are mingling with Australians and Indians and Nigerians. There’s a loose, happy democracy going on in my bookshelves and it seems oblivious to my need for order, and the sometimes pressing urgency to find a book very quickly.

I often read several books at once and I read everywhere. This book untidiness leads to books sometimes being hurriedly squeezed into any available space on the shelves in the house.

How people arrange their bookshelves is always of interest to me. Bookshelves themselves hold great fascination and I even own a small collection of books about bookshelves.

Some people arrange them by topic (like I do), some by size, and the more methodical go for the library option of arranging by author’s surname.

A friend of mine recently designed and built his own enormous bookshelf, using Piet Mondrian as inspiration for the size and shape of the shelves. Then he proceeded to arrange his entire collection – again a la Mondrian – according to the colour of the books’ spines. His main motivation was that it would make it easy for the family to put books away.

At first I found this funny. Now I think it might be quite a wise idea when you’re an anytime, anywhere reader.

This month’s books however, are still scattered around the house, but mostly around the bed on already heavily laden side-tables. Bed always feels like the most appropriate place to finish a novel.

Craig Higginson’s The Landscape Painter, Michiel Heyns’ Ground Work and Rayda Jacobs’ Joonie, wait patiently for shelving along with Wuthering Heights, a recent bargain purchase, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, which I have finally come around to.

I must remember to memorise the colour of their spines before I pack them away though. – Schimke is an independent writer, poet and columnist and editor of the Cape Times books pages.This is from her column Chapters & Verse which appears in the Cape Times on the last Friday of every month.

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Stiff-necked and inside my head, but going with the flow

Last night I was so inside my book that when I became aware of myself, of the bed I was sitting on, on the cold air coming through the open window, of my uncomfortable position, I also became aware that my face needed to be rearranged into its usual position.

I felt how my head had to move back between my shoulders, instead of craning forward; how I had to blink to recover from the bug-eyed spell; how much effort it required to relax my shoulders.

The magic had happened: I had been abducted from my life.

To escape is a drive so strong we all do it without even knowing that’s what we’re after. Some people run; the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami writes about that in What I talk about when I talk about running. Richard Calland, the South African political commentator and writer once wrote about how playing cricket put him in “the zone”. Some people tinker with model planes, or do macramé.  Some dance. In Ian McEwan’s book Saturday the brain surgeon protagonist reaches a kind of humming peace when he is operating.

The Croation-born Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago – has written about this state prolifically, and has called it “flow”. “Flow” is when you are fully immersed in an activity almost to the exclusion of the outside world. You are focused, energised, involved. The result of having been in flow is a feeling of joy, almost rapture, that is the direct result of being unaware of anything – including yourself or your responses or emotions – except the activity you are involved in.

Activity is the key to flow. Sitting cramped up with a cold breeze on your neck does not seem particularly active, and yet I was fully active. My mind was doing tumbles and jumps and pirouettes trying to figure out which of the characters knew what. On a philosophical, intellectual plane, I was aghast at the situation the characters found themselves in, and was processing the social context which had given rise to such a frightening dilemma. My emotions were utterly engaged: my empathy was so acute I felt anxious, and my revulsion at the key act that causes the characters’ difficulties was on high.

I was not, however, reading a crime novel or a thriller. Yet the tension, the conflict and the plot was tuned to such perfection that my attention never stalled for a moment. The only difficulty in reading the book is that it is written in a language I don’t speak (Dutch), but which I like to read, so it required a little more brow-knitting than usual. The book’s name is Het Diner. It is written by Herman Koch. I have failed to find out whether an English translation exists, but since the book was only published in 2009, perhaps there it will be.

Which reminds me of a point that one of the judges of the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction made earlier this week. Carmen Callil said there were fewer writers translated into English than into any other language. Pity.

I have to go now. Het Diner calls to me from the bedroom, and in the morning the children will be clamouring for an update on this terrifying social drama that some would people would, sadly, pooh-pooh because of it has the whiff of literary fiction about it.

Before I go though, one quick thing: the months between the novels of Siri Hustvedt novels pass way to slowly for me, so I was delighted when I could got her new one, The Summer Without Men, earlier this month. I liked it. But I have reservations. I’ll tell you about them in a review soon.

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Novelists provide the doors to enter a place of imagined lives

A man walks through a crowded street, beggars and peddlers imploring him. A hand clutches at him and he turns to see a ragged woman holding a pale, skinny baby.

‘ “Feed my child,” she said. I turned away before she could meet my eye, remembering the stories that beggar-women would keep their babies hungry to arouse pity. Or was that just another story we told ourselves, to salve our consciences as we made these people invisible?’

This is from a book I’ve just finished. The speaker is a hunchbacked lawyer called Matthew Shardlake, who is unexpectedly required to find a serial killer, and gets tangled in heavy politics.

Bribery, backstabbing, murderous religious zealotry, shocking poverty, no medical care for the poor, rampant misogyny and pointless, cruel crime. Sound familiar? But the story is set more than three centuries ago in Tudor England, not in South Africa.

I find reading CJ Sansom’s popular Shardlake books enormously cheering. I do not like murder mysteries, nor historical novels, but I have a soft spot for Shardlake, because his world puts my own environment into context. I become depressed – like we all do – by our politicians’ greed, by homelessness, by corruption, by a nagging guilt that I have things so many others don’t. But when I read a novel like Revelation I am disabused of the pernicious, navel-gazing, gnawing worry that South Africa alone suffers from humanity’s apparently avoidable – but stubbornly ubiquitous and ceaseless – cruelties against itself. When I am yet again plunged into discussions about how awful things are in South Africa – as though we alone have inherited the wrath of some mean-spirited divinity, or stupid, avaricious leaders – I want to tell people to get some perspective.

Read a little. Not just history and current affairs. But read about how unexceptional human beings – just like you and me – suffer difficulty, enjoy simple things, and find meaning in rotten circumstances.

It is humanness – common, exceptional, individual humanness – for which many readers turn to novels. This is where we measure our lives and values and gain perspective; where we nurture empathy and compassion, without which the knowledge of history, medicine, science and psychology remain empty acquisitions. When people say “I don’t read novels. I only read non-fiction. I don’t see the point of stories,” I am not – as they wish me to be – impressed by their intellectualism. Instead, I feel a little sad that they have not opened themselves to the less factual learning that novels provide. In the end, bigotry indicates a absence of creativity: without being able to imagine yourself in someone else’s life, how can you begin to nurture empathy?

Novelists provide the doors through which we may enter imagined lives. Their services to humanity are undervalued.

Revelation, substantial at more than 600 pages, reads quickly though, and I have managed also to begin Craig Higginson’s The Landscape Painter, a gentle, atmospheric story set in post-war London, and pre-war Johannesburg. I sense I’m going to like this one.

I also read Marlene van Niekerk’s Die Sneeuslaper, four stories of such rich texture, such an odd combination of impenetrability and subtlety on the one hand, and simplicity and wide scope for individual interpretation, that writing about it here will do it no justice. Wait for it, the way English readers waited for her phenomenal Triomf and Agaat to be translated, or gird your loins and plunge into some of the most challengingly pure Afrikaans narratives currently being published. This woman is almost, just almost, a frightening genius.  – Schimke is an independent  columnist, author and poet, and editor of the Cape Times books pages.

  • First published in Karin’s Chapter and Verse column in the Cape Times of Friday 25 March 2011

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Mockingbird saves the day after a great book has flown the nest

“Nothing to read.”

That’s a bit like standing in front of a wardrobe full of clothes and saying “Nothing to wear.”

My house is packed with books: neatly on shelves, tottering in piles near the front door; stacked hopefully next to the bed waiting for attention. And it’s not that I wasn’t reading. I was busy with long feature articles in Vanity Fair and stories in The New Yorker. I was mulling over Afrikaans poems by Breyten Breytenbach and in Andries Samuel’s debut collection Wanpraktyk. I read essays in The Science of Compassion.

They all satisfied a certain reading hunger, but fell short in providing a whole-hearted immersion in a single, consuming narrative. Without having a novel on the go I feel a little shaky, a little ungrounded.

The story desert is what always happens to me after reading a really fantastic novel. Every other novel I pick up feels like a desertion of friends left behind between the covers of another book. Every milieu feels like the wrong one, every new character an interloper.

What had caused this delightful bleakness was a Dutch novel by Richard de Nooy called Zacht Als Staal. It should be available here in English before the end of the year.

De Nooy tells the story of a fragile, girly boy from Zeerust who grows up on a farm and is bullied mercilessly by his brother and at school. Everyone – including those who love him and an army psychiatrist – try to turn him into the early eighties version of a “real” white South African man. Staal finally escapes the hell of his life and finds his tribe in Amsterdam.

The story is told in several different voices, and De Nooy has an ear for dialogue which not only renders the text almost audible, but pumps his crystal clear, acutely and empathetically observed characters full of humanity.

He builds tension subtly and constucts his story with tender care. I found the novel so moving, so humane and so compulsive that I could not settle to any other novel.

The abyss between a great novel and a new, unread one needed filling, so I turned to my first and enduring great literary love: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, a novel which turned 50 last year.

This is the third time I am reading it, and it is no less potent than the first time I read it at 17, when my English teacher – may she remain blessed – realised that my complaints about Danielle Steel’s romances and other such diversionary but ultimately unsatisfying novels meant I was ready to move up a run on the reading ladder.

This book does not age. Nor am I less in love with Atticus Finch – the father of Scout and Jem, who grow up in a small town in the racist southern states of the US in the 1930s – than I was as a teenager.

Everything that is right and worthy in human beings can be found in the Finch household; everything that is deplorable can be found outside of their four walls, where small-minded bigotry and ignorance cause the death of an innocent man.

All readers need a reliable favourite to fall back on when there is “nothing” to read. To Kill A Mockingbird remains my favourite novel of all time. I hope I’ll get to read it at least twice more before I check out.

  • This column appeared in the Cape Times Chapter & Verse column on Friday, 28 February 2011.

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