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Karin Schimke

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

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.

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.

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

Chapters & Verse

Nugatory. Nugatory nugatory nugatory. A nugget of a word, a pebble of a different hue from words of similar meaning. A thing I clipped my tongue around, and moved from  cheek to cheek; a thing rather like a boiled sweet.

Not that I knew what it meant when I came across it in Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries website there are around a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, words from technical and regional vocabularies and words not yet published in the Oxford English Dictionary. Which, by the way, currently runs to twenty volumes.

If the exclusions could be counted, we’re probably looking at a vocabulary of about 750 000 words. The chances of coming across each one of them in a lifetime is highly improbable. So each time new one wings past on the breezes, winds and hurricanes of any kind of writing, I feel a little thrill, akin, I imagine to that felt by bird watchers spotting a species they’ve never seen before.

Does it matter that I might never find a use for “nugatory” in a sentence? Should I be cross with Franzen for choosing four-syllable word when he might have used one with just one? Some people become irritable when they come across a new word. Some so grumpy they feel moved to write letters to editors berating writers for using them.

I am all for directness in communication, and news stories, in particular, should be written as simply as possible to convey meaning quickly and succinctly, using short words, sentences and paragraphs . But if a word can more precisely pin meaning to the page in other types of writing – opinion pieces and analysis, features, essays, novels, poems – should it be discarded because it might be a little under-used in  every day speech? Why do new words make people so cross?

No. That’s disingenuous of me. I do know, but don’t want to broach the sticky topic of language elitism in a column about books. “Big” words – and their purveyors – will always have accusations of snobbery  sneeringly tossed at them, as though the number of syllables, or degree of obscurity, is some manifestation of delusions of superiority.

New words delight me.  When they are delivered by way of a novel as wide in scope, as layered in theme, as rich in dialogue and as intense in its scrutiny of human folly as Franzen’s Freedom, well, then, I am beyond delighted. I feel madly happy to be able to read, I feel deeply grateful for the existence of alphabets and phonemes, paragraphs and sentences, language, sound and meaning.

I’ve stated in a previous column that I tend to steer clear of hyped books and Freedom – with some almost ominously declaring it the book of the century – is nothing if not hyped. But after the delicious meal of his first hit – The Corrections – there was no way I was going to pass up this one.

Believe the hype. Freedom is not bad.

And that, by the way, is a litotes – my other new word for the week. And to save you a trip to your bookshelf for your dictionary, or a one-minute flip around Google, I can tell you briefly, that “litotes” is a noun meaning “ironical understatement”. – Schimke is an independent columnist, author and poet and editor of the Cape Times books pages.

First published in the Cape Times on 28 January 2010

Thank heaven for the return to favour of the short story – it’s about time

Not long ago, I measured time in novels: a week had gone by when I’d finished one. When I was younger, a week would have gone by when I’d read two, sometimes even three.

This month I achieved only one novel – Solar, by Ian McEwan – and a bit of another – Just Dessert, Dear by Marita van der Vyver. Then I discovered that time doesn’t so much fly when you’re having fun, as it flies when you’re not doing anything but getting on with the ho-hum of every day.

Apparently, as we get older, time seems to get quicker because – I learnt this from two fascinating books on time perception (The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, and Why Time Seems to Fly As We Get Older, by Douwe Daaisma) – we do fewer new things, have fewer “wow” moments with which to fill the years as we get older. Today’s column should slow down time for me marginally, simply because it’s the first time I’m doing it for the Cape Times. My fast-passing months are glitter-glued together by book conversations, and from now on, they will be punctuated also by end-of-month tallies of what has passed through my fingers and brain.

Worrying that I had done so little reading in June – measuring it by the one-novel standard – I pottered about collecting all the other things I’d read. Haven’t done too badly, actually. I can no longer measure my months only in novels, because I no longer only read novels. Yay, then, that the fashion for the short story has come back around again when the long stretches of time required for novel-reading escape me. My current favourites are the American Miranda July and the South African Liesl Jobson. But it wasn’t them I turned to for the quick-fix. My most satisfying read this month was a short story in an international literary magazine called Glimmer Train. The story is called “Puff Adder”, by Ken Barris. Two friends go hiking together. One is fit, and does it often. The other is not fit, and comes along in spite of the heat and effort he knows will be required.

The writing is crisp. Nothing at all showy: it’s parched as a midday hiker, and the humour – spare though it is – as dry as rocks. I could not say, afterwards, what it was about this story that so lingered, that so flickered on the edges of deeply uncomfortable in its smooth harshness, but to unpick this magic is to un-do the satisfying whole of that short, gritty reading moment.

Speaking of literary magazines, have you heard of Dave Eggers, author of the fabulous A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and editor of McSweeneys? Well, he and his crew put together a deeply pleasing, even febrile, I’d say, “newspaper”, celebrating the tradition of the printed media. It looks like a big, fat Sunday paper with all its various supplements, photographs and features. I have been working my way through it for a month. Fantastic writing, presented in a satisfyingly tactile way.

And then there were the poems of Anis Modgani in Over the Anvil We Stretch and Tony Hoagland in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty. They warmed my nights and stretched the eyes of my heart.

  • This column appeared in the Cape Times’ Chapter & Verse column on Friday, 25 June 2010

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.