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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Marlene van Niekerk is op 10 November 1954 op die plaas Tygerhoek naby Caledon gebore. Sy het in Riviersonderend en Stellenbosch skoolgegaan. Sy het tale en filosofie aan US studeer.
     Na universiteit is sy na Duitsland, waar sy teater bestudeer het, en daarna Nederland toe, waar sy haar drs behaal. Sy het aan verskillende universiteite doseer en is tans professor by die Universiteit van Stellenbosch. Benewens dramas en poŽsie skryf sy romans soos die veelbekroonde en -vertaalde Triomf.
1978: EugŤne Marais-prys en Ingrid Jonker-prys vir Sprokkelster Kanseliersprys van die Universiteit van Stellenbosch
1995: M-Net-prys, CAN-prys en Noma-prys vir Triomf
2005: Die UJ-prys vir skeppende skryfwerk vir Agaat.
Michiel Heyns grew up all over South Africa, and studied at the Universities of Stellenbosch and Cambridge. He lectured in English at the University of Stellenbosch until 2003, when he took retirement to write full-time. In addition to a book on the nineteenth-century novel and many critical essays, he has published three novels. He reviews books for the Sunday Independent, lives in Somerset West and is at present translating Agaat by Marlene van Niekerk.

Marlene van Niekerk in conversation with Michiel Heyns

  1. In just over four years you have produced three novels: after the semi-autobiographical The Children's Day came The Reluctant Passenger, a-laugh-a-minute romp that reached cult status in gay circles, and recently Jonathan Ball launched The Typewriter's Tale, a novel which reflects a lifelong intellectual engagement with the world and work of Henry James. Could you reflect on this extraordinary rate of publication and the "writer's logic" of this sequence of works?

    A blocked pipe gushes when you unblock it. For most of my adult life, which I spent as an academic, I felt that writing fiction was an indulgence that I couldn’t afford. So when I got over that inhibition there was a lot of pent-up energy. As for the logic of the sequence: well, of course most first novels are to some extent autobiographical, so I had to get that out of the way. The Reluctant Passenger was written as a response to publishers who complained that The Children’s Day was “too quiet”; I thought, well, let me write something very much not quiet (the publishers then said they missed the gentleness of The Children’s Day). Having done that, I was free to turn an academic passion (Henry James) into something other than a research article.

  2. What I find extraordinary is your ability to inhabit vastly different worlds, and your way of writing fluently from "within" entirely divergent moral and cultural spheres, from the deep rural areas in South Africa to the South African urban gay scene to Victorian England. Any comment?

    It's tempting to blush modestly and mutter something about Keats's "chameleon poet", the "negative capability" that enables the imaginative writer to enter into and blend with a variety of backgrounds, but that sounds a bit presumptuous. More simply, then, my three different settings are just slightly more extreme instances of the kind of imaginative flexibility that comes with any writer's territory. Consider, after all, Triomf and Agaat.

  3. It is not only The Reluctant Passenger that was funny. Your readers marvel at the specific type of dry ironic wit that you wield in your novels, also in The Typewriter's Tale. Could you say something about the place and use of humour in your work?

    Humour happens. I didn't think, when I started writing The Typewriter's Tale, that there was anything particularly funny in the material, but somehow it turned out that way. Of course, few situations are inherently funny: the poor bugger who slips on the banana skin and breaks his coccyx fails to see why the rest of the world is laughing. It's a matter of the perspective one adopts, and again I can only say that it happens: I see these people and they're funny. It's possible that reading authors like Jane Austen and Henry James schooled me in a certain oblique way of looking at things, so that the more seriously people take themselves, the funnier they are. In any case, in the South Africa I grew up in, in which some people took themselves very seriously indeed ("Dit is ons erns"), humour was a mode of survival.

  4. When one reads your work one soon falls under the spell of the well-chiselled Heyns sentences, wittily elegant in the qualifications, the oppositions, the exclusions, the symmetries that they propose. Often one despairs at how stylistically poor a lot of what one reads these days is. It makes me think that if you were to give a young writer an exercise, it might be something like the following: "Write seven long sentences (three subordinate clauses each) about a black cat in which you show that you know your grammar and your rhetoric and that you are interested in uncommon words." Comment? Any other advice to young novelists?

    Yes, although for the cat I would suggest a colour more conducive to qualification, opposition and exclusion than black. Since you invite me to be pedantic: a long sentence is not just three sentences perversely strung together, it's a complex proposition of which the parts cohere, as you suggest, in a variety of logical and emotive relations. The wisdom of the ages has evolved the colon and the semicolon to fulfil a particular expressive need; doing away with those leaves the writer with only two rather blunt tools in his tool-box. And to me a verbless sentence remains a headless ox stuck in the mud. Advice to young novelists? Learn a foreign language, any foreign language, to make you aware of language as a structure.

  5. Whom would you like to distinguish as the three writers you most admire in the international world of English letters today?

    Phew. Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Philip Roth have had time to establish themselves with a long and impressive back-list; but I'd like to see, say, Andrea Levy, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers in ten years' time.

  6. You are entirely bilingual in English and Afrikaans, and come from a half English, half Afrikaans background. The Children's Day is about to be translated into Afrikaans, an uncommon move in the local publishing world. Could you motivate the move? Would you ever consider writing in Afrikaans?

    Actually, my background is entirely Afrikaans, apart from my having an English grandmother. When The Children's Day appeared, quite a few people told me it should really have been an Afrikaans novel, given the Free State kleindorpie setting and the characters. I had, in fact, tried writing it in Afrikaans, but found, oddly, that it seemed artificial. Perhaps because I've spent my adult life teaching English literature, that's the language that comes naturally to me in writing. I think that answers both your questions: the publishers thought here is a book that would go well in Afrikaans, and yes, I have considered writing in Afrikaans, but it somehow wouldn't gel.

  7. If you had to dream a little dream of a South African literary scene that would be most beneficial to your needs as a writer, what would it look like?

    A writer needs, more than anything else, readers (the publishers will follow). So my dream is of a literate society, a society in which books are read, books are news, and this is reflected in the media. Consider the place of literature in schools; consider the meagre half-page devoted every week to books by a paper that aspires to quality status like the Mail and Guardian; consider the recognition given to creative writing (as opposed to "research outputs") by institutions like the University of Stellenbosch, and despair. Conversely, change all that, and you have my dream.

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LitNet: 20 December 2005

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