I did Afrikaans-Nederlands I & II and Modern Fiction in Translation at university. I had an illustrious assemblage of professors: Etienne van Heerden, Andre P. Brink, Godfrey Meintjies and Tim Huysamen. Tim told me that I read like a housewife, and I suspect it was because I did not really take to Oomblik in die Wind. Or something. Or maybe it was Madame Bovary or Flaubert’s Parrot. Seeing that I have embraced writing as both a serious pastime and a career-in-construction, I guess I am going to have to go back to that stuff. Whatever. Thing is, at the time, I loved the reading (whether I read like a housewife or not). I read not only the prescribed Kundera, I read everything I could lay my hands on. I read everything I could find by Garcia Marquez, I embraced magic realism.
I discovered Saul Bellow, to this day perhaps my favourite author. I have read More Die of Heartbreak three times, and Hertzog twice. (Although DM Thomas’ White Hotel is still my favourite novel, with a record four reads. I also keep on having to buy it because I keep on giving it away, I love it so much.)
I am not sure what happened next. In my reading history, there is a big black hole. I know I read almost everything by Elmore Leonard and James Elroy. Elmore Leonard you can read over and over again because it is impossible to remember what happens from one story to the next. Every time you read one of his books again, it’s like reading it for the first time. Unless you see the movie. When you have seen the movie, you may as well toss the book, you are NEVER going to go back there. Get Shorty, (didn’t they just make a terrible mess of the sequel? Unbelievably unfunny) Jackie Brown (Rum Punch), Out of Sight… lost. Forever. Nothing quite like a 2nd or 3rd reading of an Elmore Leonard to put a girl to sleep, with the exception, perhaps, of anything penned by Hanna Arendt.
I remember books with titles like Why the Tree Loves the Axe, and The Émigré. I found and fell in love with Hanif Kureishi, Charles Bukowski, Kurt Vonnegut. I bought quite a few books by Neil Jordan. I accepted that he could not write for shit even though he was quite deft with the audiovisual medium. Somewhere in the darkness there were Angela Carter, Dorothy Parker, Robertson Davies and Julian Barnes. (The ABCDs, so to speak.) I read some poetry. Some guy from NY City gave me a book of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. To this day I am suspicious of men bearing books of poetry (any) and (specifically) an English translation of Hedda Gabler. They are going to break your heart for sure. And guys who actually WRITE poetry… if it’s any good, tell them to stop forthwith, or you will be nursing misery and rage for… eh… easily a year or more. Fortunately BAD poetry works just as well in the other direction. You are so going to dump that guy and never think of him again. But I digress.
Hmmm. Then (into the light now) came Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. It was OK. Then Laurence lent me A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I tried hard, but failed. I might have lumbered on until the end but we severed abruptly under furious circumstances and I just gave him the fucking book back. I have always wanted to write a poem about exchanging “your Possession for my Intimacy” – seeing that he had my copy at the time. But somehow I could never get beyond the first line. Of the poem. Of Possession I managed a hundred pages or so.
And THEN, I tried Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Inheritance of Loss and decided that much of the prize-winning fiction of the late 20th/early 21st centuries was the equivalent of examining one’s own entrails after committing hara-kiri. One more word on her grandfather the judge and the creepy cook and the garden shed and I would not have been responsible for my own asylum fees. Or anti-depressant prescriptions. Or something. It was revealed to me what the problem was, and I decided that I had had enough.
It was liberating. I had been struggling with the guilt of reading only material that made no demands on the mind whatsoever, and NOTHING in Afrikaans (holy crap, who has tried to read Triomf? R-E-S-P-E-C-T to that one) so when I finally came to terms with the fact that sometimes, the Booker Prize winners must write only for the Booker Prize judges who are probably literary Liberaces and equipped for such literary density much better than those of us who never quite worked through Structuralism and Semiotics enough times to actually understand and/or remember it. And after all, at the time, I was involved in making TV drama on SABC budgets and hence, was barely holding onto my mind and sense of humour AS IT WAS. I therefore decided that I was completely justified in cutting myself some slack, and to take a break.
It was time to give up on the meandering introspection and the constant conjuring of meaning. It was too dark, it was exhausting. I just wanted the worthy fucking Booker Prize winners to lighten up a little. Which I think, they couldn’t. Some of them displayed a glimmer of humour, but on the whole it was deathly.
So I packed away the novels that had been multiplying in the “must-finish-worthy-literary-prize-winning” pile. And that I thought, was that. Of course later (also Laurence’s fault) I started reading Murakami and am now in the process of revising my fantastic axiom. But for a while it amused me, and set me free. I suspect the one that had to lighten up was me, and I NEVER would have guessed it would be as easy as a trip to the hairdresser and a bowl of peroxide bleach. Apologies to the literati.
At this point, one might well ask… so what? Not “so what, professor?”, which would be beyond rude, but “so what if I gave up reading cerebrally demanding literature?”
It is not the reading of the literature as such that I really wanted to write about, although this might seem ridiculous considering that I have already spent more than a thousand words on the subject. It is about the introspection. It is about cutting oneself open and spilling your guts for all to see and then meandering through the bleeding matter, and… inspecting it. “Hara-kiri of the mind” of course, because our spilt matter is brain, rather than large and small intestine. Gruesomer and gruesomer, I know, which I think (maybe) is my point.
I think of the blogosphere as the ultimate democracy. You can write what you like, read if you will, and enjoy an almost impossible freedom of expression. Our very press freedom, enshrined in our constitution, is not as wide and free as the freedom we have here. Which makes me afraid sometimes, that what I am doing here (NOT, I swear, that I am comparing myself to the literary giants that I have mentioned earlier even for a minute) is exactly that… a wanton display of smelly innards that are just going to give a couple of old ladies nightmares. Sometimes I start a blog, on a thought, and leave it, bored shiftless before the end of the first paragraph, and slightly ashamed that somebody might have read such drivel and have thought “Oh what baloney. Lighten up, chick.”
And I wonder if that matters. I try to read other blogs. Frankly, it is astonishing what nonsense people who cannot spell see fit to share with the universe. And some of these get read A LOT. I have also found a couple that are funny, engaging, enriching. They are very rare. Which is the consequence, I guess, of such a publishing free-for-all. So. Point is, that this here is the place where you can commit seppuku at will, every day, as often as you like, in the manner that you see fit.
I struggle to warm to the thought but suspect that when I do, I am going to be a more interesting person, and hopefully a better writer. Having overcome a temporary reader’s block to meaning and the process of its making, it seems I now have to overcome a resistance to just put it out there, and see what comes back. To find the lighter side of write. I soldier on.