On writing #5: hara-kiri, etc. – part 2

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.


16 thoughts on “On writing #5: hara-kiri, etc. – part 2

  1. sartres 11 May 2009 / 20:23

    So I am mesmerised.
    Both in,and by, your writing. Would that I had found you in the days of your magic realism.
    No nightmare for old ladies.
    A glory trail for those who do find you.I selfishly want to hide you away from those who do not traverse this path.
    Those who cannot, ought to never.
    Find you.

  2. Betty Noire 11 May 2009 / 21:42

    Are you family of that Jean Paul guy who said, everything has been figured out, except how to live?

    (I like it very much when people are selfish about me… but is it fair?)

    • sartres 11 May 2009 / 22:08

      I actually attempted to lay claim to “sartre’s gone” but the fiends that control gave me a rebuttal that left me clutching at sartres. Clutch then, I do.
      I have a copy of Sartre’s “Intimacy and other stories” that once, many years back, stirred; and then kept me – in search of meaning; and all that Jean Paul guy’s writings followed the pace of the first pages that I dwelt on.
      If that qualifies as being family, then count me in…

      • Betty Noire 12 May 2009 / 08:40

        Okay. You’re in. But you are going to have to lose the “fiends that control you.” They don’t sound so friendly.

  3. Fil Blanc 12 May 2009 / 16:05

    Eissshh! Mesmerising indeed.
    Magic realism has been around quite a while now with “grupo Boom” formed in the 60’s by Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Vargas LLosa; Giants indeed, and I am big fan. Nevertheless they have trapped Latino-American literature in a (magic) box, and some have reacted quite violently agains it, in particular the signatories of the “Crack Manifesto” such as Eloy Urroz, Jorge Volpi and others “los zapatistas de la literatura mexicana” in reference to the famous revolutionary (or “bandido” depending on which side of town you live) Emiliano Zapata…
    Since we are talking hispanic (yes I am a “fanatic” too) culture, may I recommend a monument: Don Quixote de la Mancha.It is worthwhile learning Spanish just to be able to read this work in its juice. X

  4. Hardspear 14 May 2009 / 14:45

    Hi Betty.

    I really enjoyed this post. You really had my attention (but then, if something interests an ADD’er they can super concentrate). So when my laptop battery gave out (I’ve turned off the warnings), I really scrambled to get it plugged in and read further.

    I never studied languages, so I never was forcibly exposed to the highest acclaimed literary works. I have tried though at times to read more award winning fiction. Mostly I find it a struggle such as you’ve described in your post.

    I know the literati frown upon genre fiction and that it is being considered lower culture, but I enjoy crime fiction and I enjoy science fiction. That is not to say that I exclusively read crime and SF. I do enjoy a good novel now and then. I really liked the Alchemist and recently (as recommended by Oprah – The Story of Edgar Sawtelle). Not so often I will like an auto-biography but some are just wonderful. Two comes to mind – Tretchikoff’s biography (something with pigeons) and Jeremy Scott’s titled – the Fast and the Louche – Confessions of a flagrant sinner. Back to SF though, there are very good SF, but I am very picky when it comes to SF. When reading SF, it is a good idea to read the awarded stuff. If a book has won a Hugo or a Nebula – go ahead and read it. Science Fiction are also called Speculative Fiction and can sometimes be very philosophical in nature – doing exactly what it’s name says – speculate about future society. I am currently reading the second book in the Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons. For entertainment in the extreme – Lois McMaster Bujold cannot be outclassed.

    (I hope I do not have too many spelling errors in my posts – I know the grammar mistakes abounds) But yea, I know what you mean with the content of some of the more popular blogs. The reason why I am blogging is that my mind is so full of things I want to say, but I do not want to force it on people around me. Like you said – the blogosphere is a very democratic place. So if it interest you what I write (whether you agree or not) please feel free. If not, move on and find something you enjoy.

    Ooooohhh, I know what you mean with Afrikaans novels. White Afrikaner Guilt and Angst about the Struggle, Ugly Ugly Ugly Sex and Trying to Shock are themes I became so tired of that I stopped reading Afrikaans. I’ve read and finished Triomf. It was a struggle, but I must admit, as having been a social worker, I can vouch for the authenticity of the story. There are people who live lives like that. It was like reading another social worker’s case file (the social worker would have omitted the excessive swearing and crude language though). I like Deon Meyer though – best crime writer in Afrikaans yet – translated in English and many other languages). Recently I’ve read “Sabbatsreis” by Annelie Botes. First Afrikaans novel in ages. I really enjoyed it.

    • Betty Noire 14 May 2009 / 19:35

      Hey! What a cool comment. First of all, you know I love your blog. It’s because it’s narrative is often sometimes outside you. I don’t relate to the ADD stuff, I must admit, but that is not all you are about, which for me, makes it real. We are all about many different things, we are multi-faceted. Often blogs, however friggen witty they are make people sound one-dimensional. And you and I share the food thing, so that is common ground. Life plus food. Many of the strictly food blogs are as dull as sausage without mustard. I will take notes on the Scifi suggestions, and the Afrikaners. As soon as I have finished my masters and can read again what I like, I am so getting into those.

      • Hardspear 15 May 2009 / 09:05

        I agree on the food blog thing. My flatmate at university studied music. He believed that the music students who have no interest outside of music had a disadvantage no matter how gifted they were. He believed that when playing their instruments, their music became boring and stilted. It is the same as everything else – you’ve said it: It can be either multi-faceted or one-dimentional.

  5. filblanc 15 May 2009 / 10:44

    Hey I’ll try Die of Heartbreak, Hertzog and White Hotel. At present I’m re-reading Roald Dahl’s short stories. They are wonderful. Favourite authors? J-F CELINE (“Voyage au bout de la nuit”) Michel TOURNIER (Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique, Le roi des Aulnes…)and also Gao XINGJIAN (Lingshan) and LE CLEZIO. I also adore NAIPUL (Bend in the river etc..) I would like to retire in a little village in Dordogne, buy a small country house with a good wine cellar and a huge bookshelf…

    • Betty Noire 15 May 2009 / 11:31

      Celine was one of those guys that I started and put down, for about ten years. When I finally read Journey to the End of the night (I could copy and paste your french, but we know that I read it in translation) I really loved it. He really know what to do with an exclamation mark, that one.

  6. filblanc 18 May 2009 / 17:18

    Depression is not far when you go to the biggest bookshop in Johannesburg and ask for Saul Bellow,(after looking unsuccessfully in the B section) and the attendant looks at you with suspicion and asks you how to spell this name, and looking at the computer comes back saying “we do not have any Saul B. in stock…” The fact that SB is a Pulitzer price winner and got the Nobel in Literature doesn’t seem to help at all… So I just went to the movies and watch Milk. I love Sean Penn, and his work. But I thought that only in America you can find this kind of a situation, where some people argue publicly that homosexuality is a perversion and use it as a major electoral issue. My depression is gone, I’m so glad to be an European today!

  7. Betty Noire 18 May 2009 / 22:16

    Hey! Have you started writing your novel? Shit. Now I really am going to have to learn French. (I know – how can anybody in a bookshop not know who is Saul Bellow? Call me, I can lend you: Herzog (I think) certainly More Die of Heartbreak.)

    I am very exited about your writing, even though I did not understand a single word.

    And last – wasn’t that just an astonishing performance by Sean Penn? And James Franco. Wonderful.

  8. filblanc 19 May 2009 / 15:19

    Thanks god you do not understand French you might have ended disappointed, an unbearable thought indeed.
    Thx for the offer. I’ll definitely take advantage as soon as I’m finished with a couple of books queuing on my bed table.
    Sean is wonderful.

  9. filblanc 20 May 2009 / 14:17

    oh Bettie we do not want you in Nelspruit… Besides as you say this plant stinks big time, no good for the perfumes of your delicate cuisine…Foie gras reminds me of my grand mother in Noé where we had our family house in South West France. She went from farm to farm negotiating the best foies…before the people from “La Comtesse du Barry” (a company that produces these delicacies)came and “pinch them” from her as she uses to say. She employed al sorts of stratagems with the farmers in order to convince them to sale the best foies to her… If she knew that I became a vegeterian, she would be upset surely…

    • Betty Noire 20 May 2009 / 17:07

      I love that story. I am sorry you a veggie, Fil, you are such a committed one I am sure you do not even long for just a little bite…

  10. filblanc 21 May 2009 / 16:17

    I must confess that when I go to Spain, I look at the chorizos and the Jamon Serrano with great interest. Big temptation indeed. But now I have the Egyptian pigs genocide in mind and I promised to myself that this (european)summer I will be strong and will refuse all meat related food.
    I dream that in 200 years we will be able to hear kids tell to each other:”Our great great grandfathers use to eat meat! Can you believe it?” “Yak! you lier! I do not believe you! Get lost!”
    This reminds me of a true story told to me by my uncle (a warrior, most decorated officer of his generation,just passed away though, loosing the last battle). He was fighting in Indochina. It was very tough, nothing to eat. Vietcongs all over the show, heavy monsoon rain… After three days of heavy fighting and no food, this Vietnamese soldier from his company, managed to prepare a delicious ragout… The most delicious food! Nobody could believe it! They ate and ate, filling their stomachs like pigs…
    – What is this meat? asked my uncle
    – Vietcong! answered the soldier with a big smile!
    My uncle commented to me that human flesh taste like pork… He did not become a vegetarian after this experience, but he refused to eat pork for the rest of his entire life…

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