EXTRACT: Outsiders

LYNDALL GORDON reflects on the five extraordinary women writers whose lives she explores in Outsiders.

Lyndall Godon

All five of my choices were motherless. With no female model at hand, they learnt from books; if lucky, from an enlightened man. Common to all five was the danger of staying at home, the risk of an unlived life. But if there was danger at home, there was often worse danger in leaving: the loss of protection; estrangement from family; exploitation; a wandering existence, shifting from place to place; and worst of all, exposure to the kind of predator who appeared to offer Olive Schreiner a life – marriage – when she went to work as a governess at the age of seventeen.

In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion. How far was it willed – how far, for instance, did Emily Brontë will her unpopularity at a Brussels school, or was it involuntary? Were the acts of divergence necessary if each woman was to follow the bent of her nature? Mary Ann Evans fled a provincial home where a brainy girl was regarded as odd. In London, she called herself an ‘outlaw’ before she became one by living with a partner outside the legality of marriage. Yet it was during her years outside society in the late 1850s that George Eliot came into being. Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) settled in Bloomsbury as part of a group. Her brothers, sister, and their mostly homosexual friends, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, provided a shield. In such stimulating company, Virginia and her sister turned themselves into unchaperoned young women, flaunting words like ‘semen’ and ‘copulation’ in mixed company until all hours of the night. It was scandalous, but not dangerous. Danger, for Woolf, was the threat of insanity, bound up with what Henry James called ‘the madness of art’.
No one, of course, can explain genius. Women are especially hard to discern outside the performing spheres assigned to them in the past, the thin character of angels in the house. In contrast, Virginia Woolf explores the secret thing: women’s enduring creativity as it takes its way in shadow; in her generation and before, it did not proclaim itself.

What we now know is that after these writers’ lifetimes, families concocted myths, playing down the radical nature of these women. George Eliot’s widower presented a flawless angel; at the opposite extreme, Schreiner’s estranged widower branded her with his annoyance. The devoted son and daughter-in-law of Mary Shelley cast her in the Victorian mould of timid maiden and mourner. But voices sing out past the tombstones of reputation. The words of these five altered our world; certainly they changed the face of literature. We do more than read them; we listen and live with them.

To say I chose these writers was actually wrong; they chose themselves. For each had the compulsion Jane Eyre expressed when she said, ‘Speak I must’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read our review of the novel here.

THE READER: Ann Donald

Ann Donald is the programme director of the annual Franschhoek Literary Festival. Previously she was the editor of Fair Lady and the owner of Kalk Bay Books.

What are you reading at the moment?

I have about five books on the go, ready to pick up depending on my mood, the time available, or the chair I’m closest to: Gavin Evans’s Black Brain White Brain, Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say?, Finuala Dowling’s The Fetch, Masande Ntshanga’s The Reactive, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Four of them will be participating in events at the FLF (so I can justify reading them in the middle of the day even though I’m really reading for pleasure), and Marilynne Robinson’s is my bedtime book because it calms my brain with its beautiful, measured tone and rhythm.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

Many books have influenced me over the years, but in recent times, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, pushed me to do something completely nuts, which had a huge impact on the subsequent years. The book is about people taking risks, stepping out into the unknown with no reassurance of safety except faith in oneself. I started reading it on 1 January 2010 and it was the subject of a column I then wrote for the Sunday Times about the importance of starting a year with a book that would set the tone for year ahead. With its spirit still coursing through me two months later, I did the unthinkable and opened a restaurant. On any sanity gauge, this was on the side of madness, and for the next two years I was, truly, slightly mad. It was fun, demanding, completely out of my skills’ zone, and I never regret doing it. But sanity did prevail.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

That’s not a fair question; it’s like asking me to choose between my children. Can I just say that reading novels is my favourite activity of all time?

A recent read that surprised you?

The Alibi Club by Jaco van Schalkwyk. This feels like a completely new voice in South African writing and I found myself getting more and more excited as I read it. He sketches characters in the fewest words possible, creating a world, and giving it depth in startling ways. It’s contained but feels like it has no boundaries. I hope he keeps writing.

What were your favourite books as a child?

The Magic Faraway Tree. I know Enid Blyton is frowned upon by many, but it’s because of her that I became a reader, and this book captured my imagination gave me endless hours of pleasure.

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, to one of my oldest friends for her birthday. I’m about to give Secrets of a French Cooking Class by Marlene van der Westhuizen as a wedding present.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

Darrel Bristow-Bovey’s One Midlife Crisis and a Speedo. It also made me cry.

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

Lila by Robert Pirsig. I pick it up once every five years or so, and after 10 pages give up again. I persevered through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and still have no idea what he was writing about. Maybe it’s me.

What book do you turn to for advice?

My desktop Collins Dictionary (my real desk, that is). And Leiths Techniques Bible [sic].

Your favourite magazine?

Intelligent Life. It’s only about the subject and the writing, and always offers me something unexpected.

What book would you give to the president to read?

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

If you could have dinner with a dead writer, who would you dine with and where?

This feels like a cliché, but the Brontë sisters, in the dining room at Haworth, just the four of us. Virginia Woolf would also be an option, but I don’t know if I’d be brave enough.

The Franschhoek Literary Festival runs from Friday 15 May to Sunday 17 May. Tickets are available from Webtickets, and the programme can be viewed online here.

Geoff in Joburg: an interview with Mr Dyer

BY SIMON VAN SCHALKWYK

Years ago, he had tried to impress his subjects with how astute, on the ball, up to speed and generally smart he was. This, he had learnt, was a mistake. Interviews worked much better if the subject thought you were a complete numbskull. They let their guard down, became more expansive , actually tried to compensate for your manifest failings. Not, he began to suspect, that that was going to make much difference here.

—Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

My memory of the interview I conducted with Geoff Dyer sometime in October is pretty vague by now. All I have to go on is this recording. Since I’m unnerved by the sound of my voice on playback, I decide to skip and glide across the timeline of my media player until I arrive at the points where Dyer is speaking.

>skip. transcribe. skip.<

And so it goes.

Dyer was born in Cheltenham, England, but he has recently relocated to Venice Beach, LA. He is the author of four novels including Death in Venice, Jeff in Varanasi (which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for best comic novel in 2009) and a series of “genre-defying” books, including Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence, The Ongoing Moment (which he has called “a true history of photography”), But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz and, most recently, Another Great day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush.

Dyer has won the Somerset Maugham Prize, the E.M. Forster Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and the ICP Infinity Award for Writing on Photography. He is also a fellow of the Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Royal Society of Literature.

He recently arrived in Johannesburg following a stint at the 2014 Open Book festival in Cape Town. During his visit, Dyer presented a public lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand in his capacity as Mellon Distinguished Visiting Scholar. He also hosted a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (the film that provides a visual scaffold for his book, Zona), discussed photography with Ivan Vladislavić, and gave a talk about jazz before heading off to The Orbit, a Johannesburg jazz-club named after Terry Clark’s 1958 recording, In Orbit.

Dyer also played ping-pong with a friend in Maboneng Precinct, and went on a safari with Rebecca Wilson, his wife and current director of Saatchi Art in L.A.

My interview with Dyer, which took place at a guest house called Mi Casa Su Casa in Melville, happened – or got lost – somewhere between Zona and The Orbit. When I play the recording, I can hear electronic birdsong mingling with the distant blare of Johannesburg’s perpetually alarmed suburbs. I try to re-imagine our encounter, but I fail. So I focus, simply, on our disembodied voices.

I am disappointed by those parts devoted to Another Great Day at Sea. This may well be due to the fact that I had seen Dyer talk about that book with Andrew Brown in Cape Town, and because I felt that Brown had covered just about everything that there was to cover about the book during their exchange. So I decide not to include Another Great day at Sea here at all.

Instead, since Dyer and I are both, in different ways, far from home – he is on tour, and I (conveniently) regard my recent relocation to Johannesburg from Cape Town as a form of involuntary exile – I decide to focus on questions of travel. I begin by asking Dyer if this is his first trip to South or Southern Africa.

“I’ve been to Namibia, if that counts,” he replies. It’s nearby. I was in Zambia for an afternoon once. They were both to write travel pieces. And both were incredibly up-market safaris. Namibia was great because my wife and I would drive ourselves between places along these beautifully empty roads, and then we’d go to some gorgeous tented safari camp.”

“I’ve been to lots of places,” he continues, “but if I were to say what’s the single most spectacular place on earth I’ve ever been to I think it would be Deadvlei – that bit in Namibia that you always see in photographs with the salt bed and the orange dunes and the dead trees.”

I’ve seen the pictures. It’s not my idea of beauty.

Nevertheless, Dyer’s admiration for the Namib reminds me of another desert – the one that Andrei Tarkovsky wanted to use as the setting for Stalker. Stalker is an impressive cinematic achievement. It’s also impressively slow. Dyer’s Zona, a scene-by-scene description of and digressive meditation on Tarkovsky’s film, remarkably manages to slow things down even more. I’m not sure that I’ve formulated these suggestive, vague and factually debatable remarks into a question, but Dyer seems unruffled.

“Tarkovsky was first going to shoot Stalker in a desert location somewhere in the East,” he explains, “and then later on, during the Telluride Film Festival, he was taken on a trip through Monument Valley. But you’re absolutely right. He did say that it was a sign of the terrible vulgarity of America that they could only make Westerns rather than praising God or some such nonsense.”

Dyer may not participate in some Tarkovskian hallowing of desert spaces ( “the religious thing would be a huge difference”, he says) but he admits that nothing, in his writing life at least, has been as important to him as the cultivation of a sense of place.

“That’s one of the few things that holds true for both the fiction and all the non-fiction. They’re all rooted in a place. The novels really explicitly: Paris Trance, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The Colour of Memory is set almost entirely in Brixton while Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It is very much about place.”

But what’s place, I wonder, without travel?

I point out that Zona, Dyer’s “Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room”, opens with an epigraphic allusion that might be traced to at least two writers for whom travel meant very different things. The epigraph, attributed to W.H. Auden, derives from Joseph Brodsky’s collection of essays, Watermark. Auden, who happily renounced his adolescent role as “fellow-traveller” in order to adopt the guise of “a minor trans-Atlantic Goethe”, played an influential part in securing Brodsky’s safe passage to the United States, via Austria and Venice, following his exile from the Soviet Union in 1967.

Auden and Brodsky are both, I suggest, writers of the peripatetic or fugitive moment. Are they important to Dyer in this respect? Does he think of his own engagement with place and travel in a similar sense?

“I don’t think of it as a tradition so much as a little series of linkages,” he replies, “an attempt to track literary changes. I felt I was another link in that chain. I would say that I associate myself with a very different series of travel-writers. DH Lawrence is important to me. Rebecca West as well. Rebecca West, of course, gets a great deal out of Lawrence.”

Dyer admits that he finds Auden increasingly “cheesy”, and that he struggles to feel much affinity for his “very upper middle-class English thing”. His affection for Brodsky, by contrast, has more to do with “his weird, abbreviated metaphysics” than with questions of travel.

“I love the way that so much of the energy in Brodsky’s writing”, he says, “is coiled up in what are really quite boring phrases: “On the other hand”, or “If you like”, or “It seems to me”. Rhythmically and tonally, I like that.”

Weird, abbreviated metaphysics; rhythm and tone. These phrases key us in to Dyer’s intellectual interests on the one hand, and his sensitivity to what Seamus Heaney has called “the mouth-feel” of language — the shape, sound, weight and texture of words — on the other.

I’m well aware that Dyer has very little time for the brand of intellectualism housed within the walls of academic institutions. He has referred to “dim-witted academics” and, in Out of Sheer Rage, he has claimed that academic writing “kills everything in touches.”

At the same time, however, a book like The Missing of the Somme slips easily into the groove of “academic criticism”. I mention this, adding that I found that book to be both wonderfully easy to read, academically rigorous, and intellectually compelling.

“That’s music to my ears,” he exclaims. “But there is a crucial difference between ‘academic’ and ‘intellectual’. The problem with academia, for me, is that the ideal academic way of writing doesn’t have a voice. That it shouldn’t show any sign of emanating from a human. And voice is important for me. To quote Auden, ‘All I have is a voice’”.

“I really like stuff that’s voice-driven,” he continues. “When I read a book, what typically keeps me going beyond the first ten pages is whether I like the tone or not. And the tone, or the voice in which I expressed that anti-academic position [in Out of Sheer Rage]… there’s a degree of exaggeration and hysteria in there. At that point I was totally in the grips of my [Thomas] Bernhard addiction. That’s where the ranting and raving comes from.”

“Since then”, he confesses, “I’ve spent increasing amounts of time on university campuses in one way or another, so I’ve also grown out of that rather adolescent dislike of academia. But academics do seem to have a rather strange relationship to literature, and one that is not mine at all.”

Dyer’s interest in voice might explain his attentiveness, in his writing, to the sound and shape, the heft and heave, as much as to the sense of words. I mention, by way of example, how the narrator of The Colour of Memory is struck by his sense that the word “apricot” seems to contain “more sounds than can logically be accounted for”.

Elsewhere, Dyer has made humorous observations about fears of DIY-ing and, in Death in Venice, a sign at the hairdresser’s declares, as if haunted by the ghost of Sylvia Plath, that “Dye-ing is an art like everything else, we do it really well, we do it so it looks real”.

Dyer responds by recalling another word-game from The Colour of Memory.

“There’s a bit where a woman on the roof is taking off her sneakers and, wondering if her feet smell, she grabs her toe and sniffs it in that yoga way… and I say that it was a “supple gesture”. And of course, the difference between “subtle” and “supple” is such a subtle one.”

Subtle, yes; but humor is a notoriously fickle mistress. Fortunately, Dyer seems to recognise this, and he is quick to add that he is not the kind of writer who tends to fall for the seductive games of wordplay.

“I don’t feel any great affinity with that Oulipo-thing. But you’d be hard pressed to find any writer, even one as pared down as Hemingway or as minimalist as Carver, who wasn’t into the fun of moving words around on the page. But I’m very happy to hear you say this about the attention I give to words,” he continues, “because so often people describe my style as ‘casual’ or ‘conversational’. In actual fact, much of it – the Lawrence book in particular – the sentences are quite elaborate. It’s not just chatty and casual.”

“What I’ve said before,” he adds, “is that, for me, the writing process quite often the first version. Usually the first draft comes through rather uptight and only then do I actually relax it. So that kind of conversational, casual style that people have noticed is actually the product of having gone through it many times. Quite often the idea is that you’re tightening things up, but you’re loosening things up as well.”

I suggest that a willingness to play with words might contribute to an interest in testing conventions of form and genre. In The Search, for example, a readiness to acknowledge the sonic and visual kinship between the words tracking and trafficking adds surprising depth to the well-worn tropes of the hard-boiled detective novel.

Dyer agrees. “In that book I wanted to emphasise that at some level it’s a version of the classic noir-ish thing.”

If The Search mediates the conventions of noir via the tone of Carver or Chandler, it also manages to move far beyond the dreary tropes of “genre fiction”. The same principle applies to his more general perception of the novel as a literary form.

“I’ve never shared this kind of absolute reverence for ‘the novel’. It’s like those Sherpas in Nepal who worship Everest… ‘A God lives up there!’… I’ve never regarded the novel in that way. Possibly as a way of justifying my own limitations as a writer.”

It’s difficult to tell if this self-assessment reflects Dyer’s good manners or his modesty. Perhaps it says more about his confidence in the kind of “quietly innovative” approach to literary productions that he has identified in the work of John Berger, and which he has arguably been producing for years.

In response to these remarks, Dyer refers to his role as adjudicator for the Goldsmith’s Prize.

“It’s partly to reward innovation or experimentation in fiction. But it seems to me that they would have been better advised not to limit it to fiction because then you’re automatically saying ‘OK, it’s a prize for innovation but it’s got to be within this very strictly defined area.’ I think that in so much of the stuff that’s interesting the innovation is precisely in the fact that you don’t know exactly what it is formally. So that may be important.”

“And then,” he adds, “there’s such a long tradition of experimental writing, and that itself seems to be a rather conventional thing. My feeling is that most innovation is being done not in order to be experimental, not just to do something new, but because the culture has a need for it… because people are a bit bored with novels or because there’s stuff you can’t say in that form.”

Dyer’s interest in traversing the borderlands of form or genre, I am relieved to hear, does not emerge from an attempt to align himself with the more exaggerated pronouncements of “the avant-gard”. I mention the fact that the chapters in The Colour of Memory count down from 060 to 001 as an example of the kind of quiet innovation Dyer might have in mind.

“Yes,” he says, “In The Colour of Memory there’s the sense of time running out… time running out for that lifestyle. It’s not possible to live like that in London now. And tensions arise…. I think the aim is voice,” he says, “irrespective if it’s in the novel or in my journalism. I think the situation in any given book, the relationship between the characters, generates a certain kind of drama. The word I always come back to is ‘traction’: there’s something to give it some traction.”

“And it’s funny,” he adds, “it took someone like [Karl Ove] Knausgård to make people realize how superfluous the perceived need for plot was if you went at it with sufficient… relentlessness. Plot’s always bored me as a reader. You can so often see it trundling through the gears to get to a satisfactory conclusion.”

The recording plays on in the background — I am asking Dyer a fairly inane question about his favorite book – but this seems like a good place to stop. It’s getting late, and we have reserved a table at The Leopard. As we head off, Geoff tells me that he has been there before, and that he always orders the Basil & Parsley Beef Meatballs with Bell Pepper and Pan Juice Muddle.

We continue to talk – about why Middlemarch is a great book… for teenagers; about Lee Marvin’s “iron boots” in John Boorman’s Point Blank; and about how I really know very little about Argentina’s continuing economic default — but all of that is off the record.

Photograph: Jason Oddy

THE READER: Nancy Richards

Born in London and based in Cape Town, Nancy Richards is the much-loved presenter of SAfm Literature — the country’s premier radio show about books and all things literary. She also hosts the SAfm’s Enviro-Show, is the author of two books, and has served as Fairlady magazine’s living editor.

What are you reading at the moment?

Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope, the odyssey of Somalian Asad Abdullahi and Monica Nicolson Osterbroek Hilton-Barber Zwolsman’s Love, Loss, Life about her triple heartbreak and crazy life. The size of the stories some people have to tell is truly humbling.

What book has had the greatest impact on you?

May I choose two? I’m a Libran, can’t do decisions. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – my mother gave it to me when I was emerging into adulthood. It lifted veils from my protected safe-English-childhood worldview with a glimpse into the squalor of the wrong side of New York in 1912. Here in South Africa, the book that lifted even more veils was Mother to Mother by Sindiwe Magona. The opening line “My son killed your daughter” explains it all – a fictionalised account of what was behind the Amy Biehl murder. Rare and sensitive insight from another side.

What is your favourite novel of all-time?

Impossible ask. Past life: The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake, creaked with fantastical and eccentric imagery and Ada or Ardour: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov — loved the wordplay. Present Life: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, a sort of Ethiopian layering – and The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salmon Rushdie – I got to interview him about this and nearly fainted with anxiety. I just remember he had a cold and a fatwa hanging over his head.

What’s the most disappointing book you’ve read?

I don’t know that I’ve ever had any expectations about a book – expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed as the Buddhists say. I’m so lost in admiration for anyone who writes a novel I wouldn’t presume to be disappointed.

What were your favourite books as a child?

I wish I could be more original but Winnie the Pooh has got to be The One, The Wanderings of Mumfie by Katharine Tozer, all the Barbar books by Jean de Brunhoff (what is it with elephants!) and Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson. Plus a whole slew of comics and cartoon books, Buster and Andy Capp the favourites. Corny but true, having an excuse to buy and read children’s books all over again is one of the biggest bonuses of motherhood ever. Where was Roald Dhal when I was growing up!

What’s the last book you gave as a gift?

May I Have This Dance by 84-year-old Connie Manse Ngcaba. After I interviewed Connie, I bought four copies to give to all my friends. Such a touching memoir of her life with her husband and former ballroom dance teacher and their six children. At the end she explains how to draw up a Family Constitution. Love it.

Your favourite local author?

I really can’t cope with this singling out – so again I’d have to choose two – Sindiwe Magona because of what she’s done for storytelling and throwing light into lives so conspicuously unwritten. And Marguerite Poland. I read her Shades when my son had it as a set work for Matric and loved it (so much more soulful than Pride and Prejudice which is what we had at school). More recently I read her latest, The Keeper – which is luminous, lasting and lovely.

What’s the last thing you read that made you laugh?

How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. She’s totally out there, described by someone as “the feminist rock star we need right now”. Had me in the rolling in the aisles.

Which book have you never been able to finish reading?

More than I care to admit – but sometimes it’s worth persisting. I tried three times to read God of Small Things by Arundhati Roi – the third time I finally made it past the half way mark and absolutely loved it. Never made even the quarter way mark of Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal – go on, shoot me.

What book do you turn to for advice?

The Busy Cookbook by Justine Drake. It’s her first cookbook, has lots of easy dishes — I need them, I’m a rotten cook. The other is The Concise Mrs Beaton’s Cookbook – the updated version by another friend Jenni Fleetwood. Good to have foodie friends.

Your favourite magazine?

Simply out of loyalty as I worked there for a large chunk of my life in South Africa, it would have to be Fairlady. I never went to university (art school in South London was the pinnacle of my education) but I can safely say that FL was my degree in love, life and everything else — from stain removal to international travel with equal measures of haute decor, cuisine and couture, I learnt it all there – and made some of my best friends ever. I also wrote a book called Beautiful Homes: A Selection of South African interiors as featured in Fairlady so we have history. 

What book would you give to the president to read?

Hmmm. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone – he might battle, but it sure would take his mind off his own issues.

If you could have dinner with a dead writer, who would you dine with and where? 

Virginia Woolf – we’d have a picnic on a large patchwork blanket next to a lighthouse with seagulls to clear the left-overs, and if it’s all rright with you I would invite her sister and mine – I feel sure we’d all have much to share.

 

You’re working on a book…

It’s called Being a Woman in Cape Town: Telling your Story with the team from Woman Zone.