Happy Birthday, Uys Krige

Today is the birthday of the Afrikaans poet Uys Krige – and mine too, which is why I’m plucking his book from the dusty shelf today. Uys Krige (1910-1987) was a famous Afrikaans poet who made his debut in 1935 with the anthology Kentering. Much can be written about this interesting, multi-lingual poet and writer who, among so many other things, played rugby in Europe, travelled extensively and spent time in a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War. But instead of trying to give you a summary of his life and works, I want to show you around one of my favourite pieces by Uys Krige, “First meeting with Roy Campbell”, one of the sketches in his anthology Orphan of the Desert (1967). Roy Campbell was a famous English South African poet he became friends with after looking him up in Provence where Campbell was living at the time.

Ek het heelwat later eers die oorspronklike Afrikaanse uitgawe, Sout van die Aarde (1960) waarin “Eerste ontmoeting met Roy Campbell” verskyn het, in die hande gekry. Die slotreëls van hierdie skets, verteenwoordig vir my een van die mooiste maniere om ‘n lewenslange vriendskap te beskryf:

Die volgende môre – toe die son stralend uit die Middellandse See opstaan om die lang grysgroen kanale van Martigues soos met bloed te laat loop – was Roy en ek, in dié volgorde, nog lank nie uitgepraat nie… (bl. 23).

Krige was a young man at the time and he went through a lot of trouble – even walking quite a big part of the way – to meet Campbell at his home in the south of France:

On a perfect autumn day in October, 1932, I got off the Marseille bus in the picturesque Provencal fishing village of Martigues. A few minutes later I almost came to blows in the local post office with the Postmaster, who, invoking pompously the unbreakable letter of the law, flatly refused to tell me where Monsieur Campbell lived. So I walked clean out of the ‘Provencal Venice’, due west in the direction of Spain. (p. 28)

His description of the landscape as he walks to Campbell’s house in “First Meeting with Roy Campbell” is like opening a parcel and suddenly a splash of sunshine from a painting falls out:

So there I was strolling, at half past eleven in the morning, through a long stately avenue of gigantic plane trees whose tops touched and many of those large leaves had already a red-gold flush to them. And in those high, leafy branches a dozen nightingales were singing joyously as if with the express purpose of fluting me along on that last stage of my forty-mile journey to the poet on whom as yet I had never set eyes, but whom, it seemed, I had already known for years; and soon I was feeling a lot better.

It was as if I was walking straight into a glowing Cézanne landscape. Behind me lay l’Estaque that Cézanne had painted so often with so much love; on my right, almost at my feet, the still blue lake, l’Etang de Berre, where he frequently came; and there, way back, over the lake and the north-western horizon, Mont Victoire, which he had immortalised in painting after painting, towered massively into a deep-blue sky. (…)

I was the only person on that long white road winding in and out among the vineyards, fruit and olive trees; and I felt so gay and carefree, I would have liked to compete with the jubilant nightingales, to sing exuberantly of my joy, if only I could, ‘tongueless nightingale’ that I was. (p.29)

He finds Campbell’s home and the young housekeeper goes and wake Campbell from his siesta while Krige waits. And now look at how he blends two landscapes in the song of one bird:

I stood on the doorstep, listening to the nightingales. The sunlight lay like a golden patina on that classic Mediterranean scene; and now for the first time I became aware of the cicadas, how everywhere, against the trees, amongst the bushes and shrubs, countless cicadas where singing, as if in a vibrant accompaniment, shrill and feverish, to the nightingales’ clear song.

My thoughts drifted away on a far journey to a scorching summer’s day on the Swellendam farm of my Uys grandfather, many, many years ago… Through the open window above me there floated, however, the expostulating, raucous voice of Mirelle. And I could hear a man grumbling sleepily.

Then a door slammed. (p.30)

And now follows Krige’s first meeting with Roy Campbell. I was struck by how fondly and vividly he remembers that meeting and his light-handed mixture of sadness and joy in the tone:

A tall figure came stumbling down the dark, rickety staircase. He wore a rough pair of sailor’s trousers and a dark blue jersey. It was obvious that he had slept in his clothes. The next moment he was standing on the doorstep, blinking his large greenish-blue eyes in the sudden sharp sunlight and shaking, vigorously, my hand.

Something big and generous seemed to flow out of the man in that firm clasp, that forthright look and Roy’s whole intensely alive, eager bearing. Touched by this warm reception form a famous poet who had never heard of me and to whom my coming was a complete surprise, I took a closer look at him.  (p.31)

The most amusing part for me of his detailed description of Campbell, is the part where he describes his voice. This time the variety of sounds and textures from remembered landscapes has the same shattering effect on the page in front of you as the bucket Campbell lowers into the water during their conversation at the well:

But it was when he opened his mouth that I got a shock. He had been on the binge last night with some Martigues fishermen, he said, he had a hell of a thirst, would I mind walking fifty yards to the well with him? There had been a Krige with him at Oxford, Jack Krige of Johannesburg, he’d studied law, been the best student of his year, a first rate fellow, must be one of my cousins…

It wasn’t his direct, brusque and half-grunted opening statement that had astonished me, but his accent. It was as bad as (or even “worse” than) my own English, so broadly South African that you could cut it with a Knysna notch-saw. It made me, as I stood there beside him, in the calm sun-drenched Virgilian landscape, feel quite nostalgic; conjuring up for me, in an instant, rugged flinty old Table Mountain, the high-crested combers at Umkomaas and the hazy blue-green undulations of the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

The large, dented bucket rattled to the bottom of the well, shattering our two calm images on its still surface into a thousand splinters of faintly gleaming light. Back wheezed the bucket. (p. 31-32)

After Campbell douses himself with some water, talking non-stop as throughout the rest of the story, he and Krige embark on a hilarious bike ride to go drink with some locals – and what a cast:

In the bistro down in the village our conversation had been like a marathon race, with Roy miles out in the front, followed by half-a-dozen fishermen, a French aristocrat and sculptor, a Spanish taxi-driver, cobbler, carpenter, basketmaker, an ex-circus clown, a punch-drunk boxer, a broken-down bullfighter, the local grave-digger, a strolling Irish guitar player and myself lost somewhere in the middle of that motley straggling field. (p. 37)

But it’s the bike ride itself that makes this story for me and that keeps me coming back to read it:

Forty seconds later I was perched high and dry, but rather uncomfortably, on the bike’s cross bar with a large wine jar in my arms; Roy vaulted into the saddle, jamming me up against the handlebars as he bent forward to get up to speed – and suddenly that peaceful landscape was no longer static, it came rushing at me and there was a roaring as of the Mistral in my ears, we were whizzing down that two-mile long hill with me clinging to the winejar for life and Roy shouting a ‘running commentary’ into my ear on my cousin, the surrounding landscape, rugby, the Martigues fishermen, their peculiar customs and habits, Roy’s particular passion for Pope and Byron, the special virtues of Provencal aromatic herbs such as rosemarin and marjolaine and heaven only knows what other topics besides. (p.32-33)

This picture of two great poets perched on a bicycle “flashing down that endless hill at breath-taking speed” (p.36) while they flit from one topic to another, never fails to warm my heart:

There was no doubt about it, all modern poetry derived from Baudelaire and Rimbaud. And how the French backs, and even their forwards handled a wet ball! (p.34)

I quoted the final lines of this sketch in Afrikaans at the beginning of this post, where the re-telling of their first conversation ends, even though the conversation was still going on the next morning. Uys Krige’s present to me on this birthday, where I sit down again to re-read a favourite piece of literature, is this image: a life-long friendship as a conversation that never ended.

Isn’t that a beautiful way to think of our best friendships?

Sources:

Krige, Uys (1960) Eerste ontmoeting met Roy Campbell. In: Sout van die Aarde. Kaapstad/Pretoria: Haum.

Krige, Uys ([1967] 1983). First meeting with Roy Campbell. In: Orphan of the Desert. Cape Town: John Malherbe.

Terblanche, Erika (2017) Uys Krige (1910-1987). In ATKV/Litnet Skrywersalbum.

4 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Uys Krige

    • Thanks Anne! It’s one of my favourite things, when I stumble upon a text or picture that shows me connections between things I didn’t know existed. Like which people in history knew each other. I have a biography of Karen Blixen (Judith Thurman, “Isak Dinesen. The Life of Karen Blixen) with a photograph inside showing Karen Blixen having dinner with Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. It’s like finding treasure 🙂

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