How to start a virtual trip around the world – by accident

I’m drifting off to sleep in front of a campfire crackling softly under the stars, while the glare of an old favourite sitcom lights up the inside of my tent. I’m propped up against a pillow that spans half of the tent wall and my binoculars and an easter bunny-eared copy of Ulysses are next to the tv remote. Welcome to camping in my living room – hovering between looking like a cry for help and a creative solution to locked-in cabin fever. It turns out to be the latter, but on a much bigger scale than I’d imagined.

Step 1: Go look for something ridiculous on the internet

And by ridiculous, I mean, not your camping chair you could dress up the living room with. Looking for a camp fire on YouTube started out as a bit of a preposterous idea – I mean, why stop after you’ve already sized up your living room to see which way to face a tent? But I found some excellent ones. And the next morning, when I found a sunrise and some bird sounds, I realised I could probably find anything. I’ll tell you about some of the things I’ve found, but I won’t give you the links. Half the fun is to go look for it – since you’re not able to go get lost in an unknown city without a map right now.

Step 2: Upgrade your travel reading

Yes, Ulysses is the kind of book I’d sometimes take on a trip because it would last long. But on a virtual trip, why stop there? You can be in Dublin and just go with him in a few clicks – and then end up visiting Maeve Binchy instead. In some of the next posts I’ll write about some of the places I landed in because of books, in many more ways than I first thought.

Step 3: Pack light on props

The tent lasted only a weekend, the novelty of circumnavigating your home wears off after a long weekend. But changing the coffee mug to the lid of a coffee flask or draping a thick waterproof jacket across a piece of furniture is all you need to “pack”. But take a journal or at least copy an paste your favourite links somewhere – because you might really go back there this time.

Step 4: Follow maps and forget them

One day it’s fun to go from one country to a country next to it, following a line that seems logical on a map. This gives you a sense of covering ground, of planning out a trip that you might take some day. On another day it’s fun to go with your mood. To feel too glum for a waterfall and end up in Atlantic City, to get fed-up with rugged mountains and wake up to a picnic on a rose farm. To eat something spicy and hop on a different plane in the wrong direction. For the most part, writing about this virtual journey is to show you what I got from it, not where I went.

And this trip is having an unexpected influence on the book about learning languages I’m working on at the moment. I’ll tell you about it soon. But right now, I’m opening the atlas again, to find this island off the coast of Canada in a book…





Virtual Dusty Roads

It was when I found myself in a tent in my living room on Easter Weekend, staring at a crackling campfire on YouTube, that I started traveling again. I rode a bus through London, bounced over waves on ferries and yachts, walked around ruins and museums – all from the creaking pages on my dusty shelf and the flickering screen to that untraveled virtual world.

The armchair travel came to a crashing halt with the passing of my dear friend and mentor, Barbara Sher, in May. Some evenings I still managed to smell the street food in Teheran or take a bus towards the Himalayas – but the grief together with the grueling pace of online work, made the dusty roads fade into the background again.

Yesterday afternoon I drifted back to the French countryside, on the smell of onion soup from a French cookbook. I always get a lot out of writing about cooking, but doing stovetop travel when the armchair refuses to budge, still managed to surprise me. The wonderful world out there stirred to life in steaming onions.

Lunch today was a picnic on a rose farm in Provence. And who knows where the globe will stop spinning next – stay tuned for my series on my armchair and stovetop travels and what it’s teaching me about travels, language learning and life.


The Magic of Learning a Few Words in Another Language

If you took part in my mini-workshop at Barbara Sher’s Dare to Soar Telesummit today: Baie Dankie!

Here’s a little re-cap so you can also see the spelling of some of the words you heard today. I picked Afrikaans, because people called in from all over the world and then it helps to use a language that fewer people can already speak.

People are often put off by the daunting goal of getting fluent in a language. Helping people get fluent in language is something I’ve been doing for most of my working life so far. It’s a wonderful feeling when you get to a point where you start to feel comfortable speaking another language. And there are many wonderful people who who can help you to get fluent in a fun way, like Alex Rawlings. But teaching and learning languages also makes me aware of all the many benefits of just learning a few words in another language – even if you stop right there!

Here are a few things I mentioned today:

  1. You can learn a lot about the nature, history and inner workings of a language from just a few words. Afrikaans is a Germanic language, and you can hear many words that will remind you of languages you might know better like German or Dutch.  “Lekker” is one such word. The word “lecker” in German is just used for things that taste nice. But in Afrikaans almost anything becomes “tasty” when you use “lekker”. My favourite chair is a “lekker stoel”.  And if it’s very nice, like today’s Telesummit. You can say “Die Telesummit is baie lekker!” “Baie“, the word for “a lot” or “many” or “very”, gives you a glimpse into some of the other influences on Afrikaans, like Malay.
  2. One of the more obvious reasons for learning just a few words, is simply because they can be useful: “ja” means “yes” and “nee” means “no”. Gets you far in any language.
  3. But now look at this interesting thing. When you put the two together to make: “janee“, it doesn’t give you “yes-no”. “Janee” is a very emphatic “yes”! Learning a few words in another language can give you words you won’t find in your own language. Like the word “mos” you heard today, used to add emphasis.
  4. Just a couple of words can give you the feeling of what it’s like to have a lively conversation in the language. The word for “never, “nooit“, is a lovely expressive word to react to something outrageous or surprising: “You don’t say!” “Nooooooooit!”
  5. And even if you never use any of the words you learn, making the noises can come in really handy! Many people struggle with the “g” in Afrikaans, for example in the word for “bug”, “gogga“. It’s a lovely expressive sound all by itself and is a very useful addition to your repertoire if you should decide to learn a language like Russian, Greek or Dutch next.

If you want to join in the fun of learning little bits of languages and finding out about more wonderful works of literature on various dusty shelves, tune in to the Dusty Shelf Academy podcast.

Haiku Workshops!

So, what I’m I doing in Potchefstroom? Bit far from home for this time of the year, right? Well, teaching German is one of the many things I do and for the past month I substituted for a friend who teaches German here.

One big highlight was teaching a workshop on writing haiku in German. You see, I’m currently working on a book in which I tell some stories about the benefits of learning just a few words in a foreign language.

In this workshop, I showed the participants that they can already use the bit of German that they know to write some tiny poems. It was such fun! We had some participants joining in via social media as well. See some of the haiku here on Twitter and look out for the hashtag #GermanHaikuWorkshop – I’ll be using that for future workshops too.

Speaking of which, the next one is coming up this Saturday, 11 August.

It’s a teleworkshop, so you can take part from anywhere in the world. In this free mini workshop, I’ll show you how you can use the ancient art of writing haiku – in a language you don’t speak so well. So, if you feel a bit stuck in a rut and you have a second or tenth language you want to stretch a bit, bring some pen and paper and join me to write some tiny poems.

The workshop itself is free, but you have to call in to a FreeConferencing number, so it will cost you a local phone call/ Skype call in your country.

How does it work?

You dial the number, then once you get prompted for the access code, you enter the access code (on your phone or your Skype key pad), followed by the # key. Ignore them if they ask if you’re the host. You’re not the host. I’m the host. If there’s a lot of noise or you can’t get through, hang up and try again.

Date: Saturday 11 August

Time: 5pm (South African Time)

Duration: About an hour.

Phone: US +1 (712) 770 4646; South Africa +27 87 825 0172; UK +44 330 998 1261; France: +33 7 55 51 15 97; Germany +49 221 98 203 459

Mail me at for numbers in other countries.

Access Code: 899991

I’m recording the call so that I can use the things I say in my book and for future workshops. I hope that, besides leaving with the little poems, you’ll also walk away feeling cheered and refreshed.

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?


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.

Packing the Right Books

The other day my little car got filled to the gills with volumes of desert books, cooking books, novels, field guides and dictionaries (this is where I run out of steam and pretend that’s all of it) from gleaming bricks to flapping rags.  This was the first time in a very long time that all my books were going to be in one place for a while. Many of them knew the insides of handbags and suitcases better than the dusty shelves. On a trip where I was moving all my things, taking enough books was hardly an issue. But it got me thinking about packing books. Packing the right books. Packing light enough. Packing enough.

I unpacked them again, stoflap in hand, and enjoyed their comforting presence. As I started building a tottering stack with the ones I still needed to get round to reading, I remembered a travel account I read earlier in 2017. A world of my own (1969) by Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man who sailed nonstop around the world single-handed in 1968, doesn’t just take you on a fascinating journey around the globe. It also takes you right to the brink of some of your biggest book packing fears: like taking the wrong book.

What if you’re too sleepy/relaxed/stressed/bored/gatvol for the sensible read/classic you always meant to read/laugh-out-loud that turns out to be a whimper quietly/engaging biography when you feel like just quietly sinking into light pink fluff? Sometimes you can surprise yourself by suddenly getting roused from your airport lounge fog by Tolstoy or find a character in a romance novel so delightful you even try to read it on a bumpy road between flashes of dried-up trees. But that’s the thing, you just never know, do you? So you pack another one – and you were just popping one into your bag going to the queue at the Traffic Department.

A lot of people will ask you what book you’d take to a desert island, without seriously expecting you to go and find out. But here’s the book question you’re left with after you hop off the deck of the Suhaili and trace the journey on the map again: what do you pack for a year-long, solo trip on a small boat? I found it very enjoyable to read Knox-Johston’s reasoning behind the list of books he took:

The two bookshelves in the cabin were packed and I had to set aside another shelf in the W.C. in order to get them all in. This was not really because I had too many books; I had to take a number of seamanship and navigation manuals, and most of the rest were lent to me by Dr Ronald Hope of the Seafarers’ Education Service. He had obviously taken considerable trouble to get the sort of books I wanted and many times during the voyage I was to think gratefully of his kindness.

I took some care choosing books from home. I am a voracious book reader but I had no idea how much free time I would have, so I chose books that would take time to read and yet hold their interest all the way through. I had never really found the time to read the classics, so books like Tristram Shandy, Vanity Fair, Orley Farm, War and Peace, were an obvious, and in the event wise choice. I also had about twenty-five specialist books dealing with the sea, sea-life and aspects relating to them, solely because the subject fascinates me. I did not really expect to have very much spare time on my hands, but as it was possible that I might have more than the books would fill, I took along a correspondence course for the Institute of Transport Examinations. The purpose of this was to give my mind something to concentrate on. I had no idea how ten months on my own would affect me mentally, so I decided to provide something that would help discipline my mind. – p. 27

Reading through the lists of supplies at the back of A world of my own, would be enough to occupy you on a flight, say from Durban to Johannesburg. But if you’re just in a supermarket queue at month-end, here’s a copy of Knox-Johnston’s whole book list. It’s alphabetical, which adds to the startling impression of the sheer variety of books:

 Holy Bible

W.B. Alexander: Birds of the Ocean

James Boswell: London Journal, 1762-3

Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights

Charles H. Brown: Nichols’ Seamanship and Nautical Knowledge

Samuel Butler: Erewhon and Erewhon Revisited

Boys’ Brigade Ambulance Handbook

Thomas Carlyle: The French Revolution

Rachel Carson: The Sea Around Us and The Sea

Apsley Cherry-Garrard: The Worst Journey in the World

Charles Darwin: The Voyage of the Beagle

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment

R.J. Eaton: The Elements of Transport

George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss

John Evelyn: The Diary of John Evelyn (vol. 1.). Ed. W. Bray

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones

G.W. Gaunt: Elementary Calculus

J. Green: A Biology of Crustacea

Golden Treasury of English Verse

J.L. Hanson: A Textbook of Economics

Eric C. Hiscock: Around the World in Wanderer III

Captain F.N. Hopkin: Business and Law for Shipmaster

David Lewis: Daughters of the Wind

H.R. Light: The Legal Aspects of Business

N.B. Marshall: Aspects of Deep Sea Biology

Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor, and Other Stories

J.R. Norman: A History of Fishes

J.R. Norman and F.C. Fraser: Giant Fishes, Whales and Dolphins

Oxford Illustrated Dictionary

Rabelais: Collected Works

Ray and Ciampi: Underwater Guide to Marine Life

Fred Reinfield: Chess in a Nutshell

Samuel Richardson: Clarissa

Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Confessions

Bertrand Russel: History of Western Philosophy

Christopher I. Savage: An Economic History of Transport

William Shakespeare: Complete Works

H.A. Silverman: The Substance of Economics

Joshua Slocum: Sailing Alone Round the World

J.L.B. Smith: Fishes of South African Waters

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy and Sentimental Journey

W.M. Thackeray: Vanity Fair and History of Henry Esmond Esq.

Mike Tinbergen: The Herring Gull’s World

Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace

Anthony Trollope: Orley Farm

Mark Twain: Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald: The World of Fishes

H.G.Wells: Outline of History

Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selbourne – pp.235-236

You can say about this list what you like, but you did start thinking. Maybe you started looking up some of the titles because you got curious. Ticked off the ones you’ve already read. Maybe you picked up his list in your imagination and chucked the ones you didn’t like to replace them with your own. Added a category or two. Came up with your own list. Could be any one or all or none of these, but if you read this far, then you’re probably wondering: did it work?

Electronic books have taken some of the panic out of my book packing for trips – at least then I never have to run on empty. But I still like to take an Eskom-proof, shatter-proof, sort-of-fall-in-the-bath-proof one too. Just for the case and the in case. Even with his impressive supply, Knox-Johnston had to do some clever mixing and rationing – as with his other supplies – to make the written words on the boat last for as long as possible.

Poetry had become more and more important as my supply of unread books dwindled. I found it difficult to read whilst steering as one’s eyes stay away from the compass too long and the course becomes erratic, but it was easy to sit and learn poetry. Apart from the enjoyment this gave me, I also thought that the mental discipline involved in sitting, learning and remembering the verses would be good for me. As far as I could tell when I had last met people off New Zealand, I was sane and unchanged, but I did not feel that I could really judge myself in this. If any changes were taking place I could not be sure that I would notice them, as I had nothing to compare myself with. I did use the tape recorder periodically to check my powers of speech, but I was far more concerned in preserving my mind. In order to do this I learned a great deal of poetry, not only the Elegy, with some of the finest verses written in the English language, but also Burns, Scott, Shakespeare and Cunningham amongst many others. To give my voice practice, I would usually recite out loud, my Golden Treasures of English Verse in hand, to a wondering audience of albatross and petrels. pp. 135-136

There you have it, pack some poems or a play.

Perform when all else fails.


Reading Paul Auster’s “4 3 2 1”

He wondered if he had it in him to write without a pen, if he could learn to speak instead, filling the darkness with his voice, speaking the words into the air, into the walls, into the city, even if the light never came back again. – Paul Auster, “City of Glass”, The New York Trilogy, p. 132

All I remember from “City of Glass” is somebody literally disappearing through the cracks of New York City towards the end – I’m not sure I remember even that right – and that there had been some sort of detective work involved. We were undergrads in our early twenties and the jagged thrill of post-modernism crackled through every tiny foamalite cup of strong milky instant coffee from the BJ’s snoepie across from the lecture hall. When I open Auster’s The New York Trilogy and catch a word here and there, I can feel the air from those lecture halls and the underground library we called “the coal mine” when we first saw it. I could hardly remember the story the next time I saw one of his books. I just remembered the excitement of those moments: we could be bleary-eyed philosophers under fluorescent lights, in damp shoes, digging out coins for coffee.

And that is why I picked up a Paul Auster title with the joy of meeting up with an old friend a couple of years later. I was studying in Germany this time and very earnest about improving my German. Trawling through German literature for my studies and reading only German books for fun too. And after a few months I was starved for reading anything that wasn’t German.

In the university library I wandered over to the English section and left clutching The Invention of Solitude. On a train through Salzburg to Vienna, Auster’s memoir of his relationship with his father and his experience of his own role as a father, coloured the grassy hills and neat villages that trundled past the windows.  Poignant isn’t a word I shell out very often, but it was that kind of story. And big part of why that book made such a lasting impression on me was due to the relief of sinking into some wonderfully slow, crafted, atmospheric English. English!

If there had ever been a time to fall back in love with a language, Auster was the way to do it.

In Zululand a few years later at a friend’s house, I met Timbuktu , the story of a homeless man and his dog Bones. The story is told from the dog’s perspective – a little bit like Jeanne Goosen’s ʼn Paw-Paw vir my darling.  It is filled with unusual moments of startling beauty, like when the homeless man, Willy, composes symphony for dogs made up of smells, especially for Bones – and the puzzled Bones indulges him.  I’m sketchy on the details, I may even have the names wrong, but I’ll never forget reading those scenes. Suddenly the visual world tilted and give way to a whole new layer of perception – and I never looked at my dog again the same way either.

A few more years lapsed and I ran into an Auster book again at an airport bookshop on the way back from a friend’s wedding.  Well, this time it was such a big book it was hard to miss. 4 3 2 1 was almost as big as my handbag and I shifted my bulging, spilling hand luggage around so that I had a free hand to turn over the book and read the description.  It’s the life story of one man, told in four different ways, set in New York. I didn’t grab it then and there to read of all the ways Archie Ferguson’s life could have turned out because, as you could probably tell, I didn’t have the luggage space. But I “tagged” it right there in my head for a next time.

Next time arrived sooner than I’d expected and I was leaving for a long trip and trying to figure out what to load on my Kindle so I wouldn’t run out of something to read. The gigantic Auster came to mind. I was barely halfway through it before I zealously started badgering friends to read it too.

A message pinged back:

“You could have just told me the thing is over 700 pages.”


Wait… is it?

As with War and Peace the electronic version is much lighter on the arm muscles. But that’s only the one reason I didn’t always notice the length of this novel. In fact, I had wandered so far into that world I’d wanted it to go on. Funnily enough, it is actually a pretty straightforward novel to describe.

It basically tells the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of immigrants to America, throughout the 1940’, 50’s, 60’s and so on, in New York and New Jersey. The language could seem plain, but just look at what he does with the final sentence of the chapter. Typical Auster he manages to take a seemingly ordinary event and just tilt a sentence here and there slightly – and suddenly it becomes something momentous:

Her sister-in-law picked up on the third ring, and thus it was Millie who came to fetch her. During the short ride to the maternity ward at Beth Israel, Rose told her that she and Stanley had already chosen names for the child who was about to be born. If it was a girl, they were going to call her Esther Ann Ferguson. If it was a boy, he would go through life as Archibald Isaac Ferguson. Millie looked into the rearview mirror and studied Rose, who was sprawled out on the backseat. Archibald, she said. Are you sure about that one? Yes we’re sure, Rose answered, because of my Uncle Archie. And Isaac because of Stanley’s father. Let’s just hope he’s a tough kid, Millie said. She was about to go on, but before she could get another word out of her mouth, they had reached the hospital entrance. Millie rounded up the troops, and when Rose gave birth to her son at 2:07 the following morning, everyone was there: Stanley and her parents, Mildred and Joan, and even Stanley’s mother. Thus Ferguson was born, and for several seconds after he emerged from his mother’s body, he was the youngest human being on the face of the earth. – Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

After the first bit, the book splits up into four different versions of Archie’s life, told in alternating chapters. So instead of reading one version after the other, or reading along diverging paths like in the choose-your-adventure-type books we read as kids, the reader reads four versions of each stage of life before proceeding with the next one. And it’s not four versions as in four different perspectives. It shows four completely different lives, affected by different events and different outcomes of events. So that’s why it feels like four novels: because it actually could have been. It is as if the reader gets drawn even deeper into a certain period of American and World History because the variations allow a deep and multi-faceted experience of key events and movements. See how he draws together a few different recurring themes in the novel (movies, the link between past and present, the nature of reality, the way we shape places and places shape us…) with this description of Paris:

Paris was the movie of Paris, an agglomeration of all the Paris movies Ferguson had seen, and how inspiring it was to find himself in the real place now, real in all of its sumptuous and stimulating reality, and yet to walk around feeling that it was an imaginary place as well, a place both in his head and out in the air that encircled his body, a simultaneous here and there, a black-and-white past and a full-color present, and Ferguson took pleasure in shuttling between the two of them, his thoughts moving so fast at times that the two blurred into one. – Paul Auster,  4 3 2 1

After putting down the novel, I felt like I’d walked criss-cross through the streets of New York City or had gone time-traveling. The extraordinary detail of each version is reason enough to call this novel a masterpiece.

When I look back over my reading history, there are always some books that stand out like beacons on the way, lighting up a different direction or marking an important stage in life.

4 3 2 1 made it to that list within the first few chapters.

The books that become landmarks on the map of my reading landscape are not just there because they are exceptionally good, some are also on the list for making me see life or myself or a certain situation in a new light, books that opened up worlds or offered up moments of recognition and explanation, books that gather less dust than the many others because they get picked up and re-read and doled out like medication.

4 3 2 1 is one of those books that make you think about life. The massive expanse of events and fine details ram home the point that even the smallest, most insignificant-looking event can have vast consequences. But it also made me realise that if there’s something that you should be doing with your life, it won’t leave you. It will either fill up your existence or haunt you in vague taunts from the fringes.

Don’t know what I mean?

Go read the book first; I don’t want to spoil it for you. It is a grand piece of literature, and well worth the effort.

This morning I dusted-off my copy of The New York Trilogy. It’s time to visit an old friend and smell the rainy mornings and remember.

“Afspraak met Eergister”: Op reis in ou reisverhale

This post is in Afrikaans, but earlier this week I published a different one in English – so you don’t have to turn around if you don’t understand this one. Read here about the fun I’m having texting a novel. 

Ou reisverhale hou vir my ‘n besondere bekoring in. Kyk, natuurlik is daar iets te sê vir die gemoedsrus wat ‘n blink boek, of dingetjie op jou foon met splinternuwe inligting, verskaf wanneer jy natgereën in ‘n vreemde land ‘n slaapplek soek. Maar deesdae gaan ek ook swaar êrens heen sonder ‘n reisverhaal of ‘n roman wat afspeel by my bestemming. Vandag sal  Springbok round the Corner  jou kwalik die regte pad deur  sommige dele van Suid-Afrika kan beduie, maar, ai, jy sal nie spyt wees as jy deur die Vrystaat ry met ‘n paar van die dinge wat Basil Fuller daar te siene gekry het in jou voosgevatte notaboekie nie.

Betrand Westphal skryf in La Géocritique. Réel, fiction, espace (2007), hoe die belewenis van ‘n spesifieke plek verryk kan word deur daarna te kyk deur die oë van skrywers en karakters. In die volgende aanhaling vertel hy hoe Parys, byvoorbeeld, gelees kan word as ‘n reeks lae van “Paryse” deur verskeie skrywers se uitbeeldings van Parys bymekaar te sit:

Dans le Paris de Calvino et de Eco, il y a, comme autant de poupées gigognes, le Paris de Balzac, de Dumas ou de Outrillo. La géocritique permet de reconstituer le cheminement intertextuel qui mène à ce travail de représentation de l’espace. Le coefficient d’impact serait plus élevé encore si, plutôt que de percevoir ce qu’il y a de textuel dans un espace donné, on considérait le lieu comme un texte. –  bl. 247

[Binne die Parys van Calvino en Eco is daar, soos binne Russiese poppies, die Parys van Balzac, Duma of Outrillo. Die geokritiek maak dit moontlik om die intertekstuele weg wat lei na hierdie voorstelling van ruimte te herkonstrueer. Die koëffisiënt van die impak sal selfs hoër wees, indien die plek as ʼn teks bekou word, in plaas daarvan om die tekstuele elemente in ʼn bepaalde ruimte te beskou.]

Met ander woorde: elke beskrywing van ‘n plek voeg ‘n laag , of selfs ‘n paar lae, tot die bestemming. Dis wat my opgeval het in Berlyn destyds: hoe die geskiedenis in lae opgeslik lê teen mure vol koeëlgate en brokkies sementmuur – die elektriese geraas van ‘n wêreldstad in jou ore. Jy staan op een plek en draai stadig in die rondte: barok – Wêreldoorlog – Stasi – WiFi – soveel Berlyne van soveel eras. En dit is maar net wat in die strate te siene was: in my agterkop was die Berlyn van Goodbye Lenin, Berlin: Alexanderplatz… en voor my was die Alexanderplatz en die bolronde televisietoring. Wanneer ‘n mens, soos Westphal voorstel, ‘n plek as ‘n teks lees, bring die lees van ouer tekste die lae wat in die hedendaagse landskap onsigbaar geword het, na vore.

Die Afrikaanse skrwyer Abraham H. de Vries het vanjaar 80 geword en ons kan gerus ‘n slag gesels oor een van sy boeke.  Ek kom van die Klein-Karoo af en het onlangs met die deurryslag in Ladismith, dié plaaslike skrywer se Afspraak met eergister: Griekse reisjoernaal Oktober 1965 tot April 1966 (Tafelberg, 1966), in die hande gekry (Daar is ‘n tuisnywerheid by die vulstasie op linkerhand, soos jy Kaap se kant toe ry, wat altyd van sy boeke aanhou).

Met die intrapslag is dit reeds duidelik dat ek nooit as ek na Griekeland sou reis dieselfde land sal aantref as hy en sy vrou, Ri, nie. Inteenteendeel, die sestigerjare is eergister genoeg – laat staan nog die antieke tye. Maar geen generiese reisgids vir bekpekkers kan die Griekse landskap meet aan die Klein-Karoo se koppies nie. Die boek is ryk aan Suid-Afrikaanse verwysings en bied aan die leser ‘n eiesoortige toegang tot hierdie bestemming:

Daar word vertel dat Apollo in die hawetjie Krisa (Itea) voet aan wal gesit het, nadat hy van sy geboorte-eiland, Delos, af weg is om die hele Griekeland te verower. By hom het hy ʼn dolfyn as lyfwag gehad en hyself was vermom as ʼn ster. Van Krisa af het hy opgeklim tot by die skuilplek van die draak wat oor Delphi gewaak het, en nadat hy dié doodgemaak het, het hy aan al die gode verkondig dat dit wat sy oë kon sien, van toe af syne was. Wat hy gesien het, is wat besoekers aan die tempel in die ruïnegebied vandag nog sien – waarskynlik een van die mooiste vergesigte wat daar bestaan – vir wie nog nooit vantevore op Towerkop naby Ladismith in die Klein-Karoo gestaan het nie. – bl. 69

Saam met hom op reis is ook die werke van ander skrywers, onder andere antieke beskrywings en legendes, wat hy in Afrikaans laat saamvleg om skerp draaie en laat rondkyk in die straatkafees:

Links van ons speel die see wegkruipertjie agter lae rotsformasies in en regs kom die berg Olumpos stadig los uit die vroegoggendmistigheid. Vir die ou Grieke was daar geen twyfel dat dit die hoogste berg in die wêreld was nie. Daarom het hulle dit beskou as die woonplek van Zeus, die oppergod. ʼn Jakkals loop oor my graf terywl ek doen wat die Grieke van vroeër nie sou gewaag het nie – ek kyk na die pieke wat nog toe lê onder die mistigheid. Omdat die gasstofie (wat ek elke keer met ʼn gaatjiesoekende ritueel aanmekaar moet sit) stadig kook aan die water, kry ek kans om my sagtebanduitgawe van Homerus rustig te sit en deurblaai. – bl. 21

Sy vrou se, dikwels droë, kommentaar dra by tot die humor wat die toon aangee soos landskap, mitologie, filosofie en politiek mekaar afwissel tussen koppies koffie, tempels en eilande. Die kleurvolheid van die tonele word slegs oortref deur die kleurvolheid van die Afrikaans waarin dit beskryf word:

Links van ons sit ʼn boepens-Griek en eet met sy servet onder sy boordjie ingedruk. Sy vrou sit met haar hande op haar skoot en die dogtertjie tussen hulle hou vir die musikante tyd met haar witpuntskoentjies. Die eienaar van die kafee is ʼn maer man wat sonder enige emosie alles gadeslaan. Teen die muur het hy nagemaakte oudhede gehang, ʼn ou seemanspet en ʼn foto van sy vader.

“En as jy alles neerskryf soos iemand wat ʼn wasgoedlys maak; watter sin het dit?” vra Ri.

“Dit hoef nie sin te hê nie,” antwoord ek. Met my neus tussen die jasmynblare. “Tot nou toe was alles bont genoeg!” – bl. 40

Vroeg in die boek, dink ek aan ‘n episode van Vetkoekpaleis waar Spira vir Antie Poppie, “καλή μέρα ” gegroet het – en ek soos ‘n kind in ‘n speelgoedwinkel gevoel het. Gedurende my eerste gefaalde pogings om Grieks te leer, het ek die opwinding meegemaak ons twee reisigers ervaar met hulle ontsyfering van die Griekse alfabet:

Ons sit en spel soos kinders die woorde op die advertensies uit, want die Griekse alfabet het 24 letters, waarvan net 10 as hoofletters en 9 in gewone skrif ooreenstem met dié van ons. Die res is letterlik en figuurlik Grieks, totdat ʼn mens agterkom dat daar maar ongeveer ʼn dosyn letters oorbly om te leer en dat jy die vermoëns wat jy as ʼn tjokkertjie in die laerskool gehad het, nie kwyt is nie: dit duur hoogstens ʼn paar minute om hierdie letters te leer, en Grieks is daarna nie meer so Grieks nie, want die bewoording van byvoorbeeld advertensies is nou eenmaal internasionaal. Dan, op ʼn aand, laat ʼn Griek vir jou ʼn notatjie en begin die plesier van voor af, want hulle verwag dat jy nog ʼn handskrifdeskundige ook moet wees! – bl. 18

Die boek trek mens in by gesprekke en stories langs die pad: die avontuur van ‘n ander taal,’n dorpsbegrafnis, ‘n kerkie so klein dat daar net plek is vir ‘n kat, ‘n bakleiery op straat na ‘n motorbotsing.  En maak nie saak watter Griekeland daar is as ek dit die dag besoek nie, Afspraak met Eergister se oezoe en grotte en handgebare sit reeds daar vir my en wag.

Daar is sekere plekke, net soos mense, wat die vermoë het om al die brandnekels wat ʼn mens in jou het, te laat verwelk. Daphni is so ʼn plek. Toe ons daar wegry, pluk Ri ʼn paar lourierblare af en steek dit in my baadjie se bosak, soveel te sê: bly nou om hemelsnaam die res van die dag ook kalm. – bl. 60

Ook ‘n boek soos hierdie laat die brandnekels verwelk. Watter reisboek staan op jóu stowwerige rak?

Texting a Novel

Yesterday I read a quote by John Steinbeck that reminded me of some friends of mine:

“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.” – John Steinbeck

You see, I also write best when I have one particular person in mind –usually someone I can send it to straightaway. So I often write my poems directly in emails or haiku in text messages. Even drafts of stories have been written on emails to send directly to a friend who would enjoy it. Pat Louw, whose Haiku you can read in this new anthology, Current Haiku, introduced me to the sport of writing haiku in text messages to friends while traveling – a way to keep a travelogue and take people along on the trip. The draft of a story about an old man in a park – thinking back over his years working for a newspaper and presidents that came and went – got send to a friend who was down in the dumps about the elections in his country. And the poem about finding a pen in my bag that reminded me of a trip to New York, went to the friend I visited there – also doubling as a don’t-bother-looking-for-your-pen message.

I’m working on a humorous novel at the moment, and many little sections have been written for and sent off to friends – especially the ones who like dogs or know the area where the story is set. It’s an Afrikaans story, but it’s been interesting to switch languages or translate so that other friends got follow the story too. So when a friend landed in hospital recently and asked for a chapter, I had think quickly, because as far as I could tell she could only talk to me via phone text messages.

So for the past week or so, I’ve been swiping and stabbing at a touch screen at funny hours to compose this section of the novel directly in text messages. At first I thought it would be a pain: at best the touch screen and I are not friends, the space is so confined and the predictive text drives me up the wall – not to mention the likeliness of losing a text halfway because of swiping the wrong thing by accident.

But it’s been one of the most enjoyable and surprising writing experiences I’ve ever had. Somehow letting the story’s many characters run around in that medium, the action becomes more immediate, it is as if the dialogue really is happening “live”.

I find myself sitting and writing longer sections than I normally do, simply because there’s an implicit “and then? what next?” flickering from the next empty bubble. Or I see that the message has been read and I think: I can’t end with this line! And the characters finish their conversation.

My friend in hospital thanked me for helping to cheer her up a bit. But I have to thank her too, for being that one person to write to right now – what a treat to have a reader directly at the other end of the story, turning that annoying screen into the storyteller’s flickering campfire.

Hang around if you want to hear more about the infamous novel. The trailer is coming soon (no pun).

The Time I didn’t learn Greek

The one is light blue with big red letters on it. On the picture people are sitting outside a restaurant at wooden tables in the sunshine. The other is smaller and older, a mustardy brown with white letters and a moth-eaten spine. This is a tale of two beat-up little phrase books and the time I didn’t learn Greek.

Langenhoven noem daardie straat in van sy boeke wat in Oudtshoorn afspeel, soos Sonde met die Bure, Sint Jan Straat (kan nie nou lekker die spelling onthou nie, maar ek onthou hoe snaaks dit was toe ek dit die eerste keer gelees het). Daar, nes jy deur die duik ry, sit ‘n tweedehandse boekwinkel en ek was seker so om en by dertien jaar oud toe ek die eerste keer daar in is. The first little book costed only R5, I think the owner of the shop gave it to me for free in the end. I was in that stage between high school and primary school and convinced that I was going to learn Greek.

Like many of these little books it started with the alphabet, and I earnestly attacked those funny symbols with the same sense of wonder I felt  as a younger child trying to learn Morse code and the secret languages the kids in Astrid Lindgren novels spoke. A couple of years ago a friend showed me how to cook a Greek dish. And when I found myself saying a clumsy “good day”, with my Afrikaans pronunciation sounding like “kalliemerra”, with an onion in my hand, I suddenly remembered the little phrase book again. Today I can see the ticks of my pencil next to each phrase I learnt – I didn’t get more than a couple of pages into the book. And a few months later I started to learn German  at school – a much longer story for another time.

Over the years I ran into the language I never learnt quite a few times. Then one day, as a university student, I picked up another, even tinier, phrasebook. This time for the beautiful handwritten inscription on the first page of an otherwise very dull looking little book:


To Peter

May all our dreams of travel come true

Love, Stella

Did they? Did their dreams come true? Did they travel to Greece? Could they use a few Greek words? Did they split up and never went? Packed the little phrase book but never used it? This time a Greek phrasebook brought me the beauty of someone else’s dream instead of my own. Today when I look at the row of little phrasebooks on my dusty shelf, I see a little row of dreams and stories.

So I guess that’s two times I didn’t learn Greek.  But I learnt a few other things. (Well, for one thing, it taught me that I should rather learn languages a different way.)

I learnt the thrill of encountering a foreign alphabet for the first time. The other day I read this incredible novel by Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai, where a little boy learns Greek (it’s about so much more than that, but I won’t go into it today, in the meantime you can go read what someone else had to say about it in this review) and I sat riveted. Because my little phrasebooks taught me what it feels like to attempt learning Greek at a young age, I could add my own sense of wonder to that of the boy in the story.

When I picked up that first phrasebook in the shop, I remembered again how much I wanted to learn foreign languages. I learnt something about myself from those phrasebooks, and that led met to a path I’m still happily following today. Greek didn’t end up being the first or even the fourth foreign language I learnt, but it will always be first one that made me a learner of foreign languages.

And Greek taught me the value of learning only a little bit of something. I learnt only a few words and symbols, but over the years they would keep popping up in novels and science text books and Hollywood romcoms with the casual familiarity of old friends. The first time I heard Barbara Sher talk about not finishing things and how you can be finished with something without other people realising it, I knew what she was talking about. Getting fluent in another language is a lot of fun (yes, yes, another reference to German), but that does not make my half-baked attempts at learning a few Greek words a failure to learn Greek. Whenever I pick up one of those phrasebooks, I don’t feel sad, I still feel enchanted –  a thrill that adds as much to my way of being in the world as being fluent in a few other languages does.

Do you have a little phrasebook with a story on your dusty shelf?