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.

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?

Dusty Books: Edith Wharton – In Morocco

Published in 1920, I just had to read this account by a woman who traveled Morocco directly after the First World War by car. One of the very first sentences of the journey bristles with an all too familiar excitement, even though Morocco is the the subject of so many guide books today:

To step aboard a steamer in a Spanish port, and three hours later to land in a country without a guide book, is a sensation to rouse the hunger of the repletest sight-seer (p.8)

Books like Wharton’s do their bit to rouse that hunger, but also satisfy it many ways. Even if an old travel book may speak from an era, culture or ideology as foreign to the reader as the destination is to the author. Morocco is all over my book shelf, but between those pages I can still visit her Morocco, bobbing along without a guidebook beyond what she calls “the familiar dog-eared world of travel” – isn’t that a wonderful image?

For Tangier swarms with people in European clothes, there are English, French and Spanish signs above its shops, and cab-stands in its squares; it belongs, as much as Algiers, to the familiar dog-eared world of travel – and there, beyond the last dip of “the Mountain,” lies the world of mystery, with the rosy dawn just breaking over it. The motor is at the door and we are off. (p.10)

Not only does she describe sights in places like Rabat, Volubilis (fans of Asterix, there you can still walk on a paved road where Roman chariots once thundered), Meknez and Fez; she also takes the reader into her vehicle so that the narrative bounces and grunts along with the motor in the dust. Amper soos die bonsende kamera agter die ruite van die voertuie in die dokumentêre televisiereeks Voetspore, voer haar beskrywing die leser padlangs deur die landskap:

After leaving the macadamized road which runs south from Tangier one seems to have embarked on a petrified ocean in a boat hardly equal to the adventure. Then, as one leaps and plunges over humps and ruts, down sheer banks into rivers, and up precipices into sand-pits, one gradually gains faith in one’s conveyance and in one’s spinal column; but both must be sound in every joint to resist the strain of the long miles to Arbaoua, the frontier post of the French protectorate. (p.10)

Gain faith in your spinal column! When I travel, I like to read books set in the place where I’m going. But long after a journey, a book can also take you back. Wharton’s description of her first sight of Rabat, made me sit upright, because not only does she conjure up a sight that I saw, she manages to bring back the feel of the air and the smells and the cool mist – that mist that rubs out the edge of a continent into a hazy bit of light blue sky:

To the gates of both the Atlantic breakers role in with the boom of northern seas, and under a misty northern sky. It is one of the surprises of Morocco to find the familiar African pictures bathed in this unfamiliar haze. Even the fierce midday sun does not wholly dispel it – the air remains thick, opalescent, like water slightly clouded by milk. One is tempted to say that Morocco is Tunisia seen by moonlight.(p.14)

I’ll leave her descriptions of the desert and the desert light for another time when I return to this book. But next time you travel, try to read something really old about the place you are going to or that you’ve been to: You may find a travel companion whose typewriter used some of the words on you touch screen to draw the same filter you used on your Instagram over the moment you re-encounter in a dusty book.

Topic Tuesday #2: Italian

There will be a lot of talk of languages here at the Dusty Shelf because my own dusty shelves are full of them. Someday I’ll sit down here and write the story of the two little faded Greek phrasebooks that started it all. I love little dictionaries and phrasebooks. Mostly just because I like holding them, and looking at them and flipping through them. Picking up random words here and there like shells on a beach. Shoving them into my pocket only to remember them again when I hear the cracking sound as I sit on them.

Ek het al ‘n taal of wat baasgeraak en toe vir ‘n klompie jare nie ‘n nuwe een aangedurf nie. A friend was going on a trip to Russia and when I started digging around to see if I could possibly learn a language by myself, I stumbled upon the work of an excellent bunch of polyglots like Alex Rawlings and felt like I found “my people”. And I still enjoy reading their blogs and trying out their advice and experiments. But one of the interesting things that I found, especially when I started toying around with Italian, was all the other dusty shelves closer to mine at home.

Mentioning learning Italian in random conversations, brought out people who felt something for the language too. One friend had learnt Italian before and could recommend some easy things to me to read. We’d chew and spit out halting phrases together – hers a bit rusty, mine very wobbly, and laugh. Imagine running into someone at a place like your local supermarket every week and then “bam!” you’re on a bus in Rome! This is what the Dusty Shelf Academy is all about, not just re-discovering the things that have been gathering dust on your shelves, but also sharing those things with others. Who knows, a few halting “bene’s” later you might bump into a real Italian, far away from her home and yours, and be all chuffed with yourself – like was when I met my friend Florenza.

Don’t say “I want to learn Italian”, say: “Buongiorno!” – Barbara Sher

When you like something that appears random, like learning Italian in a little village in South Africa just for the hell of it, you often get discouraged talking about it.

“What will you use it for? So are you going to Italy?”

“But how long will it take you to get fluent?”

I have a lot to say about this idea that one has to be fluent in a language to benefit from learning it. But I digress. Let me ask you instead what it is about Italian. It’s different for different people. You read our man Goethe’s or Maeve Binchy’s Evening Class or Irma Joubert’s Anderkant Pontenilo – for some it’s the sound, for some it’s the food, the country, the people the opera… What is it about Italian for you?

Without even recognising the name or knowing anything about the author – or understanding a word of it – I bought Giovanni Verga’s Tutte le Novelle  in a second-hand shop this holiday. Or at least, I tried to. The lady was so surprised and relieved to find the two Italian books in my pile that she gave them to me for free (more about the rest of that pile on one of the next Dusty Books). At the moment I’m not a very dedicated language learner, too busy shaking my full sleeve. I make that dear little Duolingo owl very miserable – yes, you whiny little squeaky toy, I have no idea what the word for breakfast is. But yesterday I sat in front of my computer gawping at an article about Verga’s work, pointing excitedly like a child at the table of contents in front of me at every story title I find that the article talks about and scratching around in my own copy to re-read the sentences he quotes.

I still knew only a tiny bit more than squat about that Sicilian writer, but suddenly I knew again what it was about Italian and about languages. Not just the fact that I enjoy pronouncing *all* the letters again after all that French or using my hands after all that German. And the flour sticking to my hands after the home-made pasta experiment wasn’t the whole story either.  Listening and repeating scraps from the computer or the CD in my car, venturing into delighted exclamations saying nothing at all to a friend who’s having just as much fun, flicking through a dictionary stopping at words that I might never need and mulling them over… All of that is what Italian and languages are to me: a chance to be me, but different…

And you know what, I’ll still go back to the part where I listen to shells breaking under my backside. Because that is the part I enjoy the most, the part that reminds me of being a kid and sitting open-mouthed in front of an English tv-programme, laughing and not understanding a word. For me, right now, Italian is stumbling around in the dark, picking up things and stuffing them into my pockets and then carrying them out into swift glimpses of light, thrilled with what is gliding through my fingers.

So, if there’s Italian on your shelf, I ask you again, what is it for you?

Dusty Books #2 Ferns – Roger Grounds

Often we have to carve a little bit of expedition into our daily lives when the open road has to be ignored for a little bit as we get other things done. So on Friday morning, I had one of those makeshift expeditions and it turned into a whole series of unexpected adventure: I went looking for ferns.IMG_20151121_101132.jpg

Well, not really. I often duck into the library on a whim just to see where my nose leads me and whenever a book pulls me in, I stop right there and that’s where the expedition goes. IMG_20151120_115810.jpgThis time I got pulled over by Robert Grounds’ Ferns – stopping me in my tracks to remind me how much I’ve always loved these lacy little plants that conjure up forests and waterfalls and slow, fat dinosaurs with the unexplained, unspoken warmth of nodding old friends. I pulled out my notebook on the floor between the shelves of dusty books and get lost in that special feeling of long distance kinship when a writer puts one of your fondest vague loves into words:

“Ferns are indisputably the most beautiful of all the non-flowering plants. They have a grace and charm that is uniquely their own. Whether they are grown in a shaded border along with hostas, hardy terrestrial orchids and shrubs, in bottle gardens and Wardian cases, in the pampered environment of the greenhouse, or whether they are simply encountered in their native haunts in woodlands and hedgegrows, it is the delicacy of their finely finely divided fronds and their flowing habit of growth that makes them so attractive.”

“The ferns of the modern world could easily be taken at face value simply as a successful group of plants, like any other group of plants that has survived the modern age. Yet things are not so simple. Ferns are indeed one of the most successful of all groups of plants, and yet they are plants of enormous antiquity. The ferns of today are but the diminutive relatives of the great forests of tree ferns that flourished together with giant clubmosses and horsetails in the Carboniferous Age some 350,000,000 years ago. It was these giant ancestors of the modern ferns that laid down those rich seams of carbon upon which not only the Industrial Revolution, but also the structure of modern society were to be founded.”(Grounds 1974:14)

There is something to be said for old nature guide books. Some of them have lines that read like poetry. Just look at these lines from the section on cultivating ferns:“Ferns are among the easiest plants to cultivate. In the first place, they will thrive on neglect…; even so, that is not to recommend neglect as an ideal mode of cultivation.” (Grounds 1974:48) As I pulled out its neighbour, the glossy, thick Ferns of Southern Africa (Crouch et al. 2011) I keep them next to each other. The new one with its fat wads of delicious pictures and information, the one that will lift the usual suspects in the garden to celebrity status. And the old one, with its fond recounting of the story of ferns from the coalmakers to the Victorian grottoes to the fact that my hands are itching to copy all these beautiful sketches in ink. I love that there is something as splendid and alive as a brand new book with the latest information, showing that there is growth and interest. IMG_20151120_115759.jpgAnd I love that a book from 1974 can still tell me something I’ve always wanted to know – enthusiasm shining through the outdated and still pointing somewhere.

Soon I gave up the noble and uncomfortable exercise of trying to jot down field notes from these two excellent specimens and I tuck them under my arm to carry home.

Lost in the shiny pictures of the field guide, the sounds of the night are tuned out as fern after fern the surprising expedition continues. There are ferns in deserts? In arid places? In water? That look like that? But hovering over all of these questions, is still the question that halted me at the botany shelf: What is it about ferns?

The next day I set out on another expedition. Counting 5 different ferns in the yard before it starts raining again. IMG_20151121_100521.jpgEk het gou agtergekom dat dit my nie regtig ‘n bloue duit skeel wat hulle name is en watter een nou die nefie of die antie is van watter een nie. IMG_20151121_101100.jpgEk hou daarvan om die blare om te draai vir die spore wat wys dis varings. En om te kyk na hulle. Ek hou daarvan om na varings te kyk en meer kloes as dit sal ek nie sommer maklik kry nie. So I start taking pictures of them. And telling people about them And writing about them.

Ek en die varing en die tuin sit en kyk vir mekaar. IMG_20151121_101107.jpgIt’ll take more expeditions to get to the bottom of this strange affinity. I like the way Grounds says it at the end of the first section of his introduction: “The more one knows about ferns the more they intrigue one, and to appreciate them fully it is well worth examining in some detail their place in the plant kingdom and their evolutionary history.” (1974:15)

Miskien is varings net mooi. Maar hoekom?



Dusty Books #1 Springbok round the corner – Basil Fuller

I picked up this remarkable find, published by Maskew Miller around 1954, for R5 at a book sale at a school hall in Hartenbos last summer. Ah, yes, those summers in Hartenbos, reading under the canvas of a tent blowing with the Port Jackson trees and salty air, trying to keep the greasy chips paper’s vinegar and the juice of the nectarines from the place across the road away from the pages of a new find. It is time for another one of those soon!

I had never heard of the book or the author before, but the title drew my eyes away from the rest. (I did buy a few of the others too, will tell you about them soon enough here in the corner of Dusty Books) Here’s the first part of the prologue where the author writes about his choice for the title:

The old man put down his glass to gaze across the dining table. For a long time he had talked of out-of-the-way places – Damaraland, the Kalahari, and the Skeleton Coast – until at last the waiter had wearied and gone to the kitchens while we sat on in an empty room. Now he said quizzically:

“Of course you’re travelling in Africa to see lonely deserts and primitive men.”

Then he grinned at my hasty disclaimer.

“Well, that’s what most of your kind mean when they talk of ‘the unusual’. But for a change, I wish one of you writer fellows would tell us about the unusual things near at home, the curious things we miss because they’re just off the beaten track; things which the average man might see, but doesn’t.”

Later, we sat together on the stoep and looked out across Umtata to watch the moonlight silver the rounded hills of the Transkei.

“You’ll agree that Africa, more than most lands, is packed with unexpected things and places, with unexpected people,” the old man continued. “Yet the average person, whether South African, British, or American traveller, just doesn’t find them. He hasn’t the trained eye. Why should he? To use a hunting parallel, he is like the townsman tracking game.”

A sudden idea caused me to ask questions about his experiences with South African game, particularly the Springbok.

“Springbok!”, he exclaimed his voice cracking in excitement, “The Springbok is always unpredictable. It’s this way with him. You may cover his country for many miles and not see him, even though he is nearby all the time. For the untrained eye may look straight at him and yet pass on, suspecting nothing. That patch of deeper brown had blended perfectly with the landscape. Then, perhaps, there comes a very slight movement in that very spot, the flick of the ears, the quick turn of the graceful head. And there’s your Springbok! He has developed, so to speak, against the background of the veld almost as a picture appears when a film lies in developing liquid. He has been there all along but you have not been able to see him.” (ix)

En nou moet ek oorswitch na Die Taal want ek is net steeds, ‘n jaar later, hopeloos te opgewonde oor hierdie boek. Ek kon my oë nie glo toe ek sien watter plekke in die inhoudsopgawe en onderaan die foto’s is nie: Senekal, Vierfontein, Umtata, die Bluff…

En dit is wat die boek so besonders maak. Wat my nog meer opgewonde gemaak het, is wat hy om al die hoeke en draaie ontdek het. Hy praat met ‘n ou man en vrou wat onthou hoe hulle as slawe op ‘n skip aan wal gekom het in Natal. Hy kry fossiele in ‘n ringmuur om ‘n kerk in Senekal. Senekal! Hy vat die spoor van sandduine op die Berg van die Nag en praat met myners wat nog ly aan die goudkoors op die delwerye.

He drives this old car, The Cannibal Queen, all over some obscure dirt roads to corners of South Africa like The Bluff in Durban and Odendaalsrus. Constantly tracking the stories of farmers and miners and descendants of figures in South African history, giving you that feeling of when you stumble across an old black and white film of a person you’ve only read about in history books so often that you’ve forgotten that they were real.

“Springbok round the Corner” may be a travel guide to places and people that you’ll never be able to travel to anymore, and still should be in your cubbyhole to remind you that whatever you’re setting out to see in this beautiful country, lies beyond the sensational and the obvious: around the corner.