Happy Birthday, Uys Krige

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a door slammed. (p.30)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

“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?