Monday, March 20, 2017

Let them eat meat

Fruit cake and coffee with evaporated milk, in bed, while reading a Paris Review article about young novelist Édouard Louis and his writer's rage. A rage that saw him write his first novel at 19, and published at 21. In 2014. Not only published at 21 but because it's a best seller, he's been published out of poverty at 21.

The point about the poverty is an important one. Not only because it raises other issues for the young writer as he's then, almost, sucked into the world of "cocktail parties and dinners" that he had dreamed about when he first arrived in Paris - "but more and more I realize you can see the literary world as a school of submission. You always have to shake everyone’s hand, in what can be seen as a quiet celebration of the bourgeoisie" - but, also, because it was his and his family's own poverty that politicised him into writing what he has, and in the style that he does.

I'm reading about Louis as a small airplane buzzily trails an advertisement banner (which I don't bother to read) back and forth across the bright blue sky above the city bowl and as the woman next door gets -breath-less-ly- fucked against the wall that divides our two apartments.

In just over three years I've only heard sex next door once before. However, often, daily, her heels click-and-clack across the tiled floors as she prepares for work, for which she always promptly leaves by banging shut and locking the front door at precisely 7 am. Peace then again reigns. I can't help but wonder if she's wearing those high heels right now? I've only set my eyes on her once before, a man was trailing her into her flat; she briefly turned at the door and momentarily caught my eye; I have no recollection of how she looks. Nor of how the man looked that trailed her into her flat.

It’s a quite and calm Sunday morning. After the welcome string of cool, sometimes moody autumnal days this last week,  my guess is that everyone's rushed off to the beaches, both the icy but more pretentious ones on the Atlantic seaboard, also the warmer and much more down to earth ones on the Indian seaboard. That leaves everyone and everything in-between quiet and calm, as it should be: 31 degrees today, 36 tomorrow; while I dread these death throes of summer, what comforts me is that they are just that, summer's death throes.

Just how, exactly, did that traumatised child become the assured and beautiful young man who gazes so calmly from the author photo on the book jacket?, questions novelist Neil Bartlett writing about Édouard Louis in the Guardian last month. “Whom did he meet, once he had escaped to the city, and how? Who was it who helped him save and repossess his life – and who inspired him to write this well?” Those, too, are my burning questions.

I hunker even more deeply down into the Paris review piece despite feeling guilty about reading, which for some bizarre reason I associate with not working. That bizarre reason - despite the fact that I'm inspired, that my mind is whirring and clicking with the satisfaction of being exposed to new ideas, perspectives - is because reading has always been such an intense pleasure, also such a wonderful escape, that I feel guilty at the luxury thereof, that it seems impossible to associate with work, with studying.

Back to Louis, who makes a strong case for his having written a political novel, also for not being apolitical: "All authors are political, even if they don’t realize it. Being apolitical merely reinforces the status quo, supporting the powerful over the weak." 

He maintains that many writers "don’t want to know how to speak about politics because they’re from the bourgeoisie," and because "they’ve been protected from the rough edges of political change." On the other hand, the people he writes about are "ceaselessly marked by the consequences of political choices". 

"My mother would say, Under Mitterand, we always had meat on our plates. Even if I could show her that Mitterand wasn’t as generous to the poor as she thought, the point is that when the government reformed its policies—on welfare, for example—we felt it in our stomachs. Today I can complain about the government all I want, but political decisions won’t determine the amount of food on my plate tonight." 

Louis's writer's fire reminds me of Frantz Fanon's fire: Lewis Gordin in What Fanon Said (2015), writes that throughout his book, Black Skin, White Mask (1995), Fanon struggles to hold the fire at bay, the result of which "is an ongoing heat that occasionally bursts into flame".

Louis: "Politics isn’t a question of words, he says, it’s a question of meat [on your plate]. I try never to forget that."

How would I describe him after my relatively brief introduction today? Hungry, angry, brilliant & beautiful... and a writer that I'm going to keep my attention focus upon.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Blood of the gods

I'm fondly remembering the drive along Chapman's Peak that we took early in December.

It was from Hout Bay to Noordhoek, before we stopped, again, at the Lighthouse Pub and Grill in Kommetjie; it's a favourite and calm place where I feel that I'm suitably far from the city.

Summer was in full bloom that day and there was not a single thought in anyone's head of the winter. Understandably so as we'd not even reached the climactic summer equinox.

Endless days overflowed with sunshine and light.

The peninsula was tinderbox dry, fires threatened the landscape, the sky so blue and without end, that it seemed possible to see all the way to Brazil, even to Antarctica if one but only stared long and hard enough.

Water restrictions and summer holidays were on the air.

Last week it rained. The first time in ages. With eyes closed, I breathed in deeply the distinctive 'wet road' smell of rain on hot tarmac.

There's apparently a word for that scent -Petrichor - that describes the earthy scent produced when rain falls on dry soil. Derived from the Greek, it's a combination of "stone", and "īchṓr," which was the very fluid that flowed in the veins of Greek mythology's gods.

It was during the rain that I had a sense of the approaching autumn and, hopefully, the winter downpours that I so clearly remember. And yearn for. Although one can't take anything for granted these climate change days. We hope it's merely a drought that will soon come to an end. However, I have my doubts: not only was it reported in 2016 that SA is experiencing its worst drought in 100 years, but in January it was confirmed that we're now breaking global temperature records once every three years. I dread that this might be our new reality going forward.

I come alive in the wet and moody weather that can see Table Mountain disappeared for days in an elephant-grey shroud.

Today, too, has just a hint of autumn in it, also, the days are undeniably shorter; I'm grateful for less light and that it's duskish when I wake.

The wind's gusting and Woodstock has a shininess about it; it looks bright and unusually beautiful: my hood.

During the last two weeks, words, not unlike big fat raindrops have flowed from me. I experience gratefulness at that: I'm a less parched than before, less parched than last year.

Please, may it be the last of my drought?

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The Scream

My new medication, of which I'm a mere five weeks into - for depression and severe anxiety (it's been my Achille's for 4.5 years) - is kicking in just in time for a new year: I'm motivated and passionate again, desire to write is revived, also to photograph and to generally just do things; I'm especially grateful that I'm less fearful of answering my phone and anxiously procrastinate less about replying to emails, texts, and Whatsapp messages.

How it's possible for a minute chemical imbalance in a brain has the capacity to severely disable a life never ceases to astonish me. My heart especially goes out to those who have no access to medical insurance and thus to psychiatric help, especially those doomed to live on the streets as 'mad'. And hungry. And cold. And often subject to hate, violence.

It's dusk and, below me, the comforting orange lights have gone on in the close-knit streets of Woodstock. Behind the suburb, moody and severe, Devil's Peak is reminiscent of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings.

The South-Easter has been raping, shredding, tearing at my apartment block for three days now. It's partly to blame for me having not left my space the entire day: naked, with a book in my hand I've moved between my bedroom, the living room, the bathroom; an empty blue tea mug, a favourite, is on the floor next to the couch.

It's there that I was reading New York-based Teju Cole's 'Known and Strange Things' (2016). I bought his highly recommended essay compilation on the advice (yes, I trust him implicitly) of Mervyn Sloman, the Book Lounge's owner. I'm reading a travel piece in it - 'Far away from here' (p. 227) - about a six-month sojourn he once spent in Switzerland. For me, the awesomeness of the piece is how he combines writing about travel and place with his passion for photography.

Because back home now I've avoided the City and most of the scenic parts of the Cape Peninsula, due to the summer crowds, the tourists. Which is why this piece of his triggered me, also because through it, he held up a mirror to me so that I could again see what I've deemed non-negotiable principles for me to live by. He writes:

'[The first] Baedeker was already able to state, in that early guide to Switzerland, that places like the Rigi, the Brunig, and the Scheideck were on "beaten tracks." By the 1880s Switzerland was estimated to be receiving a million visitors a year. Travelers tend to go where other travelers have gone, and perhaps this is part of the reason travel photography remains in thrall to the typical. When you do visit Zurich or Cape Town or Bangkok, they are very much alike: the amusement parks have striking similarities, the cafes all play the same Brazilian music, the malls are interchangeable, kids on the school buses resemble one another, and the interiors of middle-class homes conform to the same parameters.'

It's the worldwide suburban attitude, the commercialisation, the globalisation of the (in my eyes) failed neoliberal capitalistic system of our world, and the insatiable acquisition of things, that literally freaks me out and (most likely) plays a big part in reliance on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. The image that sums that for me sums up the response to this is Edvard Munch's 'The Scream.'

Cole, however, highlights that despite all the similarity this doesn't mean the world is uninteresting. 'It only means that the world is more uniform than most photo essays acknowledge, and that a lot of travel photography relies on an essentialism.' 

He likes Italo Calvino's idea of "continuous cities," as described in the novel 'Invisible Cities.' "[Calvo suggests that there is actually just one big, continuous city that does not begin or end: "Only the name of the airport changes."

Cole insists that 'what is then interesting is to find, in that continuity, the less obvious differences of texture: the signs, the markings, the assemblages, the things hiding in plain sight in each cityscape or landscape.' This, he says, is what outstanding photographers are able to do. 'And it is the target the rest of us chase.' Which is how I attempt, on every level, to live my life... fully, deeply, passionately seeking for that which is outstanding amidst the dreariness of the sameness: I choose not to live the 'fast food drive-thru route.  I don't often get it right of course, especially not without my meds.