DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
TJ/Double Negative by David Goldblatt & Ivan Vladislavić. Contrasto, 456 pp. $75.00.
Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavić. Umuzi Press, 208 pp. R180.00.
A Labour of Moles by Ivan Vladislavić. Sylph Editions, 44 pp. £10.00.
The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories by Ivan Vladislavić. Seagull Books, 112 pp. $25.00.
At the end of Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, Neville Lister, the novel’s narrator, recounts an episode from his childhood. As a boy growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, Neville used to play a game with his father whenever the two of them were together in his father’s Mercedes. Like most such games designed for children, its purpose is to placate and subdue the child for the duration of the voyage. But this game soon comes to engage both players in an absorbing battle of wits. The rules are simple: Neville has to lie down on the back seat; his father then drives the car around, deliberately taking circuitous routes to their destination; Neville is allowed to look up through the windows, but not to lift his head; when the car stops, Neville has to guess where they are. Though he is outfoxed initially even by relatively direct paths, he soon learns the skill of mental map-making whereby he matches the sparse clues afforded him by his limited perspective against an “internal landscape.” One day he finds that he has developed his orientation skills to the point that he can no longer make a mistake.
I had X-ray vision, I could see through the leather seats, where springs were coiled in fibre, I could see through the metal ribs of the door. Factory yards, shopfronts, garden fences and houses drifted by [. . .] I had become a compass needle. Rather than trying to figure out where he was going, I was giving him directions, telling him when to slow down, where to turn, when to double back.
But the young Neville is not elated by his newfound superpowers.
At last we stopped. The air was thick with the homely smell of food, which the vinegar had not entirely soured. I could see a streetlight on a tall pole, the jigsaw undersides of oak leaves, pieces of sky between branches. My dad’s voice reached me through the wall of the seat: ‘Where are we now, my boy?’
For the moment, I could not answer. I lay in the dark with the bitter knowledge that I had unlearned the art of getting lost.
I begin with this fragment from the end of Double Negative because its status as fragment is germane to the novel and to Vladislavić’s oeuvre as a whole. One could imagine this story being published separately in a collection of short stories; it is self-standing, complete, and poignant in its own right. And yet, as any reader coming to the end of Double Negative will know, the effect of the story is incalculably enhanced by its incorporation into the whole. The food is more homely, the vinegar more sour, and the knowledge more bitter for following from other fragments of Neville’s life.
Vladislavić is one of the great writers of the fragment. The two works preceding Double Negative, The Exploded View (2004) and Portrait with Keys (2006), both attest to this. The Exploded View is a novel in four parts, one for each of four protagonists—a statistician gathering census data, a civil engineer working on post-apartheid housing developments, a market-savvy artist (who makes a delightful return in Double Negative), and an erector of billboards. All of them have a privileged perspective on life and society in Vladislavić’s home city, Johannesburg. Vladislavić calls the The Exploded View a novel, and though the juries of literary prizes disagree with him, I think this is a claim to be taken seriously. A case could be made that the novel’s divided form is justified by its object: Johannesburg, which is, as cliché would have it, the “divided” city. But Vladislavić’s tightly knit prose belies this diagnosis. Sensitive readers are struck by the uncanny repetitions, haunting resonances, and resounding echoes across the novel’s parts: by the work’s and the city’s unity, not their partition. Portrait with Keys is a collection of 138 short pieces about the city, which can be read in order, at random, or according to one of the suggested “itineraries” included with a map at the back of the book. This book is classified as “non-fiction,” and this time the juries of literary prizes do agree. The “portrait” in 138 brush-strokes has two subjects: the city and the artist himself. Both are rendered in imbricated, mutually enriching fragments, forming a nuanced whole. Neither rendering would be out of place in the very best fiction.
For those of us following Vladislavić’s work, 2011 was a good year. It saw the release of three new works. The first is a collection of lost, abandoned, incomplete and incomplete-able stories, together with reflections on their failure to come into print, sandwiched around a central story that gives the collection its title—The Loss Library. The second is a fable, or a riddle, written from the phenomenological perspective of a character who is a word (but which word?) in a dictionary, published alongside 19 spectacular color illustrations in Sylph Editions’ Cahier series under the title, A Labour of Moles. And, of course, the third is Double Negative, a novel. Since the last novel with a continuous story by Vladislavić was his second—the 2001 masterpiece, The Restless Supermarket, the story of a retired proofreader setting about to “correct” the bewildering and rapidly changing world of post-Apartheid Johannesburg, written in a form that contains its own telling “errors”—readers were especially excited about Double Negative. It was worth the wait.
Double Negative is constructed in three parts. Excluding the coda discussed above, we witness Neville at three stages in his life: first as a failed student during Apartheid, still enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand in order to avoid conscription into the Army, but having abandoned his course work in favor of a job painting street signs; next as a commercial photographer recently returned from England shortly after the end of Apartheid; finally, still as a commercial photographer but also potentially a late-blooming artist, more or less in the present day.
If we view Double Negative as a künstlerroman, these three periods track Neville’s development as an artist. But where the standard künstlerroman would end with a positive affirmation of the protagonist’s definitive transformation from young man to artist, Neville remains the unfinished article across all three temporal slices of Double Negative. Rejecting the narrative arc that would see him go from being tentative to being certain, from being clueless about his vocation to being confident about his place in the world, an arc that his parents, his friends, and perhaps also the readers of Double Negative wish for him, Neville and his world-view remain circumspect and provisional until the end.
If Neville is unable or refuses to occupy the position of the artist, it is always with reference and deference to Saul Auerbach, the distinguished photographer and consummate artist whose work and presence shadows him throughout. In the first section, “Available light,” Neville’s father, concerned about his son’s aimless indolence arranges for Auerbach, a family friend, to take Neville out on a day’s work. It would not be entirely wrong to say that the renowned artist serves as an inspiration for Neville. Neville does, after all, eventually end up giving an art exhibition of his own photographs. But the truth is, in a phrase that serves as a recurring motif of the novel, “more complicated than that.” We never suspect that Neville will become the next
Auerbach—secure in his role, famous, notable, noted and catalogued. One might say that Neville finds his place in the middle of the progressive declension: listless, lister, listed.
On the day in question, Neville and Auerbach are joined by a third adventurer—a journalist called Gerald Brookes. Together they climb a hill and, looking down from the summit, Auerbach registers his bewilderment at the task of selecting material for his art from this vantage:
‘You think it would simplify things, looking down from up here,’ he went on, ‘but it has the opposite effect on me. If I try to imagine the lives going on in all these houses, the domestic dramas, the family sagas, it seems impossibly complicated. How could you ever do justice to something so rich in detail? You couldn’t do it in a novel, let alone a photograph.’
Of course, Double Negative is itself a response to this quandary of selection and exclusion, an attempt to ponder what can be done in a novel that can not be done in a photograph. This is one of the meanings of the book’s title: the novel is a double negative, a negative of the photographic negative, revealing what is not revealed by photography. It is an imagining of the circumstances of two photographs, speculating on the people present, the other photographs that could have been taken, the fate of their locations, in short on everything that the photographs pass over in silence. And yet, Auerbach is right: the novel of Neville’s life also has to exclude and select, to list and to sort. In gathering the fragments recounted in this novel, Neville Lister again lives up to his name.
Responding to Auerbach’s perplexity before the immense richness of detail before them, Brookes suggests that perhaps selection is not important, that everything is potentially interesting, to which Auerbach retorts,
‘. . . There is no way to tell from here what’s interesting.’
‘Oh, I thought your point was that everything is interesting from up here.’
‘I said complicated, not interesting.’
‘I’ll say interesting then. That’s what I think. Everyone has a story to tell.’
‘But not everyone is a storyteller.’
‘Fair enough. Everyone has a story, full stop. Someone else might have to tell it. That’s where you come in.’ [. . .]
‘I’m not a storyteller,’ Auerbach said. ‘Even so, some stories are better than others.’
‘They reveal something new. Or maybe they just confirm something important—or unimportant! They put something well. I don’t know.’
‘Now you’re arguing my point. It’s not the story at all, it’s how you tell it. Even I know it and I’m just a bloody journalist.’
Vladislavić has on occasion been accused of not making the right selection, of not telling the right stories. In his books set in post-Apartheid, “transitional” South Africa, Vladislavić spends more words exposing the difficulties and complexity of that society’s relationship to history than he does outlining the roadmap to the harmonious post-racial yet culturally intact society it hopes to become. It is also true that his protagonists are almost exclusively white men (the notable exception being the mercurial black artist, S. Majara). But to turn these aspects of his work into a basis for criticism is to agree implicitly with Brookes that the storyteller chooses the story and not the other way around, that every storyteller is capable of telling everyone’s story, that everyone has a story worth telling, and that the selection of stories is therefore an ethical or political rather than aesthetic matter. Despite his failure to articulate his position, we cannot dismiss out of hand the possibility that Auerbach might in the end be right.
After the hilltop discussion, Neville, Auerbach, and Brookes each select a house after which they drive down to investigate their choices for photographic potential. They only make it to two houses—Auerbach’s and Brookes’ choices—before the light fails. Both of these reveal people with fascinating stories living behind their walls. Each yields a photograph that makes it into the Auerbach cannon. Point for Brookes. Everyone has a story.
Later, in the third part of the book, “Small Talk,” when Neville reminds Auerbach of this episode years earlier and reiterates Brookes’ argument, Auerbach remains unconvinced.
‘I’m not too sure about that,’ he answered. ‘In a way it felt inevitable, as if it was hardly a choice. I was always drawn to the same things. I could pass by a corner twenty times and have the same thought: I’ve got to photograph this. Until I acted on that urge, it wouldn’t let me go.’
Point for Auerbach. The story selects the teller. Whether one is convinced by Brookes’ positive enthusiasm or by Auerbach’s considered skepticism, the thing to notice is that Vladislavić raises the question, explores its complexities, looks at it from various perspectives and produces a novel that enacts a provisional solution as much as it describes one. To then criticize the novel for not being inclusive enough is to dismiss the questions it explores a priori and reveals a spectacular insensitivity to its concerns.
I have thus far discussed Double Negative as a stand-alone work. It was, however, published and conceived alongside another book—David Goldblatt’s TJ: Johannesburg Photographs 1948-2010. The collective project sells under the name TJ/Double Negative and is cleverly designed by Contrasto to accommodate the novel and the book of photographs in one appealing package. David Goldblatt, the inspiration behind Vladislavić’s Saul Auerbach, is South Africa’s most celebrated photographer, and the images in TJ are culled from five decades of rich, epoch-defining material.
The name TJ is taken from the old Apartheid-era motor vehicle license plate designation system. The photograph on the cover of the box and the book is of a man and a woman standing with their backs to a brick wall and holding up a car bumper. The man and the woman are both black; in her left hand she is holding something about the size of a grapefruit in a white plastic bag; she wears earrings and has a scar on her left cheek; he wears a ribboned hat and a workman’s overcoat, white with some patches of grime; their shoes are formal, but visibly scuffed. To their left is a closed door. They both look into the camera, their faces giving nothing away. We will never know what is in the bag, behind the door, or behind their steady gazes. The license plate on the bumper reads “TJ199-491.” “T” stands for “Transvaal,” then one of the country’s four provinces. “J” stands for Johannesburg. The contemporary equivalent is “GP”—marking cars as coming from Gauteng Province, one of the nine new provinces. The book’s name thus resurrects one of the now-erased signs of the old divisions and dispensation. The cruelty of photographs is that they do not change over time. Their meanings may change, and we may choose which to display and which to keep in the drawer, or to discard completely. Nevertheless, barring physical destruction or decay, individual photographs retain their imprints better than memory: they do not change focus, reframe their object, or alter its details. A “TJ” license plate in a photograph still reads “TJ” even if its viewers have become so accustomed to “GP” as not to have thought about or remembered “TJ” in years.
An obvious merit of photography is that it retains such detail, records the past, reactivates memory. In post-Apartheid South Africa, however, it is not always obvious that remembering is desirable or constructive. In the middle section of Double Negative, “Dead Letters,” Neville muses,
The more I tried to focus on the present, the more my questions dragged me back into the past. How do you know what you need when you are young and everything seems redeemable? How can you decide what to keep and what to let go when you have all the time in the world?
These are good questions and clearly Neville, writing from the present, is unable to cast this young
man’s dilemma firmly into the past; he is still agonizing over what to keep and what to jettison, which fragments to incorporate into Double Negative and which to elide. Photography holds the promise both of preserving the past indefinitely and of putting it to rest. A little later, Neville observes that “[s]ometimes photographs annihilate memory; they swallow up the available light and cast everything around them into shadow.” He is referring to the way that Auerbach’s photographs have overpowered his own memory of their taking. In this case, the loss is something to be mourned; Neville repeatedly expresses a wish to remember that day more clearly. But the annihilation of memory by photographs recalls a more general amnesic tendency Neville witnesses in post-Apartheid society. Elsewhere in “Dead Letters,” he remarks that now “ that it was safe to do so, every second person was joining the struggle, and backdating the membership form too. In retrospect, everyone had done their bit.” Though Neville is suspicious of the stories people are now telling about themselves and conscientiously avoids glorifying his own past (as far as that is possible), he does have a modicum of sympathy for these new old revolutionaries.
People were not lying either: they were merely inventing. Perhaps the freight of the past had to be lightened if the flimsy walls of the new South Africa were not to buckle. How much past can the present bear? There was already talk of a Truth Commission. But people are constitutionally unmade for the truth. Good, reliable fictions, that’s what the doctor ordered.
Doctor’s orders notwithstanding, neither Neville nor Vladislavić will supply this kind of “reliable fiction” to help lift the burden of the past. In the novel’s second part, Neville tells a lie that rapidly grows into an entire new identity for him. He goes to the third house, the one the party of three failed to visit on the day Auerbach took his now iconic pictures, and in order to gain entrance, to see who lives inside, presents himself as an historian doing research on a fictional boxer who was meant to have lived in that house. Not only is his lie transparent and unnecessary, it is completely put in the shade by the true story of the house’s inhabitants. Vladislavić, unlike Neville, certainly has the requisite talent for invention, but his stories instead tend to work in the service of truth telling, of uncovering hidden or uncomfortable realities. They are aligned with photography in their refusal to look away or distort and they undergo the same risk of taming and annihilating their object in the very act of representing it. Against this danger the novel holds up an all-too brittle shield of self-reflexivity, its steadfast cynicism counterbalanced by a fragile trust in the reader.
Earlier I said that one possible meaning of the novel’s title is its position as a negative to the photographic negative. But Vladislavić is nothing if not sensitive to polysemy. Anyone who did his or her schooling in the South African system will associate the phrase “double negative” with the Afrikaans grammatical structure for negation. The phrase for “I cannot get lost” is “Ek kan nie verlore raak nie;” the “double negative” is this repetition of the word “nie.” Afrikaners feature infrequently, but I think importantly, in this novel as the negative background against which white English-speaking “wishy-washy liberals” and white English-speaking revolutionaries-after-the-fact appear.
The Afrikaans characters are all figured as active participants in the repressive mechanisms of the Apartheid regime: a legal prosecutor for the government, a veteran of the war in Angola, policemen “chasing kids into the classroom.” The most interesting and important of these is Jaco Els, Neville’s boss during the period he is painting street signs after dropping out of university. Jaco’s primary characteristic is that he is an excellent storyteller, the first in a chain of gifted gabblers who nurture and deepen Neville’s ambivalence about narrative invention. Neville describes him as having “a small, vicious gift: he knew just how to spin out a yarn and tie a slip knot in its end.” Physically intimidated by Jaco’s dapper physique and psychologically intimidated by his explosive humor, Neville is as incapable of expressing his disgust as he is of hiding his fascination with the world according to Jaco Els.
When he does finally speak back it is not to Jaco (the veteran), but to his neighbor, Louis van Huyssteen (the public prosecutor), another Afrikaner in service of the Apartheid government. Neville’s display of displaced rage is prompted by his neighbor, whose mode of conveying narrative Neville identifies with Afrikaners.
At some point, Louis slipped into the repetitive storytelling I had to endure every day as I drove around Joburg with Jaco Els. The shift was imperceptible, as if someone had put on a record in the background, turned down low, and by the time you became aware of it your mood had already altered. An odourless poison leaked out of him.
Neville found the tales of revolution endorsed by students, narratives riddled with quotations of Marx and Benjamin (and misquotations of Adorno), noisome enough to exclude himself from the camp of the self-certain righteous. Now confronted by another set of narratives, one representing the Afrikaner view of social reality, he is positively appalled. It is no longer a question of the storyteller just being too sure of his story; these stories are dangerous: positively noxious but unobtrusive, “odourless.”
The ensuing altercation between Neville and Louis van Huyssteen spurs his father to arrange for Neville to spend a day with Saul Auerbach, thus initiating the chain of events the novel deals with. The question arises then, why include the rather long Jaco Els fragment at the novel’s beginning? If we already have the negative example of Louis van Huyssteen, why give him this double? The answer is no doubt that Jaco Els finds echoes everywhere and that his reverberations in these other parts of Double Negative, far from seeming extraneous, contribute to the reader’s sense that this novel is an extremely tightly knit unit.
Jaco’s self-promoting storytelling resurfaces in the guise of Neville’s friend, Sabine. Sabine tells Neville about her oh-so-humble heroics during the Apartheid days, “playing hide and seek with the boere [Afrikaners],” when he was living in London. Neville drily remarks that he has since learnt to take this genre of story with “a little paper sachet of salt.” Even at the time of her telling the story, he is suspicious of its comic-book good-guy/bad-guy presentation. “She did it again: she gave the boo in boere a peculiar ghostly inflection.” In this book people change their accents and the changes are never innocent.
Another version of Jaco’s narrative prowess appears in S. Majara. A reviewer in the novel describes an interview she held with this artist in the following way: “Everything he said about his work seemed plausible yet suspect, as if he found it in an article by some shrewdly hostile critic.” Neville remains aloof, choosing to keep in view the fact behind the fiction—“Even S. Majara isn’t S. Majara. His name is Simeon but he had the foresight to give himself a nom de guerre.”
The ambitious young reviewer in question, Janie, equally shows a talent for weaving a good story with herself at its center. Again, Neville retains his ironic distance. After his wife spots Janie’s review online and phones Neville to tells him about it at length, he is left to ask: “Just one other thing and then I’ll let you go: what does she say about the photographs?”
Finally, Jaco returns as himself in the novel’s third part. His physique has survived the intervening years but his accent too has undergone a change: as Neville turns up the volume of his television to hear Jaco (now Giacomo), in television-chef garb, setting his rhetorical powers to selling cookware, he detects a Texan twang. This time, Neville cannot keep the storytelling at bay; as he speculates on the San Antonio Bible schools Jaco may have attended, Jaco presses a molten sole down on the non-stick (“non-schtick”) surface of the pan and the “smell of burning rubber fill[s] the room.”
While he is a young man, Neville is unsure of himself, overwhelmed by history. He speculates that he would have made for a strange picture:
You could not see Benjamin’s Angel—Klee’s Angel, strictly speaking, memorably captioned—leaning beside me with his wings folded across the bonnet. I was troubled. For all my uncertainty about the sacred texts, they had dumped me into history and I had a suspicion I would never be out of it again. Looking back over the brief span of my life, I felt like some object left on the shoreline, toyed with by the rising tide. If you had a sense of historical destiny, if you were sufficiently drunk with it, you might expect to ride out any storm. But I did not imagine I would be carried to a classless shore. History would break over me like a wave that had already swept through the manor house and bear me off in a jumble of picture frames and paper plates.
Though Neville grows more confident and capable, less overawed or paralyzed by history, he is never capable of dogmatic certainty about the truth of things. When he turns to making art, the suspicion of narrative that begins with Jaco Els and extends to Afrikaners, white liberals, self-promoting artists and their self-promoting critics, becomes a suspicion of revelation as such. His photographic exhibition collects pictures of closed doors and gates; his next project will involve unopened letters.
His interest is in what is inaccessible, what remains on the surface, in the opacity of people and things. It is in this aesthetic (and politico-ethical) position that we find the third meaning of the novel’s title. When his wife, Leora, asks him how his interview with Janie the journalist went, Neville responds,
‘Not well. I cast around for a story, some credible version of myself to impart, but I couldn’t find one. This pop stuff is infectious. I started coughing up factoids like a column in the newspaper. Not a columnist, note, a column, one of those last-ditch efforts to look like a website.’
‘You couldn’t find a story?’
‘No, I’ve dropped the thread and I can’t be bothered to pick it up again. I’m all thumbs anyway. What holds my attention now is design. Show me a pattern in the information and I’m satisfied.’
Leora tasted the salad dressing on the tip of her finger.
‘She was being ironic, obviously,’ she said.
‘And so are you.’
‘The whole thing is ironic.’
‘Including the ironies.’
‘Maybe they cancel one another out then,’ Leora said, ‘like a double negative.’
Neville, ever wary of the perils of producing flattering self-representations, resorts to irony, to doubling and distance. But even irony is subject to ironizing; far from the classic figure of knowledge and self-recognition, “pop” irony is cancelled out by irony: “a double negative.” Irony is the last temptation, the tantalizing expedient by which Neville’s aesthetic and political sensibilities might claim to have grown and solidified into something fixed and defensible. But Neville, who forgoes the automated certainty of owning a GPS, preferring the alternating senses of orientation and disorientation experienced when navigating a rapidly transforming city using inevitably outdated maps, knows the importance of not being sure of one’s position. He values the art of getting lost.
Jan Steyn is a literary translator from French and Afrikaans currently living in Atlanta, Georgia. His translations include Suicide by Edouard Levé’s and Alix’s Journal by Alix Cléo-Roubaud.
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