Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Michiel Heyns

Michiel Heyns is Professor Emeritus in English at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Author of numerous academic works and radio adaptations of Henry James's and Elizabeth Gaskell's novels, Heyns wrote the chapter on Henry James for the Cambridge Companion to English Novelists. He is winner of the Thomas Pringle Award for journalism 2007, and the Sol Plaatje Award for translation, 2008 and was winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Award 2012 for Lost Ground. The French translation of his novel The Typewriter's Tale was shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger, and won the Prix de l'Union Interalliee.

Recently I asked Heyns about what he was reading. His reply:
My two most recent reads:

All that Man Is by David Szalay

All that Man Is is a somewhat bilious collection of nine interrelated stories, made bearable by the sheer brilliance of the writing. The title ambiguously hints at both the potential and the limitations of man, both 'the abundance that man is capable of' and 'the puny limit of human potential'. It's very much the latter sense that applies here. And ‘man’ here is definitely the human male rather than the human animal, with women figuring mainly as conveniences, distractions and sex objects.

The nine stories that make up this 'novel' are thematically linked in their pitiless portrayal of lives that have no meaning, of characters that are left wondering 'Is this all there is to life?' The men at the centre of these stories range in age from seventeen to seventy-three, and in temperament from coldly selfish to existentially terrified. All the characters travel, and the keynote here is struck by the young man in the first story who exasperates his travelling companion by constantly wondering aloud why one would want to travel. Certainly nothing in the remaining eight stories provides an answer to that one, unless the answer is that these people travel because they can’t bear being in one place with themselves for very long.

Although the characters themselves lack humour (most of them don’t have the necessary distance on themselves to adopt a humorous perspective), there is a kind of appalling comic vigour in the sheer awfulness of the situations described – notably in the case of a randy young Frenchman who, after one frustratingly unfulfilled night (“He tries a wank, but he is too drunk” is one representative chapter-ending) has tantric sex in turn with a monumentally obese English girl and her equally elephantine mother. (Here is the daughter: “Her legs do not quite have the overwhelmingly vertical quality of a normal leg – they have a definite and assertive horizontal dimension too. And not much in the way of knees. When she drags down her lace-edged pants, he sees, for a moment, somewhere among all the whitish flesh, a soft tuft of hair the colour of peanut butter.”) All of this is in the seediest hotel on the island of Cyprus, and possibly in all of the Mediterranean. The only more off-putting description of sex I can think of is the disastrous ejaculatio praecox in McEwan’s On Chesil Beach – not that there is anything praecox about the young Frenchman’s insatiable satyriasis.

There is something perversely courageous (or courageously perverse) about the nullity of Szalay’s characters. They have almost no human warmth (the only exception I can think of is in the last story, in the affection of an elderly repressed homosexual, evidently the grandfather of the disgruntled young man in the first story, for his daughter), no love (again with that one exception), no friendship, with people spending time with each other only because being on their own would be worse. (Simon, one of the two young men of the opening story, is representative also in this respect: “The feeling of loneliness is immense as a storm front. His friend, after ten days of travel, he finds irritating most of the time.”).

The author has an impressive command of places in Europe one would not necessarily want to visit, and he does not spare us the details, almost without exception bleak. Cyprus in particular would seem to be best avoided as a holiday destination, with Croatia a close second. And don't go skiing in France.

So why, given this extremely reductive rendering of human possibilities, did I not stop reading after the first story? Well, a bit like Houellebecq, the sheer dreadfulness exerts a kind of fascination: can things really be this awful? And can it get any worse? (It does: there is a scene in a Chinese restaurant in Croatia that still makes me feel ill.) And then, yes, the writing is truly brilliant. Only a consummate writer could come up with such an infinite variety of morbid states of mind. There is even something exhilarating about it. In fact, writing about it here has made me want to reread it.

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday is a return to form for Graham Swift, after a couple of novels that didn’t quite match up to his masterpieces, Waterland and Last Orders. This one, like most of his work, is intensely English, here specifically revelling in the English countryside in early spring – but given a dark tinge by the fact that this takes place in the aftermath of the First World War, that is, in a country brutally deprived of the flower of its young manhood. But the survivors, as survivors will, love all the more vividly for having survived.

As before, the novel is imbued with Swift’s fondness for the English countryside and certain aspects of English life -- in this instance the obsolete (?) tradition of Mothering Sunday -- which, the novel makes clear, had little in common with its modern commercialisation as Mother's Day. Here, in the aftermath of the First World War (the novel takes place in the early 1920's, though its extremely long-lived central character survives almost into the new century), the day is intended to allow the (ever-diminishing number of) servants a day off to go to see their mothers. What Swift homes in on is that this leaves the servanted class to fend for themselves as far as meals are concerned.

This unusual obligation gives two neighbouring families an excuse for a lunch outing to a nearby hotel -- and the scion of one of the families an excuse to arrange a tryst with one of the maids of the neighbouring family, with whom he has been having an affair for some seven years -- now, presumably, to be terminated by his impending marriage. The novel is a leisurely and very sensuous exploration of the ensuing tryst, for once in the actual home of the young man. (The Modigliani nude on the cover, at first blush surprising on a Graham Swift cover, is in fact very appropriate to the frank sexuality of the encounter.)

And that is about it, with flashes forward to the somewhat surprising later career of the young woman, with one plot development that I won't divulge. It has about it the warm languor of a beautiful day in early spring, the charm of the English countryside, the quaintness of a vanished style of life, the melancholy of a sadly diminished generation, the beautiful entitlement of two young people in love enjoying each other without constraint. Tender, sensuous and yet tough-minded, Mothering Sunday evokes nostalgia without drooping into sentimentality.
Visit Michiel Heyns' website.

The Page 69 Test: The Children’s Day.

My Book, The Movie: The Typewriter's Tale.

The Page 69 Test: The Typewriter's Tale.

--Marshal Zeringue