Ivan Vladislavić is one of a handful of writers working in South Africa after apartheid whose work will still be read in fifty years. He is perhaps best known for his depictions of Johannesburg, his home city, which include the lauded Portrait with Keys (2006). He is the author of four novels – The Folly (1993), The Restless Supermarket (2001), The Exploded View (2004) and, most recently, Double Negative (2011).
His two collections of short stories are now jointly available in Flashback Hotel (2010). Last year he published two books that include artistic illustrations – A Labour of Moles, as part of the artfully produced Cahier Series from Sylph editions, and The Loss Library, this time from Seagull Books. His essay on Robert Walser and photography, ‘The Last Walk’, appears in The White Review No. 5.
QThe White Review — Your last four books have all appeared, in whole or in part, alongside some form of visual art. Does this fact change how you think of these works?
AIvan Vladislavi? — The Exploded View and Double Negative were written in response to visual images, as were some of the texts that went into Portrait with Keys. In all these cases, I consciously set about working in the light of certain artworks without knowing where the process would lead. I started from my own ideas and concerns, but I was interested to see how working in close proximity to another imaginative world would reshape and reinvigorate my own. Although the fictions now have an independent life, they still comment on the images, and hopefully this commentary in fiction has some value precisely because it is sympathetically enmeshed with its subject. Maybe ‘sympathetic’ could be understood in a slightly technical way as ‘denoting an effect which arises in response to a similar action elsewhere’, allowing for a degree of antagonism as well as affinity.
By contrast, my two most recent books, The Loss Library and A Labour of Moles, were both illustrated after the fact. I knew from the outset that A Labour of Moles would be illustrated, but The Loss Library was not conceived that way. There are some detailed descriptions of images in this text and including them would have defeated the object. The idea of illustrating the book came from the designer, Sunandini Banerjee, and I like the works she made very much. But their relationship to the text is necessarily different to the paradoxical one described earlier, in which the ‘illustrations’ precede a text that has yet to be written, as the artist Joachim Schönfeldt puts it.
QThe White Review — Your books often contain the seeds of highly original artworks. And yet these works are not your own, they so clearly bear the signatures of your character-creators. Is this synergy between the ideas and the characters something you have to work at? Have you ever been tempted to try your hand at the plastic arts yourself?
AIvan Vladislavi? — Happily for me, the artists in my books have always been full of ideas. A reader once suggested that S. Majara in The Exploded View would be a better artist if the ideas didn’t come to him so easily, but getting the ideas is never the hard part, it’s translating them into artworks.
I have resorted to sculpture three times in my life. Autobiography, an ongoing work composed mainly of pencil stubs, is described in Portrait with Keys. It has a companion piece called Bibliography, also incomplete, made up of pencil shavings. Many years ago, my friend Jeff Lok, who is a proper artist, and I made a sculpture called The Big Shy. It was a cabinet in which the heads of three prime ministers rested on iron stalks. We planned to cast these heads in lead, but we only got as far as the clay models.
QThe White Review — You are not only astute in conceiving of and describing the artworks that go into your books but also quite canny about the institutions and trappings of the art world. Double Negative for instance contains a sidesplitting scene where the protagonist, a late-blooming artist, suffers through being interviewed by a shrewd self-promoting critic. Is the world of letters any better than this?
AIvan Vladislavi? — When I had just published my first book, I was interviewed for a magazine. The journalist sat down opposite me and took a copy of my book from his bag. ‘I haven’t read this yet,’ he said. ‘I wanted to look at it last night, but something came up.’ He glanced at the blurb. ‘Says here the stories are about power relationships. Where do you stand on the whole art and politics thing?’ It could only get better from there.
The art world seems to attract more than its share of charlatans and fools, but perhaps they’re just more visible than in the literary world or the music world or anywhere else. I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s satires on pretension in the film world or Robyn Orlin’s parodies of dance critics and adjudicators. In any event, the art world seems to ‘stand in’ for the literary world in The Exploded View or Double Negative. A certain kind of writer might have similar concerns and pursue similar strategies to artists like S. Majara or Neville Lister. In the same way, the commentary on the art world might apply to the book world too.
QThe White Review — You are frequently described as a writer of place. The Restless Supermarket, The Exploded View, Portrait with Keys, and Double Negative are all set in, inspired by, and in some sense take as their subject, the city of Johannesburg. Other works by you, such as The Folly, A Labour of Moles, and certain of the stories and almost-stories collected in The Loss Library, could take place anywhere, or create their own place. What role does place have in your creative process? And what is the relationship between place and narrative for you? Do specific places inspire specific stories, or is it the stories that call out for the places?
AIvan Vladislavi? — I’m interested in the layering of memory and place. I’ve quoted Lionel Abrahams on this question before: in his poem ‘Views and Sites’ he wonders whether his attachment to certain unprepossessing parts of the city may be traced to the fact that a ‘topsoil of memory’ has formed there and this makes him feel more alive, more at home. I was considering Abrahams’ work when I started Portrait with Keys, and so questions about memory and place are in the foundations of the book.
As for the writing, I’m not sure what comes first. In the case of Portrait with Keys, I consciously decided to write about places of significance to me, to find a set of ‘street addresses’ that would allow me to map my own attachments to Johannesburg. One could say I sought out places where the topsoil of memory lay thick. The initial impulse for The Restless Supermarket, which seems equally concerned with place, lay elsewhere. In my first notes towards the novel, I wanted to write something about a crotchety old man, a retired proofreader, and his dalliance with a woman given to malapropism. A love story. What came to me first was the hint of a character, a voice. Then again, The Exploded View, which I now see as a sort of sequel to The Restless Supermarket, was inspired by a set of images by the artist Joachim Schönfeldt, whom I mentioned earlier. Some of these images – like that of a matchbox house – suggested place, but others were more or less abstract prompts – four coloured dots, a five-pointed star, a stylised social pyramid. It seems to me that what came first here was a sketchy structure, a form without much content. I almost wrote ‘a form without content’, but then I thought that this structure was already peopled in some way, already placed somewhere.
In the end, the writing impulse, the urge to create fiction, flows from so many different sources at once, synthesises so many hidden influences and obscure needs, that it cannot be unravelled. When I write about the origins of my work, even with certainty, I sometimes feel the way you do when you relate a dream. As you cast it into language, you know you are bringing it across some barrier into another realm, translating it into different terms and employing different logics, which change its character. It’s a good and necessary thing, I’m sure, that the origins and procedures of writing remain mysterious, to the writer especially.
QThe White Review — When you depict places in your novels, you represent them in a mimetic sense. Do you also feel a certain pressure to represent them in the sense of speaking on their behalf or even in the sense of acting as a specimen and exemplifying a type from that place?
AIvan Vladislavi? — The idea that one should or shouldn’t speak on behalf of others has been used often enough to justify or censure writers, and not just writers. I certainly don’t think of my own experience and what I make of it as typical. What would the typical experience of Johannesburg be? Who is a typical Joburger? My supposition, regarding a book like Portrait with Keys, is that I am writing about a few corners of a vast, diverse city, a place that is difficult or perhaps impossible to imagine whole, that these corners have been summoned by the demands of a particular time and place, and also a particular literary structure, and shaped by my particular moods and interests. Far from being representative of the city or even a neighbourhood, the selection of incidents and locations in my book may not even fairly represent my own experience. Having said this, I am aware of ‘standing up’ for certain places, calling attention to them, even memorialising them. It’s also gratifying to me that readers who know the small world I write about, along with some who do not, recognise aspects of their own lives in the book.
QThe White Review — Do you have a particular readership in mind when you write? Is it always the same readership? Do you write for insiders or outsiders, locals or foreigners, the inducted or the naïve, or only for yourself?
AIvan Vladislavi? — I’m always intrigued to hear what writers say when they’re asked this question. I obviously consider the reader to the extent that I hope someone will read what I’ve written and I expect them to get something from the exercise. But I cannot say that I think about this reader when I’m working. It feels to me like the contract is entirely between myself and the text; I am trying to resolve something for myself by working it through in language. What happens afterwards doesn’t concern me at the time. In this limited sense, you could say I’m writing for myself. Limited because I’m also not the intended reader; the pleasure for me is in the writing rather than the reading. Tim Couzens once told me something Calvino said about writing, to the effect that it was ‘hiding something so that the reader can find it’. This seems like a good description of the activity. When I’m ‘hiding something’ in written form, I imagine that someone will come looking, but I don’t know who this person is and I don’t consider how good their eyes are.
While I was writing this answer, I wanted to refer to my books a few times, but I have moved to a temporary home and most of my books are in storage. Recalling particular books, their location on particular shelves in particular rooms, recalling this physical, spatial order, built up in my old house over many years and now undone, I was reminded that books are places too. This is one of the appeals, for me, of the physical book in an actual library, that it occupies space, that I can go to it across the room, open it, step inside. Metaphorically, of course.
QThe White Review — Let’s say your current situation is even more extreme, that all your books save four need to go to storage. Which four do you keep handy? What is your ‘desert island’ shortlist?
AIvan Vladislavi? — I cannot arrive at a list of ‘essential readings’. Some readers might find it easy, but the list of books I love for one reason or another is too long and varied to make a sensible choice of four. In any event, books change with every reading, and they can lose their appeal or suddenly come to life in new circumstances. I’ve taken a stack of books with me on holiday only to discover that half of them are unreadable at the seaside. I wouldn’t like to find myself under a beach umbrella, clutching a copy of Labyrinths that I simply can’t read, because you need to be in an armchair, surrounded by bookshelves, to read Borges properly. (I dislike the phrase ‘prescribed reading’ – but that is a different matter.)
Let me take you literally and handpick four books for the desert island. Probably one should pack Robinson Crusoe, which is full of advice on building stockades and so on, but I would rather have Treasure Island. There’s an irrepressible energy in Stevenson’s prose that cheers me up. He speaks to the child in his reader, but he treats that child like an adult. Do you know his wonderful remark that good stories ‘satisfy the nameless longings of the reader, and … obey the ideal laws of the day-dream’? This is far from how I write but close to how I read.
Then I would take something I read recently, Tim Robinson’s Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage. It’s a meticulously detailed account of Árainn, the largest of the three Aran Islands, its geology, history, mythology, shaped by a walk around its rugged coastline. It’s a beautiful book, one that approaches a single place with such loving attentiveness that no reader could come away without a new awareness of their own surroundings. I imagine it would be a very useful guide to desert-island life. Going back to Lionel Abrahams’s idea of the ‘topsoil of memory’, Robinson’s genius is to find this topsoil in every nook and cranny. By examining how every crag and inlet came by its name, for instance, he finds human traces in the landscape and opens it to history. (Robinson wrote a follow-up called Labyrinth, in which he ventures from the shoreline into the interior. Perhaps I should pack that instead?)
My third choice might be Axel Munthe’s The Story of San Michele, which is about his house on Capri, his work as a doctor and anything else he feels like writing about. I’ve been fascinated by this wayward memoir since I first read it as a teenager.
Finally, I’ll defer to Aubrey Tearle, the narrator of The Restless Supermarket, who recommends the Condensed Oxford Dictionary as the perfect desert island reading, not least because it comes with a handy magnifying glass one could use to start a fire. As fans of Survivor know, you can endure almost anything if you have fire, and once your torch goes out you have to leave the tribal council area immediately.
QThe White Review — That’s a great, and practical, ‘desert island’ shortlist. Since I am one of those readers who initially came to your work because of your unrivalled depictions of Johannesburg, I have to ask: what would be your Johannesburg shortlist?
AIvan Vladislavi? — I’m tempted to stick with the same books, but Joburg is trickier than a desert island and one should be practical. Let me keep the Condensed Oxford and glass, for the reasons mentioned. In addition, I’ll take Food from the Veld, the Map Studio Street Guide to the Witwatersrand and the St John Ambulance Brigade First Aid Manual.
QThe White Review — Your writing reveals a lot of deep reflection on the English language. Grammar, punctuation, dictionaries, crossword puzzles, lists of bird names, little known collective nouns, arcane forms, malapropisms, and the unruly polysemy of puns, all feature in your fiction at one time or another. How does this heightened awareness of language, the practice of taking your medium as your subject, help or impede you in telling the stories you want to tell?
AIvan Vladislavi? — There was a time, after I’d been editing for a while, when I thought I’d become too conscious of how sentences, paragraphs and chapters fit together, when I was overly aware of the conventions of spelling and punctuation and so on, and I could scarcely read a page without tinkering and tweaking in my mind. I couldn’t get lost in a book because I was always examining the machinery. I’m sure the same thing has happened to many editors and writers, and that people in other fields experience it too. Fortunately, this was a passing thing and my pleasure in reading returned. I don’t think this technical awareness ever hindered my writing, perhaps because I made it part of my subject matter. The lists and deconstructive exercises in some of my stories may have become too much for sensitive readers, myself included, but I’ve moved on in that respect too.
QThe White Review — What about other languages? The worlds of your stories are frequently markedly cosmopolitan featuring speakers of many languages. Which do you speak? How do they impact on your writing or inflect your English?
AIvan Vladislavi? — Sadly, I’m no polyglot like Dr. Munthe. I read quite a bit of Afrikaans fiction, and the occasional text in Dutch or German. I’ve read Kafka and other writers in German to get closer to the originals. (Kafka would be good for the island, of course, but let me not backtrack.) I recently stumbled across an English version of Celan’s ‘Todesfuge’ that was so odd I had to go back to the original to disperse the cloud. Good translation is a wonderful thing. I find that reading a German text with a good English translation fresh in my mind is a nice way of doing it. I read FC Delius’s Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman in this way last year.