Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Through the screen of Literature
The longer I spend in Michiel Heyns's company, the more convinced I become that Christopher Turner, the main protagonist in his latest novel, Invisible Furies, is his spectral double.
It's his uneasiness with being the subject, rather than observer, that gives root to this idea. Of course, the latter is the default position for writers and while Turner is an astute spectator, and Heyns fixes him in this role, he lacks the courage to write - he prefers to edit, refine other people's work.
"I am attracted to the outsider concept. In my other novels, too, with the exception of Bodies Politic, the characters are observers, they stand and they watch. I am attracted to Christopher, a main characters who is an observer of the action. It goes with the whole thing of showing and acting that the novel explores."
Heyns is already holding a large glass of white wine when I find him in the plush lounge of the Southern Sun Hyde Park Hotel. It's late afternoon and he probably has a few Joburg interviews lined up before the launch of Invisible Furies at Exclusive Books in the adjoining mall. I imagine the process to be slightly excruciating for the retired Stellenbosch academic-turned-novelist. He doesn't hint at this; there is a degree of weariness to his manner.
The wine has taken the edge off any obvious signs of discomfort, and he is settled back confidently in a chair. It may be his humility, or his desire to go unnoticed, that evokes Turner.
"I don't think of myself as a writer. I would never write down writer next to 'profession' on a form. I would write 'pensioner'. I still see writing as something I do on the side. I am a dog walker who happens to write novels," he says with a gentle smile.
This declaration is unexpected, unsettling even: he has penned five previous novels and won numerous awards for his writing - how could he not consider himself a novelist? I turn this question around in my head for days after our meeting and eventually decide that denying this designation is precisely what frees him up to write.
I might never know. Certainly, in Invisible Furies (published by Jonathan Ball) Heyns implies that it is impossible to grasp the inner workings of another. It's not so much that appearances are deceiving but there is a multitude of appearances to sort through, each as convincing and seemingly revealing as the next. It's like stepping into a hall of mirrors where each reflection is slightly different.
This idea is given expression in the novel's setting, Paris, where its architectural character and the culture of style, the mastering of external signs, contribute to this complex tapestry of appearances. As Turner explores this historic city on a quest to locate and convince the son of a close friend to settle on the family estate in Franschhoek, he longs to infiltrate the city's fa?ades, penetrating the courtyards, a cipher for the inner landscape not only of the city but its inhabitants. The real Paris, if you will. But once inside, Turner must decipher even more complex indexes that are used to enhance, exaggerate and deflect identity.
Eric de Villiers, the reason for his trip, is the enigmatic and elusive object not only of Turner's gaze but by proxy the reader's, too, though the peripheral role Turner occupies, despite his prominence in the novel, similarly ensures that he is an ambiguous presence, too.
This aspect is something Heyns borrowed from Henry James's novel The Ambassadors, on which this novel is based - in a postmodern sense that is.
"James doesn't nail things down; the characters remain fluid. By the end Christopher is very disillusioned, but Eric has remained what he always was, it is just that Christopher sees more of him.
"I like the idea that characters are not too rigidly compartimentalised. You must make judgements in the end as Christopher had to do. But the judgements can't be clear-cut. In life they are not," he observes dryly.
Lost Ground, Heyns's previous novel that recently won the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Award, was intended to be a reworking of Shakespeare's Othello - though when Heyns got into the thick of the writing it quickly departed from it.
Invisible Furies may be a more successful attempt at a literary mirroring in that it bears close ties to James's The Ambassadors, thematically and factually, but Heyns didn't set out to appropriate the novel per se, and, once again,|he reached a point at which he fought to liberate the work from its source.
"I spend my life with literature, so I tend to see things through the screen of literature. When I started writing Lost Ground, it began with the murder and I thought how about something like Othello. I usually start with an idea and then it seems to have resemblances [to other novels] so I follow them. I should probably resist it.
"Why do I do it? I think I find it fascinating. The unforeseen part is fascinating; when you start deviating from the model. As with Lost Ground I had to simply reject Othello, and I am pleased I did. With this novel, I had originally a last chapter after its present ending which was very close to the last chapter of The Ambassadors and I thought it redundant, it nails things down much more and I think the novel is much better for not having it."
It is impossible to talk about Invisible Furies without referring to Lost Ground. The novels have been published in quick succession but the similarities between the two works abound; both are narrated from the point of view of an outsider - a visitor - who returns to a familiar place.
In Lost Ground, Peter Jacobs returns to his home town after years of living in the UK, while Christopher returns to Paris.
Both destinations are linked to their youth so, inevitably, both protagonists meditate on the different paths their lives could have taken. Fittingly, their journey as outsiders begin by checking into a hotel.
These similarities can be attributed to the fact that Heyns wrote the novels simultaneously.
Invisible Furies came to life when Heyns had reached an impasse with Lost Ground - a phenomenon commonly called writer's block.
"I found that writing something else was a relief. I could forget about it. If I got blocked writing Invisible Furies, I could go back to Lost Ground, which started going again, so I finished it and then went back to Invisible Furies."
This strategy at overcoming writer's block hasn't always worked for the writer; he admits to owning "a hard drive full of abandoned novels. I didn't know where they could go. What you should do is carry on writing, but I didn't always."
It is easy to locate Heyns's novel within a variety of discourses that define SA contemporary literature, though the existence of that canon remains a point of contention.
To some degree, Invisible Furies conforms to Leon de Kock's notion of transnational literature - literature that pushes "beyond the enclosure of the national" and bares metropolitan markers. In other words, it's the kind of work that people living beyond our national boundaries can identify with and presents characters that "live outside the straitjackets of identity" as historically conceived in SA.
That Invisible Furies is set in Paris seems to secure its transnational status. Using James's novel as a model works towards this, too, as does the fact that this is not a self-consciously SA work.
Nevertheless, the themes that run throughout the novel return us to familiar ground. Is the foreign setting an artificial way of "escaping" a brand of national literature?
Belonging is one of the recognisable SA themes; Eric's chameleon-like persona could be attributed to his desire to erase his SA identity and fit into Paris - though one of the few Parisian-born characters suggests belonging in that city is detectable from afar.
An encounter with a beggar is an eerie reminder of the context Eric has left behind - escaped.
Interestingly, and perhaps fittingly, he chooses a world that privileges mastering appearances as his retreat.
There are also subtle traces of the coloniser/colonised dynamic: Franschhoek shares obvious ties with France and it is here that Eric is said to have become "civilised".
But Heyns won't be drawn into a discussion of these themes. He tried to downplay them in the novel as they resonated much louder in Lost Ground, he observes.
It is the ambiguous nature of beauty that he sought to capture in this novel.
"It's a brute kind of beauty that has an element of cruelty to it. Eric is a beautiful-looking man but he is a brute, too."
Christopher can't resist being seduced by Eric, but eventually he detects his cruel nature and turns against him.
There is a sense that beauty can only ever have a spiteful underside as, while it seduces and draws us in, it similarly refuses to surrender itself, its substance is withheld. These are some of the truths that Heyns delivers in this engaging novel, which will, like its literary mirror Lost Ground, attract some attention at award ceremonies.
The man who will ascend the podium to receive these forthcoming accolades will probably continue to think of himself as a|dog walker with a penchant for writing, but that is not the man we will see. - published September 23, 2012.