A wayward tribute to Alice Munro…and Raymond E. Feist.
Republished at Books of the Year.
Electricity gone down from Flower Road to Davenport. No internet on a Sunday. Peace.
Yesterday’s swimming is still in me, in my shoulders and hair. Clifton 3 ½ beach with A. We splash out to the rock, but are too cautious to jump off it, slide back into the water over the barnacles. We run into Anna, Jemma and their friends, in knitted swimwear and dungarees. ‘Mary’s daughters’, says A., ‘They march to the sound of their own djembe.’ The beach is packed: the real girls thread their way between the incorrigible babes, looking for a place. Today the wind has stopped entirely and I want to go back. But she is having lunch with her grandparents and I know that a swim that perfect comes only once a year.
Reluctant to start work over the last weeks: lazy, a little depressed. To remedy it I try to break all routines, to force the days into new shapes. Sitting in a Turkish steam room in mid-afternoon. Shopping for shirts with D. at 9am, when the Waterfront is deserted. We have fish and chips at 11am and he says the harbour scene reminds him of the Canadian island where he grew up. Not the motorized pirate boat pulling out with the tourists, but the cranes and industrial mess behind. I ask if he is proud of Alice Munro and the Nobel.
Her Selected Stories has been one of the deepest, slowest reading experiences of my life. It is hard to take in more than one of the story-novellas per day; sometimes one per week is all I can manage. I lifted the book from the shelves of the NGO where I volunteer in Obs, with the same justification as when I used to steal other people’s marijuana back in my 20s – that I would attain greater benefit from it than anyone else around here.
For the first page or so, the stories are hard to follow. They are, after all, each setting up their own universe. Then all of a sudden, before you can even notice it, you are understanding: you are ‘in’. This silent, sly (or is it shy? I can’t read my handwriting) exposition is something unique about her gift.
The Vintage edition has a stain where I left it too close to a rooibos teabag. It seeped from the bottom, marking the second half of the book’s pages. As I reach the end the rorschach stain goes a deeper orange.
A. has read me several of the stories: in bed, on the sofa, under a tree below the Oranjezicht market. Sometimes I can hold their whole complex shape in my head; sometimes I can’t follow and have to re-read them myself. I have fallen asleep to several, the narrative events fading in and out of awareness, details suddenly being served up without context:
A young girl, a Chinese or Vietnamese girl, slight as a child in her pale green uniform, but with painted lips and cheeks, was coming along the corridor, pushing a cart. On the cart were paper cups and plastic containers of orange and grape juice.
‘Juice time’, the girl was calling, in her pleasant and indifferent sing-song. ‘Juice time. Orange. Grape. Juice.’
Juice time at St Peter’s Prep, on the lawns of Founders. It suddenly welled up, via this throwaway moment. I am 10 years old, a weekly boarder in Johannesburg. Each Friday and Sunday, my father drives me out and then in again: across the whole of Johannesburg, skirting Soweto and out to the West Rand.
But this must be a weekend – our parents are told not to collect us in the first month of terms, so that we can acclimatize, become inoculated to the homesickness. Mid-afternoon one of the kitchen ladies wheels a juice trolley out onto the lawns. Bright orange juice in an urn, poured out in plastic mugs, with a sour, sherbety edge – good juice. Punctuating a game of ‘Jailer’ perhaps, in which there are two teams, the hunted and the hunters, and you can free your side from captivity if you reach them, perhaps in the pine trees that surround the chapel, or behind the cricket pavilion.
The full-time boarders are mainly from Zulu and Tswana families: something new to me, a late arrival from a segregated government school. The tall captains at Jailer are heroic figures to us, already well into puberty. Lesego is a name that comes back, and Phila. There was Thato, who got spotted for a new, multi-racial kids programme on TV. Gift, who taught me how to change a duvet cover and once sang a song about a prospector throwing away beans, which he then explained to me: ‘And the people are asking: why is he throwing away those beans?’ And two Mpho’s: one who was friendly and one whom I fought with on the field one day – or at least he just lifted up my khaki shirt collar and then discarded me, not even bothering.
But that school was so kind and gentle. Shoe polishing in the afternoons, when we would all sit on the grass together. Some of the boys from fancier families had these liquid polish applicators: a nozzle with a foam tip that just required you to smear the shiny black or brown lacquer over the leather and leave it at that. This was controversial among the rest of us who were using two brushes – one for polish, one for shine – and scuffing away industriously. It violated the code of how we occupied time.
Jailers, Stingers, juice time. I was in thrall to massive fantasy novels and spent afternoons staring at the lawns, imagining how various configurations of grass stalks, clover and kikuyu represented a world of different kingdoms and armies. In this epic fantasy cycle, The Riftwar Saga, some kind of gap in space-time had opened up and violent, conquering races were streaming through from another world.
It is 1990 but I am living inside my head. I have escaped the mining town. I am so consumed by this trilogy that I wake up early and go to read alone in the dining hall. The housemaster Mr Nothard (‘Soft’) will see me in his early rounds and smile at ‘The Professor’. Another of those mornings, we are revising for exams and I remember Thato, in concert with someone less memorable, explaining to me about masturbation, using a fineliner pen to demonstrate what one should do to get ‘the feeling’.
How much of a greenhorn can one person be? The Standard Sixes laugh as they ask me what ‘erection’ means and I explain rather impatiently that it refers to the putting up or construction of something, like a building. Or the Cross, for that matter. Another time, Lesego beckons us into the toilets to see the spunk running out of his penis – the first in our year to achieve this feat. We are jubilant.
Munro’s ‘juice time’ made all this flicker through my brain: synaptic clusters being activated here are there like sheet lightning in a Highveld storm, distant, already moving on. Every dog-eared page set off that lighting, but you can’t record it all. And this one had got entangled with another story, that of Jackal, whom O. had reported meeting up with just recently in Cape Town. Jackal was from our second boarding school, an altogether more vicious place. But he had been a relatively decent senior, who once taught me how to clean windows, and had a sense of humour. Had made people pretend to have sex with the statue of St Michael in our quadrangle, for everyone’s amusement. That was his style of punishment, while others were inflicting physical harm. O. told me that Jackal had never been from a rich family, unlike many of the black pupils at these private schools. He had gone to the UK, ended up squatting in London, and was eventually deported. Now he was in Langa producing house music.
The Munro treatment of this would somehow have managed to make narrative time bend, bunch, concertina then thin out where necessary. So that after the dense orange afternoons of juice time, we have suddenly moved ten years. Walking alone in central London one day, I encounter Gift as a security guard in front of the Trocadero Centre Piccadilly. Except that he doesn’t answer to or acknowledge that name any more, and certainly doesn’t want to hear about prospectors and beans. Now he is Duke. Then twenty years: St Peter’s is no longer an urban fringe where butterflies (brown-veined whites) sweep across the fields. It is (I am told) locked in by townhouse complexes in Rivonia. It is impossible to turn into, given the traffic on those roads now. There are no longer a boarding houses: those lawns and dining halls and dormitories have become absorbed into a high school that spreads across the highway, co-ed. Girls have been admitted to the dining hall where the mechanics of masturbation were demonstrated to me by a soon-to-be KTV star using a Pentel fineliner with a black dot on its cap.
The various collections that have made up her career, the pages flick by. I have entered deep into the orange stain, and there is one story to go. I will read it on the beach, far removed from the Ottawa Valley and the snowbound villages of ‘Fits’, ‘Friend of My Youth’, ‘Meneseteung’: People live within the winter in a way outsiders do not understand. They are watchful, provident, fatigued, exhilarated. The stories in the Vintage edition seem to be dropping in temperature as we go. This is the very weather in which noses and fingers are frozen. But nothing felt cold.
Here it is the first day of high summer. I cower indoors until after 4 pm, looking at the trees through the porch, the bedroom window – the leaves bouncing off and sucking in the light, thickening daily. Between Table Mountain and Lion’s Head: some bright furnace that doesn’t care about books, that will burn away the stain, burn white all the pages in my new 2×2 metre bookcase. Each day I wake up and immediately start scheming 1) how to skive out of the morning’s writing routine, and 2) how to get to the ocean, or water of some kind. Time thickening, buckling, unspooling months ahead. The question of how to live within the summer.