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Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

Staff Picks: Cairo, Cruising, Chrissie, Kmart

October 9, 2015 | by

Fire in Cairo.

“How many reasons have I for going to Moscow at once! How can I bear the boredom of seven months of winter in this place? … Am I to be reduced to defending myself—I who have always attacked? Such a role is unworthy of me … I am not used to playing it … It is not in keeping with my genius.” Thus Napoleon in 1812 in Lithuania, on the eve of his disastrous Russian campaign, which would destroy the French army and cost more than a hundred thousand French lives. The whole time, Napoleon’s aide-de-camp Philippe-Paul, Count de Ségur, was taking notes. His inside account of the debacle—now known in English as Defeat—was a best seller when it appeared in 1824 and became a key source for War and Peace. Readers will recognize scenes from Tolstoy’s novel, but Ségur’s Napoleon is, if anything, even more vivid, because Ségur loves him and believes in him even when his genius lets him down. —Lorin Stein

The carnival that erupted in Cairo’s Midan Tahrir in 2011, and continued in one form or another for two and half years, has spawned any number of books and films. Maybe because the initial skirmishes were so chaotic or because the outcome of the revolts is still unclear—although a Thermidorian reaction now stretches into the foreseeable future—a documentary approach to this history has often seemed like the best one. Matthew Connor’s book of photographs, Fire in Cairo, goes in a wonderfully different direction. Taken during the spring of 2013, prior the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, Connor’s photos are aslant and at times surreal. The violence of the revolts is present, even omnipresent, but as a mood rather than something concrete to look at. His shots, which have no captions, are full of fog, lasers, and common Cairene objects made mysterious through close-ups. There is also a gallery of portraits, many of whose subjects have their faces covered—by veils, helmets, or homemade gas masks. The effect of the book, for me, was to make the revolution strange again; it brought me back to that exciting time when none of us knew quite what we were looking at. —Robyn Creswell Read More »

More Sweetly Play the Dance

October 6, 2015 | by

William Kentridge’s elaborate danse macabre.

William Kentridge, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015, eight-channel video installation with four megaphones, 15 minutes. All photos © William Kentridge, courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery

Dance has always been aware of death: it lingers just off to the side of the stage, waiting for the performance to end. William Dunbar’s 1508 poem “Lament for the Makers” describes two “state[s] of man”: “Now dansand mirry, now like to die.” In other words, you’re either dancing or dead. Death in the poem is personified as a sort of efficient businessman, doing his best to knock people out of the dance. The more familiar character of Death—the cloaked, scythe-bearing skeleton who fulfills his duties like an overworked godly employee—was around even before Dunbar, an invention of the medieval period, which remains the most productive time in human history for imagining deathly personifications. People then seemed less resistant to death than they are now, perhaps because the threat was omnipresent: one could die from the plague, childbirth, decapitation, infection, or even of indigestion, as Martin of Aragon did at a feast in 1410.

The danse macabre, or death dance, another medieval invention, was an allegorical way of resisting as well as respecting the force of death. It comprises a chain of dancers, some living and others skeletons, moving together toward a grave—death being the equalizing force that brings all of us together, finally. Some more modern dances, like the tarantella, present themselves as assertions of survival, proving that one is still alive despite mortal injury. When we dance, the thinking goes, we are at the most alive we can be. Likewise, when we stop dancing, we die. Read More »

Nadine Gordimer, 1923–2014

July 14, 2014 | by


Nadine Gordimer died yesterday in Johannesburg; she was ninety. Jannika Hurwitt described her, in an Art of Fiction interview published in our Summer 1983 issue, as “a petite, birdlike, soft-spoken woman”:

Gordimer manages to combine a fluidity and gentleness with the seemingly restrained and highly structured workings of her mind. It was as if the forty-odd years that she had devoted to writing had trained her to distill passion—and as a South African writer she is necessarily aware of being surrounded by passion on all sides—into form, whether of the written or spoken word.

As the Times obituary notes, Gordimer’s oeuvre constitutes “a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it … But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.”

The Paris Review published three of Gordimer’s stories. The first, from 1956, is “Face from Atlantis” which appeared in our thirteenth issue, revealing her striking gifts as a portraitist:

Eileen had a favorite among the photographs of her, too … The photograph was taken in Austria, on one of Waldeck’s skiing holidays. It was a clear print and the snow was blindingly white. In the middle of the whiteness stood a young girl, laughing away from the camera in the direction of something or someone outside the picture. Her little face, burnished by the sun, shone dark against the snow. There was a highlight on each firm, round cheekbone, accentuated in laughter.

Children with the House to Themselves” appeared in 1986, as part of our hundredth issue, and “Across the Veld,” from our Winter 1989 issue, is full of the carefully observed, intricately drawn tensions that animate Gordimer’s work—as in this paragraph below, in which Hannah, the protagonist, ventures, in a bus full of whites, through a black township:

An avenue of black faces looked into the windows, pressing close, so that the combis had to slow to these people’s walking pace in order not to crush them under the wheels. No picnic party; the whites surrounded by, gazed at, gazing into the faces of these blacks who had stoned white drivers on a main road, who had taken control of this township out of the hands of white authority, who had refused to pay for the right to exist in the decaying ruins of the war against their presence too close across the veld; these people who killed police collaborators in their impotence to stop the police killing their children. One thing to read about these people, empathize with them, across the veld. Hannah, in her hide, felt the fear in her companions like a rise in temperature inside the vehicle. She slid open the window beside her. Instead of stones, black hands reached in, met and touched first hers and then those of all inside who reached out to them. The passengers jostled one another for the blessing of the hands, the healing touch. Some never saw the faces of those whose fingers they held for a moment before the combi’s progress broke the grasp. From the crush outside there were the cries “AMANDLA! VIVA!,” and joy when these were taken up by the whites. In the smiling haze of weekend drunks this procession of white people was part of the illusions that softened the realities of the week’s labour and made the improbable appear possible. The crowd began to sing, of course, and toi-toi in a half-dance, half-procession alongside the convoy, bringing, among the raised fists of some in the combis, a kind of embarrassed papal or royal weighing-of-air-in-the-hand as a gracious response from some others.

“I would like to say something about how I feel in general about what a novel, or any story, ought to be,” Gordimer said to end her Art of Fiction interview. “It’s a quotation from Kafka. He said, ‘A book ought to be an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.’ ”


Sugar Rush: Letter from Cape Town

February 26, 2013 | by

120614sugarman_6349050Grand West Casino is decorated in the theme of “Cape Town’s Maritime Tradition.” A tradition which involves, for the most part, magenta skies painted on oppressively low ceilings, so that your subconscious incessantly implores you to hunch. At Grand West you may gamble or ice skate or play miniature golf or watch a show. We’ve arrived—my sister and I—for option four. I’ve option foured here a few times, most often with regret. South Africans have a certain obsequious gratitude when it comes to international acts (a holdover, I assume, from three decades of cultural boycotts), so that we now seem to provide palliative care for washed up music careers the world over, one rung above, or perhaps below, the cruise ship circuit. In the last few years we’ve offered our gushy services to Helmut Lotti, Belinda Carlisle, Gladys Knight, Roxette, and, incessantly, Michael Learns to Rock.

But not tonight. Tonight isn’t the usual Southern Hemisphere rent-a-crowd. Quite the opposite. Because tonight we’re here for the grand reunion of the guru and his gurees: it’s Wednesday, February 20, and Rodriguez is on his first tour of South Africa since all the hullabaloo around Searching for Sugar Man. Letterman hullabaloo, Leno hullabaloo, iTunes hullabaloo, Oscars hullabaloo. They say the first audience at Sundance was laughing and sobbing and talking in tongues. What a story; what a man. Stoic. Poet. Prophet. Maybe a bit of an alcoholic, rumor has it, but who isn’t? I tell you, as a South African, to finally see him get international recognition ... it’s pretty irritating, actually. Read More »


Well-Read Lovers; Constant Rejection

November 18, 2011 | by

This week we asked our friend Angus Trumble to give us the benefit of his wisdom—and received an embarras de richesses. Thanks to all for your questions and to Angus for his answers; there was none we could bear to cut. By day Angus is the senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art. By night, and sometimes also by day, he blogs on such topics as the euro crisis, the Ladies of Bethany, and his own globe-trotting adventures.

Dear Angus,
Do the best readers make the best lovers? Would you be more likely to break up with someone if they never read, or read all the time?

I am flattered that you feel I have the necessary qualifications to provide an accurate answer to this question. In my experience, the well-read can be excellent lovers, although there are times when a specific literary prompt may inhibit the natural flow, as for example when one’s partner genuinely believes himself to be some sort of Vronsky, when in fact he lacks the magnificent build, military bearing, disposable income, or even the remotest capacity to smolder. I can quite confidently say that it is unlikely that I would ever commence a relationship with a person who never read, which removes the need to break up with him. My parents’ marriage survived a period in the late fifties, when my mother read the complete works of Sir Walter Scott, evidently led in his direction by a genetically encoded taste for the lowering mist, gloomy crags, and bloodstained crofts and glens of the Highlands of Scotland. On the whole, therefore, I am for readers—although it is also true that I would immediately eject anyone whom I caught in bed with a romantic novel by the late Dame Barbara Cartland.

Have you ever had a story accepted for publication through a slush pile?

As a matter of fact I have, although it was a book review and not a story. My first long article for The Times Literary Supplement was entirely unsolicited and dealt with what struck me at the time as a wholly new and remarkable historical analysis of, of all things, the epidemiology of the Black Death. To my astonishment, in due course this offering propelled me onto the front cover, together with an enormously magnified photograph of a plague-carrying flea. So there is hope.

What should you do if you don’t like a book halfway through? How do you know when you should give it up?

For years, far too many years, I fell into the dangerous trap of being determined to finish a book despite having reached the conclusion half way through—or at the very least having become deeply suspicious—that in all probability this would not give me pleasure or profit. Yet essentially I am an optimist, and therefore, I suppose, when faced with undeniable evidence that a novel in which I am immersed is, for example, a bleak and depressing saga of frustrated sexual longing and entirely populated by characters of scarcely conceivable dullness, part of me hopes that twenty pages hence there awaits bright flashes of comic genius that may yet salvage the experience. Optimistic though I continue to be, from the vantage point of comfortable middle age I can now say that this is never true and that certainly the healthiest, most sensible, and efficient strategy is to abandon ship.

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A Week in Culture: Gemma Sieff, Editor

January 5, 2011 | by


12:30 P.M. I get a belated birthday present from a friend: Kith, Kin & Khaya: South African Photographs by David Goldblatt. Khaya, in Zulu, means “home.” Goldblatt is Jewish South African (his grandparents emigrated from Lithuania in the late nineteenth century; most South African Jews are Lithuanian, my family included). These black-and-white pictures are very still-seeming: the landscapes of Gauteng and the Transkei; bleak twin bathtubs in Benoni, a suburb of Johannesburg where my father’s mother grew up. In the section “Afrikaners,” in a place called Hartebeespoort, a white child is splayed out in the foreground, sleeping in bunched underwear, while behind him a bigger child holds a contented-looking baby. The baby holds a bottle and the older boy holds a toy gun to the baby’s eye. In the book’s second section (a series he collaborated on with Nadine Gordimer), there is a photograph of a black man’s torso: tool belt with pocketknife and pocket watch, shirt pocket full of rulers and drafting pencils, and a silver armband stamped with three stars and the title “Boss Boy.”

7:45 P.M. A day of photographic gifts: a friend gives me the Fall (“library”) issue of Bidoun. Each copy has a found photograph—mine a plump Cairene matriarch and her two pretty daughters at the beach—pasted onto the white-and-gold embossed cover. Creative director Babak Radboy(!) writes,

The issue of Bidoun you hold in your hands has a photograph affixed to its cover. The photo is unique to this copy of the magazine. It was procured for one Egyptian pound (eighteen cents U.S.) and shipped, along with thousands of other photos, directly to our printer in Las Vegas … From the perspective of the archivist, the photograph affixed to the cover does not exist. By gathering these discards and binding them to a (purportedly) legitimate publication, replete with ISBN number, that resides in the collections of a number of public and private libraries, we are, in a sense, rescuing them from their status as detritus. But then, by distributing these issues to bookstores, art fairs, and thousands of unknown individuals—not to mention the accursed share of unsold copies bound for store basements, secondhand book stores, and landfills—these photos are destined to return to the obscurity from whence they came.

11:00 P.M. At home I read Dan Chiasson’s New York Review of Books piece on The Anthology of Rap. It’s called “‘Rude Ludicrous Lucrative’ Rap,” which seems an even better title in the NYRB’s typewritery typeface. “Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the American tragedy of whites trying and failing to understand blacks. Age incomprehension is comic, since everyone young eventually grows old; race incomprehension is tragic, since nobody knows what it is like to change races.”

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