While you’re enjoying a pleasant Friday in the office, exchanging stimulating chitchat with a colleague or sipping reflectively at your midmorning cuppa, spare a thought for me, for I will be bonded to the service of the written arts, sweating and suffering on stage at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.
Every year at this time, when the evenings are crisp and the leaves on the vine turn to russet and red, a motley rabble of writers, readers and literate winos comes tumbling into a small town in the Cape winelands to sell books, buy books, sometimes read books and mostly to talk about books.
At 10am today, if today is Friday, which it is for me, I’ll be chairing my first panel of the weekend, a conversation between the Irish writer John Boyne, who wrote The Boy With the Striped Pyjamas, and the English writer Chris Bradford, who wrote a sequence of ripping yarns called the Young Samurai series.
Ho! You might scoff. That sounds like easy going. Ah, but not really. One of those fellows wrote a string of cracking adventures for kids, involving a young boy shipwrecked in 17th century Japan who must battle shoguns and ronins and suchlike nunchuk-wielding Eastern panjandrums. When Chris Bradford appears on literary panels he is given to swinging a samurai sword and performing karate kicks and ninja rolls to demonstrate the thoroughness of his research. All well and good, but the other fellow wrote a deceptively simple but rapidly darkening and disturbing story told through the perspective of an innocent naïve ten-year-old boy whose father turns out to be the camp commander at Auschwitz. I haven’t asked, but I don’t think John Boyne is given to demonstrations of the goosestep or the blitzkrieg.
These two chaps superficially work in the same medium – words, sentences, the particular perceptions of children – but literature is a vast mansion, and really they reside in very different wings. What will they find to talk about? And more pressingly, whose job will it be, fussing and mugging like an anxious hostess at a Bloomsbury tea party, to make sure that conversation flows and that everyone leaves feeling larger and enlivened by what they’ve heard? You can see why I’m fretful.
Each year at Franschhoek, I am involved in a series of disasters and setbacks and uncomfortable twists that somehow ultimately, like a crowd-pleasing novel, turn out all right in the end. There was the year I accidentally broke off a large piece of wall in my hotel room and tried to prestik it back, hoping no one would notice. There was the time I was in the passenger seat of a weaving car driven by an award-winning international author who when pulled over to be breathalysed, waved away the traffic cop with an imperious hand, saying, “You must speak to my agent about that sort of thing.”
There was the time a fellow writer challenged me to a midnight swim in order, as far as I remember the reasoning, to establish which of us wrote the purest prose. We snuck into a swimming pool of a small boutique hotel at which neither of us was staying. The idea was to stand naked and waist-deep, there in the bleak, dark midwinter, until one of us cracked and climbed out, thus establishing his lack of literary fortitude. When we were discovered by the management, we each refused to be first to leave the pool. The manager confiscated our clothing, and it started raining, but our dedication to literature did not waver. We only agreed to exit once he expropriated our wine and refused our pleas for more. I should mention: there is a lot of wine in Franschhoek.
But none of that explains why I love going to Franschhoek each year, even when I’m busy or feeling misanthropic or trying to drink less wine. The main reason is because writing is lonely. Not the humdrum loneliness of being alone in a room – that’s quite pleasant. No, the loneliness is all in that sense you sometimes have that you are like a scrimshaw-carver or a man who puts model ships into bottles – that you are the last person left on earth working at a craft that everyone else has forgotten. But then for a long splendid weekend you go to a place filled with readers. For once it doesn’t matter whether or not they read you – it’s enough simply that they read, proof that there are still people in the world who have ears to hear the silent, joyous music of language, who welcome voices into their heads, who are moved and delighted by the same things that move and delight me. If you’re in Franschhoek this weekend, be sure to stop me and say hello. You’re my favourite kind of people.
Times, 13 May 2015