BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
I first encountered Michiel Heyns at school – when I devoured his second novel, The Reluctant Passenger (2003), as a 15- or 16-year-old. It made quite an impression: not only was it very smart and funny and eloquent, but this spot-on new South African satire was, I suspect, the only book in the library at Rondebosch Boys’ High to have a tantalisingly explicit gay sex scene. It probably still is.
More than a decade later, Heyns continues to dazzle, with a slew of books showing the breadth and depth of his literary talents. There have been the historical – The Typewriter’s Tale and Bodies Politic; and a murder mystery, Lost Ground (which won the Herman Charles Bosman Award for English Fiction and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize in 2012).
In 2012, we were treated to the Jamesian Invisible Furies – subtle and aching and elegantly devastating. Heyns’s seventh, A Sportful Malice, came out last year, marking a return to the comedic lightness of The Reluctant Passenger, but set, like the Paris-based Invisible Furies, in Europe. I sat down with Heyns recently to chat about the book, which is styled as a series of emails that Michael Marcussi, a young South African academic, is writing to his partner back in Johannesburg as he romps around Florence and rural Tuscany.
Heyns explains that the book’s inspirations coalesced from a series of trips to Italy: two month-long stays in a little Tuscan village (which inspired the hamlet which Marcussi decamps to for several weeks), and a six-week fellowship at Civitella Ranieri, an Umbrian castle. Characters poured from life onto the page – an elderly couple he met outside of Asisi for example, who were “fanatical representational artists” that showed great contempt for abstract and performance art. Then there was a good-looking young performance artist who inspired the book’s Paolo. These two extremes – old and young, figurative versus performance – formed the book’s two conceptual poles.
Echoing JM Coetzee, Heyns believes a story is “there and you discover what is there by writing”: you figure out what you want to say as you write. The more he wrote, the more he realised he was exploring the theme of representation – the way things are presented: whether in art, or on Facebook, or to a lover back home.
“Ideally the organic and the conceptual knit seamlessly,” he says. “Things start falling into place in a way that’s very satisfying if you’re a literary scholar as I am and you’ve been teaching your students that they must see how the patterns work.”
“I think in all of my novels there is a seriousness but I try not to approach these things to solidly,” he says. “This is the most over-the-top of my novels, I think – and I enjoyed that. But also, it’s not just a romp.”
The novel’s email letter format gives allowed him to “create a character that you’re not necessarily subscribing to as author: he is a character – that is his voice, not mine”. There is a “sense of a voice speaking to you – to the reader”. The intimacy created through addressing his lover back home means Marcussi is “expressing himself without any kind of inhibition” – and his snobberies and conceits can be fully displayed in a fiercely personal, subjective way.
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I ask Heyns what the Civitella Ranieri fellowship was like. He says that having all day to write was initially “quite inhibiting”. “You don’t even have to feed a dog. And that paralysed me for a while.” For several days he would go on long walks through the forest – which would provide inspiration for Marcussi’s encounter with a boar-hunting party. Eventually he was able to get into a writing groove.
And back home – does he have a writing routine?
“It comes and goes,” he says. “I write very sporadically. When I write, I write fairly quickly, and then I have these fallow periods.” He envies those who are able to write every morning and afternoon, for set periods. “I think you must be very productive when you do that, but I don’t. In fact I’m quite often surprised that I get anything written because I don’t seem to spend very much time writing.”
Does he enjoy the process?
“Most writers seem to be quite oppressed with the idea of writing,” he says. “I think it’s also easy to exaggerate that – I mean it can’t be such hell, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it. But there is a reluctance to sit down, and there is a sense that I now have to dig into my guts. And then when you’ve sat down and it happens, it’s wonderful.”
“Much easier” is the translation he does (he has translated, from Afrikaans into English, Marlene van Niekerk’s Agaat and Etienne van Heerden’s 30 Nights in Amsterdam – among other works). “I don’t have that creative block, because translation is creative in its own terms, but not in the same way – it doesn’t come from your guts.” It also pays better than fiction, he adds.
When it comes to his novels, he sometimes asks himself, “Why am I bothering?” But then he also wonders what would he would be doing instead. “I don’t play golf. But it’s not just that. There is something that compels. If I don’t write, I start feeling very restless. If you were religious you could say that God’s given me this one talent and I must use it in terms of the parable of the talents. But without being religious about it, there is a sense that this is something I can do and I would be wasting my life if I didn’t.”
Heyns spent 30-odd years teaching English literature at the University of Stellenbosch. I ask him if he misses academia.
“No, not at all,” he replies. Not having to drive to lectures or mark essays is “a wonderful luxury”. He enjoyed working with young people, enjoyed sharing something he perceived as valuable, but it could “become very frustrating”. He recalls the “dead snoek eyes” of bored students. “English literature is not very big in young people’s lives.” He can’t blame them, he says, for dreaming about their date that evening instead of considering the nuances of Chaucer – but their indifference could be dispiriting nonetheless.
“I started writing when I was at school,” he says. “I wrote short stories and I submitted them to magazines; of course they were rejected. And then I stopped. And now, when young people ask me for advice I say, ‘Don’t be discouraged; at the same time, be realistic – not everyone is a writer; but if you really feel you want to write [then write].’”
“I just realised at the age of 55, there’s only one life,” and that “a novel is not going to write itself,” he says. Although academic life – with its intensive research and marking demands – was hardly conducive to creative writing, finding excuses not to write is “too easy”, he says. “You just have to tell yourself, ‘Bullshit, you’ve got time.’ When I was in the army, and they said ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ and you said, ‘I didn’t have time,’ they said, ‘What were you doing at four ’o clock this morning?’ You have time. But it’s not always easy.”
I ask him about the state – or fate – of South African fiction.
“People don’t really read,” he says. “We make fun of reading groups – but thank heavens for them. People say at Franschhoek [Literary Festival], ‘Here are all these grey haired ladies’ – well thank heavens for the grey-haired ladies, because the blonde boys aren’t reading.”
The market is too small “to make authors rich” – although “oddly it does seem enough to keep publishers going”. I suggest the publishers are staying in the black thanks to cookbooks and sports biographies, rather than novels.
Heyns agrees. “And religious books,” he adds. “I have a friend who writes cookery books and we decided we should write a religious cookery book – preferably with some rugby thrown in.”
Although South Africa’s fiction market might be miniscule, it’s not all gloom. “I think it’s remarkably easy to get published in this country, compared to, say, England,” Heyns says. “Publishers are open to new writing which is great, although it often means the writing’s not that great. You can get published here without having an agent, which you can’t in England.” Even if you don’t make much from it, “at least you get published”.
Heyns’s work is – deservingly, of course – finding increasing appeal abroad. Many of his novels have been translated into French; The Children’s Day, his first, was published in the US. And Lost Ground has been snapped up by the Scottish publisher Freight Books, which has also commissioned another novel from him.
is published by Jonathan Ball and is available from Kalahari.