Review 2016: This has been a year most of humanity would like to forget with war, disasters, racism, sexism and, especially in arts and culture, the deaths of revered icons. But it is also in the arts and culture where people look for and find hope. The Conversation Africa has asked a number of our contributors to give us five books, records, buildings, works of art and so on in their field that made a difference to them in 2016. Here is University of the Witwatersrand English lecturer Simon van Schalkwyk with five books that influenced his year.
1. “Nightwood” (1936) – Djuna Barnes
I was fortunate enough, this year, to be awarded a small grant that allowed me to pass on most of my teaching commitments to others while I focused on writing and research. Still, I offered lectures to first year students, and I also facilitated a third-year elective comprised of a selection of modernist poems, Joseph Conrad’s “The Inn of the Two Witches” and “The Secret Sharer”, and Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood”.
I had read “Nightwood” years ago, but I was still surprised by the sheer strangeness of Barnes’ vision. Much of the novel consists of long tracts of unbroken, sometimes incomprehensible, monologue that captures high-modernism’s broader interest in juxtaposing the sublime with the ridiculous or the profane.
The novel’s formal arrangement is similarly disorienting. Barnes returns obsessively to a few key scenes, which she retells in a variety of registers: third-person omniscient, free-indirect speech, personal reflection. In style and form the novel arguably reflects the agonised relationship of its protagonists – the lesbian lovers Robin Vote and Nora Flood.
To her credit, Barnes seems less preoccupied with the potentially scandalous dimensions of Nora and Robin’s affair – their homosexuality is an open secret – than with the limits and inexpressibility of love and intimacy. This tragedy is poignantly embodied by Dr Matthew O'Connor. Deciding to visit O'Connor late one night, Nora finds him alone in a dingy hotel bedsit, wearing a dress, and waiting for a guest who never arrives.
Barnes doesn’t cheapen the revelation of O'Connor’s transvestism. Instead, she offers us a scene in which O’Connor attempts to console Nora, disconsolate for having been deserted by Robin. “Nightwood” is a strange, difficult novel, but it is also touching and, in many ways, deeply preoccupied with the limits of what it means to be human, and of the tragically narrow limits of human intimacy.
2. “The Names” (1982) – Don Delillo
In August I presented a paper on the risk analysts and financial speculators featured in Don DeLillo’s “The Names”, Joseph O'Neill’s “Netherland” and Moshin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” for a conference at the University of Sussex titled “Cultures of Security: Security, Management and Symptom”.
I found “The Names” particularly fascinating for the way in which it preempts Ulrich Beck’s argument, in “Risk Society”, that modern societies are organised in relation to future-directed conditions of risk and speculation. In my paper I argued that “The Names” addresses the curious links between risk-assessment, financial speculation, and terrorism, and that these links are also evident in Hamid and O'Neill’s novels.
The fact that Hamid and O’Neill’s novels appeared in 2007 and 2008 respectively, and that much of the “The Names’” is set in Greece, probably nourished my unconscious desire to say something about austerity measures levelled against Greeks in the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis. I should probably also mention that I landed in Ataturk, Turkey en route to Gatwick in the UK mere hours after the Ataturk Airport attacks. This eventuality seemed to simultaneously validate my area of inquiry, and to render my attempt to write about finance capital and global terrorism completely and utterly pointless.
3. “Concrete Island” (1974) – J.G. Ballard
I picked up “Concrete Island” in the UK and I was really glad that I did. I’ve always had a tangential interest in Ballard’s work, but “Concrete Island” also resonated with my own professional preoccupations in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s a reimagining of “Robinson Crusoe”, a novel that I’d introduced to the syllabus at Wits University (but which I’ve oddly never had a chance to teach!)
Secondly, the “Cultures of Security” conference is an offshoot of a larger project titled “Fictions of Threat” and loosely concerned with all things apocalyptic. I felt that the apocalyptic turn in my own research would justify my indulgent plunge, late last year, into Ballard’s Terminal Trilogy – “The Drowned World”, “The Burning World” and “The Crystal World”.
I thoroughly enjoyed “The Drowned World”‘s fantastic mix of jungle-pulp, pseudo-psychological sci-fi, and antediluvian iguanas. But I preferred “Concrete Island”’s absurd, yet weirdly believable premise: a motorist finds himself stranded in one of those dead zones that emerge alongside and in-between the concrete tangle of overpasses or flyovers, interchanges and superhighways.
I was deeply affected by Rob Nixon’s “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor” a few years ago. Reading “Concrete Island”, I felt that Ballard had been mapping similar territory, training his eye on the negative spaces of the metropolis the better to see the disparity – but also the porosity – of the line between poverty and privilege.
4. “Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680-1840” (2001) – Jonathan Lamb
When I returned home I picked up the threads of two further papers that I had previously been preparing for publication. The first was based on Richard Hughes’ “A High Wind in Jamaica”, a novel about a group of English children who are brought up on post-Emancipation Jamaica around 1850, and who are kidnapped by Scandinavian pirates soon after their parents decide to send them back to England.
The second paper looked at how Michel Foucault’s richly suggestive notion of “heterotopia” informs CA Davids’ “The Blacks of Cape Town”. My research material for the Hughes article included Cesare Casarino’s “Modernity at Sea: Melville, Marx, Conrad in Crisis” and Jonathan Lamb’s “Preserving the Self in the South Seas, 1680-1840”. I was astounded by the sheer breadth of Lamb’s scholarly range, intelligence, and acumen. It’s the kind of work I wish I would be capable of producing at some point, while knowing that I will probably never be able to attain that level of academic excellence.
5. “Losing the Plot: Crime, Reality and Fiction in Postapartheid Writing” (2016) – Leon de Kock
I was generously invited to discuss “Losing the Plot” with De Kock for the book’s launch at Love Books in Johannesburg in October. I was struck by De Kock’s claims about the obsessively forensic modes of investigative writing that have come to mark South African literature. Yet I remained suspicious of De Kock’s positivistic faith in the idea that writers might reveal “truths” by uncovering buried evidence. These suspicions probably had everything to do with my disheartening encounter with this year’s Fees Must Fall protests.
As I scanned Facebook, Twitter and online news sources, I began to feel that any attempt to describe, analyse, or comment on unfolding events seemed to slip into a post-factual void of secrecy and credible deniability. I was reminded of Timothy Melley’s idea, in “The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State” (2012), that paranoid forms of fictionality and conspiracy theories tend to proliferate in the absence of factual certainty, transparency and accountability.
I washed this difficult pill down with Giorgio Agamben’s “State of Exception”. It is an account of anomia: the suspension of both politics and law that accompanies social breakdown and which culminates in the carnivalesque inversion of social norms and values. Cheerful stuff.