Flame in the Snow: The love letters of André Brink and Ingrid Jonker
In the beginning there were the women of his past, a ghost among them. André Brink had never been afraid to love. After the life-defining relationship of his youth with Ingrid Jonker, her suicide, and four divorces, at the age of 69 he had the guts to say yes to a delicate possibility.
When we met in Austria towards the end of 2004 I was terribly young, on the verge of a divorce, broken by betrayals, and almost paralysed by mistrust. Continents and cultures apart, 42 years between us, the odds staked against us could not have been higher. Yet we somehow mustered enough courage to dare the impossible and turn it into reality. For ten years, the first thing we did every morning after waking up next to each other was to smile. No matter what. Of course it hadn’t been easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. And coming to terms with our respective pasts was our greatest challenge.
André first introduced me to Ingrid in a letter on 23 December 2004:
She was a year or so older than me, and light-years older in terms of sexual experience. It was an incredible, hectic, heady, head-over-heels love of extremes, swinging wildly from ecstasy to the depths of misery; and it became just too exhausting and demanding. After two years (and several break-ups and new starts) she started a new love-affair, and then I did too (both of us, I think, grasping at possibilities of getting out of our own relationship which had become suffocating). And so it ended. She had one more mad love-affair, and committed suicide.
Coming to live with André in the South African spring of 2005, I very quickly realised that in order to know him – truly know him – I had to understand what had happened between him and Ingrid 40 years earlier. We both had to. No other woman in André’s life had left as indelible a mark on him as Ingrid. No other haunted me as much in the beginning of our relationship.
I am proud of countless things André and I have achieved together, but the one that made all else possible is the space we created in our relationship for sharing, for being painfully open with each other. André and I met at Vienna International Airport when I went to pick him up and accompany him on the train journey to Salzburg, where he was participating in a symposium I’d helped organise. On that trip we began a conversation which, literally, lasted ten years until I told him I loved him for the last time and closed his lips with a final kiss just before he died earlier this year. It was a stripping of minds and hearts. Time after time, we stood completely soul-naked in front of each other, risking everything, and eventually knowing that love would prevail, always, no matter how terrifyingly ugly the revealed truth – on both sides – was. It is the kind of knowledge which can lay any ghost to rest.
At the end of Everything I know I learned from TV: Philosophy for the unrepentant couch potato, my favourite philosopher, Mark Rowlands, writes: “If I could repay you with a wish it would be that you find something in your life so important that without it you would not be the same person. If you’re lucky you’ll have it already.” The relationship with Ingrid was such a thing for André. He wrote in his memoir, A fork in the road (Harvill Secker, 2009): “On that memorable afternoon of 15 April, 1963, a group of us were gathered in the lounge of Jan Rabie’s rambling old house in Cape Town, when Ingrid walked in, barefoot and provocative, and the movement against censorship officially began, and the course of my life was changed.” Her influence permeated everything: his personal life, and, just as crucially, his writing. One only needs to look at André’s women characters, walking in Ingrid’s footprints across the pages of his novels, to comprehend what an impact their meeting had on his creativity. And they are only the most obvious example. But despite the evidence, for many years André was exceedingly reluctant to speak or write about Ingrid after her death.
At the time of our engagement in early 2006, together with Antjie Krog and Ingrid de Kok, André was working on the new translations of Ingrid Jonker’s poems which would result in the publication of Black butterflies: Selected poems (Human & Rousseau, 2007). It must have been during this period that he showed me his and Ingrid’s correspondence for the first time. He kept the letters in the same place as his diaries which he reread for the writing of the introduction to Black butterflies, the first text of its kind after many years of silence. An intimate treasure and a chunk of literary history many had wondered about for decades, even back then the letters had an irresistible appeal for me. Although my grasp of the Afrikaans language and literature was shaky at this stage, I understood their importance as a key to André’s life story and to the creative and intellectual forces culminating in the literary movement of the Sestigers. We looked at them together, he told me their story, and allowed me to comment on the translations as well as on the introduction. The title for the collection followed from a suggestion I’d made. Being included felt like a form of exorcism.
I wrote in my own diary of the time: “Dear Ingrid, are you smiling at us after all?”
Soon after, André and I were married and he embarked on the writing of A fork in the road. During those years he also spoke openly about his relationship with Ingrid on camera for documentaries about his own life and hers (Helena Nogueira’s Ingrid Jonker: Her lives and time, 2007; Jean-Marc Bouzou’s and Jean Marc Giri’s André Brink, the African rebel, 2010; and Cloete Breytenbach’s Stroomop: André P Brink, 2012). He agreed to be interviewed by Louise Viljoen for her biography, Ingrid Jonker (Jacana, 2012; also published in the US by Ohio UP, 2013), where he discussed the content of the correspondence with her. Every now and then he would bring out the letters to check for references and we would examine them together, each intrigued by them for different reasons. I do not remember exactly at which stage I spotted Ingrid’s drawing (in the letter of 15 October 1963) of the house she had imagined they would share, but it shifted something inside me. Their bed. A bed for Ingrid’s daughter Simone, one for André’s son Anton. A cot for the daughter they desired to have throughout their relationship. It was this moment, more than any other, which made me realise that Ingrid was no longer a ghost “scratching my shoulders” (as I described her in a poem I wrote in her memory), but a positive presence. In another poem, I wrote: “Plant us a lemon tree, André/ Near our house, by the water./ Let us listen to its leaves whisper/ Of other trees, an akkerboom/ That grew once in a garden/ Full of dreams, then in silence.”
After the introduction to Black butterflies, André returned to the correspondence and his diaries for the writing of A fork in the road. The memoir includes a chapter, simply entitled “Ingrid”, which is devoted to their relationship. In it he recalls in extensive detail what long-lasting effects their encounter had on him.
While he was working on the book, André said to me that he had been waiting all his life to use a specific Shakespeare quote for a dedication. He had a remarkable memory for literary quotes in all the languages he spoke, and he used the ones he loved most in a way that I can best describe as fishing. They were the nets he would throw out into the world, waiting to see who would be caught, who would respond to his hunger for sharing the beauty he recognised in those words. The quote – “What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours;/ being part in all I have, devoted yours” – reads like the greatest gift one person can give to another. And it was with a sense of renewed wonder and a strange feeling of comfort that I discovered the lines in one of the letters André wrote to Ingrid already half a century ago. A circle closing.
The idea to publish their correspondence had been in the air for quite a long time and it is now impossible to pinpoint when it began to solidify. I recall André testing the waters with dear friends, asking for their opinions on whether he should go ahead with the book or not. The resounding response had been: YES! In early July last year, we invited Stephen Johnson – a friend of many years who had been one of André’s publishers and one of his first readers – to dinner to discuss the possibility. Like all others approached, he was highly enthusiastic and supportive in his advice on how to proceed with the project. A few days later, André had a knee operation. The recovery put practically all literary plans on hold for quite a while, but towards the end of the year we met with Fourie Botha, André’s publisher at Umuzi, and set the dice rolling. No specific time frame was discussed, but it was agreed that the book would be published after Gold dust, the novel André was working on at the time of his death in February this year. It opens with the sentence: “There is nothing like a barefoot girl to restore one’s faith in the future.”
To this day, the research materials André was using for Gold dust are scattered around his study, and the unfinished manuscript lies among them. It will take some careful consideration to determine whether it will ever see the light of publication. I do not feel ready for the task yet. But knowing André’s strong sense of commitment and the indebtedness he felt to his publisher, after his death I understood that it was only right to continue with the publication of the correspondence, for which nothing new had to be written or reworked. For me personally, it meant continuing with a literary project which we had planned to execute together. Everything was different, of course, because I was on my own, but assisting with the publication has been a source of enormous strength for me, the only constant joy of the past nine months. It felt as if André and I were still working on something together, and as always, what might have seemed insurmountable began falling into place as if by magic.
The letters were stored in three plain beige envelopes in a cupboard in our back study. Two for Ingrid’s originals, one for the carbon copies of André’s. His slowly fading into unreadability, hers extremely well preserved, made me realise two things: one, how precious pen and paper can be, five decades later still holding these riches, while I cannot open computer files I had stored only a decade ago; and two, how it was literally high time to proceed with the copying and transcription of the correspondence because half of it, the half dearest to me, was in the process of disappearing. Included with the correspondence were bills for their hotel stays, letters addressed to André dictated to Ingrid by her daughter Simone, telegraphs, newspaper articles André collected after Ingrid’s death, Ingrid’s original death portrait (by Cloete Breytenbach), Jack Cope’s letters concerning Ingrid’s estate, and a few other memorabilia.
I began by scanning and copying the individual letters and putting them into chronological order. Because of the sensitivity of the content, we knew that we could entrust the transcription to only a very special person. The obvious choice was Erika Viljoen, a former student of André’s, a passionate reader and writer herself, and most crucially, one of our dearest friends (it was she and her husband Kobus whom I asked to receive me at the airport when our flight landed on 6 February in Cape Town and it was in their house that I spent the night after, unable to return to the emptiness of our own home). Erika was the first person in 50 years to read the correspondence in its entirety. Her initial comments validated our hopes for the publication – it was going to be everything anyone could have hoped for. And she gave the book its present title, suggesting for it a phrase Ingrid used to describe André: “my vlammetjie in die sneeu” (“my little flame in the snow”). The “little flame” recurs in the letters as a running motif.
Typed and ready for the next step, the letters were handed over to the astounding Francis Galloway, who became the book’s editor. Her knowledge of the writers and the period concerned is awe-inspiring, and her bubbling personality so infectious that having her in charge was sheer pleasure.
Fourie made three other perfect choices for the project by recommending two translators for the individual correspondents and by enlisting Karin Schimke and Leon de Kock to do the job. I will never forget how I bought Karin’s debut poetry volume, Bare & Breaking (Modjaji Books, 2012), at the Franschhoek Literary Festival last year and began reading it in the bath in the guest house we were staying at in the evening. After only a few poems I got out, dried myself and went to join André on the bed, interrupting his reading to share the beauty of what I had found. We read and loved the poems together. And I am so glad that André had the opportunity to let Karin know how much he appreciated her work. We were delighted when she won the Ingrid Jonker Prize for the collection later that year. Not knowing what Ingrid’s prose was like, I can only judge Karin’s translation of her letters on the basis of its consistency and fluidity. Both are impeccable. And Leon’s translation is miraculous. Somehow, across languages and decades, he managed to capture André’s voice. André only ever wrote to me in English. While we were still living on two continents in the beginning of our relationship, we also exchanged hundreds of letters. I know his English correspondence voice intimately. And I found it again in Leon’s translation of letters André had written long before I was born. It touched me deeply.
The next to step on board was Willie Burger, who wrote an incisive introduction to the book, which, by his own account, he was unable to put down and finished reading over a weekend. A leading scholar in Afrikaans literary studies, he is also an expert on André’s writing. André valued his insights and always maintained that it was Willie’s reader’s report on an early manuscript of Philida (Harvill Secker, 2012), André’s last published novel, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, that had saved the book from a fate worse than death. A while back, Willie and I had co-edited Contrary: Critical responses to the novels of André Brink (Protea Book House, 2013) and organised the last symposium on André’s work at the University of Pretoria in 2013. When Willie visited in August to look at the original correspondence and discuss the project with all involved, he asked to see a copy of Ingrid’s Rook en oker (Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel, 1963). André had kept four copies of the first edition. We were using two of them as reference for the publication, but it was by pure chance that I took out one of the other two to give to Willie. In it we found a lock of Ingrid’s hair and all the notes André refers to in his letters about the second edition of Rook en oker. One of those moments when your heart stands still in wonder.
Other magical discoveries were part of the project. I searched my memory and the house for all the things that André had told me about relating to his relationship with Ingrid: photographs, including those he had taken of her (one of which we chose for the cover of the standard edition), a red jersey from her he had kept all these years, first editions of their books (Rook en oker (1963), Die Ambassadeur (1963) and Orgie (1965) among them), some with moving handwritten dedications, and the copy of Cervantes’s Don Quixote which André had brought back from their disastrous trip to Spain. Francis and Karin invited me to join them on a tour of all the places in Cape Town related to Ingrid and referred to in the letters. We could not trace them all, but to walk on her paths even for a little while felt important. We stood on the Promenade in Three Anchor Bay on a rainy winter’s day and thought about what it meant to walk into the Atlantic at night in July in Cape Town – the freezing cold of the water, the all-consuming darkness.
All the people involved in the project met in smaller or bigger groups at the publisher’s offices or in our homes to discuss, share, marvel – the excitement palpable, the sense of obligation and responsibility to literary history and to the people we admire (and love) enormous at every step. We carried it together. I could not have wished for a better team to take care of the project.
Early on, it was decided that the book would also be issued in a limited edition. Sitting in Fourie’s office one day to discuss the different ideas, I remembered the artist Hanneke Benadé. It was something akin to a vision. Hanneke’s work had fascinated André and me ever since he had opened an exhibition at the Strydom Gallery in 2006 in George, where we saw one of her haunting artworks, Not Dark Yet. Hanneke is a storyteller in her own right. We were stunned to see her visual retelling of O Henry’s The gift of the magi (1905) at an exhibition in Stellenbosch a few years before. She seemed like the ideal person to approach about an artwork for the limited edition cover. Meeting her in person was a dream come true. There was an instant connection, a subliminal understanding, and I knew she would give us something special. All we asked was that the image be of just Ingrid and André together, as no such photograph that we knew of had survived over the years, although several are referred to in the letters. Hanneke’s artwork is perfect in every way. Without having read the letters, she intuitively reflected the story they tell.
Only a thousand numbered copies (in Afrikaans and in English) exist of the limited edition. It also includes additional previously unseen photographs from André’s collection, with an extra photo section that does not appear in the standard edition and a replica of one of the letters. Presented in a slipcase, the book will be a collector’s item of rare beauty.
From the start, we all understood what value the correspondence represented for the Afrikaans literary and cultural community, as it documents a relationship between two writers who were instrumental in setting the course of its development for over half a century now. However, none of us could have foreseen the letters’ universal appeal or how exquisite their content would be. Written between 21 April 1963 and 27 April 1965, the just over 230 letters span the entire time of the relationship.
In his introduction, Willie mentions that the correspondence reads like an epistolary novel. Except, of course, that this is not fiction. This is an exchange between two young people of flesh and blood, budding writers, brimming with creativity, humour, doubt, daring, wisdom, desire and longing – for each other, and for inspiration. They are fervently in love, but it is a forbidden love. He is married. She is divorced and in a relationship with another writer, Jack Cope. The letters are a result of the geographical distance which separates them: Ingrid lives with her six-year-old daughter Simone in Cape Town, André with his wife Estelle and their one-year-old son Anton in Grahamstown. Ingrid is struggling to make ends meet, doing mind-numbing, dehumanising jobs to support herself and her child. He is lecturing at Rhodes University and constantly on the lookout for opportunities to visit the Cape. Both are at the centre of literary activities in the country, English and Afrikaans, united distinctly in their opposition to censorship. The days of togetherness they steal from their everyday are few and far between, but the intensity of these encounters – tempestuously loving as they are – drives them on for two years. It is a mad love which has a tendency to obscure everything, especially reason: from the moment they meet, not knowing anything about what the future might hold, they recklessly begin to hope for a child, a baby daughter for whom they invent names and provide for only in their dreams. It is never stated, but perhaps subconsciously they believe the child will help them to commit to each other. After each of their meetings, with the onset of her next menstruation, Ingrid sends a letter or a telegram informing André about the lack of the “butterfly”, as they call the little one. As all couples do, they invent an intimate language that is embarrassingly endearing at times. Sexually, Ingrid is a revelation to André. Secure in and generous with her body, she shows him what a transcendent, satisfying experience lovemaking can be between two people who do not only have the right chemistry but are audacious enough to explore its possibilities. “I have never yet felt so whole,” André writes in the evening of 2 June 1963.
These intimate love letters also paint a vivid portrait of their time with references to events of historical importance, but also daily life, family members (including Ingrid’s strained relationship with her father, Abraham Jonker, who would become chief censor), and other writers, particularly the Sestigers. Gossip, conflicts in the literary community are noted, now and then accompanied by venomous remarks. Some persons referred to are dear friends who are still alive. I am certain André would not have wanted to hurt any of them, and I can only hope that they will each read such passages against the backdrop of their entire relationship with André. The temptation to edit is far outweighed by the need to honour Ingrid’s and André’s vehement opposition to censorship and to preserve its entailed integrity. Not a single word was consciously omitted or altered in the compilation of the book.
The correspondents discuss their own and other writers’ work, including numerous quotes and translations from admired authors, all of it infused with insatiable lust and declarations of love. Written in the deft and poetic prose of two writers of world stature in the early stages of their careers, the letters still shock one with their sublime writing, quotable gems flowing from nearly every line. Some of us know what it feels like to need and love someone who is not yours to need, to love – a fiery love which has the potential to reduce everything to ashes. Some of us might be fortunate enough to have known this kind of passion, but not many can find the words to describe it: “I am yours, everything I do and think is directed towards you; even in my least important daily activities, you are the steady five lines on which I score the notes of my life” (André on the morning of 17 October 1963).
What also emerges is the recognition of lived and aesthetic truth, how the one influences the other. Writing from Potchefstroom on 4 July 1963, André wonders whether it is “terrible and heartless that one can be so objective about one’s own life and suffering that one always remains aware of ‘literary possibilities’? Perhaps. And yet it’s also a kind of mercy, because it helps you orientate yourself continuously in relation to what’s going on, so that you’re always trying to look and live more deeply than merely on the surface.” The same sensitivity resonates in Ingrid’s own letter of 8 July 1963: “The corpse isn’t even cold yet, then … It would be disgusting, should we write a poem: Poetry, the Vulture …? The desolate, lonely walking away of a person, the genuine grief about it, and at the same time THE THING. … But it’s probably not something to feel guilty about, just part of an inevitable self-awareness.” And so we gain behind-the-scenes access to this awareness at work.
There are descriptions of scenes from daily life which inspired famous works, the discrepancy between the two realities or lack thereof, quite striking on occasions. The moment André first reveals to her, on 12 August 1963, his idea for Orgie gives one goose bumps: “It’s still just an idea, a rhythmically sensory idea; perhaps it will take a long while before it becomes word or flesh. But it will come. I feel it rumbling.” The portrayal in the letters of the ensuing collaboration between the two authors on the book is markedly revelatory. It becomes apparent how overly autobiographical the cult novel is and that both their names should have featured on the cover. On 12 September 1963 Ingrid teasingly warns André: “You’ll have to be careful with your ideas anywhere around me, my darling colleague! But they are after all our poems.” Most significantly, they were each other’s first readers. Any writer will tell you what trust and respect is vested in this kind of sharing. As in dedications. So much of what they publish during this time is dedicated to the other.
There is also naked uncertainty. André writes: “[T]he last few days have been full of that old doubt and near-despair, all over again: will I ever get anything written that can stand wonderfully free out in the sun and be good without any reservations? Am I able to write something that’s worth the effort?” (30 June 1963). This from the man who would become the author of An instant in the wind, A dry white season, A chain of voices, or The other side of silence, among so many other masterpieces.
For me, the opportunity to meet and get to know the young André, so familiar and yet so different, has been an invaluable process. I try to imagine his conservative upbringing, the shackles of bourgeois values restricting him, his horrendous work rate to keep up a certain lifestyle, his unique creative talent, his frustrations, the visions and hopes he had for his literary future and, last but not least, the love and responsibility he felt towards his family. On 11 December 1963 he writes: “Daily strife, growing distance, stiffness, desolation, guilt, responsibility for Anton, and my longing for you, my need for you … What a year this has been. I don’t know if I’ve ever been this exhausted. It brought the greatest, most complete happiness and enchantment I have ever known, but also the worst hell; it was my most creative year ever, and also the most sterile. Still, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Throughout, remembering that he was only in his late twenties when all of this was going on, I cannot help feeling humbled. Ingrid’s arrival in his life must have been mind-blowing. On the morning of 9 August 1963 he asks: “Is it really so wrong to ask for just a little pure love, some heart and understanding, a little sharing of things with someone, the trust of eyes and hands, the assurance of a hungry young body?” Who has the right to deny any of us such simple truths? We all crave to live. They wanted a life together so badly, but neither could commit and their indecisiveness proved calamitous.
In an incomplete letter of 20 February 1964 André describes a novella he is working on. He wants “to use it to shout out all my powerless resistance against my entrapped life; it has to be an indictment of sterility; a destruction; longing for the dream, the one Woman, you.” Two days later he observes: “God, posterity will probably say that it was all very good for our art – but I’m not the next damned generation. I am who I am – someone who loves you …”
The Ingrid who steps off the pages of her letters is fascinating. She is acutely vulnerable and at the same time much stronger, time and again more in charge of a given situation, more deliberate and forgiving than I would ever have expected. Her mental health had been precarious. Her need for belonging was profound. We know she suffered from abandonment and depression. She was hospitalised several times. But it is not Ingrid who first contemplates suicide in the letters, but André, and she responds on 3 December 1963: “No, my darling – you must never think that way, things always get better sooner than one expects; and you don’t know me yet, my spirit is just in-des-truct-ible.” Whatever troubled her lurks beneath the lines of almost all her letters, but in writing she exercises a notable control over her chaotic emotional states even in the midst of her often galloping formulations. 17 September 1963: “Sorry, this letter probably sounds desperate to you again, but actually it’s not – just too tired to think; to create order out of the chaos, and so, death of the poet.”
As so many of us writers do, she seems to find a measure of containment in the task of writing. She is dismissive of the severity of her condition: “After the breaking off of our engagement I had three attacks in one day (I am ashamed of anything like that, where your breathing becomes so disturbed that you faint, struggling to breathe until you faint – and Dr Katz with his syringe). It’s nothing. I come out of it and next day I walk in the sun again, in love. It doesn’t disturb the inner growing and bleeding, and that’s all that matters. And God knows I don’t hold it against you. God threw the dice and it fell wrong for us, that’s all” (13 March 1964). In a moment of devastating clarity she understands that André’s “hands are always full of dreams and sometimes vague reality”. Karin remarked that Ingrid would have been unusual for our time; in her time she was exceptional. Despite everything, one cannot help but admire the perseverance and independence that fate forced from her until she could no longer sustain either.
The affair lasted until three months before Ingrid’s death in July 1965. But it already began to unravel after their trip to Europe. In a spine-chilling moment in July 1964 after her return to Cape Town, Ingrid asks: “What did we do?” And then in September: “Hardly dare to think of Paris. The enchantment and the defeat, and also the ‘mixed feelings’ – too much … Sorry, love, this is a rather small sad old attempt. But I no longer live gladly.” And yet, she continues to grope and tries to connect in words. Towards the end, the letters preserved are mostly hers. One can infer from them that he is responding, but it seems that he is no longer keeping the copies. That in itself is telling, and heart-breaking. She is still reaching out to him. He is withdrawing. Words cannot hold them together. We know what their future holds, but one does not necessarily see it coming in the writing. When she walked into that ice-cold July sea, they were no longer a couple. Both had been involved with other partners at the time: Ingrid with the painter Herman van Nazareth, André with the actress Salomi Louw, who became his second wife. André’s last letter of the ones he kept in the beige envelopes tells Ingrid about the new woman in his life (at the same time assuring her: “you’re irreplaceable in my heart”).
People ask why André kept carbon copies of his letters. We will never really know, unless his diaries divulge the secret one day. In any case, the diaries might be the key in answering the question. André was an archivist at heart, taking great care of his manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, mementos and such like. As many writers will attest, I believe at a certain point each one of us becomes conscious of the fact that anything we write might eventually be of interest to a broader public. But there is another aspect which needs to be taken into consideration. We occasionally keep copies of intimate, relevant letters as we would keep a diary. I can surely relate. When we address letters to people we care about, they often resemble diary entries, containing our innermost thoughts and emotions. As a diarist, André might have felt like this about his letters to Ingrid; they were a chronicle of his life for two years. He might have kept their copies for this sole reason.
His diaries have already revealed one poignant treasure. Something moved me to look into the one which contains entries from 1965. With trepidation I turned to July of that year and found the entry for the 19th, the day Ingrid died. It is his very last letter addressed directly to her: “Kokon, Hulle het jou vanoggend langs die see gekry,” he begins, and repeats, “Jy is dood … jy is dood”, as if seeking confirmation in the unbearably tender incantation. He went momentarily blind upon hearing the news. He did not attend her official funeral, nor the gathering later organised by their friends. For the next 40 years he refused to break the silence shrouding the relationship.
In September 2013, just before what would have been Ingrid’s 80th birthday, André and I came across Simone at the Breytenbach Centre in Wellington. It was the first time he saw her since she was a child and the first time I met her. We had tea. While I chatted to Simone’s husband Ernesto, she and André sat slightly apart, holding hands, tears welling up in their eyes, whispering to each other, reconnecting. If there is one thing that is certain about the content of the letters, it is the love Ingrid and André had for their children, and for the unborn “butterfly” they so desperately wished for. It shines through and can still warm hearts.
Simone and I met again recently. Her impressions of the letters made me grasp that no matter what else, the correspondence has already fulfilled one immeasurable purpose. The letters were of comfort to her, Simone said. They allowed her to feel her mother’s love again and made her realise how deep and true it had been. After her visit, I sat a long time in the sun on the stoep, reeling from the encounter. I thought about the power of words, especially of written words, when they hold essential records which can change lives. Her mother’s death was followed by a period of darkness and silence for Simone, until President Mandela’s reciting of Ingrid’s “The Child” at the opening of the first democratic parliament in 1994 released something in her which allowed her to begin healing. It is a story waiting to be told.
I have spoken to Estelle, written to Anton. After their divorce, Estelle and André remained friends until his death. Years ago, she welcomed me into her home (still the very house she and André shared in the sixties) and her heart. We would visit when we were in Grahamstown, speak often on the phone, even exchange the odd postcard. The first and last Mrs Brink became friends. She came to Cape Town in February to comfort me. There is a certain kind of love that can never be extinguished. When we talked about the letters, her first concern was for me. Her graciousness says everything about her.
Not knowing what this book means to me, some friends, and even strangers, worry about me in connection with the publication. But there is no need. I do not feel brave. I am fragile; still, only. Yet the woman in me is grateful to Ingrid for kindling a little flame which 40 years later André and I could turn into a comforting, lasting, life-giving fire. Its embers will keep me warm for the rest of my life. The wife in me appreciates the gift of the words which remain. The literary scholar and the writer in me are cheering from the sidelines. There is the detachment of time; all of this happened years before I had even been born. Soon, I will hold Vlam in die Sneeu / Flame in the Snow in my hands. It will probably never seem entirely real (books one has worked on have a tendency to elude one’s comprehension), but it will be only one of this project’s continuous gifts. It is wrapped in the overwhelming goodwill of many people who have lent their hearts and souls to it.
I recently listened to two wise women tell the story of a tragic love triangle. It was a cold evening in September. The sea was roaring outside the cottage. The wine tasted of regret. “The heart has spaces,” one of them said, and we all fell silent for a while in front of a cosy fire. I remember a lot from that night, but nothing has moved me as much as that comment.
“‘If it must be’ (Japanese greeting)”
– Ingrid in a postscript to one of her letters; Paris, Midnight, Tuesday, 30 June 1964
I would like to thank all the people mentioned above for their contributions to Vlam in die Sneeu / Flame in the Snow. Also, my gratitude for their involvement and support goes to Kerneels Breytenbach, Steve Connolly, Izak de Vries, Bev Dodd, Lynda Gilfillan, Jeanne-Marie Jackson, Beth Lindop, Greg Marsh, Marie Philip, Ryno Posthumus, Christo Rademeyer, Marius Roux and Andries Samuel.
- All photos were taken by Karina, except where stated