Ivan Vladislavić talks to Karina Szczurek after having won the Yale University's 2015 Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction earlier this year.
Karina: My first encounter with Ivan Vladislavić’s writing took place in a multidimensional construct of language and fantasy that is his remarkable novel The Folly (1993). It must have been around a decade ago when I moved to South Africa. Since then I have always returned to his books with a great sense of anticipation which has never been disappointed. His latest collection of stories, 101 Detectives, is no different, although it baffled me in the beginning. The first three pieces made me think a lot about the intellectual playfulness of The Folly. Some of the stories are set in recognisable and yet shifted or alternative realities which are quite uncanny. In a recent e-interview I asked Vladislavić whether this was his way of avoiding the cliché trap, of challenging the impression of one of his characters that “no matter what I do or say, or how I remember it or tell it, it will never be interesting enough” (“Exit Strategy”)? He hadn’t gone about it “deliberately”, he wrote, and mentioned that in his youth he read “a lot of sci-fi and was taken with writers like Ray Bradbury, who could twist the ordinary into the alien very skilfully through a kind of estranging lyricism”. Of his own early work he says that “the strangeness is more a product of language and imagery than of constructed setting.” More recently he had read speculative fiction again, “which may account for the atmosphere of a story like ‘Report on a Convention’. Many ordinary contemporary spaces are strange. One grows accustomed to it, but the precincts and lifestyle estates often have a weirdly layered, compelling artificiality to them. They’re at such an odd angle to the surrounding world that ‘shifting’ them would make them feel less rather than more peculiar.”
Reading and listening to Vladislavić, the key word I associate with his work is “intellectual”, especially in conjunction with “stimulation”, and it is the main reason why I read him. He challenges me, inspires me to question reality and literature, to perceive both more consciously and often with deeper appreciation. I delight in the engagement. When I think Vladislavić, I also think art, photography, beauty, language, and, perhaps above all, Johannesburg. Few have written as perceptively about Johannesburg as he, “mapping and mythologising” the city (in the words of Elleke Boehmer). Few can employ language to capture not only the beauty of experience, but the beauty of language itself to such stunning effect. Few have entered collaborations with artists of different media, as victoriously enhancing the disciplines in the process. In 2010, together with the South African photographer David Goldblatt, Vladislavić published TJ & Double Negative, a novel with photographs. More recently he worked with Sunandini Banerjee on an illustrated novella titled A Labour of Moles (2012), and 101 Detectives also includes a “Special Feature”: a gallery of photocopies of dead letters, ie letters never delivered to their intended recipients because of address errors and suchlike, referred to in the story “Dead Letters”. There are also images of the places they were supposed to have reached, taken from an exhibition in Poland dedicated to them.
What appeals to Vladislavić in this kind of exchange? I wondered.
“Working with artists usually takes me into new territory,” he says. “Artists come with their own needs and expectations, and I try, not always successfully, to reconcile them with my own in an inventive and mutually beneficial way. The images are a productive obstacle that constrains or pressures my own responses as a writer, and the work that results is unpredictably different to what I would do on my own. Another appeal is that publishers in the art world are often more adventurous than those in the regular book trade. It’s not just a question of resources, although that helps, but of audience and approach. Art publishers tend to have a more open conception of what a book is or could be. Then again, the people who buy art books are sometimes more inclined to look at the pictures than to read the words, so I always hope to publish the text in a more accessible form as well.” Double Negative, for example, was published on its own, and won both the University of Johannesburg Prize and the M-Net Literary Award in 2011.
Writers of Vladislavić’s calibre and versatility are rare. His oeuvre should be considered a literary national treasure. And yet, despite critical acclaim, several translations into other languages, and an impressive collection of local literary awards, Vladislavić remains a writer savoured primarily among connoisseurs. One can only hope that his latest accolade, the Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize which comes with a cheque of $150 000, will catapult his work into wider recognition.
I asked Vladislavić about the most significant change in his writing life resulting from the prestigious achievement.
“The prize money will come in useful,” he says. As anyone trying to survive from the written word will know. Although he hadn’t received it yet at the time of our exchange, and noted that “a few wolves have slunk away from my door in anticipation”, at least it should free him to pursue the Muse on the paths of the imagination without having to worry about provisioning for a good while. Heartening to know is that the prize “nudged some of my publishers into action. Several translations that had been on the cards for a while have since been pushed through. Publishers like to tie the launch of a book to an event like the Yale Festival.”
Apropos of festivals: much has been said about literary festivals in the country since Thando Mgqolozana’s outburst at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, but even though tasked with the question, I was reluctant to ask Vladislavić about his thoughts on this fiercely debated topic. However, having had the privilege of chairing an inspiring and fascinating discussion between him, Damon Galgut and SJ Naudé at the festival myself, I still wanted to know what he thought the function of such events was.
“Festivals can serve all kinds of causes,” he replied. “The publishers and sponsors obviously use them as marketing platforms, and some writers enjoy the attention or the interaction with audiences. But in my experience their primary function is to entertain readers. They appeal mainly to regular book buyers, to the people who join book clubs. These readers are the bedrock of the book trade, certainly at the literary end of the spectrum, and their motives are entirely admirable: they want to see and hear the authors of the books they read.”
Judging by the reactions of the people who attended our talk – one reader even called listening to these three astounding writers a “sensual” experience – I have no doubt they were entertained, and walked away enriched by the encounter.
Does Vladislavić ever attend festivals solely as a reader?
“If I’m at a festival, I usually try to catch a discussion or two, and they’re often entertaining or illuminating, but on the whole I would rather read a book than hear the author talk about it. Occasionally I’ve actively avoided a writer at a festival so as not to spoil the books.”
Festivals as “marketing platforms” resonate with issues raised by several stories in 101 Detectives. When a CEO of a company has to defend his choice of painting hanging in the boardroom in “Mountain Landscape”, or a new car model is introduced to the public as part of a theatrical spectacle in “Industrial Theatre”, or a corporate storyteller aspires to rise above her level in “Exit Strategy”, creativity and corporate attitudes mingle. I asked Vladislavić whether he felt that in today’s world, where there is so much focus on productivity and financial gain, writers were becoming “corporate storytellers” like the character in “Exit Strategy”. His assessment of the situation is sober and practical: "Nearly all writers are involved in the marketing of their books and are caught up in the corporate machinery. Some clearly enjoy it more than others, and a few keep out of the fray and still manage to find readers."
I often turn to writers I respect for guidance. And thus it is with joy that I’d read Vladislavić’s reassurance which directly followed the above statement: “As corporatised as the publishing world has become, it’s still full of people with an interest in literary art, and there are many independent imprints publishing in a different way.”
In the last few months I have been thinking a lot about Marie Philip’s memoir Books That Matter (2014) which tells the story of the publishing house she and her husband David founded in the 1970s. In the book Marie quotes Stanley GM Ridge: “In a multicultural society, particularly one in an accelerated process of finding itself, it is vital that people across social boundaries come to see beyond the caricatures and enter imaginatively into other people’s lives.” In “The Reading”, the story from 101 Detectives which is going to haunt me for a long time to come, Vladislavić captures the responses of people participating in the titular reading. It takes place in Germany. The readers are an African writer and her German translator. Sadly, there are only two people present in the entire audience who truly hear the story that is being told. For many, writing is an act of reaching out, of sharing and trying to communicate something about life, to make it readable. If this process is disrupted, a vital element of what makes us human, what Stanley GM Ridge refers to above, is threatened.
Keeping “The Reading” in mind, I’d begun to lose faith in whether literature can truly facilitate the process of “entering imaginatively into other people’s lives”. Vladislavić’s response assuaged some of the anxiety gathering in my mind in the past weeks: “Literature provides a particularly open field for exploring our relationship to one another and to the world. I’m fascinated by what happens in this exchange, although I don’t understand it all. The way we represent ourselves and others in language is immensely complicated and the medium itself is never neutral. Reading a novel, say, is also more than a therapeutic exercise, where the reader gets to walk in someone else’s shoes for a few hours – something like those CEOs sleeping out on the pavement in Sandton. It can change perceptions or challenge habits of mind more fundamentally. I was browsing through Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine a few days ago and he has a way of animating the most banal stuff of our everyday lives. He can make you look at the mechanism of a vending machine or the ribbed surface of a corduroy shirt as something splendid or mysterious, as if you’ve just arrived from another planet. It’s an unnerving skill. Of course, the novel is nowhere near the centre of culture, and so one’s claims for what it can do, especially in a place like South Africa, should be modest.”
Perhaps novels cannot change the world, but they definitely have the power to change individual minds. I can think of so many books which have done it for me, and Vladislavić’s work belongs in that category. It confronts clichés as well as misunderstanding head on, not afraid to interrogate its own purpose. One of my enquiries prompted Vladislavić to reflect on one of his stories in 101 Detectives: “Your question made me look at ‘Exit Strategy’ again, where I discovered an ambivalent attitude towards these things. The story treats the ‘corporate storyteller’ a little harshly, but the ‘corporate fictions’ she discovers in the basement are luckier. The shelves seem to be crammed with books worth reading. The fact that writers have to deal with patrons or publishers is nothing new: the main thing is to write a book that overcomes the limitations of its author.”
In “Deleted Scenes”, another “Special Feature” of 101 Detectives, which includes passages omitted in the author’s final cut of the stories in the earlier part of the book, the corporate storyteller is stuck in a lift with her colleagues. To comfort the others and keep their panic at bay, by the light of a cell phone she reads them one of the stories which are not “corporate fictions” or “emergency tales”, just things she had “made up for her own amusement”: “As the story unwound, the circle drew closer. The arm of the departmental head holding the phone coiled around her waist, the hip of the Chief Risk Officer pressed against her own. She saw the little band of them, huddled around the page like the last people of their tribe at a dying fire. Another tableau from Caravaggio, spoilt only by the red pulse of the low-battery light.”
The image reminded me of the stories in Margaret Atwood’s exquisite The Tent (2006). In the title piece of the collection we are told: “You’re in a tent.” One just has to take the book and put it up on its covers’ edges to realise what is meant. “It’s vast and cold outside, very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness … But you have a small candle in your tent. You can keep warm,” Atwood writes. And even if your tent is fragile and endangered, “you keep on writing anyway because what else can you do?”
Vladislavić’s narrator in “Mountain Landscape” says something crucial about creativity: “I suspect that this capacity to refresh the senses and the spirit is one of the marks of great art.”
Vladislavić’s work rejuvenates my senses and my spirit. Reading his stories is like huddling in a tent during a storm or being stuck in a lift where a tale will connect you to others, and keep you safe in the dark.