“After having poured forth … tirelessly torrents of red and white light it begins to lose its effulgence … pppfff! finished! It comes to rest. But – but behind this veil of gentleness and peace night is charging and will burst upon us … pop! like that! just when we least expect it. That’s how it is on this bitch of an earth.”
This could have been the response from many in the South African literary community to Eyjafjallajokull, the volcano that wrecked their plans to get to the London Book Fair. They are the words of Pozzo, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
And, like the play’s Vladimir and Estragon, many writers and their publishers found themselves in limbo, as their flights were repeatedly delayed or cancelled.
“He didn’t say for sure he’d come.”
“And if he doesn’t come?”
“We’ll come back tomorrow.”
“And then the day after tomorrow.”
“And so on.”
Damon Galgut was one of the lucky ones who left for Europe before the eruption. He got to London via Paris, where he was launching the French edition of one of his novels, The Impostor. Getting back to South Africa on time was his worry. The day after his return he went straight into rehearsals for his new production of Godot, which opens at the University of Cape Town’s Little Theatre on 19 May.
He directed a student production of Beckett’s classic in the mid-nineties, and obviously loves the play.
“Beckett is a writer who makes complete sense to me,” he says. This may be an unusual response to a piece of absurdist drama, but his reaction is primarily visceral. “I really feel the play. I find it very moving and very funny. I think when people read it they respond to the words, but when it stands up on its legs, its actor legs ... People resist the idea that our basic condition is one of waiting for something to happen, but I think it’s more true to life than we think. It’s something we can all relate to. And in the process there are very touching human interactions.”
“I heard you singing,” says Estragon. “That finished me. I said to myself, he’s all alone, he thinks I’m gone for ever, and he sings … You see, you piss better when I’m not there.”
And then Vladimir: “I missed you … and at the same time I was happy. Isn’t that a queer thing … Now? … There you are again …”
“You see, you feel worse when I’m with you. I feel better alone, too.”
“Then why do you always come crawling back?”
“I don’t know.”
The play is described as “a tragicomedy in two acts”. “But I think people focus too much on the tragedy, and too little on the comedy,” says Galgut.
One of the joys for him of directing this production is the actors he’s working with. Oscar Petersen and David Isaacs, who play Vladimir and Estragon, the tramps waiting on a lonely road, “have the kind of subtle bond on stage that it may have taken others a long time to develop. It’s a largely theatrical play, and you can do so much with it visually. A lot of it depends on physical comedy, timing.”
Pozzo and Lucky, who pass through, are played by Galgut’s old friends and colleagues, Martin le Maitre and Graham Weir. He first worked with them in 1983, when – shortly after the publication of his debut novel, A Sinless Season – the (then) Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT) staged his first play, Echoes of Anger. Then he spent a year at PACT as resident playwright and literary advisor.
It prompted him to study at the University of Cape Town’s drama department, where he did a three-year Performer’s Diploma and then taught on and off for about eight years. Having written two plays by the time he arrived there, “I had some idea that going to drama school would help me write plays. I wrote one more, but then I stopped writing plays. I was torn between writing books and plays. I thought I’d probably go in a theatrical direction, but the drama training actually improved my skill as a novelist. The ability to write dialogue, and my visual sense. I find it hard to write before I can see it. I feel like I’m fumbling in the dark when I don’t have a picture.
“Drama school was also very useful to me in a personal sense. It moved my life forward, and I formed some of my most enduring friendships there.”
Whether he’ll ever write another play he can’t say, but he’s delighted to be back in the theatre. Though this is his professional directorial debut, during his years of teaching he directed a number of student productions, “and I’ve missed it. I’ve missed being involved in the theatre.” Writing alone in a room can be a lonely occupation. “I’ve missed the communal spirit of a theatrical creation.”
He doesn’t have any further theatrical work planned, but who knows? “I’m testing the water with Godot.”
The past few months have been a busy time for Galgut. Before directing Godot, he made a trip to the London Book Fair to launch his new book, In a Strange Room. Described as a novel, it is unlike anything he’s written before. Though he has drawn on his own life for his stories in the past, these three edgy journeys are completely autobiographical.
Unlike his earlier novella, Small Circle of Beings, which was based on his experience of having cancer as a child, none of the details in Strange Room have been deliberately changed. It may come as a surprise, then, that the book is classified as fiction. But he recognises the fallibility of memory. With that in mind, he set out on another journey, to discover how memory works. The main subject of the book, he says, is “memory – what it retains, and what it leaves out. I wanted to convey something of that quality. At places where memory fails me, I’ve tried to set that down too. At the points where there’s a hole in memory, I’ve conveyed that.”
Some critics have made the obvious comparison with JM Coetzee’s autobiographical novels, but whereas Coetzee, certainly in recent years, clearly aims to bamboozle and toy with the reader – “Did it happen, or didn’t it?” – Galgut’s approach was quite the opposite. “There is no creative invention at work,” he says. “I was simply recounting the events that took place. The project I set myself was to remember as honestly and completely as possible exactly what happened and not to spare myself or other people in the process.” This is a risky business. Poet and narrative non-fiction writer Antjie Krog has described herself as having a “creative memory”, and remarked recently: “My husband remembers our marriage, but I only remember what I’ve written about it.”
“The pieces in Strange Room appeared first in The Paris Review,” Galgut explains, “and they took the decision to publish the stories as fiction. I became very happy with that decision, because memory is fiction. I came to this conclusion in the writing of the book. All memory is a way of reconstructing the past. If you consider it, the memory of any particular moment, or set of moments, consists of a whole lot of really disparate impressions and perceptions. There isn’t really a narrative thread to memory, the colour of the wall, the temperature in the air … And when you sit down to reconstruct those impressions into a coherent narrative, you have to pick out particular things, and raise them to significance, at the expense of other things which will fall by the wayside. So the act of narrating a memory is an act of creating a fiction, and I wanted to convey that fact.”
Maya Angelou once observed that “[P]eople will forget what you said … what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It is this emotional memory that is at the centre of these beautifully crafted stories.
Galgut moves back and forth between the “I”, the narrator, and “he”, his younger, remembered self. “Looking back at him through time … I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.”
The outlines of those he shared his journeys with are also sometimes blurred. Reiner, the selfish and stubborn hiker whom he reluctantly deferred to in the first story, “The Follower”: “He can’t remember him very well, not the way he looked, what he retains is the feeling that Reiner stirred in him, a sense of uneasiness and excitement.”
And Jerome, in “The Lover”: “if you are only the dim evocation of a face under a fringe of hair … it’s not because I don’t remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning.”
As the journeys move gradually closer to where the narrator sits, by the time he becomes “The Guardian” in the final story, he is “middle aged now and his travelling habits have changed”. He is accompanied by an old friend, who is deeply troubled, and the story explodes into the kind of vivid technicolor that the mentally ill sometimes bring along with them.
Throughout the stories he explores a theme that is present in all his work – an ambivalence about solitude and loneliness on the one hand, and the disruption that others can bring into one’s life on the other. In a conversation at the Boekehuis last year, speaking about The Impostor, he remarked wryly: “When a man is alone in a room you may have an existential crisis, but it’s only when someone else walks in that you have a story.”
And sometimes the loneliness is having no one to tell the story to. As in “The Guardian”, when an acquaintance, whom he’s been put in an intimate situation with through circumstance, tells him: “I would like to tell the story just once … I want somebody to hear it, then I might be able to leave it and walk away. Do you know what I mean? He nods. He knows exactly what she means.”
Commenting on his Booker-shortlisted, completely fictional novel The Good Doctor, he observed: “Books which are purely acts of the imagination are much more difficult, because they have to be quarried out.” By contrast, Small Circle of Beings and In a Strange Room “were a kind of gift. Not a gift in the free sense of the word, because I’d had to live through the experience, in order to set it down, and there was a big price to be paid.”
Since the publication of David Shields’s Reality Hunger the perennial debate about the death of the novel has resurfaced. Shields is in agreement with Galgut on memory. Aphorism 166 in Reality Hunger, quoting novelist Wright Morris, states: “Anything processed by memory is fiction.” But Shields advocates against narrative, and it is unlikely that the human need for stories will ever die. More pertinent might be the question of why, increasingly, many readers seem to want stories that are true. Perhaps the comfort they offer us is in knowing that the storyteller made it through, and we can still ask: “And then?”
Waiting for Godot runs at the Little Theatre from 18 May to 5 June.
Time: 7.30 pm, Tuesday to Saturday
Bookings: (021) 480-7129
- Andie Miller is the author of Slow Motion, a collection of stories about walking, to be published later in the year by Jacana.