Ingrid Jonker: ’n biografie
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Writing biography is not for the faint of heart. It is grinding work. In the field of literary writing, biography is a hard-hat area, with loaded cranes looming over unstable, shifting planes. Sharp objects lie in wait, often concealed by piles of detritus. One doesn’t just write biography. One tries to write it. And it is a thankless business, because you will never satisfy all your readers, most of whom have a certain take on the subject that is bound to be different to your own. One tries to write biography because the job is, by nature, never entirely done. It is remorselessly hard reporting work. You can’t make anything up – not a single thing. Instead, you sit for months in archives, chase after elusive, guarded people (who seldom tell a story “straight”), and generally hunt for things that are all but impossible to find. One cannot ever completely trust the “facts”, either. Simple data, like dates of birth, marriage and death, are easy enough. But the more complicated “facts” – such as what kind of people one is dealing with, how they felt, why they did what they did in the ways that they claim, or other people claim – are, by nature, speculative. No matter how hard one works to gather reports, opinions, records, correspondence, diaries, journals and confessions, even these routine biographical “aids” are inherently open to question. Memory is notoriously unreliable, especially the recall of people closely involved in the matters at hand. Everyone, including the subject of the biography, has a very particular interest in how biographical data should be shaped. And interest almost always skews the contours, or the shaping, of the “facts”. Finally, the ethical issues that arise from biography, with dire reputational consequences for all concerned, are enough to give even the steeliest writer sleepless nights.
There is, in addition, no general handbook on how to write biography. The theoretical literature on the subject, in comparison with the masses of critical work on fiction, poetry, literary theory, and literature in general, is idiosyncratic and limited. There is, of course, a received set of precedents: good biographers all tend to rely on similar methods, using whatever comes to hand in the form of factual traces. Mostly, such traces are correspondence and journals, along with a wide spectrum of interview material, and the literary writings of subjects in the case of literary biography. However, the way in which biographers treat this material – whether they cater to literary or pulpy sensibilities, for example, or how they show their sources to the reader, if at all – is entirely up to them.
More than any other form of writing, then, biography is often burdened with contradictory, mutually exclusive expectations. Unless one’s subject and his or her next of kin are long dead, expect trouble. Invariably, the family of the subject tends to want a “positive” or a “good” story, regardless of how often they reassure you that they don’t. It is only natural for all of us to want a portrait of a loved one that chimes with our most dearly held memories. If we are reflective enough to realise that our memories are precarious, we are likely to hold onto them precisely because they are so slippery. And if there is one thing that one learns from reading multiple accounts by writers of their own doings and thinking, it is that the subjects of biography themselves don’t fully know or understand quite who or what they are. Not only do they often admit to this, but it is also clear from the sheer contradictoriness of their self-accounting.
This means that the best biography can do is to present an argument. The problem is that the reading market for biography – and most publishers – don’t want “argument” as much as they want a coherent story, with as little endnoting as possible. In the process of working on a biography myself, however, I have come to think that the only honest way to write in this subgenre is to regard it as one does the academic discipline of history. In history, you show your sources, and you must account for every last factual claim through scholarly endnoting. In addition, you also regard your sources sceptically, and you make such scepticism overt – that is, you share with your reader your doubts about the solidity of storylines, or the possibility that your received facts may be misleading. In fact, a good biography is less about the subject you are writing about than it is about the stories surrounding the subject, including their self-storying. As suggested above, such self-portraiture is especially open to question. One must ask: Why would the subjects of biographies want to present themselves in the way that they do? What might they want to prove and what may have led to such desiring? For me, it is the very condition of speculative thinking that makes a biography project potentially interesting. The best example of such writing, in which the reader is invited to share with the biographer questions about the subject rather than answers, is Janet Malcolm’s metabiography of Sylvia Plath, The silent woman.
However, doing biography in a critical and reflective way is a tall order. Biographers, like the subjects they are writing about, have a foundational need to build a narrative, and narratives work best when each layer is cast in data that is as concrete as possible. It is very difficult to build a narrative entirely on scepticism, because even in the process of enacting a questioning view, you first have to propose an object about which to ask questions, and, of course, such proposing is itself subject to the usual problems of perception and reporting. Everything one writes, then, is an approximation, an educated guess; even the most astute writers cannot escape the double bind of their own sceptical reckoning becoming subject to the same doubts they express about the story they are telling, or disinterring.
Reading a biography such as Petrovna Metelerkamp’s Ingrid Jonker: ’n biografie provides a fine example of what I am talking about. This is a nice fat book, chock-full of stories and reported data about the enigma that is Ingrid Jonker. Apart from anything else, it is clear that Metelerkamp’s 437-page tome is the product of many years of unstinting work – all in all, 24 years of researching Jonker and several more writing this massively detailed biography, following her earlier, less detailed biographical publications on the famous suicide-poet. The issues that arise from Metelerkamp’s book are legion. For example, does Metelerkamp rely too much, and too trustingly, on Ingrid’s sister, Anna, for the story of Ingrid’s childhood? Anna Bairos (née Jonker) was, until her death in 1997, the only living witness left of that childhood, so this may seem an unfair question, but the sheer volume of reported material, along with Anna Jonker’s self-interested manner of remembering, raise awkward issues. It is also somewhat exhausting to read. To her credit, Metelerkamp describes the style of her interactions with Anna, and provides a sense of what it was like conversing with her, in addition to reporting simply what Anna said about Ingrid and their shared childhood. This reveals an eccentric person whose opinions often came across as patently self-serving. Metelerkamp also juxtaposes father Abraham Jonker’s idealised version of his supposedly German ancestry with a more factually accurate genealogical analysis showing Dutch-Indonesian origins, but Metelerkamp’s close relationship with Anna (visits with wine, lunches, etc) before Anna dies sometimes seems to create a too-cosy narrative relationship with someone who needs consistently to be taken with a pinch of salt.
However, this is not a problem that is peculiar to Metelerkamp’s biography. It is a perniciously difficult issue for all biographers, who must, in order to do their work, be as friendly as possible with the people they interview, simply in order to get the goods they need to make a story. One shouldn’t underestimate the anxiety attendant upon such a process, and the possibility of distortion arising from what one might call friendship bias, with its lures of loyalty to an agreed version of things. Malcolm is most eloquent in this regard, writing about the innate treachery of such interpersonal transactions in her book, The journalist and the murderer. Both parties in a biographical storytelling transaction have vested interests, and all too often the differences in these interests are cloaked by misunderstanding, deception or, more commonly, a reversal of position by the writer (later, perhaps, after analysis and reflection), leading to perceptions of treachery among interviewed subjects after the fact. In The journalist and the murderer, Malcolm tells the story of a biographer who explicitly betrays his subject, a man who is accused of a murder he denies committing. Halfway through the process of writing his story, the biographer in question decides that his subject is, in fact, guilty of the murder, all the while continuing to get information from him under the pretence of believing in his innocence. In a sense, as Malcolm suggests, this is an ethical quandary that most biographers have to face – making friends with people to get their stories, going along with these stories for as long as it suits them, and then, at some stage, “betraying” their interlocutors for the sake of what the biographer feels is the more correct story.
The question is not simply one of whom to believe and to whom not to give credence. The nuances in the spectrum of believability are often subtle. Supposedly believable people do get things wrong sometimes. Supposedly unreliable people sometimes get things right. There is much variation in degrees of reliability, but the sheer pressure of getting the story down can easily counteract one’s ability to evaluate, compare and sift through various accounts, and to make such sifting visible to the reader. Availability of sources, too, will vary according to circumstances. There is a telling example from the Metelerkamp biography, which by any evaluation is a praiseworthy book. The example concerns a story told by a friend of Ingrid’s in the 1960s. In itself, it is a fascinating micro-tale. One day, during Ingrid Jonker and André Brink’s love affair, when things were looking especially bad, Ingrid and André are said to have started the process of gassing themselves together in Brink’s car:
Die skuldgevoel, ook die hopeloosheid van sy [Brink se] situasie, dra moontlik by tot sy plan om ’n einde te maak: ’n einde aan sy lewe én Ingrid s’n. Bonnie [Davidtsz] onthou die bisarre insident soos Ingrid haar vertel het. Van die datum is Bonnie nie seker nie, sy skat dit moet September-Oktober 1963 wees toe Brink in Kaapstad was. “Hy het met Ingrid in sy wit Volksie na Kampsbaai gery en teen die berg onder die bome geparkeer. Hy het ’n tuinslang aan die uitlaatpyp vasgemaak, die vensters toegemaak en die enjin laat loop terwyl hy en Ingrid sit en hande vashou. Ingrid het nie teëgestribbel nie, sy het in elk geval nie enige effek van die uitlaatgas gevoel nie. Sy het eintlik net gesit en wag. Toe, skielik, skakel André die enjin inderhaas af, pluk die deur oop en hy sê, baie dramaties: ‘Ingrid! Besef jy wat ’n verlies dit vir die Afrikaanse letterkunde sal wees as ons al twee nou hier moet sterf!’”
Metelerkamp leaves it to the reader to decide how credible this story is, not commenting on the doubtful exactitude of the words attributed to Brink in the above excerpt, given the fact that it is a story that has been bush-telegraphed from Jonker to her friend Bonny Davidtsz, and from Davidtsz to Metelerkamp, many years later. In The silent woman, Malcolm writes that “the quotations of contemporary witnesses recollected after many years must always be regarded with scepticism”. The quote above is a case in point. It comes across (unintentionally?) as oddly hilarious, bringing a bizarre element into what is surely meant as serious reporting. The mix, in Brink, of suicidal despair and last-minute literary hubris (“Imagine the loss for Afrikaans literature if we were both to die now!”) creates a decidedly absurd effect. One might wish that Metelerkamp had taken a more reflexive position on this story, especially given the instability of memory decades after the fact. However, Metelerkamp’s book is already bursting at the seams, so one understands the author’s reluctance to microanalyse claims of this nature. Nonetheless, it comes across as inherently doubtful, and it is a pity that Metelerkamp doesn’t make such lack of credibility more overt. At the same time, for reasons beyond her control, Metelerkamp did not have access to Brink’s journals, in which he was more than likely to have written about such a key incident. By sheer coincidence, I do have access to Brink’s extensive journals, and no such event is reported there. The only thing Brink does report about suicide in relation to him and Ingrid jointly (he talks a lot about doing himself in, especially in the 1960s) is in a journal entry for 22 April 1963, in which he quotes Ingrid as saying that she wanted to die, insisting that he tell her what he thought was the easiest and most painless way to kill oneself. Brink says he told her that gassing oneself in a car was probably the easiest way to do it. He also says he didn’t want to offer this idea, but it was impossible to refuse Jonker’s plea as she pressed him to do so until he finally relented.
This information from Brink’s journal does not, of course, “prove” anything, despite its massive variance from the Davidtsz story. It does not mean that Metelerkamp’s source is “wrong”, but it does cast doubt on the whole episode. There are several possibilities: one of them is that Ingrid did, in fact, tell this story to Davidtsz, but she embellished the conversation she had with Brink, giving it a dramatic content that is at odds with the facts of the matter. This, however, is speculative. We can’t even be sure it is the same instance, although it is the only mention of gassing oneself in a car in Brink’s journals. Another possibility is that something of the kind did, in fact, happen, but that Brink preferred to lighten, or lessen, the content of the story by reducing it to a mere conversation about suicide. Personally, I find this unlikely, as Brink is incredibly candid in his journal writing, often to his own discredit. But that, too, is just an opinion. A third possibility is that Davidtsz cooked the story up or misremembered it. Overall, however, the matter must remain undecidable.
The hard question for biographers, then, is: To what extent does one play up such undecidability? To do so is potentially to undermine one’s project, insofar as that project is a story. More often than not, a biographer will take a position one way or another and play down the inherent instability of remembered episodes. Readers, and publishers, want narratives more than they want theories about narratives. There is also the question of infinite regress: how would one ever get the story told at all if one disinterred each constituent episode, pondering its exactitude? A huge amount of biographical accounting must, therefore, be taken on trust. Celebrated biographers, such as Edna O’Brien or Lyndall Gordon, can take more on trust because they have proven track records. The rest of us, however, must account for our stories, at the very least by clear and detailed endnoting. Theoretically, in that case, the reader is invited to consult the same materials and come to a different conclusion. More importantly, though, one declares one’s determination to account as precisely as possible for one’s written conclusions.
Metelerkamp uses a method often preferred by biographers, namely to use a shortened form of referencing at the end of the book, in which chapters and page numbers are followed by brief notes on sources. The advantage of this method is concision, but it leaves the inevitable gaps that follow from less-than-complete referencing. As a reader, this makes me nervous. Even though I have no reason to mistrust Metelerkamp’s credentials – in fact, she is clearly a diligent researcher – there are cases in her book where one is left guessing. For example, the opening page of Chapter 7 of Ingrid Jonker: ’n biografie (p 155) contains a multitude of detail: how Ingrid arrived back from Johannesburg on 24 January 1960 by train; how her father met her at the station; precise dialogue between father Abraham, Ingrid and daughter Simone; Abraham’s attire; the “long and quiet” drive from the station in his “black car” to St James; how Ingrid and Simone took a suburban train the next day, a Sunday, to go visit Jack Cope and Uys Krige’s cottage on Clifton beach; how Uys “immediately” gave Ingrid a few of his poems to read; how Breyten Breytenbach also arrived and the day became convivial, with much conversation; and more. For all of this, the only reference given to sources is the incidental detail that one of the people mentioned on this page, Hélène Roos (later Kesting), was a friend of Ingrid, for whom she had posed as a model in 1958. Where did all the other detail come from? One knows that Metelerkamp made extensive use of Jack Cope’s journals, and one must, therefore, assume that much of the detail came from this source, but even this is not stated; in addition, Cope was surely not party to the exact details of conversation between Abraham Jonker, Ingrid and Simone at the train station. This is a lot to take on trust, and, in the absence of more detailed referencing, the biographer leaves herself open to charges of invention.
I am not saying that Metelerkamp did, in fact, make things up, but am simply illustrating how important it is to leave as little as humanly possible open to doubt. There is a lot at stake in a biography. Anna (Jonker) Bairos’s death from a heart attack in 1997 was quite possibly directly related to her deep dismay at Helen Nogueira’s biographical film on Jonker, for which Anna made much material in her possession available to the filmmaker. Metelerkamp reports that in 1997, when Anna watched the documentary on her television screen, she phoned Metelerkamp to express her shock, asking Metelerkamp to come to Cape Town as soon as possible to help her to “take steps” against the film and to stop it in its tracks. That same night, Anna died. It is not overly fanciful to suggest that the film contributed to, or even caused, her death.
One of the big ethical questions, then, is to what extent biographers must consider the feelings of people – usually family and spouses – who were close to the person about whom one is writing. This is especially vexing, because no reasonable biographer wants to hurt the feelings of people who knew and loved the biographical subject, and yet the versions of loved ones, and their memories, are especially interested rather than disinterested (“disinterested” in the sense of impartial). Loved ones are the people who most often want the best possible interpretation to be given of the life of the person being written about. Such interest should give the biographer pause, and the versions by loved ones of events and characteristics must be treated sensitively, with both respect and caution. However, the biographer ultimately should not be held hostage to interested narratives by anyone, including people who were close to the biographical subject, precisely because of such proximity; often, they can be overly invested in a particular kind of representation. It is, of course, easier to write biography when the subject – and his or her loved ones – are already dead, but this is often not the case. Here, again, there is no one correct way of doing things. The biographer must take as disinterested a view as possible and follow his or her discrimination in taking an informed view of the available material.
Anna Jonker would probably have had mixed feelings about Metelerkamp’s biography, and, given Anna’s record of tearing up some of Brink’s “pornographic” letters to Jonker, it is to Metelerkamp’s credit that she holds her own line about Ingrid’s nature and her doings throughout. She is especially sceptical about psychiatric diagnoses of Jonker, and she provides strong arguments to counter some of the more enduring myths about Ingrid’s supposed condition. Despite her strong reliance on Jack Cope’s journals, Metelerkamp writes about Cope’s actions with a mix of sympathy and analytical vigour, seeing in him starkly contradictory facets. For this book, Metelerkamp also unearthed an enormous amount of invaluable literary-historical detail, managing even to gain limited access to Ingrid’s diaries, despite their still being (inaccessibly) held in Gerrit Komrij’s house in Portugal after Anna’s son sold all his mother’s archival materials on Ingrid to the Dutch writer before Komrij’s death in 2012. Ingrid Jonker: ’n biografie occasionally struck me as overly long, with too many lengthy quotes and an overwhelming amount of detail, but I am sure other readers will disagree with me on this point. Given the gap left by the death of veteran biographer JC Kannemeyer, Metelerkamp’s biography confirms the promise of a new era of literary biography in South African letters.
- Leon de Kock’s biography of André Brink is due to appear in 2019 at Jonathan Ball Publishers.