Elsa Joubert’s oeuvre consists of seven travelogues, seven novels, two short story collections, two novellas, a children’s book, and her autobiographical trilogy. In addition to the Hertzog Prize for Die reise van Isobelle (1995) in 1998, her work has been adorned with numerous awards and accolades, and it largely contributed to the two honorary doctorates bestowed on her. She gained international acclaim through the various translations and adaptations of several of her books. Her life writing added a new dimension to her literary output, because it exposed her vulnerability through self-revelation and identity exploration. The research focus is primarily on her autobiographical trilogy, which can be read as a new travel story, with a prelude to the journey: ’n Wonderlike geweld: Jeugherinneringe (2005); the course of the journey: Reisiger: Die Limietberge oor (2009); and the outcome of the journey: Spertyd (2017).
This article refers to life writing (ego-literature) as a narrative in which an “I” is continuously present as a writing subject in the text (Baggerman and Dekker 2018:93). Joubert’s life writing has not yet been thoroughly researched, especially not the interplay between the texts in her trilogy. The purpose of this article is to establish how Spertyd functions as a conclusion to her life writing, through an investigation of prevailing literary theories about autobiographical texts in Joubert’s oeuvre and an analysis of Spertyd as the key piece.
Fictionality is an essential element in Joubert’s life writing due to the tension between the creative and factual nature of the writing process, in which the past – a person’s life history – is reconstructed. Joubert’s focus is on understanding her own life and not on the historical accuracy of the narrative (Lejeune 1989:ix). The subjectivity and creativity of the narrator, who weaves together her memories to bridge the gap between the present and the past, leave room for crossing boundaries between fact and fiction. Spertyd differs significantly from the previous two works due to the addition of a philosophical element in the process of remembering: Self-healing through the interweaving of memories, thoughts, and events ultimately becomes more important to the narrator than precise facts.
Female autobiography as a genre was seldom taken seriously before the 1970s. It was considered not complex enough for literary critical study. With the publication of ’n Wonderlike geweld in 2005, there was, according to Nortjé (2007:35), a noticeably small number of autobiographies by Afrikaans women, most likely due to the patriarchal and racist society that restrained women as travellers, journalists, and writers. Elsa Joubert contributes significantly to this genre in Afrikaans literature with her trilogy, in which feminism does play a role. She is not a radical feminist writer who primarily emphasises the subordinate role of women in society, but in her writing she does reveal a tension between motherhood and a writing career (Roos 2010:167). However, it is in the feminist discourse about the marginal position of women in Africa that Joubert’s voice is most strongly heard. Compare Ons wag op die kaptein (1963), Bonga (1971), Die swerfjare van Poppie Nongena (1978), and others. By crossing certain colour and race boundaries in these works, she reached a turning point as a writer (Joubert 1985:205). In Spertyd, her focus shifts to her fellow residents in the retirement home and the role of children and grandchildren in her life. The marginality of the older person is more important in this concluding work than the feminist discourse, effectively bringing Joubert’s lifelong focus on the interests of others to a close (Swartz 2021:6). Thus, a life cycle is completed.
A literary gerontological perspective on Joubert’s trilogy shows that Spertyd does indeed function as the conclusion of her life writing. The photo of Elsa as a 95-year-old on the cover of Spertyd supports Joubert’s statement that she is coming to terms with herself (in Jansen 2020:6); that she takes stock of the journey she has undertaken, even though she continues to embark on new journeys in the present. As a conclusion, the memoirs of the elderly Elsa contrast with the youthful Elsa in ’n Wonderlike geweld, which can be considered a Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel), and the older Elsa in Reisiger, which can be read as a Reifungsroman (maturation novel). With Spertyd her oeuvre is finally concluded with a reflection on human existence. Significant literary gerontological moments in Spertyd include Joubert’s experience of ageing, with its loss and shedding in the final stage of life, the role of memories, and a reckoning with viewpoints of the past.
Joubert views her ageing as a journey through a new continent that she approaches with hope and courage, openly writing about the physiological, psychological, and sociological complications associated with ageing. Her experience of ageing as a departure from the normal course of life contrasts with the mainstream life she described in Reisiger (2017:65, 153). Her reference to the “cul de sac” she finds herself in is a powerful metaphor to alert the reader to the profound psychological silence that has set in (2017:154). The coherence between the three texts is particularly evident in Joubert’s gradual departure from “real life”, completing the cycle of human existence, and her life’s journey.
For Joubert, it is liberating to let memories of the past flow through the cracks in the “thin shell” around the brain (2017:91). The memories of certain (unsolved) events compel her to reconsider them and take a stance. As such, Spertyd functions as a closing piece as evidenced by her confrontation with her beliefs of the past to experience “self-healing” (2017:91), on matters such as Afrikanership, Afrikaans, her authorship and identity.
Joubert’s introspective examination of the Afrikaner people and her involvement as a fervent young nationalist in the past, contrasted with her role as an autobiographer in the present, is infused with apologetic confession, but also with surprising acceptance of and resignation to the status quo. Her interpretation of her past enables Joubert to expand her viewpoint on Afrikaner identity. By referencing the influence of the Anglo-Boer War on the Afrikaner psyche as “one of the fixatives” (2017:124) that shaped the people as a group, she connects textually and historically with her previous writings and with the history she described, particularly in ’n Wonderlike geweld. In Spertyd, she builds upon her comments in Reisiger about nationality and the realisation that she has lost her volk (people). Her disloyal resistance was not only against her parents and the patriarchal society that wanted to follow the golden mean, but was also clearly depicted in her novels by exposing the injustices in South African society. Joubert, who through her writing throughout her life, has sought to make sense of the Afrikaner’s position (as a Westerner) in a multicultural country and continent, renews her commitment to practising her craft as a writer. In Spertyd, she creatively demonstrates her craftsmanship as an Afrikaans language patriot who has shed the constraining group identity (2017:128).
In literary gerontology, late work is considered a subgenre, because it specifically focuses on creativity in the final stages of life and emphasises the maturation that comes with ageing. It can differ from earlier works in terms of both theme and style (Lourens 2017:74). In the consideration of Spertyd as late work, stylistic and thematic trends or changes, in comparison to previous work, are identified. It is also pointed out how specific themes achieve coherence in the triptych and are concluded in Spertyd.
Joubert’s contemplative reflection on love and humanity, identity, eternity, transience, and a mystical spirituality in Spertyd can be considered her distinctive late style. The word spertyd (literally “to open up”) can, according to Joubert, refer to transformation, because a blessed old age can also imply that one looks at life anew, becomes more sensitive, and even experiences the opening of a new sense of awareness. She concludes that a spiritual growth process accompanies ageing (2017:194).
My finding is that Joubert concludes her life’s work in Spertyd with a commendable finale that is oriented towards renewal rather than decline.
Keywords: feminism; fictionality; late work; life writing; literary gerontology; mysticism; spirituality