Rosa Lyster

Cape Town, South Africa

Tag: a slightly famous author

Essay 40: The water of my choosing

I’ve been swimming a lot. I am in a kind of a mood, lately, where I will put up with a great deal of inconvenience if it means a swim at the end. I will drive for long, listening to my best Scottish woman on Fine Music Radio as she describes for ten minutes what trumpet music sounds like .  I will stand on a bee. I will get all the way to the pool and realise I forgot my towel and so I must stand there dripping water at 7pm and go to dinner with blue lips and wet clothes. It is no bother.

At the beach in Simonstown the other day, there was this little baby who could not be prevented from making for the water. One of those good babies with a round face and a hat like a bonnet, crawling towards the sea at extraordinary speed. She was easily recaptured, but not easily subdued. Every time her dad put her down, she would smile at him nicely and eat a handful of sand and then pow. Off down the beach again. Moving so fast, seriously, and also no hesitation when she reached the water’s edge. Just no pause at all and then up to at least her little chest before her dad hooked her up by her underpants. Just let me at that water again, please. Just let’s see what happens when I get into the water of my choosing. It was written very clearly on her face, and I felt a pure and total affinity with her and her ideas. The main idea being yes, this is all fine, but what would happen if we were swimming, also? You say a thing, and I will say how it can be improved with the addition of a swim.

Some babies are like this. I was one such baby, according to reports, a baby you could not take your eye off if there was water around. The first dreams I can remember having were about water. I used to wear goggles when there was no pool in my immediate vicinity, just in case the opportunity later arose. You get those little girls who are obsessed with horses, and who spend grade 3 pretending to be a horse at break, setting up jumps in the playground. I was like that, except with swimming. My best part of Robin Hood was when he hides from the sheriff by breathing through a straw underwater. My worst part of The Little Mermaid was the entire end of it, where she abandons the sea for love. My best book was The Water Babies.  

Some people know everything about The Water Babies, and some do not, which means this summary will seem either vague or unnecessary. However. The Water Babies is an underwater version of Pilgrim’s Progress, written by the Rev. Charles Kingsley. It is one of those Victorian things that people insist is satire, despite its displaying none of the characteristics of what I understand satire to be. It is “of its time” in that it is quite energetically racist. It is not something you would want to read to a kid today, and neither is it something that my parents would have read it to me. I got hold of it somehow, though, and loved it to pieces.

All I wanted when I was small was to somehow contrive a situation whereby I could be swimming at all times. I used to think about how I would flood the house.  I suggested to my parents that they buy a big kind of truck, and put a swimming pool in the back, and then when we went on long car trips I could just float in the back. Someone when I was six told me what Venice was, told me that instead of roads there were canals, and you may well imagine how I took this information. I had it in my head for a  long time that you weren’t actually allowed to walk in Venice. You had to swim to work and to visit your friends. You were allowed a small boat, but why would you need it when you could swim?

It is easy to see, then, that The Water Babies just knocked me out. Here is everyone living their normal lives of Christian uplift and trying so hard, except they are all doing it underwater. What else could a person conceivably wish for?

The full title of the book is The Water Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby. It is, as I said, supposed to be a story of moral elevation via Jesus, where the humble chimney sweep (yes) learns how to be good enough for rich people. It is overtly didactic in nature, a sort of a guide for all the sinning land babies out there. Many lessons.  The best thing about The Water Babies, though, is that there is no reason for it to take place underwater. There is no lesson in that book that could not be taught more efficiently on land. It is structurally unnecessary, and yet. There they all are paddling around in the seaweed, smiling at the fish.

This is why I still love this book. The Rev. Charles Kingsley sets out to write a tract. He wants it to be a clear set of moral lessons for little children and no two ways about it. As he writes, though, he finds himself thinking well wouldn’t this just be better in the river? Wouldn’t this situation be greatly improved by the addition of a swim? He finds that he cannot help himself. In this we are as one. This is a man who, when he was a baby on the beach in Simonstown, would have been shooting for the water at an extraordinary speed.  The three of us, in our little hats like bonnets and our goggles, making straight for the sea.


Essay 39: Any game with a lot of rules

Most games are terrible. Any game where it is necessary to have a strategy. Any game where you must think more than one step ahead. Any game that is called Risk. Any game that is called Monopoly. A game where you find out what your career is going to be, and your career is going to be a nurse or a babysitter. A game that is an early 90s version of Trivial Pursuit, where many of the questions require an intimate knowledge of who hosted Telly Fun Quiz. A game of Thirty Seconds I once played where this girl swore up and down that she didn’t know what New Zealand was. She later relented and said that she had heard of New Zealand, yes, and that Robert Mugabe was the president. The Prime Minister, actually. This happened.

Any game with a lot of rules. Any game where the rules are either undefined or self-evident, which is to say self-evident to everyone but me. Any game that I am bad at, such as chess, checkers, all card games (except Snap and Cheat), poker especially, bridge (I have never played bridge, but I know I hate it), and backgammon. Dominoes in any form other than making patterns or lining them up so they fall over. I said Monopoly, but I will say it again.

The only games worth a damn are Pictionary, Ex Libris, and Winking Murderer. This is one of the few certainties I possess. I am sitting now thinking about how fun Winking Murderer is, and my heart is beating all fast. I will play Winking Murderer with you right now, as long as you are not a very little kid. Little kids slow things down, and plus they tend to blink a lot in general. On the other hand, a little kid is the best possible partner for Pictionary. They have the right kind of free-spirited approach, and they already know that they are shit at drawing so are less likely to get frustrated when you don’t guess what they’re trying to depict. The worst person to play Pictionary with is an adult who fancies themselves as a good drawer. They get so peevish when you don’t guess. I once played Pictionary with someone’s dad, an art director. He was trying to draw “jazz”, I think, and he just kept doing all these guys in hats, and cats all over the place, and pounding his ball point pen into the paper so that he ripped the page, and circles round and round the cats, and arrows pointing to the hats like are you some kind of moron, and then drawing the sun over and over again and crossing it out. We could not understand. He got so emotional that he threw the pen across the room and did not speak to anyone for several hours. We found out later that the crossed-out suns were because jazz only happens at night.

Although this was, on balance, a stressful occasion, it was still a good time. Pictionary is an amazing way to see how someone else’s brain works. If I was drawing jazz, for instance, maybe I would draw at least one person playing a musical instrument. I am a bad drawer, but all you would really need to do is just draw a stick person holding a saxophone, and even I can do that. If my cousin Sue was there, I would just draw her dog, because he is called Jazz and that would be nice for him. I would try to adapt, is what I am trying to say.

The art director dad, however, had one idea in his mind and by god he was going to make it happen. These kinds of insights are valuable. Ex Libris is not as much of a Rorschach test, or not in the same way, but it’s still excellent. The rules, if you don’t know them, are that you get a whole lot of books together, one book for every person playing. Try to get as wide a range as possible. Do not worry about quality. Ex Libris is not the place to raise your high brow. The best round of it I have ever played involved a South African detective book called SNAKE, published in the 70s.

The point of the game is to make up a plausible first or last sentence of a book. Say the book is SNAKE. You write down your realistic-seeming first sentence, like “The curtain fluttered, although there was no breeze.” Everyone else does theirs, and then you hand it to my friend Ben, who is in charge of this round. Ben reads out all the made-up sentences, and mixed in there is the real one. Everyone votes, and if people choose your made-up sentence, then you win.

I love Ex Libris for all the reasons you might expect: books, taking turns, all my friends are there. I also love it because I am weirdly good at it. It is the only game I have a reasonable chance of winning. I will be straight with you and tell you that I win at it a lot.

This is because I am a good mimic. I have a pretty advanced ear for style, if that is a thing, and it’s not at all difficult for me to copy it convincingly. I can write you a paragraph that seems to be from a bad 70s detective novel, and you will probably think it’s real. This is why I am the queen of Ex Libris.

This is also one explanation for why I love the books that I do. The books I love are the ones that would defeat me at Ex Libris, the ones whose style I cannot I cannot break down and understand. I could write you an extremely convincing Margaret Atwood first sentence, for example, but I could never do an Alice Munro. This is not to say that Alice Munro is objectively better than Margaret Atwood (she is, she is, she so clearly is), but rather that Alice Munro is a beautiful mystery to me in some way, and that is how I like it. I like books that I could never write. The closer someone’s style or subject matter is to my own, the more bored and depressed I get.

This might be a variation on that theme called Self-Loathing, but I don’t think so. Instead, I think it’s because the more I write, the more I see how unlikely and how difficult originality is. I don’t think it can be taught. I think it’s just there, sitting in some people’s heads, and I think that I can spot it a mile away.


Urging a Luncheon Companion to Accept a Cool Lima Bean

Everyone has their blind spots. Mine is JD Salinger. I reread the nine stories this weekend, and most of Franny and Zooey, and I loved them so much, again.

There’s a bit in Experience where Kingsley Amis is talking about “Don Juan”:

I had a strange experience with Byron the other night. There was an hour to kill before a dinner party in Chelsea and I went into a pub and started reading Don Juan. After half an hour I couldn’t believe how absolutely marvellous it was. I knew I liked Don Juan but this was oh, something of a completely different order. By the time I had to go I was looking round the pub wanting to say, ‘Has anyone here got any idea how wonderful “Don Juan” is?

That’s me, reading “Before the War with the Eskimos”, and “The Laughing Man”. I want to take people by the sleeves and force them to read Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. I want them to admit how much they love it. “Just admit,” I want to say. “Just admit it.”

In the next paragraph in Experience, it’s revealed that Kingsley Amis was so enamoured with Don Juan because he was drunk. His point is that you can’t really get so woozy about a book, especially not a “classic”, especially not one that you’ve read before. Maybe this is true if you are Kingsley Amis, but it’s not true if you are me. People say that JD Salinger is twee, and Cute, and obsessed with the Glasses. Joan Didion, for instance, said that

“Franny and Zooey is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living. What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.”

This is a bit Rich, coming from Joan Didion, but it is unassailably true. I don’t care though, and neither should you. I need to have my essential triviality flattered. I enjoy it very much, and I believe that everyone else would enjoy it too. I try to press these books on people without success.

There are some obvious parallels to be drawn here. People in JD Salinger are always pressing food on those who don’t want to eat it: the brother in “Eskimos” tries to get Ginnie Mannox to eat half a chicken sandwich; the waiter and Lane Coutrell try to get Franny to eat another chicken sandwich in Franny; Bessie Glass tries to get Franny to eat chicken soup in Zooey; and the narrator in “Esme” offers the titular girl a bite of his cinnamon toast. She declines: “I eat like a bird, actually.” The brother in “Eskimos”, especially, is insistent that she have at least a small bite of the chicken sandwich. He keeps telling her how good it is, and she keeps, for some reason, not wanting it. He doesn’t understand why she won’t just try.This is how I feel about people who refuse to love Salinger. They won’t even try.

It is my belief that Salinger was aware of this phenomenon. For evidence, I submit his dedication in Franny and Zooey:

“As nearly as possible in the spirit of Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean, I urge my editor, mentor, and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”

Accept this book. You’ll love it. Just admit.


Edited to include the information that Janet Malcolm said that “Rereading Franny and Zooey is no less rewarding than rereading The Great Gatsby” 

Essay 18: You Girls

A slightly famous author once accused me of liking Sylvia Plath. I was at a book party, standing outside in what the slightly famous author kept on calling “the smoking garden”. It was a concrete courtyard in the middle of the corporate hotel where the party was being held. Very brightly lit. No chairs, even. Writers standing around, all hunched up and furtive, smoking the most depressing brands of cigarettes. Your Rothmans, your Princetons, your Benson and Hedges Special Mild. There was a disgraced cartoonist who had one of those little cigarette rolling machines. He kept telling people that the secret to keeping your tobacco moist was you put a piece of dried apple into the packet. He said “moist” to the women much more than to the men. He was wearing distressed-style jeans and a roomy blazer. He was wearing a woolly hat with ear flaps, although it was not cold.

The slightly famous author took all of this in his brisk stride. He was at the book festival to promote his latest novel. Like all of his previous works, it was about a young and vaguely left-wing white man clashing with various South African authority figures (mothers, corporals, sergeants etc.). Like all of his previous works, it contained many fine descriptions of Highveld storms, and the gnarled, shining white corpses of lightning-struck trees. His books were not as popular as they had once been. There was something a bit funny about his latest one, especially. It was too obviously nostalgic for the early eighties, too wistful for a time when the voices of people like him had mattered most.  The reviews had been mixed. Perhaps because of this, his reading had been badly attended. Also, it was scheduled at the same time as the fourth event featuring an authentically famous writer, the star of the festival.

The slightly famous author did not seem embittered by this. He gave the impression of having a sincerely wonderful time, looking avidly about himself and saying, “Here we are, then. Here we are in the smoking garden.” He seemed enchanted by it all: waving brightly at everyone who went past, cocking his head sympathetically as the disgraced cartoonist told a story about his girlfriend getting stuck in a traffic jam, blowing smoke out of his nose in friendly jets. A nice man, really.

I saw a girl I knew ask him what his favourite kind of meat was. There was no reason for her to do this. The slightly famous author answered her with avuncular dignity. He looked gravely into her glittering eyes. First beef, he said, and then ostrich. Chicken last. She asked him if he could ever give up bacon, though, and he said no. She said that bacon smelled delicious, and he agreed.  She adjusted the sewn-on panda ears of her woolly hat as she asked him if he had ever tried crocodile. He said yes. She said she could never eat crocodile. Yuck. He laughed with total abandonment. Was he on drugs? Was he one of those men who you only realise is drunk after they have tumbled silently down a flight of stairs, wearing a resigned and worldly expression? I could not say. The disgraced cartoonist had turned his back on us.

The girl who loved meat was just getting started. I had an idea of what was coming next – she was going to ask if he had a Kindle. Whatever his answer, she was going to say that she could never have a Kindle. She loved the smell of books too much, see. She loved the feel of a book in her hand TOO MUCH. Old books? Don’t even get her started. The smell and feel of a mega-old book? Please.

I could see it all playing out in front of me. The slightly famous writer could too, I think. He decided that things had gone far enough. He took control by turning to me, blowing smoke into my eyes and ears, and asking me what I thought of J.M. Coetzee. South African émigrés of a certain age love to ask this question. They imagine us sitting around making Coetzee voodoo dolls, writing lists of all the reasons Adelaide is a stupid place to live. They want us to feel betrayed, as if Coetzee is our collective dad who abandoned us for a different family. They want us to take it personally.

I said that I thought Disgrace was a very good book. The meat girl looked disappointed. Coetzee was such an easy one, and I was letting the side down. She moved over to join the disgraced cartoonist. Later, I would hear that they had begun passionately making out ten minutes after I’d left. I heard that they had torn each other’s woolly hats off in the fray.

The slightly famous writer pressed gamely on. Women, he said, don’t usually like Coetzee. They don’t like Coetzee or Updike or Bellow or Roth. Or Nabokov, now that he thought about it. He peered at me elatedly, a sort of terrible puckishness suffusing his features. Eyes suddenly more bright, incisors more pointy. It was clear that he had made this speech before. His whole expression, his posture and everything, said, “Here I go again. Get a load of me.” Other people were slaves to the kind of PC nonsense that insisted that women could like Philip Roth, but not the slightly famous author. No indeed. He was here for the truth. I wanted to lie down on the floor.

I said, although there was no point, that I liked all of those writers a lot. He laughed throatily at me. He told me I was just saying that to be contrary.  Name a Nabokov novel, he said, besides from Lolita. I did. Name a Bellow. Tell me with a straight face that you got through the whole of Sabbath’s Theatre. Tell me your best book out of all the Updikes. Say which bit in Waiting For The Barbarians made it worth the hassle.

I told him and told him and told him. His laugh became richer and more disbelieving. He was capering on the spot, punching the air with little fists. He was having the most wonderful time, and he didn’t believe me for a single minute. “You girls,” he said, shaking his head. “Say what you want, but I know you all go home and read Sylvia Plath.”

I opened my mouth. I closed my mouth. I opened my hands. I closed my hands.

You girls. You girls, with your crush on Ophelia and Virginia Woolf and Elvira Madigan. You girls think you’re witches. You girls, with your anorexia and your cutting and the flowers in your hair. You girls, and your dissertations on perceptions of female hysteria. You think Mad Girl’s Love Song is the best title for anything, and you can’t believe you didn’t get there first. You believe that dying is an art, like everything else. You believe that you would do it exceptionally well. You girls with your incessant talk of periods and mermaids. You girls with your poster of The Lady of Shallot above your bed. You think you have a wound that will never heal. You girls keep tearing open the stitches.

All that. He didn’t say it, and probably he did not think it, but that’s what I heard. I opened my mouth. I closed my mouth. He ground out his cigarette and lurched inside, giving the disgraced cartoonist a reassuring arm squeeze as he went.

This was about five years ago. I have had some time to think about what I might have said. Something like a lie: I’ve never read Sylvia Plath, and actually I hate her, and actually I’ve never heard of her. Something like another kind of lie: I know The Bell Jar off by heart, and I admire the gumption of a woman who believes it is appropriate to equate her personal suffering to that of a Jew during the Holocaust. Or, something like the truth: I like her all right – not my best, and not my worst. But you can’t say that, to someone like the slightly famous author. Someone like the slightly famous author, he wants you to be one thing or the other.

I saw him three days ago in an airport. He was shorter than I remembered, with the contented face of a man on his way to the first-class lounge. He nodded to me as I walked past. I nodded back. I hear his last book sold very poorly indeed.