In a piece titled “Practical exercises,” Georges Perec gives some instructions on how to set down a city street in words:
Note down what you can see. … Don’t say, don’t write “etc.” Make an effort to exhaust the subject, even if that seems grotesque, or pointless, or stupid. You still haven’t looked at anything, you’ve merely picked out what you’ve long ago picked out.
This embargo on the etc. is something that comes to mind whenever I read the work of Ivan Vladislavić. There’s the refusal to shirk or abbreviate the everyday, and a punctilious, editorializing attention to the smallest effects of one’s own prose. There’s the urge to write and rewrite the urban scene, less out of a desire to document than as a way of testing the agility of one’s language against all those things that once seemed familiar but now stare back more distantly the closer you look. All are signatures of a body of work drawn to the incidental, the minor and marginal.
Vladislavić’s recent book The Loss Library makes explicit his debt to Perec by discussing the French author’s work with OuLiPo, the “Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle” or “Workshop for Potential Literature” founded in the 1960s by Raymond Queneau “& Ceau.” For OuLiPo, writing was to be generated by concocting strict formulas, algorithms, and other artificial constraints that would govern a particular piece of text with mathematical strictness. One example of this was the lipogram, which excludes one or more letters. Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition (A Void, 1994) dispensed entirely with the letter “e,” even more common in French than in English. Palindromes, acrostics, and anagrams abound. The official website of OuLiPo lists over 100 of these “contraintes,” such as “Pilish,” where the lengths of consecutive words match the digits of the number Pi (“How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”). One of the most popular and generative formulas is that of S+7, in which you “Replace every noun in a text with the noun seven entries after it in a dictionary” (“Replace every novelty in a thanksgiving with the novelty seven enzymes after it in a difficulty”).
Vladislavić describes the results of Perec’s experiments as often startling—the deployment of formulas to evade the formulaic: “Constraints are welcomed as a kind of resistance against which the imagination grinds and sparks. Difficulty often produces a daring imaginative response.” But in other cases, the process can be painful for writer and reader alike. In his own example, from a section titled “Gross,” Vladislavić records an idea jotted down in his notebook in 1990:
write a novella in 144 paragraphs of 144 words. Divide the novella into 12 chapters of 12 paragraphs. Divide the paragraphs into 12-word sentences. Simple arithmetic: 12⁴ = 20,736 words.
But this particular formula became overbearing and onerous, keeping him awake at night:
How to proceed? Should one pour a rough cast of say 24,000 words and then chip it down to the right proportions? Or advance methodically one made-to-measure block at a time? … The idea was crushing. … I saw the concept grinding away like a small electric pepper-mill on a speckled granite kitchen-counter in a Sandton townhouse.
The throwaway image in the last line hits the note that makes Vladislavić’s work distinctive: the self-deprecating narrative voice, in which a playful European anti-realism meets the historical fact of a 21st-century African metropolis. The Parisian flâneur memorialized by Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Perec is ripped from his leisurely boulevards and dropped into a city on the Highveld that cares little for literary antics, but a lot about cars. With its corporate enclaves and glossy, mass-produced surfaces, Johannesburg would seem to provide little purchase for a bookish intelligence more at home in secondhand shops stocked with Stevenson, Canetti, and Calvino.
And yet over the last decade Vladislavić, the most writerly of South African writers, has come to be celebrated as the preeminent chronicler of Johannesburg, or at least of its old city center—a veritable Bard of Bez Valley. So much so that, in an interview, he expresses some discomfort with becoming categorized as “the Jo’burg guy.” The critical enthusiasm for urban studies, he suggests, may have become a filter blocking other elements of his work, including lines of continuity within the oeuvre.
The Loss Library is a reminder of the abstruse imaginative architectures that underlie both Vladislavić’s early, postmodern stories (collected and reprinted in 2010 as Flashback Hotel) and the more documentary texture of The Exploded View (2004) and Portrait with Keys (2006). And as the rough casts and made-to-measure blocks above suggest, technical or builderly metaphors can be found whenever Vladislavić, the son of a motor mechanic, discusses his own practice.
Vladislavić’s works carry the sense of being governed by submerged and often non-verbal logics. Photographs by David Goldblatt, artworks by Joachim Schönfeldt, conceptual installations, security walls, highway interchanges, forgotten street furniture—they have all functioned as “narrative accelerators” in different books. Deep, DNA-like processors that determine the surface text via complex transformations give the prose its unexpected and often beguiling shapes.
VladislaviC’s works carry the sense of being governed by submerged and often non-verbal logics.
The Loss Library is a meditation on “unsettled accounts”: that list of incomplete stories and unfleshed-out ideas that every writer trails behind them. So we have a slim volume in 11 (not 12) sections; in each, a prompt for a future work, typically a notebook jotting from the 1990s, is combined with later notes and glosses on why it remained unrealized. In OuLiPian terms, the subtractive is made generative, producing a variegated text that is less a lament for things not done than a wider meditation on creativity, finitude, and (to quote the back cover of the original South African edition) “the allure of the incomplete.”
In Loss Library we see refracted a whole spectrum of losses and absences. There is loss as what never came to be, as when the title story imagines, Borges-like, a guided tour of a library containing the canon’s great unwritten texts, from “The mature work of Keats? That’s a drawcard” to Kafka’s late phase: “The disappointing end of his career … [when] he was hardly even Kafkaesque.” They can be looked at, held, but never read: to do so would cause ripples of disturbance in the space-time-text continuum of all the world’s libraries.
There is, too, loss as the lost, as when two suitcases of drafts and work in progress vanishes in transit following a writer’s residency in Stuttgart. This despite being reinforced with packing tape and having the narrator’s name and address inscribed on all twelve surfaces—“two loaded dice freighted with my work of the past year,” an image that deftly signals the aleatoric dimension of much of Vladislavić’s writing. But there is loss as surfeit, as knowing too much: “Mrs B” describes a passing fascination with a colonial naturalist’s wife, who appears in a 1926 volume by her husband, W. Douglas Burden, titled Dragon Lizards of Komodo: An Expedition to the Lost World of the Dutch East Indies. Finding it among the secondhand books at a church fete, the Vladislavić-narrator is at first intrigued by its photographs and their captions, but then makes the mistake of reading it methodically: “This reading muddied the waters. It left me with a fuller sense of the Burdens and their world. I liked them less than I wanted to.” The distaste is for their Orientalist prejudices, but also for the ease with which he finds himself judging them, pinned to the corkboard of history like the specimens that they collected in the jungles of Komodo: “The past is a sitting duck. Bringing it home for the pot does a writer no credit.” Fragmentary and oblique, “Mrs B” is nonetheless an incisive meditation on what it means for the contemporary writer to engage the colonial archive.
“The Book Lover” is a similar story from the same period that did get written. It begins when its narrator discovers that the volumes he has been picking out from secondhand dealers all once belonged to a woman named Helena Shein. The narrative is driven by a growing, almost erotic obsession to track down and reconstitute her now dispersed collection. It points to how much of Vladislavić’s oeuvre is generated by found objects and texts, another method favored by OuLiPo. Here, Vladislavić takes his cues from the random, scattershot libraries of the postcolony: archives where the very absence of any claim to completeness enables new forms of creativity. “The Book Lover” splices Pirandello with Trevor Huddleston, Sarah Gertrude Millin and (most importantly) Barbara Cartland—her 42nd novel, A Ghost in Monte Carlo, furnishes the story with a deep narrative template.
There is surely an important academic study to be written on significant encounters with apparently insignificant libraries in South African literary history: Peter Abrahams discovering W. E. B. du Bois in Johannesburg’s Bantu Men’s Social Centre in 1937; Nadine Gordimer escaping from Springs into 19th-century Russia; J. M. Coetzee coming across the records of German South-West Africa while pursuing doctoral research in Texas. One could even add Mohandas Gandhi reading John Ruskin’s Unto this Last in 1904, and so being inspired to create his experiments in communal living at Tolstoy Farm outside Johannesburg.
How were these conservative colonial archives and idiosyncratic, often derivative collections put to uses for which they were never intended? And how did the future unconscious of these found texts shape the course of our cultural history? In a detail that could have come straight out of a Vladislavić story, Anthony Sampson’s biography of Mandela tells us that a Red Cross grant of 1976 intended for stocking the Robben Island prison library was spent entirely on the works of Daphne du Maurier.
These historical details remind us that the best way to approach the South African real might be via the surreal. Citing the experimental works of Afrikaans writers like John Miles and Etienne Leroux as early influences, Vladislavić has remarked that realism is not the only way, nor necessarily the most profound way, of engaging with the society around you.
Even at their most strange and experimental, the stories from Vladislavić’s first collection, Missing Persons (1989), retain their bite as critiques of high apartheid’s tawdry monumentalisms and warped masculinities. They offer an exploded view of things that haunted the 1980s white imaginary: the suitcase of the Station Bomber; newsreader Michael de Morgan talking about “unrest”; the tapeworm from the “Tsafendas’s Diary,” reincarnated in the final story as the pool-cleaning Kreepy Krauly. As in all the works that follow, local brand names are leaned on and made strange: Cadac gas cylinders, Omo laundry detergent, Wall and All enamel, Exclusive Books. Vladislavić “makes his stories by hanging around these tiny junctions of language,” writes Tony Morphet in an early review, “and watching what might be going in and what might be coming out.”
One can make a political case for this attention to the apparently marginal and minor. With the decor of daily life being slowly defamiliarized, as if by literary paint stripper, the normalcy of larger social structures is put into question, as is the almost limitless human capacity to naturalize injustice and the pain of others. For Perec in Paris, avoiding the etc. is a writing exercise; in Vladislavić’s Johannesburg it carries an awareness of the violence encoded by the smallest particles of language. What crushing weight the “general extenders” etc. and ens. must have carried in the documents of the apartheid bureaucracy—a system that entrenched one version of difference by collapsing all other kinds. The anti-realism of these early stories catches us in that “automatization” of perception that the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky deplored: the deadening processes of generalization, assumption, and habitualization that “devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.”
For all that, Vladislavić remains a writer’s writer, or perhaps even a writer’s writer’s writer, given how narrow his appeal must be in contemporary South Africa. How are we to take this fascination with libraries, lost or found, in a place where the majority of schools have no such thing in the first place? “He reads the dictionary for fun!”—this was the taunt leveled at bookworms in my schooldays by rugby players, less out of cruelty than bewilderment and, perhaps, pity. There was a library, but the only well-thumbed books there were by the likes of Frederick Forsyth and Ken Follett. You could upend them on your palm and they would fall open on the dirtiest sex scenes, their spines cracked by generations of hormonal boarders.
In Vladislavić’s “Dictionary Birds,” the narrator owns up to recreational dictionary use. For 15 years, whenever happening across the name of a rare bird amid the verbiage—a piculet, a widgeon, a capercaillie—he has made a note of it in “a dove-grey file,” but still not bagged a full alphabet. He could, of course, sit down with the Oxford of a Sunday afternoon and page through it for trophies, but this would be unsporting:
Beating systematically through the dictionary would be like shooting birds in a cage. You might think that a dictionary bird is a tame one, no matter how it is found, but in the thickets of language every creature is wild.
This is one of many passages that show a respect for the opaque, serendipitous workings of creative process—how ideas and images should not be forced, or leaned on too hard. It also suggests the paradox whereby a writer can sound most like themselves when they are following closest in the tracks of their heroes. The Loss Library forms a map of its author’s reading over many years, one where the often-noted influences (Borges, Calvino, Canetti) are now joined by other, newer voices, like W. G. Sebald and Geoff Dyer.
Paging through The Loss Library was like attending a gathering of my favorite nonfiction writers, and finding that they are all old friends. It is certainly a rather male gathering, just as some readers might find Vladislavić’s nonfictional persona the purveyor of a rather male voice: a carefully managed, essayistic performance that is by turns erudite, naive, unassuming, but always highly controlled. Although the context may have changed, traces of the flâneur remain, that figure who wants to be both anonymous and focal at the same time: drifting aimlessly with the currents of the city, but also at the center of his (and it is a “his”) own, self-created world.
But if this is a scrupulous and bookish voice, it is nonetheless an inclusive one. Portrait with Keys must be one of the most “open” of all South African texts: by turns a memoir, a writer’s diary, and (to borrow another concept from Perec) a “user’s manual”—to the Gorilla steering lock, to Johannesburg, and to itself. I have found it a uniquely rewarding book to assign for university students, a DIY text that virtually does the teaching for you. In the different “itineraries” (short, medium, or long) offered by the index, it makes explicit the fact that it can be reassembled in different ways, showing us what the process of reading actually entails, and how complex and creative an act this can be.
As someone at an African university, wondering how to teach English literature in the most relevant and welcoming way, for me the most intriguing question becomes: how does Vladislavić’s work manage to be both abstruse and accommodating? He is after all, as Gerald Gaylard reminds us, one of South Africa’s most sought-after editors, someone who has worked behind the scenes on influential texts by Antjie Krog, Jonny Steinberg, and Peter Harris. How does his approach manage to combine a respect for the autonomy of creative process with the exactitude of the editor-grammarian? What makes his oeuvre scrupulous without being elitist, stringent without being dismissive?
As the attention to brand names has already suggested, I think that part of the answer may lie in his writing’s supple response to a commerce-saturated society. The fustiness of Vladislavić’s dictionary-loving protagonists coexists with a remarkable openness to the mediascapes of contemporary Johannesburg. His prose explores with unusual candor the options left to the writerly imagination in a place (which could be so many places) defined by gated precincts and slick surfaces: the kind of mass-produced individuality signified by the granite kitchen counter of the Sandton townhouse. The interest in anachronisms is then balanced by their opposite: signs of what is still emergent and not yet expressed—markers of futurity which can only just begin to be discerned.
His writing manages to show the poverty of economized language, without extending this into a misanthropic series of generalizations on popular culture.
Particularly in The Exploded View, one feels an imagination pushing back against a relentlessly corporate reality. South Africa is, after all, a place where “creative” is first and foremost a noun meaning advertising flunky; in the country’s popular discourses, there is, it seems, simply no embarrassment or reservation about the commercialization of absolutely everything. Instead of remaining sequestered in the library, Vladislavić’s prose rises to this challenge: the pastel expanse of the faux-Tuscan housing estates; the laminated, multiracial cheerfulness espoused by highway billboards; the über-malls that take the place of medieval fortifications here on the Highveld: Northgate, Southgate, Eastgate, Westgate.
But (and this is what makes his work distinctive), even while finely attuned to the erasure of sociohistorical texture that accompanies the privatization and securitization of the 21st-century metropolis, this voice is not strident, despairing, or disgusted. It is critical (in the widest sense) without being censorious. And this makes it very different from David Lurie’s disaffection with his “postliterate” students in Disgrace, or Stephen Watson’s melancholic version of Cape Town as “one big Club Med.” Vladislavić’s writing is different; it works, if not to re-enchant the corporate cityscape, then at least to imbue it with some kind of human affect, to probe for its habitable niches. Rather than simply railing impotently against late capitalism, the writing attempts to understand its most intimate effects on us. Holding to the embargo on the etc., it manages to show the poverty of economized language, without extending this into a misanthropic series of generalizations on popular culture.
Rather than simply abhorring or excising the flattened commercial language that colonizes so much of our public space—in the manner of Adorno and the Frankfurt School, or the ascetic mode of Coetzee, who “purges the English language of dross” and “accedes to the austerity induced by history”—Vladislavić’s writing explicitly engages this crass materiality. As such it is an oeuvre that offers a deep thinking-through of what it might mean to “provincialize” English: it logs the difficulties, but also liberties, that accrue from abandoning prescriptive grammars for descriptive ones. Freed from an idealized notion of what “English Literature” might be, Vladislavić is able to bring the language closer to “home” even while relativizing it and making it transnational. Released from its bond to any single place or authority, South African English is made “malleable, multivocal, dialogical,” and the dream of an OED-anchored discourse itself “replaced by a bold acknowledgement of language as a mode of becoming, rather than being, or being done.”
A section from The Loss Library titled “Gravity Addict” gives a final clue as to how this strategy is working. The phrase first makes an appearance as graffiti on one of the “rolls” in Portrait with Keys: lists of local street detritus made when the Perecian urge to exhaust the ordinary was evidently at its strongest. In the notebooks, it gives rise to a mysterious character—the Gravity Addict—who leaves messages on answering machines but never quite gets written. And why? Following a meditation on Elias Canetti’s unfulfilled aim to write an essay on the art of falling, and a detour via Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, we are given the reason. One day, waiting at an ATM in Eastgate Mall, the narrator notices these very words printed on the shirt collar in front of him:
For a disorienting moment I felt as if had stumbled into the pages of my unwritten story and found the Gravity Addict himself. Then the realization that “Gravity Addict,” the phrase that had charmed my imagination for five years, was no more than a clothing label, a brand of leisurewear, sluiced over me like ice water. By the time I got home, my interest in the “Gravity Addict” had melted away so completely I could barely bring myself to Google it.
Nonetheless, even if the original story met its nemesis in the mall, we still have before us this unusual experiment in nonfiction. It is one which offers an exploded view of Vladislavić’s practice, making visible those buried structures that allow the prose to oscillate between the imaginative and the prosaic, the private and public, depth and surface. The bookish cleverness is alternately chided and provoked by a virulently non-literary world. And in an increasingly marketized publishing scene (where the dictionary birds never stop Twittering in their efforts to accrue cultural capital) one feels the power in the admission that this kind of reading and writing—slow, non-instrumental, in a printed codex, not on a screen—remains an utterly marginal activity. Perhaps this is its value.