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Eight questions for Ivan Vladislavić

Ivan Vladislavic

Photo by Minky Schlesinger

Before composing my interview questions, I tried to collect Ivan Vladislavić’s published work into categories. The impulse, I think, is reasonable: establish a program of order that assists in covering ground, therefore wringing the most out of each question. Of course, I found similarities, symmetries, occasionally a recurring theme or common setting. But a shared place or subject alone isn’t enough to mark a sustained interest. If a writer’s stories were read as a reflection of the writer’s character, Vladislavić could be many men: distantly related, possibly of a similar age, all writing in a precise and measured tone — maybe, even, residents of the same South African city. And yet very different men, each with a handful of their own obsessions and creative impulses.

Vladislavić is a South African writer; inevitably, this comes with certain responsibilities. They are responsibilities that he accepts, exploring the subjects a reader might expect from him, often in ways that are both daring and profound. But this doesn’t — or shouldn’t — define him. Characterising Ivan Vladislavić’s body of work is a remarkably broad imaginative scope; almost each of the questions below touch on a separate work. So while I tried to draw them together, the texts were resistant to my attempts — in the way that great literature resists our plans and ideas for it.
— Tristan Foster


3:AM Magazine: I want to begin with the subject of art in your writing. Double Negative, a number of your short stories, parts of The Loss Library, to name a few narratives, deal with, to some degree, the point where art intersects with the everyday. It’s a broad claim to make, but I think it’s justified in the sense that your treatment of art is itself broad, from its use in Double Negative as the network that is created between time and place and people, and even who we are at different points in our lives, to its satirical use in, for instance, ‘Industrial Theatre’, with the launch of the Ford Kafka. Why is art so important to your writing?

Ivan Vladislavić: We are visual creatures, heavily reliant on our eyesight. Our cultures define themselves more and more through images, and image-making is one of our main preoccupations. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the visual torrent, especially if your element is language. Rather than shying away from visuality, I’ve been trying to understand how it works and what it offers.

Some of the art I admire resists or exceeds language, or insists on a non-verbal response. An artist who comes to mind is Wolfgang Laib. I remember an exhibition at the Kunsthaus Bregenz that included one of his contemplative “milkstones”, a sculpture that rendered me speechless. Being a writer though, I’m also drawn to work that prompts some kind of narrative, and that could be anything from Pieter Bruegel to Martin Kippenberger. I once saw Kippenberger’s The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika”, a huge installation that obviously has its roots in fiction, and in the face of which it is impossible (I would say) not to start making up stories. Then there’s a field of conceptual art, some of it closely concerned with language and fiction, that I feel an affinity with. If you’re looking for approaches to narrative that avoid the easy conventions, Sophie Calle has as much to teach as Georges Perec. Both of them make art of the everyday, not to mention the banal. Strong artists suggest different ways of seeing and ordering the world, and they can provide models for writing.

The Folly by Ivan Vladislavic

3:AM: Your novel The Folly has just been reissued by And Other Stories in the UK and Archipelago Books in the US, and you’ve been on tour in North America to coincide with the launch. But the book was actually your debut, first released in South Africa in 1993. How do you find discussing something you wrote over 20 years ago as if it’s your latest piece of writing?

IV: The disconcerting thing is not that the book is still being read: much of my work is still in print, and that’s what you hope for as a writer. What can be uncomfortable though, as you suggest, is having to speak about the book. Proceeding as if it had just been written would be madness: I always make it clear that it’s a reissue and should be treated as a product of its time. When I was preparing the new edition I was tempted to make some revisions, but I knew that once I got started there would be no end to it.

In some ways, I am a stranger to the young writer who came up with The Folly and this helps me to keep my distance when I talk about the book. It’s a good attitude even towards new work, although it cannot easily be forced. The work should speak for itself. But if the writer has to deputise, it’s worth approaching the text as a reader would, to the extent that one can, mindful of how partial every reading is.

3:AM: The photographer Saul Auberbach, the character who pulls the narrative of Double Negative together, has a body of work that, according to Neville Lister, the novel’s protagonist, “holds him steady” — indeed, it is the envy of Lister, who, later in life, also becomes a photographer. But this says more about Lister than Auberbach — one doesn’t get the sense that Auberbach has ever been unsteady; he is a mystic, of sorts, whirling dispassionately through Johannesburg. Which character do you side with here? Do you find comfort in the body of work behind you?

IV: It’s an impossible choice. Lister, the aspirant artist yearning to make something solid of his life, and yet turning away from the task; or Auerbach, the established artist with a body of work to demonstrate his “steadiness”. It only seems fair to claim them both. Lister thinks his own story is full of holes, but it may be that he simply cannot see the holes in Auerbach’s. I wonder how much work one needs to constitute a “body”? Is it the same for artists and writers? Perhaps a “body of work” comes into being in the same hard-to-pinpoint moment when the publishers and reviewers stop referring to you as a “young writer”?

I’m intrigued by your sense of Auerbach as a “mystic”. You’re suggesting – perhaps – that he surrenders himself to the world in some way, allowing its truths to possess him, through the camera. That would chime with his feeling that the photographs seek him out, rather than the other way round – “Sometimes it’s as if I’ve found a thing I’ve already seen and remembered …” A few readers have remarked on his stillness, the sense that he’s waiting for something to enter – the camera, himself. Yet he’s always on the move, a receptive, moving, still point. By comparison, Lister seems very unsure of himself, a closed shutter.

3:AM: The Restless Supermarket is one of your most recent novels but it is set during the end of apartheid. It’s also one of your funniest works, with much of its humour to be found in its linguistic games — a hint of which is in the novel’s title. But Aubrey Tearle is a troublesome protagonist; the novel examines the attitude of a white South African during the abolition of apartheid, the prejudices and behaviour that had become normalised during the period, and the great changes that exposed them. Tearle is less a knockabout bloke than a stuffy pedant, and though he has elements of the former, it’s the idea of order that he clings to, wielding his pocket dictionary like a book of law as the wider world edges into his beloved Café Europa. “You have to change with the times or you get left behind,” he says. “And if you’re left behind, is that such a bad thing? Is the past such a terrible place to be?” How challenging a character was Tearle to write?

IV: The Restless Supermarket was written in the early years of democracy in South Africa and first published in 2001. The edition published in 2011 by And Other Stories was its first international appearance in English, although there had been a couple of translations in the interim (Jan Ristarp’s Swedish translation published by Tranan in 2008 is close to my heart).

The collapse of apartheid resulted in a more open field of play for writers. Something that appealed to me was the creation of an obnoxious narrator, one who would be a thorn in the side of the reader. In imagining a pedant like Tearle, I had plenty of material to draw on. South Africa then was full of grumpy white men predicting the end of civilisation now that black people were free to vote. Some of his peculiarities, like his boundless faith in the rules of language, were exaggerations of my own: I worked as an editor and proofreader for decades and understand Tearle’s fastidiousness about getting things right. Of course his bigotry made me uneasy, and I often felt like toning down his excesses, but it was clear that my discomfort usefully predicted what might make the reader think twice.

The challenge was to arouse the reader’s sympathies for Tearle despite his flaws. Generally speaking, I think this is one of the great capacities of fiction, to make you think and feel against the grain of habit. In his review, Lionel Abrahams wrote that “rather more than I think I’m supposed to, I sympathetically identify (perhaps even empathise) with Aubrey Tearle”. That was a very gratifying response.

3:AM: It’s quite possibly a silly thing to say to a writer, but place plays a crucial role in much of your work. One place is particularly important, that being Johannesburg — your home. In Portrait with Keys, for instance, place is crucial: the narrative cocoons it. Was there the temptation to tell the grand narrative of the city with the book or did the local always seem logical?

IV: Your question made me wonder what Johannesburg’s grand narrative is. One answer is that it’s an unlikely place, a city where no city has a right to be, called into existence by the discovery of gold and wrestled from the earth against the odds. A place that in its relatively short life has been made and remade constantly. A brash place, a boomtown, with a make-do ethos, full of an appealing “energy”. This narrative seldom pays attention to the poor, but the exploitation of their labour and the destruction of their homes are part of it all the same. Slum clearances in the early years, and forced removals under the banner of apartheid were not aberrations but integral to the development of an extremely unequal city.

In the transition, even before the repeal of the laws that kept people confined to their racial zones, there was another huge remaking of Joburg, this time led not by bureaucrats and planners but by ordinary people, seizing the opportunity to move freely and live where they choose. In the process they produced something new — what the architect Lindsay Bremner called a “provisional city”, a much less certain and orderly space. The effort to create a more liveable city without stifling these improvisatory energies goes on today.

To answer your question more directly: in the restless days of the early nineties, when the apartheid divisions broke down, I discovered that large social changes were becoming visible in my neighbourhood. The grand narrative was writ small in the streets around me. So I began to document this local change to clarify the larger one for myself.

Portrait with Keys

3:AM: In the eleventh section of Portrait with Keys, you discuss your job as a travelling salesman selling the telephone dixie — a contraption for holding a telephone directory. You are selling it in an office block, and as you climb higher and higher, the view gets better and better. It’s during this time that, overlooking Johannesburg, you decided that you will “seek my fortune in these streets”. Are you able to say now that the city has indeed pulled you to it, or has it pushed you away?

IV: Our love for cities is always unrequited. Johannesburg is not an easy place to live: I’m deeply attached to it, and endlessly intrigued by its vagaries, but I don’t always enjoy it. The fact that I’m a writer, and driven to make something of what happens to me, good and bad, is an advantage. The telephone dixie was an excellent invention, by the way, but I didn’t sell even one. I was a useless saleman.

3:AM: Outside of South Africa, you have been published by a number of publishing houses: Portobello Books, Sylph Editions and Seagull Books to name a few not already mentioned. To my mind, this is fitting — your writing is almost equally diverse, both in style and subject matter, as if different writers had written them. Even while I was composing these questions, I found your writing elusive, difficult to draw into clusters. Can you pinpoint where this expansive creative drive behind your stories comes from?

IV: Despite the dire predictions about the future of the book — or is it just the novel? — the independent publishing scene is thriving, which is very good news. Besides the publishers you’ve mentioned, I have books in translation under imprints like Editions Zoe, Tranan, A1 Verlag and others.

I take your point about the differences between the books, but I must say that the similarities have become more evident to me lately. I can trace it back to the writing of The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories. As you know, this book was an effort to reflect on my failed attempts as a writer, on some of the false starts and abandoned drafts. Many of these failures belonged to the same period as the stories I actually finished and published in Propaganda by Monuments. As I found myself considering the “successes” and “failures” in the same frame, my published books seemed less like a sequence of disconnected monuments than the visible part of a larger flow. The continuities between them became visible to me in a different way or perhaps for the first time. Sometimes this internal coherence has to do with a tone or position, sometimes with a kind of metaphoric armature. The imaginary house in The Folly (to take one example) seems to be a precursor of the Restless Supermarket, although the reissue of The Folly may have blurred the chronology.

3:AM: In your interview with Jan Steyn for The White Review, you make the comment that when you are writing, you are “trying to resolve something for myself by working it through in language”. As you’ve just noted, The Loss Library is a collection of stories about the times you’ve failed at resolving something for yourself. Are your published works instances of the times you’ve succeeded?

IV: To some extent. I did say “trying to resolve” rather than “resolving”. My previous response suggests that the resolutions are always provisional. The way I see it, writing a book is like trying to solve a puzzle or deal with a set of questions. I can’t say exactly what this entails. The internal organisation of the text, its structure, the proportion of its parts, questions of symmetry and so on are important to me, so I give them a lot of attention. Intuition plays a large part — something you develop through practice. At some point, things feel balanced, or unbalanced in a satisfying way. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other possibilities. My editing work has taught me that nearly everything in a text can be changed and every decision may be a missed opportunity.


Tristan Foster is a senior editor at 3:AM Magazine. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 1st, 2015.