Janet van Eeden - 2011-06-22 Untitled Document
Title: Double Negative
Author: Ivan Vladislavic
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When is a photograph not a photograph? When it captures a moment before a subject expects to be noticed. When it traps the flicker of private thoughts. When it observes the unconscious just before it’s noticed. That’s when a photograph becomes more than just a photograph. That’s when it becomes a moment of veracity, frozen in time. That’s when it becomes art.
And when is a novel not a novel? When it’s written in a seemingly artless way. When the story seems not to be about story at all. When the plot isn’t hammered out on the anvil of structure. When a moment of verisimilitude is pinned down, suspended, its wings tempered for an infinitesimal second, without its noticing. That is when a novel becomes art. This is what Ivan Vladislavic has succeeded in creating in his latest novel, Double Negative.
It is no surprise that Vladislavic’s chief protagonist and narrator of the story, Neville, is nicknamed Mr Frosty by his peers, in the third section of the novel. He earns this reputation by taking a photograph before the subject has settled into a comfortable pose. Neville is one of those rare photographers who learns to snap the liminal moment between real life and artifice. This could be a definition of the nature of art itself and it is certainly the definition of Double Negative.
Vladislavic manages this rare feat by writing obtusely about his subject and his experiences.
In the first section, titled “Available Light”, Neville drifts away from academia, apparently taking a stand against bourgeois respectability, but not a stand so firm that anyone else would have noticed it. With his full beard and exaggerated Dr Watson pipe he refuses to take part in life as his parents know it. It is Johannesburg in the late ‘80s and there’s much fuel for a disenchanted youth: the ignorant racism of his parents’ neighbours, the lack of vision in the white community, the repressed anger of the majority and the disenchanting prospect of forced conscription for young white boys.
To try and reignite Neville’s youthful interest in photography his father arranges for Neville to spend a day on a shoot with the celebrated photographer Saul Auerbach. With the limited perspective of arrogant youth, the “Available Light” of the piece, Neville tags along as Auerbach and his friend, a boozy journalist named Gerald Brookes, go into Bez Valley to find houses that speak to them of the underbelly of poor South Africa. They look down on the valley from a small hill and each man chooses a house to explore. In spite of his insouciance, Neville is moved as Auerbach finds a moment of tenderness and truth in an outhouse of a student commune. There is Veronica, a young mother of triplets, living in her single room, with only a photograph to commemorate one of her triplets who had died. Her simple acceptance of her difficult circumstances becomes a focal point in Neville’s frame of reference. Brookes’s house contains an aging white woman, Mrs Ditton. She, too, is trapped by Auerbach’s camera, like an animal caught in its lair. Such beauty in one house, such pathos in another, sparks something in Neville. But like all disaffected youth he does his best not to pay it too much attention.
The next section of the book is titled “Dead Letters”. In this section Neville finds himself in Britain, where he’s decided to make his way in the world to escape conscription. “Dead Letters” refers, in part, to the letters and cuttings his mother sends him, which include unusual and touching stories from the newspapers back home, stories which would be largely ignored by the mainstream press.
“The country kept its shape in my heart for one reason: my mother’s letters. More precisely, her enclosures. Every now and then, between the carefully folded sheets of onion-skin paper, among brisk accounts of engagement parties and kitchen teas, there would be something else. A recipe for breyani, which I’d mentioned in my last letter. A Polaroid of Paulina at the wheel of my old Datsun, the hand-me-down-car, on the day she got her driver’s licence. A shopping list she’d found in the bottom of a basket at the Hypermarket: mealie meal, pilchards, sticky tape, Doom – with the last item crossed out. Occasionally, a cutting from the newspaper, some small story most people would have read past. These days the papers, even the serious ones, are awash with trivia, and there’s nothing so strange it won’t be syndicated. Back then, the ordinary oddities were harder to spot. It took a sensibility rather than a search engine” (p 86). These form a tangible thread of connection to his homeland while he makes his living taking photographs for brochures and general advertising.
Soon it is 1994 and Neville is home again. He is drawn back inevitably to the house in Bez Valley that he had chosen all those years ago with Auerbach and Brookes. They’d never explored his choice of house, due to lack of interest by Auerbach at the end of that day. So Neville goes back, exploring an interrupted moment of his youth, ready to examine it this time with a more receptive consciousness. He finds a way into the house and into the life of Camilla, an aging Bez Valley resident who now looks after the ghost of a man named Dr Pinheiro. Dr Pinheiro was a qualified medical doctor seeking refuge from war-torn Mozambique who couldn’t get accreditation in South Africa. So he became a postal delivery man and a lodger with Camilla. The bond between them grew when he brought home letters from the post office with addresses he found hard to decipher. He and Camilla would try to decode the broken handwriting, the jumbled addresses, sometimes to no avail. In the end they kept many of the undelivered letters, almost as if they were curators of other people’s lives. To add to this sense of being curators of dead letters, Dr Pinheiro collected old letter boxes, which he arranged in the back garden like installation art. Camilla tells Neville how she and Dr Pinheiro fell in love over the envelopes. She brings the letters out to show Neville on one of his visits. Dead letters, decades old.
“While the tea was drawing, Mrs Pinheiro slipped the rubber bands from a bundle of letters and fanned them out. In answer to the question posed by her enlarged eye, I tapped on one of the letters. She picked it up and tried to read the address. As she opened the flap the static broke off and a prison cell folded out of the silence, a small bare room with walls of the same pale green as the envelope. A man lay on his side in the far corner with his back turned to us. She folded him into an upright position against the wall and pressed a fingertip to his brow. He was shivering. With a sweep of her hand, she smoothed his damp, bloodied body out against the table and raised him to his feet. But as he held out his bound wrists and made to speak, she closed him between her palms like a paper lantern and slipped the letter back into the pack” (p 130).
Here Vladislavic shows his eloquence and skill as a writer. Each of the letters comes to life. Touching on magic realism, he recreates the world of the author of the forgotten missives.
“Without another word, she unfolded a small girl into a shady corner of the garden. The poor scrap was barefoot and weeping. There was too much unhappiness in the world, I thought, in the world of letters, at least. Despite having resolved to stay out of it, I licked my finger and cleaned the corners of the child’s eyes, while Mrs Pinheiro straightened her skirt and tucked in her blouse. She put the child aside and reached for an air letter. A man and a woman slipped out together in a fug of cigarette smoke and perfume, their limbs folded loosely into one another at the joints.
“I tried to speak but my tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. My lips tasted of glue” (p 131).
Whether he wants to engage with the world or not, Neville touches the sadnesses of humanity, the reality he’d left behind during his years in England, through exploring the dead letters. Eventually he decides it is healthier to leave Mrs Pinheiro to her memories and to focus on the present for a while.
The third section of the novel is titled “Small Talk”. Neville has achieved some success as a photographer and now finds himself the object under discussion. A young, trendy journalist makes it her business to do a portrait of him in a newspaper interview, a blog and a small film clip to go on her website. Neville finds himself “playing” himself and is uncomfortable with the exercise. He endures it as best he can, and thinks that Janie, the journalist, is left with little more than the gist of things.
“The gist. It’s always the gist, isn’t it? We’re left with so little to go on. Only the present is full enough to seem complete, and even that is an optical illusion. The moment is bleeding off the page. We live on the precipice of our perceptions. At the edge of every living instant, the world shears away like a cliff of ice into the sea of what is forgotten” (p 153).
Neville explains to his partner, Leora, how the journalist’s street-smart irony clashes with his own ironic delivery of information. Leora remarks: “The whole thing is ironic … Maybe they cancel one another out then … a double negative.”
And there we have it. An ironic take on “real” life, told with irony, becomes a double negative. The reality is as real as we can hope it to be, reading it with our post-modern, ironic sensibilities, as well as taking into account the author/narrator’s post-modern insouciance. Nothing can be taken at face value. Double Negative is a liminal portrait of an artist, of a country, and of literature itself.
This novel has moved South African writing into an age beyond the merely representational. It has taken it to a more mature and self-reflexive place. With its delicate solipsism I’d venture to say that Double Negative has taken South African writing into the realm of art.