Zoë Wicomb

What kind of makeshift shelter is this?

1. This question opens the second paragraph of Zoë Wicomb’s Still Life. The publisher’s blurb for the South African edition offers one answer.

On this account Still life is a novel about an attempt to write a biography of Thomas Pringle that plays fast and loose with history while giving new meaning to the term ‘ghostwriting.’ 

1.1 The blurb comes from the ‘local’ edition, which Penguin Random House, South Africa published in September 2020. The US publishers, New Press, framed their ‘world’ edition, which appeared two months later, differently. Since Still Life includes a satirical portrait of a market-savvy London literary agent called Belinda — the reluctant writer’s tormentor — these bibliographical details speak to some of its larger concerns, though they also tell another story about the tangled intricacies, and ever-shifting dynamics, of contemporary publishing. The ‘local’ edition appeared under the Umuzi imprint — umuzi means ‘home’, ‘village’, or ‘hearth’ in a various indigenous southern African languages — now owned by the world’s largest multinational publishing company Penguin Random House, which is, in turn, part of the German multimedia corporation, Bertelsmann. By contrast, the New Press edition, which is available to the English-reading world outside South Africa, is the product of a New York-based ‘nonprofit public-interest publisher’ committed to leveraging ‘books, diverse voices, and media engagement to facilitate social change, enrich public discourse, and defend democratic values.’ As this mission statement suggests, the corporatized literary culture Belinda and her kind represent may be in the ascendant, but it is not entirely dominant. 

2. In the world of the fiction, it is the ‘reluctant writer’ who asks the pointed opening question. The first and only non-spectral I-narrator, she is and is not Wicomb herself — unsurprisingly, given this artful equivocation, Belinda’s market-savvy belief in ‘the power, the necessity, of the authentic first-person’ gets short shrift in Wicomb’s book (21). From this narrator, we get two answers:

A. Giving more details about the ‘makeshift shelter’, which we first encounter as a place inhabited by the ghosts from times past, she continues: ‘Wind rattles the reeds that pass for rafters and the corroded sheets of corrugated iron lift creakily and fall, lift and fall, so that shafts of light snap at the spectral figures flailing, writhing in their am-dram poses’ (7).

B. A few pages on, Mary Prince gives another answer. Speaking for all her fellow spectres, she tries chivvying the self-doubting writer with a direct appeal: ‘Look, there is room for you to dress us up or down, but we want out, we’ve had enough of being trapped in this derelict pondok of history’ (10). With Mary the writer’s literal ‘makeshift shelter’ morphs into the figural ‘pondok of history’ — despite her West Indian origins, she uses a peculiarly South African word, which comes from Arabic via Malay and Dutch (see below). In response, the writer thinks to herself: ‘If only she [Mary] knew that I could house them in little more than another pondok — of another order, yes, but the house of fiction within my means, with its rusted tin roof, may be no less leaky’ (10). 

This is one of the many points at which the first I-narrator shades equivocally into Wicomb herself. Strictly speaking, in the world of the fiction, the writer is primarily a biographer and, as we discover, a failed one at that. The only true fictioneer is the altogether more successful author of Still Life. The writer-figure’s response to Mary’s appeal consequently does something more than she intends: it sets the initial terms for Wicomb’s literary-philosophical enquiry into the vexed relations between fiction and history. As the oblique reference to Henry James’s ‘house of fiction‘ hints, the literary in this conceptualization figures neither as a grand Jamesian rival, nor as a modest secondary adjunct to the historical. It is simply another makeshift pondok. In fact, Still Life does more than take on history: it raises questions about the nature, uses, and value of knowledge in all its forms and varieties, whether in the colonial past or in the decolonizing present. 

3. Later, Vytje, another spectre, gives different answer to the opening question. ‘This beehive house of fiction bursts at the seams, buzzes with our competitive spirits’, she says with all her fellow ghosts in mind, ‘it was not made for so many people’ (132). Despite her choice of terminology, Vytje, a former servant in the Pringle’s Cape colonial household, uses a metaphor rooted in earlier indigenous realities: many southern African pastoralists traditionally built domed houses out of mud, pliable wood, thatch, and grass, which, according to nineteenth-century European eyes, looked like old-style, wicker beehives (again see below). So Vytje’s over-crowded ‘house of fiction’ is another kind of ‘makeshift shelter’. This is an apt description of Still Life itself: like a beehive, it buzzes with chorus of voices and counter-voices, none of which has the final word.

Victorian skep
19th century wicker skep

3.1. Vytje, who secretly teaches herself to read and write, is also one of the most astute commentators on Still Life’s literary-philosophical preoccupations with writing and knowledge. There is, as she puts it, a ‘danger that lurks in writing’, especially when it is engraved in stone or printed with ink on paper (144). In these media, it not only fixes ‘ideas’, which, as she reports Pringle telling her, always ‘dance about as we wade through the world’. It lays claim to territory and land, setting the grounds for conflict, and, as Vytje witnesses as a ghostly observer of the disputes over Pringle’s reputation, it causes endless ‘hullaballoo’ (140, 144). Hence her own preference for ‘writing on the earth, where words could easily be erased’ (140). Despite this, she would, as she notes, happily ‘score’ the following words in stone (141):


3.2. All this speaks to Vytje’s own experience of being an object of writing. A ‘mere mention’ in Pringle’s poem ‘The Emigrant’s Cabin‘, where she is misnamed ‘Vytje Vaal’ (for the sake of ‘a pleasing rhythm’) and misidentified as a ‘Hottentot’, she fares no better in the historical footnote Pringle added where she is again misnamed, now as Vytje Dragoener (166). In fact, her family name was ‘Windvogel’, her ghost explains, ‘Dutch for the original Khoe word for bird-of-the-wind’, and she belonged to the Gonaqua-speaking Khoekhoe people (167). As she recognises, Hinza suffers a similar fate as an object of Pringle’s writing, albeit with more troubling personal consequences — hence her somewhat tart description of him as ‘he of the original identity crisis’ (132). Among other things, Hinza discovers that Pringle exercised considerable ‘poetic licence’ in ‘The Bechuana Boy‘, a poem in which he re-worked their first encounter into a publicity piece for the abolitionist cause. Similar questions haunt The History of Mary Prince (1831), which was ghostwritten by Susanna Strickland and edited by Pringle, though even Sir Nicholas Greene, a stubbornly reactionary renegade from the seventeenth century and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928), comes to see how ‘shocking’, ‘moving’, and ‘revealing’ it is as record of the horrors Mary endured (233). As the time-travelling Sir Nicholas habitually pronounces the death of literature across the ages, in Wicomb’s book as in Woolf’s, his transformative reading experience represents another of Still Life’s many-sided reflections on the powers and perils of writing. 

4. The questions Still Life raises about knowledge are not only historical, nor are they limited to fiction (or poetry) and history as modes of writing. With her evangelical commitment to ‘the genre of life-writing’, Belinda gives these questions a contemporary edge too. She wants the writer-figure to abandon the hopeless Pringle project, and to write To Miss, with Love instead, a ‘redemptive comprehensive school novel,’ based on her own experience as a schoolteacher, ‘and an updated, female version of [E. R. Braithwaite’s] To Sir, with Love [1959]’ (21). For Belinda, this is the kind of authentic first-person testimony the contemporary market wants. Academic literary criticism, another contemporary form of knowledge production, gets a similarly acerbic treatment. In an effort to clarify his own growing doubts about Pringle, Hinza at one point consults Professor Phyllida Ritchie at the University of Cape Town. It is not a happy encounter. ‘Our celebrated figure is no more than a cipher,’ the professor explains sternly, ‘constructed by liberal English South Africans intent on distinguishing their polite racism from the crass Afrikaner one’ (209). What about his ‘work for the Anti-Slavery Society in London?’, Hinza asks. ‘No more than a stance’, the professor declares, ‘purely textual, all in the writing’ (210-11). At this, Hinza starts to feel ‘a strange buzzing in his ears that makes it difficult to absorb her words,’ after which he takes flight down the corridor (211).

5. Given all this, Still Life poses a challenge: how to respond. In Professor Ritchie’s detached style of literary critique? With Sir Nicholas’s powerfully affective change of heart? In writing? In some other medium or mode? Here is a sequence of alternative responses. Click each image to enlarge.

And click here to hear Wicomb read Still Life, and David Attwell and Andrew van der Vlies discuss it.


Still Life 1

Still Life 2
Still Life 3
Still Life 4
Still Life 5
Still Life 6 (Credit: Jess)
Still Life 7
Still Life 8
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