Review: Vivien Horler
The Love Song of André P Brink, by Leon de Kock (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
A three-and-a-half-year undertaking to produce a significant work on groundbreaking South African author André Brink has turned into a marketing nightmare for publishers Jonathan Ball.
The author is Leon de Kock, poet, novelist and professor emeritus in English Studies at the University of Stellenbosch who, apparently overwrought at completing this major book, allegedly called an Observatory restaurant worker the k-word, and then also made sexual advances to a second woman present.
De Kock was arrested and appeared in the Cape Times Magistrate’s Court on May 10 on a charge of crimen injuria. Instead of appearing in triumph at the Franschhoek Literary Festival over the weekend of May 17 to 19, he stayed away.
The writer’s son Luke apologised on Facebook for his father’s remarks, and said he had been “institutionalised”. His children also wrote on Facebook: “Over the past three months he went through an intense manic episode…He was under the influence of prescribed medication, sleepless nights and alcohol… That doesn’t excuse his reprehensible behaviour, but perhaps puts the incident in context.”
Jonathan Ball Publishers also distanced themselves from De Kock, saying: “Before this incident De Kock’s conduct had become increasingly unpredictable to the extent that we decided to cancel all launches of his recently published book.”
But it’s not just the alleged crimen injuria that has been condemned – eyebrows have also been raised about some of the book’s content.
Andre Brink’s life story is relatively well known, not only because he was a leading figure in Afrikaans and South African literature for decades, but also thanks in part to his own writing about himself: his autobiography A Fork in the Road, the publication of the correspondence between Brink and the doomed poet Ingrid Jonker under the title Flame in the Snow, the correspondence between Brink and Karina Szczurek You Make me Possible , and Szczurek’s own memoir The Fifth Mrs Brink.
But what is new about this volume is that De Kock draws heavily on Brink’s journals, which he started writing in matric and which spanned 52 years of his life, tailing off only during his marriage to Szczurek. De Kock says the handwritten journals run to more than a million words, none of which has been published or even seen in public before.
Apart from his five wives, Brink was known to have had a series of extra-marital affairs, usually with women considerably younger than he was, including an undergraduate student while he was lecturing in Afrikaans Nederlands at Rhodes University.
But the detail of these relationships – often graphic sexual detail – was omitted in the memoirs and books of correspondence. Not so in The Love Song of Andre P Brink. It would seem that, starting with his relationship with Jonker, whom Brink met when he was 27 (married, with an infant son) and Jonker a year or so older, he liked to experience the sex twice: once in fact, and then again when committing the details to his journals.
Quotations from the journals allow Brink’s own voice to be heard, and De Kock says while the journals contain much philosophical and literary reflection, political opinion, and references to daily life, “the most intense and exhilarating – indeed exhilarated – writing is to be found in Brink’s love-and-sex entries”.
De Kock persuades himself that since Brink made no attempt to destroy his journals, despite “ample opportunity to do so”, Brink probably meant them to be read, “possibly as the truest story about himself”.
Some of these passages are truly eye-widening – at one point in a description of wild sex with Jonker, Brink reports that in the height of passion “she almost bit my voël off”.
He liked to count his sexual feats; During an eight-day visit to Cape Town from Grahamstown, he writes he and Jonker had sex 20 times: “Saturday night after my arrival once, Sunday five times, Monday morning twice, and then again that night…”
He also writes about another episode of sex with Jonker, mentioning the “greatest passion we’ve yet had together – one and a half hours long – with many varying moods”. This was, he writes, their “golden anniversary: our 50th fuck”. He was, you see, counting.
In a review of the book in Vrye Weekblad published on May 24, Deborah Steinmair writes that Szczurek made the journals available to De Kock, presumably under the impression that the contents would enrich Afrikaans literature and be preserved for future generations.
Szczurek also presumably trusted De Kock as they had worked together before, when he had translated Brink’s letters to Jonker into English for Flame in the Snow.
But Steinmair wonders whether Polish-born Szczurek had actually read the journals, written by hand in Afrikaans, before entrusting them to De Kock. She writes: “This reader is reasonably sure (Szczurek) did not read them…There are rumours that she tried to prevent the publication of the book. Because in his diaries Brink spares neither himself nor anyone else.”
The entries make Steinmair feel guiltily as if she is peering through the keyhole at something she shouldn’t be seeing. As for me, they made me want to cry: “Enough – too much information!”
The relationship between Jonker and Brink was tumultuous, marked by passionate sex, terrible fights and many tears. The pattern of drama and anguish that accompanied many of his liaisons with young women throughout his life was set, apparently ending only with the relationship with Szczurek, who is younger than Brink’s own daughter Sonja.
His joy and anguish over his various relationships prompts a female friend to say tartly: “His voël gives him the run-around”. Later he writes to the friend’s husband: “I can think of far worse things to be run round by!”
Of course there was much more to Brink than his love life, and De Kock writes briefly about his childhood in the country towns where his father was a magistrate, Brink’s striving to make his mother proud of him yet always feeling he fell short, his education at Potschefstroom university and then his re-education in Paris in the late 1950s where he threw off the shackles of small-town Afrikanerdom and Calvinism, and became appalled at what was happening in South Africa.
De Kock also writes about Brink’s novels and their impact on a rising generation of Afrikaans writers such as Marita van der Vyver, who said it was Brink who showed her it was possible to “write about sex in Afrikaans”. His 1973 novel Kennis van die Aand, about a coloured actor who has a relationship with a white woman, caused consternation and was the first Afrikaans novel to be banned by the censors.
And De Kock writes of Brink’s political activism against the apartheid government, his fight against censorship, his friendship with Breyten Breytenbach, and his more recent condemnation of the direction in which South African politics has been going.
Andre Brink was a brave and brilliant man, an academic, a prolific and ground-breaking writer who won both local and international acclaim for his work and, by his account, a lover of note.
The Love Song of Andre P Brink is scholarly, revealing and worth reading. It is however not comprehensive – now and then De Kock will announce he’s not going into detail about certain life passages, such as the relationship between Brink and Szczurek, because she had written her own account of it.
And the biography doesn’t always make for comfortable reading. Is the sexual detail justified in that it lays bare – literally – the private life of one of South Africa’s greatest men of letters for future generations? I’m not sure it is.