Show Less
Open access

Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

Show Summary Details
Open access

Hein Viljoen: Jeanne-Marie Jackson. South African Literature’s Russian Soul. Narrative Forms of Global Isolation. London: Bloomsbury, 2017 (2015). Pp. 236 + vii. ISBN: 9781350030305.

←250 | 251→

Jeanne-Marie Jackson. South African Literature’s Russian Soul. Narrative Forms of Global Isolation. London: Bloomsbury, 2017 (2015). Pp. 236 + vii. ISBN: 9781350030305.

At first blush, it might seem far-fetched to ascribe a Russian soul to South African literature. However, Jackson builds a strong rationale for comparing Russian 19th century realist literature with South African literature of the interregnum, as Nadine Gordimer called the period after 1976.

Jackson’s comparisons are guided by a strong theoretical consciousness and a very thorough knowledge of the two fields. Moreover, her comparison addresses important issues in comparative literature as well as in the study and understanding of a range of South African authors. She sets herself “the task of making global literary connections outside of – even in opposition to – the idea of global literature” (4) in order to bring about a more detailed understanding of such connections since, in her opinion, the idea of “global literature” is not comprehensive enough in scope. It tends towards including only texts written in English, canonizing a small group of authors and texts, and excluding differences from a range of places and across “rival scales of orientation” (local, regional or national, 6). She is, in short, looking for a more nuanced transnational literary practice (5).

This observation triggers the first impetus behind Jackson’s comparison of Russia and South Africa in periods of social turmoil: she wants to expand the historical and linguistic context for understanding South African literature. In doing so, she seeks to move beyond the framework of postcolonialism in order to address what she perceives as lacking in the understanding of South African literature, namely information about its “own transnational projections and fascinations (especially those that bypass England and the United States)” (5). She finds no middle ground between a deep understanding of South African literature that explores it relations to its apartheid past and a wide understanding that links it to the idea of a “global and/or a world novel” (8). What is missing is ←251 | 252→research into the paradoxical way in which being isolated in the local – and isolation is a guiding metaphor in this study – has transnational and global import. Her study thus aims to study the intersection of “local contexts and ‘big’ concepts” by means of a contrapuntal reading that “seeks to balance immediate realities and outward projections, the local compulsions and global inflections, of literary traditions conjoined at incrementally more complex levels” (9).

The second reason why Jackson undertakes this comparison is that Russia and South Africa, “during the most formative moments of their novelistic traditions, seemed almost quarantined from the international networks” in which they were economically or politically embedded (9). She is not claiming that the two nations really existed in isolation, but rather that a “widespread sense” of isolation can be as productive of literary expression as a sense of transnationalism. What Russia and South Africa shared during these periods was a “perceived ‘backwardness’ ” (20). Therefore, the challenge is to show how “a defining perception of being on the outside unfolds across key texts and moments in the development of Russian and South African realism” (20). Focusing on this perceived backwardness bypasses the more obvious link between the ANC and the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Jackson argues that this link is but the tip of the iceberg of South African writers’ fascination with Russia.

And indeed, the rest of Chapter 1 is a very well-informed (and persuasive) exploration of the density of the links between Russian and South African writers, from Gordimer and Coetzee to Galgut, La Guma and Vladislavic, which leads her to the conclusion that appealing to Russia “seem[s]; uniquely well suited to capturing key aspects of South Africa’s hyper-fragmented reality” (19). Linking South Africa and Russia is based on one of Jackson’s key assumptions, namely that “experience drives form” (14). In this light, she contends that Russian and South African realisms have developed differently from their European equivalents, as they paid more attention to the national incohesion of their time. In other words, they went against “the unifying logic that the realist paradigm so often seems to assume” (25). Jackson’s “underlying supposition” is that “Russian and South African realisms […] evolve precisely in order to convey their sense of foundational disorientation” (25). Her study thus takes a different route: instead of moving from the individual to the collective or from the home to the nation or the global, Jackson contends that “a more holistic portrait of South Africa as it first uses and then echoes Russia ←252 | 253→permits an organic convergence of the concrete and the philosophical” (26). In so doing, she strongly frames her study methodologically and epistemologically, while also anchoring it securely in social reality.

The subsequent chapters unfold roughly in a chronological order, though Jackson foregrounds conceptual clarity rather than historical salience. Each chapter focuses on a moment in South African writing and starts “with a key referential symptom and then works toward a larger formal epistemological condition” (27). In this way, Jackson’s comparison, which looks unproductive at first, develops into a rich and illuminating work that “capture[s]; the deep resonances between the two traditions” (ibid.) – and also tries to explain South African writers’ fascination with Russia.

In Chapter 2, Jackson triangulates the Russian debates about realistic vs. radical revolutionary writing with Nadine Gordimer’s 1981 novel July’s People and Miriam Tlali’s “revolutionary” novel Amandla, published in the same year. One of the core issues here is whether the protagonist can be representative of his or her social type (Lukács) and whether Gordimer’s and Tlali’s protagonists represent exhausted or vital new types. Jackson also examines whether realistic representation, in striving for balance, can be said to enable social change. She argues that these “formal trajectories” in the development of the anti-apartheid novel are complementary rather than oppositional and therefore cannot be understood apart from one another.

Much of the chapter provides a fine-grained discussion of realism and its limits in the light of the possible social role of the writer. In her reading of July’s People, Jackson emphasizes the radical isolation in the novel and its exhaustion of the possibility of social action. For her, the novel demonstrates its formal inability of “clearing space for a change in dispensation” (68). It eventually focuses on the exhaustion of the heroine, Maureen Smales, as a representative positive social type and on the exhaustion of the liberating trajectory of anti-apartheid novels in general.

In contrast, Jackson describes Tlali’s main character, Pholoso, as “the harbinger of collective liberation” (81). Yet, she considers Gordimer’s and Tlali’s novels as complementary in form and content. Formally, both “take stock of a turning point in South African history through the development of a central individual” (80). Moreover, Jackson regards the two novels as “mutually intelligible” on the basis of the “social-structural notion of ‘type’ ” (ibid.): they “typify interlocking halves of key moments ←253 | 254→in literary history” (ibid.). This kind of insight can only emerge from a comparison with Russian authors.

Chapter 3 contains an extended analysis of the meaning and use of animals in Tolstoy’s Strider (1886), JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999) and Marlene van Niekerk’s Triomf (1994). Jackson argues that Strider constitutes a case study of how animals can be used “to teach about our universal failures” (112). She contends that Disgrace shows “an animal’s instrumentality within one life” (ibid.). In contrast to David Lurie’s giving up the puppy for euthanasia in Disgrace, Jackson argues, the dogs in Triomf, though purportedly descended from the dogs left behind when Sophia Town was “cleaned up,” are not instrumentalized. Rather, they belong to the family while remaining dogs in their own right: not mere tools or usable things for the poor white family of the Benades. Gerty the beloved pet dog remains a dog, singular, literally in the flesh, and can only be allegorised after her death. Neither suffering nor companionship alone can define Gerty, Jackson seems to suggest.

Though Jackson might overstate the importance of the dogs in Triomf, she builds up an intricate and persuasive analysis around the position of animals, the ethics of their use, their suffering and their potential meaning. Again, her belief in novelistic structure shines through her familiarity with theoretical and philosophical discussions. She advocates the ability of what Ricoeur calls “robust narrativity” (97) to create some kind of meaning in the latter’s absence.

The continuing presence and rewriting of Chekhov on the South African stage make the comparison with Russian literature much more obvious. In her 4th chapter, “Retreating Reality: Chekhov’s South African Afterlives,” Jackson again presents an intricate argument – this time based on the narratological concepts of an event and of narrative kernels and satellites. She argues that Chekov’s comedies are not concerned with big kernel events but rather with a complex exploration of subsidiary happenings, the ordinary happenings of life, which propel his plays forward. She writes that Chekhov’s “ostensibly hopeless provincialism” “conceals a complex and constructive ‘micro-narrative’ paradigm that accounts for the ‘timeless timeliness’ of [his] work” (135). Such a “micro-narrative,” she claims, means “the unfolding of meaning outside or even in opposition to the ‘plot’ of a given work” (ibid.). The ending of The Seagull, offers a case in point: the characters’ trivial card game provides the energy driving the play while Konstantin takes his own life backstage, enacting a dead-end in the plot.

←254 | 255→

Jackson misses this kind of minor narrative energy in the work of Reza de Wet, acclaimed inter alia for writing sequels and continuations of Chekhov’s plays in resonance with South African circumstances. Jackson contends de Wet’s response to Chekov suggests a self-disabling isolation that contrasts with the self-energizing isolation found in Chekhov (156). De Wet’s Yelana, for example, “reverses the momentum of Uncle Vanya” and ends with eroding “narrative as a source of meaning in its own right” (159).

In the final section of the chapter, Jackson explores the reception of de Wet’s response to Chekhov. She points out that critics like André Brink demand referential truth to the South African reality from de Wet while non-South African critics “uphold a standard of timeless authenticity.” Jackson proposes a different way to account for the impossible position she finds de Wet’s work in: “neither of Chekhov’s time and place nor of its own, neither formally novel nor the mimetic expression of an urgent reality” (165). In Jackson’s view, “de Wet does not attempt to write a Chekhovian classic and fail but succeeds in writing a poignant elegy for the classic that invokes rather than reflects her own social position” (ibid.). This rather elegant solution is typical of the way in which Jackson brings nuance and complexity to the often stark oppositions with which critics operate.

In Chapter 5, Jackson takes up the issue of cosmopolitan literature and its relations to childhood and to place. Her point of departure is Nabokov’s autobiographical text Speak, memory (1967). She stresses the way it remains grounded in Nabokov’s Russian childhood. She asks whether cosmopolitan literature can exist in a kind of experiential vacuum. The other texts she analyses, namely Mark Behr’s Kings of the Water (2009) and Lewis Nkosi’s Mandela’s Ego (2006), also make problematic any easy assumptions about borderlessness and “liberatory transnationalism” (171). She is looking for “the deeper systemic and epistemic shifts” (173) that globalization entails. The question is not, she writes, “of whether globalization is ineluctable (it is) but of whether and to what extent it can be made meaningful in narrative form” (173, Jackson’s italics). Given the conservative aura surrounding the idea of “home” in a post-colonial context, the question boils down to finding the “abiding concerns that unite fictions of displacement across both space and time, which might acknowledge the nation’s by-now foregone status as a ‘ghostly’ construct […] while still taking seriously the allure of affiliation” (176). The complex answer she proposes foregrounds ←255 | 256→a “simultaneous retreat and recovery that sacrifices some of the easy sanguinity of an unbounded world vision” (175).

Jackson’s analyses thus reveal “the double-bind of home” alluded to in the chapter’s title. The critic regards the fragmentary nature of Nabokov’s autobiographical aesthetic as a way of creating meaning through the uncovering of intricate micro-narratives buried in memory. Mark Behr’s main character Michiel finds “fluidity through emplacement” (198) since the farm and its people to which he returns have a much more vivid and textured presence, both ethically and narratively, than his rather bland cosmopolitan life in San Francisco. In fact, Jackson argues that the novel stages a return to the confined racial and social circumstances of the farm. This confinement is the “sole ground from which a narrative of interpersonal reckoning and personal transformation can emerge” (197). Again, in Nkosi’s novel, isolation and confinement prove productive. In this case, the “confined local space” of a rural village acquires “national significance” (29), complicating ideas about border-crossing and transnationalism. With her eye for complexity, Jackson perceives that the towering figure of Mandela as “rallying point” and “source of meaning” must be satirised for “local discord to emerge” (207). Again, Jackson points to the emergence of a lack of cohesion and the possibility that South African literature might be defined as a construct “determined through disruption” (in Leon de Kock’s words, qtd. 205).

Isolation and narrative form constitute two of the guiding threads of Jackson’s book, as also transpires from the Epilogue that sums up what she regards as her most important findings. Briefly, her analyses hinge on a complication of the idea of realism through a revisiting of kinds of isolation and a serious reconsideration of narrative form itself. But such abstractions necessarily flatten Jackson’s intricate, theoretically well-informed and erudite arguments. Readers should rather savour for themselves the richness and complexity of the overall argument as well as the subtle and profound insights Jackson gleans from her juxtaposition of South African and Russian literature.


Hein Viljoen

North-West University (South Africa)