Translated by Leon De Kock & Karin Schimke (Umizi 2015)
Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, spoken by some seven million speakers and widely recognised by the leadership of the African National Congress for its contribution to dissident literature has produced a number of writers of global significance. It remains a vibrant literary culture as the writing of J.M Coetzee, Marlene van Niekerk, and others testify. The love letters of novelist, André Brink and poet, Ingrid Jonker, written between April 1963 and April 1965, return to the reader to a time of protest against censorship when no criticism of South Africa’s race policy was tolerated, and is perhaps a timely reminder for South Africans.
Brink, at the beginning of his career as a novelist, teaching at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and Jonker, writing her second poetry collection, whilst working as a proofreader in Cape Town, fell head over heels at first sight. Brink, already married, and Jonker, separated from her husband and daughter at the beginning of their relationship, found as much time as possible for rampant sex. The letters, exquisitely written, combine intimacy with candid exploration, responses to their publications and gossip about friends and fellow writers. They show frustration at the insufficiency of words, religion and the post Sharpeville political situation.
Here is Brink on 28 June 1963:
It’s cold here; and here in my little circle of light in the bedroom – all the others are sitting around the fireplace – it’s lonely too. This, however, is no pure, austere kind of cold that clarifies things, down to the bone; it’s miserable and muddy; and my heart feels much the same. …
This afternoon I was with Dekker, but he’s a hard nut to crack. He did, however, indicate he’s not unsympathetic to Labola. Meanwhile, other people’s reactions are typical of Potchefstroom: the head of the Afrikaans Department said straight out he had read the book up to page 42 and then thrown it away. Immoral. Confused. And (isn’t this strange!) uncalvinistic. These are the people who guide our students. …
More pleasant: I found an interesting, though often naïve The Psychology of Sex (Oswald Schwarz) – thus not the one you showed me at Windell’s place. He offers the following insights, among others, that seem more philosophical than psychological (and are therefore perhaps true?) “Sex love means insatiable participation in the existence of the beloved. Love is not a state which can be reached and in which longing comes to rest: love is perpetual striving, unending uncertainty, an everlasting act of creation.”
In his autobiography, A Fork in the Road (2009), Brink explained that his life was never the same again after meeting Jonker. Reading Flame in the Snow one has a sense that he is in the process of being transformed into a more energised and combative writer. His letters are fuller and longer, whereas Jonker’s are more succinct and somehow being what Brink aspires. He had studied in Paris a few years earlier and was full of the existentialism that Jonker seems to embody in her poetry and life. Their literary quotations come from Afrikaans, Dutch, English, and French, Italian, German and other foreign language poets and writers. Brink lets Pound speak his emotions; later Jonker sends her translation of an E.E. Cummings poem. They read all the new American and English poetry anthologies.
It is Jonker’s personae, beauty and poetry that clearly hold Brink in thrall. She attracts other lovers and yet Brink continues to yearn. He kept the carbon copies of his correspondence as if he knew that their relationship held significance. We sadly are not privy to their telephone conversations or the tapes that they sent each other. The relationship is deep, turbulent and, for Brink, liberating. Flame in the Snow reads like a novel and the reader has to fill in the gaps between letters. There is a sense in which Jonker chides and goads Brink to become more oppositional in his every day life and writing. In her second letter she chastises him for accepting the Eugene Marais Encouragement for Drama award, refuses to offer congratulations, and insists that he must be more confrontational. She knows that there can be no compromise with such a regime. After her suicide Brink became more radicalised and oppositional. The letters reveal Jonker as an uncompromising woman struggling to survive. Her financial and physical struggles to write and exist as a single mother allow her access to the world of deprivation experienced more diversely by other South Africans.
Flame in the Snow will surely join the pantheon of great literary love letters and be well scrutinized for its information on both writers. It makes compulsive reading.
David Caddy 9th January 2016