I recently picked up a few signed books by Ivan Vladislavic after an event in Park Slope in Brooklyn; this is The Folly, published last month by Archipelago Books. Archipelago does some great, inspiring work and their commitment to world literature is second to none (Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elias Khoury are among their active roster). Vladislavic is a South African writer who I discovered through And Other Stories out of the UK. The Folly is his first novel, which was first published in 1994. Although I missed Vladislavic read from The Folly I was lucky enough to pick up a signed copy (along with And Other Stories' 101 Detectives). I've not read The Folly yet but am looking forward to it -- I thought Double Negative and The Restless Supermarket were quite good and have read some great reviews of this one.
While we're on Vladislavic: in an effort to salvage some of my reviews from the recently shuttered About.com Contemporary Literature, here is a 'reprint' of my text on the author's excellent novel Double Negative.
Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavic
Review by Jeff Alford
Originally published by About.com Contemporary Literature
In a familiar fit of teenage malaise and political dissatisfaction, Neville Lister drops out of school and returns to his childhood Johannesburg home to the dismay of his parents. Finding his son's actions unacceptable, Nev’s father coordinates a meeting with Saul Auerbach, a professional photographer and family acquaintance, with the hope of providing his son a new perspective on the world around him. Auerbach (with a British journalist in tow) takes Nev on a day-long shoot driving through forgotten neighborhoods outside of Johannesburg. Perhaps unknown to Nev at the time, Auerbach teaches him valuable lessons about recognizing subtlety and nuance in the world around him: “The presence of a great photographer…the pressure of his calculating eye, created subject matter. Wherever you looked, you saw a photograph. Not just any photographer either: an Auerbach.”
Like Saul Auerbach, South African author Ivan Vladislavic waits for light, for shadows to expand and wane across an otherwise uneventful page. The developments of apartheid unfold fiercely offstage in Double Negative but can be seen glowing through the cracks of Vladislavic's stoic scenes. Double Negative doesn't place its readers deep amidst violence and protests, but instead takes them down under-traveled side streets, to placid scenes where drama unfolds slowly. Masterfully, Vladislavic imbues this slowness with the quiet hum of untapped significance.
Double Negative is divided into three sections, each around a decade apart. The novel's first section, “Available Light”, is set in the 1980s and serves as a kind of overture: both political and stylistic themes are introduced here that are developed over the remaining eras of the book. Readers may be surprised at the lack of action, but these scenes of driving with Auerbach unfold exactly as a photographer like Auerbach (or David Goldblatt, the real-life photographer on whom Auerbach is based) would orchestrate their shots. We wait and revisit the same characters until they begin to change, or seem to change among their roiling, fluid circumstances:
“Repetition. Things had begun to double. There must be a term for it. Is it a natural process or an historical one? Should it be encouraged or suppressed? Or simply endured? Perhaps every gesture will beget its twin, every action find an echo, every insight becomes a catechism, like some chain reaction that can never be halted. The concatenated universe.”
Vladislavic's restraint is admirable, as even among the most still moments one can find exemplified the author's complex photographic technique.
In “Available Light”, Auerbach and his accompanying cohorts initiate a challenge: each person would select a house to approach and engage with as an investigative photographer would. Here, their artistry borders on breaking and entering: they charm their way into the homes of strangers and mine their lives for poignancy. Vladislavic slyly brings the ethics of photography into focus in these scenes: Nev tells the readers later that Auerbach walked away that day with some of his most famous photographs, but it's difficult not to interpret the work as stolen.
Two of the three homes yield impressive results, and they decide to call it a day before engaging Nev's selection. In Double Negative’s second section, Nev is revealed to have grown into a semi-professional photographer living in London. The shadows of "Available Light" still flicker in Nev's mind: on a visit home he returns, alone, to the third home that he and Auerbach skipped. Nev and the home’s occupant begin a captivating and surreal relationship that, like his first visit to the neighborhood, continues to shape him as he further grows into adulthood.
While the great success of Double Negative is contingent upon its slow development, the novel’s subtlety and careful pace might turn off some readers. The excitement of Double Negative will develop upon a more broad reflection on the novel: taking the story on a thematic, technical level will reveal much greatness, hidden in plain sight.
A Clue to the Exit by Edward St. Aubyn
Currently listening to:
The Undertones, "Teenage Kicks"