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Fred de Vries

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Breytenbach Turns Seventy

Breyten Breytenbach… For three generations of young South Africans even the shadow of a whisper of the name felt like a forbidden fruit. Writer Fanie de Villiers (1956) remembers discovering Breytenbach’s poetry when he was a student at the University of Pretoria. “It was like a blow in the stomach … radically different to anything I had ever read! He wrote from another world, about another world, and yet he was steeped in his mother tongue. He used it so powerfully!”

Wits academic Michael Titlestad (1964) grew up in Verwoerdburg. His Afrikaans teacher, meester Grobbelaar, did something unusual: he made the boys read Breytenbach’s poetry. “The shock of those surreal texts in Verwoerdburg with its military base! It had an enormous impact.”

Young Breyten grew up in rural Western Cape. In 1960, he packed his bags and boarded a Portuguese ship that took him as a fourth class passenger to Europe, where he ended up in bohemian Paris. Life there, I suggest, must have been an epiphany for a young artist whose encounters with la vie bohème had been restricted to Cape Town.

South Africa’s most important living poet started his artistic life fifty years ago –as a painter. “Painting taught me about the physical importance of texture, colours, silences, resonance, patterns, structure and perspective, synchronism and dissonance… of words. It made me aware of the materiality of the medium. On top of that, many of my poems are just little pictures. Painting continues to inform my approach,” explains Breytenbach in an email.

“Epiphany? Maybe,” muses Breytenbach. “Youth is always the high point of ecstasy, no? Yes, I certainly bathed in the general atmosphere of Paris as movable feast and laboratory of inventiveness, experimentalism, transgression, new thinking (with Camus probably finally more influential than Sartre) – and all of these linked to avant-guard political internationalism and to theories of transformation. We were poor but happy (to quote Hemingway.) It was a true privilege to walk the same streets and drink in the same bars as Beckett and Giacometti and Ionesco, to count among one’s friends artists and writers and runaways from Russia and Argentina and Mexico and Cuba and Morocco and Mali and Holland and Denmark and Brazil and, and…”


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    September 11th, 2009 @15:01 #

    Definitely worth the click through; you'll find juicy morsels from Breytenbach like "Morally [South Africa] is a failed state" and "by and large SA English language writing is the expression of marginalized imperialist subjects, of colonial snobs and dolts".


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