Meeting halfway

I must start by reporting a case of theft. I would not have written this book if 20 kilograms of my intellectual property had not been stolen by a baggage handler at Athens Airport. It’s a long story, going back more than ten years, but I think you might enjoy it. I would like to present it as my credentials: it explains why a novelist would go where an art historian fears to tread.

In the early 1990s, under the influence of writers like Walter Abish and Georges Perec, I wrote a handful of fictions based on the eighth edition of the Concise Oxford. They were called ‘Improvisations for Dictionary’ and they were almost entirely unreadable. The pick of the bunch was titled ‘The Omniscope’ and appeared in my collection Propaganda by Monuments (1996).

The hero of this story, whose name is Hauptfleisch, is trying to invent an instrument that will allow him to see everything — an omniscope. After building one simple device, which is no more than a box full of objects, he comes up with a second model that is crammed with language. Let me read you a few lines to give you the idea: “Omniscope II arose from my conviction that seriousness of purpose is best served by duplicity … each of the new modelscontained potato peelings; flowers of speech; physical explanations of miracles; bare facts, walls; … fresh herrings, butter, meat, fruit; a peacock proper; paperbacks with lurid covers; impressions from the outside; Milton’s prose works; quotations from the Fathers; rampant theorists, violence …” and so on.

Each of the elements in Hauptfleisch’s machine is actually a scrap of found verbal material from the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD). These are phrases that illustrate idiomatic usage. For instance, to show how one uses the word fresh the dictionary gives the phrase “fresh herrings, butter, meat, fruit”; or to show the use of rampant, the phrase “rampant theorists, violence” — a pairing I find particularly satisfying.

I won’t go into how I chose these phrases, but it was a time-consuming process. I had always enjoyed browsing in dictionaries, but using them in this purposeful way, as material for fiction,involved a great deal of methodical searching. For several years I had the COD on my bedside table. I must say that it began to feel like an unhealthy preoccupation. Howdo you explain to a journalist, for instance, that you haven’t read any fiction lately because you’ve been too busy reading the dictionary?

It was at exactly this point that I came across Willem Boshoff’s Blind Alphabet, a massive sculpture based on years of research into the terminology of structure, texture and form. You can imagine how relieved I was to discover that I was not the only person in Johannesburg compelled to read the dictionary. Here was someone whose condition was much worse than my own, someone who had trawled through scores of reference works, whose obsessive researches made my own look like a harmless pastime.

Aside from a sense of solidarity with a fellow sufferer, I felt a strong affinity with Boshoff’s work. ‘The Omniscope’ is a trifle compared with the Blind Alphabet, which is a masterpiece in my view, but the two works have a striking structural similarity: in both cases you have a series of boxes containing fragments of the dictionary which allow the viewer (or reader) to see in a new way. I was amazed and delighted by the Blind Alphabet and it cast a spell over my imagination.

In my essay, I say that Boshoff is essentially a writer and that it is appropriate and productive to approach his work as a reader. The statement needs to be qualified. He is a writer, but he is not a storyteller. Practically all his work is concerned with language, with the mechanics of reading and writing, the limitations of book knowledge, and so on, but hardly any of it — perhaps none of it — is narrative. In fact, his work nearly always frustrates or denies the narrative impulse. He is a marshaller of inventories and classifications, on a breathtaking scale, but he is not a spinner of yarns. Any number of South African artists, including many conceptualists, are more literary than he is.

This becomes apparent if you look for the differences between ‘The Omniscope’ and the Blind Alphabet. The lists and inventories in the former, like the sample I read earlier, are embedded in a fiction, and designed to derail a narrative train; in the latter, they are the basis of the work itself. In a way, his work is an affront to storytelling.

Around 1997, I decided to write a novel based on — or perhaps I should say ranged against — the Blind Alphabet, in which I intended to reclaim the words in his morphological dictionary for fiction. What words they are: arciform, biconjugate, cocculiferous — it was unjust and wasteful that such words should be trapped in a dictionary, even if it was a three-dimensional one.

They should be liberated into a story, and it was my idea to supply one. The book was to consist of 26 parts, named A to Z, each built around words from one of the alphabeticalcategories. At the time, of course, Boshoff had only shown A to C of his Alphabet. In order to write the fiction, I would have to project ahead, doing some research of my own to find morphological terms that were bound to turn up in his dictionary in future — flosculose, mucroniferous, that sort of thing. Part of the fictional plan was therefore to predict or pre-empthis work. In other words, there was a mean streak in it.

I planned this book in 1999, when I received a grant to do some work in Germany, and I am certain that I would have written it. But as luck would have it, when I came home at the end of that year, some boxes of my papers went missing without trace in the baggage handling facility at Athens Airport, which I assume is a maze of mythological dimensions. Losingcreative work is a very demoralising thing. I did not have the heart to reconstruct this work, and so I abandoned the idea and went on to other things.

There is an interesting process that happens in the brain when one cannot remember a word, when one has a bout of lethologica, to use a term from the Dictionary of Perplexing English. You say — “It’s on the tip of my tongue” — but you cannot recall it. It itches at you, for hours, or even days and weeks, until at some unsuspecting moment the word suddenly pops into your head. I once read an article that explained the physiology of it: essentially, the missing word hovers at the end of an unfinished neurological process, or synapse, which keeps sparking away until it can finally complete itself.

The creative process is a bit like this. Had I written a fiction about the Blind Alphabet, I believe I would have got it out of my system. But thanks to a thief in Athens the process was disrupted. And so when David Krut asked me whether I would like to write something on Boshoff for the Taxi Series, I had to say yes. In a way this book is a new departure for me; in another way it is an inevitable conclusion.

In one of my first discussions with David, I did ask him whether I could write a novel for the Taxi Series and he predictably said no, it had to be a work of criticism of some kind. I followed that brief as closely as I could. Nevertheless, because of the history I’ve outlined, I came to the project with a very well-developed sense of Boshoff as a fiction. When I met him, I soon discovered that he has a welldeveloped sense of himself as a fiction too.

Although the mode of his work is not that of a storyteller, in interviews and in conversationhe presents his own life and career as a story. In my essay, I tried to meet that story halfway, to find some middle ground between his version of himself and his work, and mine, without, I hope, falling between the two. There are few spectacles more undignified than an author falling between two stories.

Ideally, a book in the Taxi Series should be a kind of mid-term review, providing anoverview of the artist’s career and interests, documenting major works, conveying basic biographical information, and so on. This is a lot to ask of an essay. With an artist like Boshoff, the task is made more difficult by the range and depth of his work. One of the things that made the task manageable is that the work, for all its diversity, is remarkably coherent. There are strong currents of continuity below the surface.

This should not be surprising, given his fascination with etymology and taxonomy; so much of his work celebrates variety and idiosyncrasy on the surface while it traces interconnection and affinity in the depths. By adopting a kind of philological approach, I hoped to draw out these continuities without being overly reductive.

So, for instance, I tried to show the continuities between his early wooden sculptures, like Kasboek and Tafelboek, and the later works like the Blind Alphabet, by treating them as statements of ‘readable wood’. Or to show the continuities between his work with Afrikaans, in the early concrete poems, and with English, in the later works like The Writing in the Sandor Windfall. Or to link the early 370-Day Project with the later Garden of Words and Bottled Hope, all of which involve painstaking collection of material and knowledge, and the marriage of art and science. Any of these themes would make a book on its own, and I’m sure people whose credentials are less fanciful than mine will write them in time.

For an amateur historian like myself, trying to find my way back to the 1970s when Boshoff’s career began was a humbling experience. It came home to me how imprecisely I think about the past most of the time; and how precisely a work of art is able to restore what appears to have been forgotten. These works are time machines. The 370-Day Project, the journal in wood composed in 1982—3, is a private time machine for the artist himself; whereas a work like Bangboek is a relatively accessible form of public transport.

Boshoff’s art addresses some of the most pressing questions confronting our society. I could take language rights and minority languages as a topical example. The debate on these questions is conducted for the most part at a depressingly crude level. All Boshoff’s work, from the concrete poems on display here, which struggle with his home language, celebrating it and savaging it simultaneously; to the sculptures and installations dealing with English, which start in anger and evolve into a complex, contradictory love affair, all of these challenge us to think and feel more acutely and subtly about language, and therefore aboutour relationship to one another. Distrust the obvious, he says. Acknowledge your own ignorance. And don’t forget to find someone to play with.

In that spirit, I would like to conclude by saying how grateful I am, though he will never know it, to the thief who stole the possibility of one book and left another in its place.

Ivan Vladislavic is the author of three novelsincluding The Exploded View (2005)

This is an edited version of a speech delivered by IvanVladislavic at the launch of Willem Boshoff (David KrutPublishing, 2005), Boekehuis, Melville, April 12, 2005