As a boy, growing up in the heat of the Little Karroo, a desert in once-colonial Africa, in a town called Oudtshoorn, I didn’t know how privileged I was. I thought every little town had a huge library, and a theatre company, and good schools, and an art teacher (Hans van Rensburg) and and English teacher (Sam Bosman) who really cared about the incipient talent of a small boy. I didn’t, of course, go as far as to believe that everyone was born next door to the Senator who wrote the national anthem, because that was clearly a physical impossibility: only two houses could flank the senator’s house.
But it never occurred to me that there was something magical about how the novels I read gave me a sense of place — of places I had never seen. It was the other way round. Whenever I saw a photograph of those places, I was a little let down, a little disappointed. I would rush back to the novels of Howard Spring or Jerome Weidman, and their images would be more real than the photographs. I choose these two, among the many authors I read, because Howard Spring and Jerome Weidman, by their images, were probably responsible for me becoming first a visual artist (I no longer paint but I’m still a graphic designer) and then a novelist.
But today people have a different approach. I grew up without television. There was no television in South Africa until after I was long an exile. My images were in my imagination, and put on paper by myself, rather than art and photographs I saw in books. Oh, there were plenty of images in books and on canvas as well. For instance, my art teacher took me to meet Tretchikoff, the ultra-realist painter whose Weeping Rose was on every cheap calendar, and the houses of my relatives were full of the works of Pierneef and other South African painters; my father painted, and many other people I knew. The librarian, Miss Keays, would order any book I asked for, without any limit, and I always had money from prizes and so on to buy books too, and often these were books of images.
Still, my most persistent images are from literature.
So, did any of that make me a descriptive writer? No, not at all. While I am often praised as a “visual writer”, I have no idea what those critics mean. Analysis of my novels, excluding IDITAROD a novel of The Greatest Race on Earth in which the landscape is an actor in the drama, demonstrates only that I concentrate more on character and dialogue than anything else, with very little description of place, often none. I’m not all that interested in places, but I’m keenly interested in people.
Today everyone grows up with television. The expectation is that there will be a constant flood of images and that they will be realistic. People are out of practice at forming images from the written word, and many never learned, because there is no necessity, because they can always fall back on the image from television.
Yet the reading habit persists. Why? It is obvious to me that there is no other medium that offers the depth of characterization that the novel does. Film simply doesn’t have the time, nor television viewers the attention span. The imagination is still all-powerful.
But that is no reason not to add images for the imagination to latch onto. I’ve done so in my IDITAROD value-added pages, and see Seb Kirby has done so for his thriller Take No More. I love Seb’s photograph of the statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras Station in London. I must have been in there many times because David St John Thomas, a publisher to whom I was a consultant and also an author, had an apartment nearby. But I don’t remember seeing the statue of Betjeman. Here’s Seb’s description:
On the main concourse, a monolithic, artless statue of two embracing World War II lovers stood in sharp contrast to the smaller, more human statue of John Betjeman – trenchcoat blowing in the wind, suitcase in hand – that graced platform 4C. The recently rebuilt overarching roof gave the whole station a feeling of grandeur, but I could not remain interested in such things for long. My mind was set on the short trip downstairs, the walk past the new designer store outlets and whatever awaited me as I attempted to book in for the cross-channel train to Paris.
Now, that’s a razor-sharp description that evokes all the details even as it builds a sense of uneasy urgency by seeming to reject them. But more, that Seb, no fool he, feels the need to have his own value-added page with photographs, proves my point that we are well into a new multimedia age of the novel.