Up close and personal with Michiel Heyns

EVENT: Michiel Heyns: Lost Ground (Wednesday, 21 September; Fugard Studio)


Michiel Heyns, author of Lost Ground, talks to Patrick Gale

Michiel Heyns is something of a literary celebrity. His novel The Children’s Day singlehandedly inspired me to develop a PhD idea, and then there is also his considerable academic work. So it was with some surprise that I found his responses to British novelist Patrick Gale’s questions accessible, light-hearted and with none of the sense of self-importance one often encounters in authors with such an esteemed literary and academic career.

Michiel spoke about the process of writing his most recent novel, Lost Ground. He had originally tried to write a “South African Othello”, which he claimed had failed, so instead he invented a character who had the same problem – Peter, a journalist who returns from London to South Africa to write his story.

The story, he said, grew as he went along, and three-quarters of the way through the novel he still wasn’t sure who the murderer was to be. It is rather peculiar, then, that some readers have told him they knew the answer from the start.

This was not the only instance of Michiel gently undermining readers’ responses with his composed irony. Patrick referred to a recent review that claims Lost Ground is a “state-of-the-nation” novel, a suggestion which Michiel appeared to find somewhat amusing. He contemplated the idea that perhaps every South African novel is a “state-of-the-nation” novel, since such a novel cannot but involve some of our country’s integral issues. For instance, a reviewer has claimed that Lost Ground is about the failure of policing in South Africa, which he deduced from an incident where the police fail to turn up at the scene of the crime in time.

On the other hand, Patrick tentatively suggested that Lost Ground might be read as a warning that “you neglect male friendships at your peril”, but again Michiel rejected this possible reading, responding that, if anything, it’s a novel that warns that “you neglect your past at your peril; this is what Peter does, and it comes back to get him.”

Interestingly, a discussion ensued that related to the work of South African writer Damon Galgut – who was in the audience – about the strategy of understated homoerotic desire or, what Patrick described as “a simmering passion”. Michiel agreed that there is something very powerful about understatement: “Something about repression (in gay writing) produces an energy in the writer… Even though it is unpleasant to live through, repression is more energising than revelation.” Using an example from Lost Ground, he added that “some of the energy between Peter and his close friend Bennie is in what’s not being said”.

From this, Patrick drew a parallel with The Children’s Day, as both are stories of boyhood friendship are characterised by homoerotic tension that is never quite resolved. Michiel agreed that there is an undeclared love at work between Simon, the protagonist of The Children’s Day, and Fanie. Not for the first time in the interview, Patrick pressed Michiel for possible autobiographical aspects of the text, asking whether Simon was based on himself as a boy. To a degree this is true, said Michiel, insofar as he, too, didn’t have much interest in rugby, preferred to stay inside, and was an intellectual child for whom reading was synonymous with life.

Finally, Michiel discussed the pitfalls and the advantages of having his novel translated, adding that his style – which he describes as ironic understatement – does not easily translate into Afrikaans. The question of why he writes in English and whether he should write in Afrikaans was also raised, to which he responded that, having been a professor of English, it seemed most natural to him to write a novel in English. In the light of a discussion about his 2005 The Typewriter’s Tale, a novel in which he imagines the story of Henry James’ typewriter, and written in Jamesian prose, a question from the floor asked him how he positions himself as a South African writer. He responded that, besides the obvious tie to the landscape, he “didn’t grow up sitting on an antheap”, and the countless works of fiction that he read from around the world became a part of his experience, perhaps of himself. The question of a “South African” literature has been under discussion for some time, and his response was a refreshing reminder of the inescapable hybridity that produces South African people and texts.