A marathon of magnificent obsessions


A marathon of magnificent obsessions

MARITA VAN DER VYVER writes about literary crushes, icons and revered relics.


I ALWAYS feel a bit embarrassed to admit that I develop crushes on certain writers. It sounds so immature to talk about literary crushes, so foolish to be infatuated with artists, as if you want to diminish the seriousness of their work with your unsolicited emotional response.

Or that's what I thought until the other week, when I attended an international literary festival and heard world-renowned artists getting excited about other artists with whom they are infatuated and whose work inspires them. It was a liberating, moving experience to hear Deborah Levy, with whom I am (well, let's just say it) infatuated, talk about photographer Francesca Woodman, about Simone de Beauvoir and Nina Simone, and other thinking, creative women who inspire her.

I sat close enough to her to study the red nail polish on her toenails (I know, it sounds creepy) and admire her slender brown hands (without nail polish). And I could talk to her. About South Africa, where we were both born in the late fifties, about what it's like to live in France (she resides part-time in Paris), about writing, about our 23-year-old daughters.

In my years as a journalist, I often met celebrities, politicians and sports stars. I even became a bit blasé. But this encounter made me feel like a child in the presence of Santa Claus. Wide-eyed and breathless.

I still struggle to believe it because it all happened unexpectedly. It wasn't like one of those rock concerts where you buy your ticket months in advance and impatiently count down the days until the Big Moment finally arrives. Three evenings earlier, I was sitting in bed playing with my smartphone when I happened to see that the 19th annual Marathon des Mots (Word Marathon) was taking place in Toulouse, free of charge and with no need to book, and that Deborah Levy was the guest of honour.

Toulouse is less than a three-hour drive from where I live. I told my partner that I wanted to be there for the weekend. At that point, he hadn't yet read Levy's work, but when I saw in the online programme that the host in one of her sessions would be musician Warren Ellis, of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fame, I knew my beloved would come with me. As giddy as I get about Levy and her “living autobiography", that's how my husband feels about Ellis and the music groups Grinderman and Dirty Three. And, of course, Cave's Bad Seeds, which we both adore.

The dice fall in our favour

We didn't tell anyone we were driving to Toulouse because it happened so quickly, but also because it felt too good to be true. I was certain that when we arrived, there would be impossibly long queues in front of the two bookshops where Levy was to appear, and according to the programme, there was space for only about 70 people.

Or, my husband muttered on the way to Toulouse, Ellis's performance would be cancelled. Like Cave's concert for which we bought tickets almost a year in advance, at a price we could barely afford, only to have it postponed twice due to Covid restrictions and eventually cancelled. Of all the terrible disappointments Covid-19 brought, the missed opportunity to see Cave perform live was perhaps the bitterest.

But Covid is over, we encourage each other, and there is no reason why Levy or Ellis won't be there. Unless they fall ill or get injured. Or unless they are struck by a family crisis. Or unless some strike (always a possibility in France) makes it impossible for them to attend.

When the rosy bricks and rooftops of the Pink City became visible in the distance, we were still worried about everything that could spoil our impulsive trip. But this time, the dice fell perfectly in our favour.

I was willing to spend the night on the sidewalk in front of Frères Floury bookshop to make sure I could attend at least one of Levy's sessions. Like the admirers of the royal family who recently camped on the streets of London to get a close glimpse of Charles's coronation parade. I certainly wouldn't do it for Charles, but Levy is more important to me than any royal.

Having admitted that, I also have an excuse to refer to Deborah and Warren by their first names for the rest of this story, as we do with royals.

The voice I love

When I arrived two hours early at the first bookstore, there was no crowd in the street. A surprised bookseller informed me that most people usually show up only about half an hour or 15 minutes before the session. I was still distrustful. I went to have a glass of wine at a café a little further down the street, from where I could spy on the entrance of Frères Floury. Just in case 70 Deborah groupies suddenly appeared out of nowhere, trying to steal my spot.

I did indeed sit right at the front — within arm's reach —  while she and French actor-director Bertrand Schefer discussed their shared admiration for Francesca Woodman. Previously, I was barely aware of Woodman's existence, but it didn't matter. I would listen to Deborah reading a weather forecast. I just wanted to hear that voice I had come to love on paper.

But the moment they started talking about Woodman, their enthusiasm overwhelmed me. An hour later, I understood why they both become emotional when they look at Woodman's work. The American photographer was also born in the late fifties — “she would have been the same age as me now," said Deborah, moved — and took her own life in 1981 at the age of 22. Despite her youth, she was already brilliant; since her early teenage years, she had been taking startling self-portraits, often naked, hazy black-and-white images created in empty rooms that left the viewer with more questions than answers.

Deborah writes about Woodman's photos in her new French collection, La position de la cuillère (The spoon position). The book is not available in English, but the essay about Woodman she wrote for the art magazine Tate Etc in 2018 can be read here.

“Basically, I love her," Deborah confesses in Toulouse. We should be able to use such words when we talk about art, she adds. What is the point of art otherwise? What fascinates her about Francesca's photos is “the combination of playfulness and melancholy" — for which there surely must be a clever French word, she believes, but neither her clever interpreter nor her French audience can think of one.

I had to think how well this combination of playfulness and melancholy also describes Deborah's books. And how delightful it is that this very characteristic that makes her work so irresistible to me is equally irresistible to her in someone else's work.

Her conversation partner has written an entire book about his obsession with Woodman. Schefer is a tall, lean man with intense Rasputin-like eyes and a carefully styled black crest, someone who doesn't smile as easily as Deborah does. But when he talks about Woodman, his entire face lights up. He even laughs, stuttering and bashful, when he admits that it feels like a tragedy to him that he got to know Woodman only after her death, because he would have loved to share his life with her.

It's the kind of passion that makes my crush on writers like Deborah seem pale and wilted.

After the session, I had the chance to chat with her while the French people around us waited to pay for the books they wanted her to sign. I had brought my stack of books with me, prepared as a good journalist should be, eager to ask her a few questions. But she beat me to it — maybe I was too starstruck to get my questions out in time — and she ended up asking most of the questions.

I didn't want to confess that I was “also a writer" — it felt like a barnacle bragging to a dolphin that they swim in the same sea — but she even drew that confession out of me. I clung to my last bit of dignity by not requesting a photo with her. I know how painfully awkward it is for me to pose with strangers at my book signings, and I still don't know how to refuse such requests without sounding rude.

An hour later, I ran into one of the French audience members on the street. She saw me talking to Deborah and assumed we were friends, and she wanted me to tell Deborah that it wasn't nice to refuse to take selfies with members of the audience. My admiration for Deborah soared at that moment.

Nina Simone’s gum

The next morning, we once again arrived two hours early for her session with Warren at the Ombres Blanches bookstore, because by now we knew how great it was to get the prime seats. Once again, we sat in the front row and listened to another passionate conversation about obsessions and artists and objects that ignite passion.

Warren's recent memoir, Nina Simone's Gum: A Memoir of Things Lost and Found, revolves around a piece of chewing gum the singer left on a Steinway piano during one of her last concerts in 1999. Warren and  Cave introduced her to the audience. For them, Nina Simone was a divine being, “the risk taker who taught us everything we needed to know about the nature of artistic disobedience", as Cave writes in the foreword of Ellis's book.

Warren preserved that piece of chewing gum like a sacred relic for two decades, carefully wrapped in the towel Simone used to wipe her forehead.

“An object that was in a mouth capable of producing such heavenly sounds," said Deborah, with understanding, as she also has a thing for objects. “I have many objects in my books because they tell stories." Such as the antique Afghan wooden horses she describes in Real Estate, and their miniature counterparts — two mechanical horses — that play a significant role in her latest novel, August Blue. She suspects that her obsession with objects has something to do with the fact that at the age of nine, she had to learn to live in Britain after her father spent four years as a political prisoner in a South African jail. “Objects place you," she explained, connecting you to a place or a person.

Perhaps Simone's chewing gum would have remained to Warren an intensely personal connection to an icon if it weren't for an exhibition, “Stranger than Kindness", organised by Cave in Copenhagen in 2019. In a text message exchange he wanted to know if Warren had anything that could be included in the exhibition (the screenshots of this entertaining dialogue can be read in the book). Warren replied that he had Simone's chewing gum (That kind of thing?), and Cave was immediately excited about displaying it in a glass case (On a fucking marble plinth!!). The rest of the story — and much more — is told in Nina Simone's Gum, a mad, happy book about art, music and obsession, according to a shout from Neil Gaiman.

During the conversation between Deborah and Warren there were also questions about the combination of writing and music. Deborah revealed that she persistently listened to certain pieces of music when she started writing a book, to get in the right mood for what she wanted to undertake. For August Blue, Philip Glass was her companion, and for Swimming Home (2011), it was especially Kurt Cobain's Smells Like Teen Spirit.

“The way ‘Hello, hello, hello' is repeated." It's intriguing. “It could also be ‘Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye'…" It's about a rhythm she seeks in her writing, she explained, the intonation of words that are important to her.

Finally, someone from the audience asked a question about the “unintelligibility" of certain artworks, and whether an artist should strive to be understood or not. Without hesitation, Deborah responded, “This idea that we should immediately understand everything, that's not how life works."

It reminded me once again of her obsession with Woodman's photos, which certainly cannot be “understood" at first glance. But sometimes the heart understands something the mind has yet to grasp. And perhaps that is also the “explanation" for any obsession with an artist's work. Obsessions cannot be rationally explained; the heart has its own reasons.

The previous day, Deborah signed her name in my well-worn copy of Things I Don't Want to Know, with the message: Marita, To all YOU know.

All that I know now, along with all the many things I don't want to know, is that my childish crush on this writer is far from over. She has, in a way, given me permission to be infatuated with artists, her and Bertrand Schefer and Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, and all the others who enchanted me with their words, readings and music during an unexpected weekend in Toulouse.

♦ VWB ♦

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