Revisiting beloved books


Revisiting beloved books

There are certain novels JULIANA COETZER repeatedly takes down from the shelf.


The Awakening

I came across this novel by chance and was surprised that a book that addresses such a complex topic with a feminist undertone was published as early as 1899.

Mrs Pontellier spends the holidays with her two young sons at a resort, Grand Isle, off the coast of Louisiana. Sir sits on the porch reading newspapers and of an afternoon, when he is bored, he disappears with the men to play poker. Madame is mostly ignored except when she makes mistakes or when he accuses her of trifles. Women need regular correction, he believes. Madame struggles to be like the other women she is compared to. “They were women who idolised their children, worshipped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels."

She begins to question her unfulfilled existence with no opportunities to live out her creativity. Eventually, an emotional and sexual awakening takes place.

Every step which she took toward relieving herself from obligations added to her strength and expansion as an individual. She began to look with her own eyes; to see and to apprehend the deeper currents of life. No longer was she content to “feed upon opinion” when her own soul had invited her.

Women were already uncomfortable with the role of childbearing and serving assigned to them in 1899, but they had to carry it like a secret. Betty Friedan refers to it as the “nameless problem" in her book The Feminine Mystique. No wonder The Awakening met an early demise due to societal outrage. The woman's voice has been silenced.

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This 1965 novel is one of the most important books on her shelf, a Facebook friend proclaimed one day. I acquired the e-book and can unequivocally say it is also one of my favourites. At first, apparently, not much was expected from the small, silent book, but 50 years after publication it became a worldwide hit.

I often revisit the world of William Stoner, the farmer's son who falls in love with English literature studies at the University of Missouri in 1910. Who discovered “a sense of wonder" about language and was a lecturer at the same university until his death in 1956.

One cannot help feeling sorry for the insecure and socially awkward person who enters the city unprepared. Still, the author mentioned in an interview he did not intend to create a sad character. This proves once again that the artist has little control over his creation after it ends up in the hands of the public.

Good things happen in Stoner's life but few of them end well. He falls in love and marries but the marriage fails. He has a child who is withheld from him and his passion for academia is thwarted by hierarchical nonsense.

At 42, “he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember".

Stoner is like a modest outsider who poses no threat to anyone, but with closer acquaintance you get to know their inner wisdom and brilliance. And you're never the same after that.

The God of Small Things

I obsess over Roy, not only as a writer but also as an activist. As one of the greatest thorns in India's side, she bravely fights for the freedom of the press and refuses to be silenced about injustice and oppression.

At first I found The God of Small Things a difficult book. And after many revisits, I still don't feel I've completely mastered it. But Roy's way of telling — poetic, moving and cinematic — takes my breath away.

In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was For Ever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.

Thus begins the story of an intricate extended family in southern India. Their lives are full of intrigues such as failed marriages, infidelity, deaths, betrayal and forbidden love. All against the backdrop of the insurmountable class system in India and man's way of consciously or unintentionally ruining his own life — often for generations in succession. And the effect that family members have on each other. “This was the trouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they knew just where it hurt.”

Antjie Krog

Many women of my generation probably feel like me; that Krog is the interpreter of the phase in which we find ourselves. From “Ma, ek skryf vir jou 'n gedig", we grew up with her to the present where she writes about the ageing body and every word could be your own:

tog lê die verskrikking juis in
Hoe leef jy met die disintegrerende lyf saam
Hoe aanvaar jy dat die liggaam sig
Nie meer kan identifiseer tot 'n verrukte knal nie


This novel is new to my bookshelf but I've already revisited it a few times. Especially the passage where the young aspiring writer asks the older, famous writer, “How does one write?"

Dit is wanneer jy die illusie van beheer aflê, wanneer jy jou oopstel vir die goeie werklikheid en sy ewige vorme soos dit is, wanneer jy wérklik luister, sonder verwagtinge, sonder projek, dit is dán wat met jou gepraat word, dán dat jy die kanaal word en iéts deur jou skryf — en dat jy verwonderd ontdek dat jy deel is van ʼn groter proses wat wel onder beheer is, dog nie onder jóú beheer nie.

(That is when you shed the illusion of control, when you open yourself to the true reality and its eternal forms as they are, when you truly listen without expectations, without a project, it is then that you are spoken to, then that you become the channel, and something is written through you — and you discover with amazement that you are part of a larger process that is indeed under control, but not under your control.)

Each reread becomes a new journey of discovery and little treasures that were previously overlooked are snapped up. Because if a book is good enough to read, it's good enough to reread.

♦ VWB ♦

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