[One Hundred Years Later: In Celebration of the Publication of Eugene Marais’ “Winternag” on 23 June 1905]
compiled and edited by Johann Lodewyk Marais. Praag, Dainfern, 2006. (Hardcover, xi + 58, 1-920059-04-0)
Published in Die Burger, 20 November 2006
As with any crazy genius-cum-Renaissance man, Eugène Marais’ place in South African history and culture remains contested. Dependent on one’s perspective, he is either proto-Nationalist or eccentric rebel – and a host of other things in between, including a depressed suicide. But that Marais (1871-1936) has a place is certain, and his story remains fascinating: among other things, largely Afrikaans poet who grew up in an English home, editor prodigy, scientist, law scholar, drug addict, loner in search of the unnameable, and, of course, writer of those immortal lines: ‘O koud is die windjie en skraal…’ [How cold is the wind and sharp].
Marais’ story is beyond the scope of a short review. Interested readers may want to look at Dr. Sandra Swart of the US’s essay, ‘The construction of Eugène Marais as an Afrikaner Hero’. Swart shows how Marais means many different things dependent on who is describing him, and when, and why. Itself a fascinating read and one from which I happily draw.
The book under discussion in this review uses a single poem by Marais as its starting point: ‘Winternag’, published now more than a hundred years ago under the pseudonym ‘Klaas Vaakie’ (Sandman). Honderd Jaar Later then collects contemporary poems in Afrikaans, previously unpublished but many by well-known writers, that in some way are either influenced or in communication with Marais’ poem. So, allow me a few words first on Marais’ original poem.
‘Winternag’ itself has survived the vagaries of various contestations; mainly, it is lionised as the poem that first proved that a literary aesthetic was possible in Afrikaans. And irrespective now of the range of political uses it may have been or still is put to, the literary quality of ‘Winternag’ is incontestable. Whether one remembers this poem with a nostalgic fondness or with detestation (because of what ‘digkuns’ meant during the dark years of Christian National Education), one cannot deny that the poem still rings true and clear. And it is the evocation of landscape and mood that distinguishes ‘Winternag’, that makes for its literariness, that makes it fine poetry. And poetry to aspire to.
According to JM Coetzee in White Writing, rich evocation from sparse detail, from economic use of language, became a hallmark of much Afrikaans literature through the past century. (I think immediately of Van Wyk Louw’s ‘Karoo-dorp: someraand’ or, indeed, ‘Winternag’.) Naturally, of course, literature develops many different styles, and one cannot hold onto economy as the only shibboleth by which to unlock that admittedly vague thing called aesthetic quality. And yet…
Thus I approach Honderd Jaar Later with some apprehension. Why? Simply put, equalling the aesthetic quality of ‘Winternag’ would be proper commemoration of Marais’ poetic genius, commemoration being the project of Honderd Jaar Later. But is this possible given the diverse sources of poetry in the present book?
The editor decided on pieces by 50 writers, out of a pool of 1000-plus submissions by more than 90 writers. As it is, and as is the nature of such projects, the book is indeed uneven and many poems are commemorative in name only. That is, in many pieces in Honderd Jaar Later I don’t find an attempt by the writer to approach the keystone of that rare quality of ‘Winternag’: so few words to conjure up a world of sorrow. Several pieces are, instead, a bit prosaic, or start out in suitable poetic rhythms only to lapse into the prosaic. Except Johann Lodewyk Marais’ short poem, ‘Bosvark’, which, strangely, finds the poetic through a deliberate prosaic diction.
There are further exceptions. In terms of that keystone of economy, poems by Christine Barkhuizen le Roux, Marthinus Beukes, Jan de Bruyn, Theo de Jager and Lucie Möller pay proper aesthetic homage to Marais. In other words, it is not simply the content of the poem or life that is referenced; instead, it as an attempt to emulate the style and thereby make it part of their own poems. Not copying but homage.
There are poems which use other devices to draw close to poem and/or poet. Linette van der Merwe’s untitled love poem to Marais – what better imaginary way by which to draw close than by imagining him as lover? And if not lover, then interlocutor: Renée Marais’ poem, while shunning economy, draws us closer by addressing Marais directly.
But focussing on aesthetic homage is, of course, idealist. Poets do not write simply to create a beautiful thing. They write also to say something, to contest, to claim (like this writer is doing now). Eugène Marais’ place is still contested: who owns him, who can own him? To what use can we put him? That the (handsome) book is published by Praag returns Marais, incontrovertibly, to contestation. But through it all, there is still that immortal line, whom no one can own, except Marais, and those who can reach its provenance in their own lines: ‘O koud is die windjie en skraal.’