Personal notes on a reprint
Preface to the translated and republished article by Marthinus Beukes in issue 30(3), “Krog”
I met Marthinus at the ALV conference in Bloemfontein. It was September 2008, and our roles had pretty much been cast for us: I was the impressionable and eager Hons. year boy wonder; he the gruffly worldwise professor from the big city. Clichés were utterly unavoidable, it seems: We first traded looks in the conference venue’s only male restroom, and over the following three days looks gave way to snippets of conversation, mostly anodyne, sometimes barbed (about speakers, subject heads, ex-colleagues, an author present), often suggestive. Much of the interaction was casually-sexually-suggestive; slyly becoming attuned to sex-in-academia, I was eagerly learning how to play the part of objectified young otter.
We didn’t fuck, but he did write me a stanza. (I guess a poem would’ve been too committal, and would have overrepresented what developed over two and a half days.) By the time I got home – Hamtamstraat 29, in overly-pedestrian Vaalpark, a drab commuter precinct of Sasolburg – the overly-personal four lines had been memorised and the piece of paper itself had become talismanic. It was reverently placed in a book for safekeeping; years later, I can’t find it – or even remember which book it was. (So, if you ever borrowed a book from me, please have a look: if a tattered piece of paper falls out on which, in immaculate handwriting, four lines speak of how youth, beauty, lust, against all probability or reason or habit, lasts, do get in touch.)
Few things last. The body least of all. Marthinus took his own life in September 2014. He had struggled with his health, and had been moving between institutions with alarming regularity. There was much talk of patterns of despair and uncare.
Translating and reprinting articles from Stilet’s archive allows for more than just an opening up of audience. Equally, confronting the archive asks for a careful (or curated?) honesty – a vulnerability, even – about many things previously unsaid.
Perhaps this article lends itself best to thinking about what should or should not be left unsaid. Beukes does not use the word ‘death’ himself, but almost every quote he chooses from Verweerskrif includes the word. Read with the privilege of hindsight, the opening line of the article rings out: it is going to speak to the subject’s struggle with physical deterioration in Verweerskrif (read that most Krog-esque word again, and then again) and the inability of language to describe these many processes of becoming-vulnerable. (wordend-weerloos? wordend-kwesbaar?)
We had asked for the abstract to be translated into isiZulu, and the translator’s remarks – about how certain questions only come up in certain epistemic frameworks; how cultural differences about the way groupings speak about aging, about death – lead to interesting conversations in the Stilet office, and to thinking about how translation into languages-other-than-English will impact productively on the archive.
Some pragmatic, pedantic-adjacent questions from the global South: To what level of granularity does a new, commissioned into-English translation (have to) compare with an already existing English article on the same topic and text (specifically, here Antoinette Pretorius’ ‘Bodily disintegration and successful ageing in Body Bereft by Antjie Krog’)? How long an email exchange is called for to discuss the difference between ‘bodily decay’ (Pretorius’ phrasing) and ‘bodily deterioration as decay’ (a translation of a key phrase in Beukes)?
Translation itself is a kind of aging, and some phrasings decay over time. To translate Marthinus’ 2011 piece into the identity-embracing idiom of 2020 requires allowing traces of the past – of the author – to shine through. In my emails to the translator, I keep having to delete the phrase ‘He would’ve used the term […]’.
Too much of translation is repetitive, self-reflective.
Bouts of debilitating depression, substance usage patterns, illness. These are not abstract concepts to academics. Once or twice, in early sleepless mornings, I’ve worried that the similarities between Marthinus and myself – we both studied and taught at NWU; we were both teachers before we became lecturers; we both wanted the personal to be provocative – would at some point mean that roles had been similarly cast.
Another cliché: Even academics get the midnight sweats.
Never one to shy away from provocation-as-productive, topics and themes dealt with in projects completed under his supervision (evidenced in delightfully off-kilter research titles such as ‘Kontroversialiteit as tematiese lokmotief […]’) show that he understood – and, crucially, was able to conceptualise for his students – how controversy and contrapointing and contro-dissent could be productive (perhaps even necessary).
But it is Beukes’ own research output that shows the true tenor of his interest in the productive power of the personally provocative, of how he had, subtly and with a sly smile, nudged his students’ understanding of the study of Afrikaans literature into something more nuanced, and thereby started at least one career.
His untimely death – and the unspooling of the turbulent few years that precede this event – means that his list of publications is shorter than one would assume. But in typical queer fashion, his effect on the field does not concern itself with a numbered list, a prized book review, or a professorship, but instead actualises itself in a leery smile at a distant memory, a twitchy panicked evening going through every single book in one’s apartment, hoping against reason that a small piece of paper will materialise.
There’s a gentle vulnerability (weerloosheid, kwesbaarheid?) in looking for meaning in clichés.
To cite: Strydom, W. 2019. Personal notes on a reprint. Stilet, 30(3):111-113.
© 2019. The author.