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Eugene Nielen Marais, poet

15 May 2018

Dark StreamDark Stream by Leon Rousseau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I generally enjoy reading literary biographies, sometimes even more than reading the works of the writer or poet concerned. I enjoy reading “life and times” books because of my interest in history. But Eugene Nielen Marais is an exception to this. I have loved some of his poems since I was a romantically-minded teenager.

As a teenager my favourite poets were the romantic ones, like Keats and Shelley. But now I find that their poems that moved me so much when I was 14 or 15 do not move me so much now. They strike me as rather flat. But Marais’s poems that I loved then still move me today, especially ones like Winternag (English translation here) and Skoppensboer (Jack of Spades). Keats’s Endymion now leaves me cold, perhaps because in my youth I read into it things that weren’t there, whereas the things that I read into Marais’s poetry back then were actually there and are still there now. Keats was writing in England about an imagined Greece. Marais, in Winternag, was writing about the Transvaal highveld, which he knew, and where I lived.

His life and times are interesting too, because much of that history led us to where we are now in southern Africa, but that is as much the art of the biographer, who had to do the hard work of getting the details of his life, and making the times come alive.

There is also a family history reason. Though Marais himself wasn’t a relative, one of his close friends and admirers, Joän Couzyn, who made a sculpture of him, was married to a relative of my wife Val.

Eugene Nielen Marais (1871-1936) was born of a Cape Dutch family in Pretoria, the capital of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR, South African Republic), the youngest of thirteen children, and the only one to be born there. Part of his schooling was with relatives in the Free State and the Cape Colony, where the new Afrikaans language was beginning to emerge from its Dutch cocoon. Eugene, however, was educated mainly in English, though he could write Dutch and speak Afrikaans.

After leaving school he returned to Pretoria and became a journalist, and while still in his teens became the editor of Land en Volk, which was run on a shoestring. Though it was written in Dutch, Marais introduced Afrikaans from time to time, and was keen on promoting Afrikaans as a literary language. He attacked the corruption of the Kruger government, which meant that Land en Volk lost lucrative government advertising, and strugged to survive. He married, but his wife died shortly after the birth of their only child, who was brought up by one of Marais’s sisters.

After a few years, and partly under family pressure, he went to England to study law, that being regarded as a more respectable occupation than journalism. He was not a good student. Leon Rousseau hints, though he does not explicitly say, that Marais was influenced by the writers and artists of fin de siècle London. He also dabbled in medicine.

He was studying in the UK during the second Anglo-Boer War, and narrowly escaped being interned as an enemy alien. After completing his studies he joined an expedition to take supplies to the embattled Boer guerrillas, but before they could be delivered the war had ended.

Highveld — not really a winter’s night, which is difficult to photograph, but rather an autumn day, near Bronkhorstspruit, where Marais lived for a while.

He resumed his journalistic career in what had become the Transvaal Colony, under the restrictions of the British military occupation, and occasionally practised law. He also, like the Bohemian artists and writers in London, became addicted to drugs, first opium, and then morphine.

In 1907 he moved to the Waterberg, about 70 miles north-west of Pretoria, living as a lodger on an isolated farm, where he studied animals and insects, especially baboons and termites. He later lived in what is now Bronkhorstspruit, where he tried, not very successfully, to practise law, but his morphine addiction made this difficult.

He moved to Heidelberg, where sympathetic doctors tried to cure him, but failed. He returned to Pretoria and journalism for a while, living with friends. In 1936, after his friends had moved away, and losing his access to drugs, he committed suicide.

In reading this book, two things stand out:

  1. The similarity of the corruption in the ZAR under Kruger and the RSA under Zuma.
  2. The best poetry seems to have been written by drug addicts under the influence of drugs.

I’ll say a bit more about these, which I did not include in the review on Good Reads.

First, on corruption, and the similarity of the Kruger regime with the Zuma regime 120 years later:

When Eugene Marais was editor of Land en Volk he was a muckraking investigative journalist, and often exposed instances of government corruption. Though the word had not yet been invented yet, there were plenty of tenderpreneurs in Kruger’s ZAR. As Rousseau 1982:89-90 describes it:

… the revelations in connection with the Selati railway concession were the talk of the town. Marais’s information regarding bribery, four years before, had been completely correct. Via B.J. Vorster, members of the Volksraad had not only received American spiders and Cape carts as gifts, but also gold watches, shares in the proposed company, and large cash amounts. The President himself was not involved, but now, after the exposures, he sided with the guilty ones by stating that he saw no evil in taking gifts.

What bothered Marais quite as much as the bribery was the enormous and totally unnecessary loss the Republic had suffered because of stupidity. An engineering firm which had contracted to build the two hundred mile long railway at £9 600 a mile had farmed out the same contract to a sub-contractor two days later for £7 002 a mile, making a profit of almost £500 000 almost overnight — money which the Transvaal Treasury could have saved if the government had approached the matter more circumspectly.

Marais also found it strange that none of these transactions had been brought to light during the two years that Dr Leyds, anything but a fool, had handled the matter for the Government.

Rousseau describes the Bohemian lifestyle of many of the fin de siècle writers and artists of London, and several of their predecessors too. Since the French Revolution, many artists and writers rejected the bourgeois lifestyle and values that became ascendant then. It may have peaked at the end of the 19th century, bur re-appeared in such movements as the Beat Generation and their successors, the hippies.

I knew that Samuel Taylor Coleridge had written Kubla Khan in a drug-induced vision, which was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock knocing on the door. That makes me think that no real poetry will ever get written in these days of Twitter notifications.

But Rousseau’s list of such writers and poets is a great deal longer, and I certainly didn’t know this of Francis Thompson (Rousseau 1982:123ff):

Francis Thompson, a consumptive and an opium addict — for whose poetry Eugene Marais was in later years to have the greatest admiration –lived the life of a drop-out in London, becoming the confidant of thieves and prostitutes, sleeping under bridges or in poor-housees like a beggar.

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New secular religions and original sin

5 May 2018

Yesterday morning at TGIF Johan Erasmus spoke about new secular religions and original sin. There were secular ideologies that used religious language, and were rejected by some people as being “too religious”. He cited President Cyril Ramaphosa, who spoke of the land grabs under colonialism as the original sin, and said that this implied that before then southern Africa was paradise.

He then focused on Critical Race Theory as such a secular religion. When it comes to defining the narrative of our country, he said, this Secular Religion has its own zealous preachers, doctrines of sin and repentance, creeds that may not be questioned, and excommunication if you do not toe the line.

If I understood him correctly, he did not disagree with critical race theorists’ view of what was wrong with South Africa, but he did disagree with the religious rhetoric  that accompanied it.  I too have been critical of secular ideologies like critical race theory, and suggested that we need the tools to deconstruct them, but one thing that bothered me about what Johan was saying was that he seemed to have his own secular version of original sin.

He noted that for critical race theorists original sin is racism, slavery and colonialism. And racism has been redefined. But in criticising this version of original sin Johan Erasmus seemed to come up with another trio of characteristics: postmodern, neomarxist and liberal. He did not explicitly say that these characteristics constituted the original sin of the critical race theorists, but his repetition of these terms, especially the first two, in his criticism, certainly implied that they constituted some kind of original sin. The assumption was that it was sufficient to say that something was “postmodern” and “neomarxist” for people to know what is wrong with it. And I question that assumption.

What exactly do we mean by “postmodern”? And why should we automatically assume that it is wrong? I’m not saying it can’t be wrong, but we can’t just assume that it is wrong without further qualification. I’ve also criticised critical race theorists in similar terms, here, for example Can we only understand racism in terms of postmodern litcrit academic jargon? | Khanya. But we need to specify what is wrong. It is not simply being postmodern that is wrong, because when we use terms like “narrative” and “discourse” in certain ways we are already engaging in postmodern discourse. If we assume that “postmodern” is original sin, then what is paradise? Modernity? Premodernity?

In a rather convoluted set of hyperlinks, we have here an exercise in narrative theology, which can probably be characterised as postmodern: The ‘Story’ That Replaced Christianity Is Collapsing | Intellectual Takeout. And that story links to this one, Do You Ever Think About Being A Hobbit? – Glory to God for All Things, which is, if anything, an even stronger postmodern critique of modernity. I don’t know if those are neomarxist or liberal, but they are certainly posdtmodern

My own critique of critical race theory is partly verbal. Critical race theorists play an quite common academic word game. They change the meanings of words, and because no one else understands the new meaning they have arbitrarily imposed on the words, claims that no one else knows what they mean, and thus make themselves indispensable for the interpretation of these things, thus creating new academic posts for themselves and comfortable employment.

As Johan Erasmus pointed out, critical race theorists redefine racism as prejudice plus power.

That gets it exactly backwards. because in ordinary English, apart from convoluted word games, racism precedes prejudice.

Racism (in ordinary English) is the belief that some races, especially the race one perceives oneself as belonging to, are superior to others, and that race is a very important, if not the most important characteristic of a persons.

This leads to prejudice. in that when a racist meets a person of a different race to themselves, they assume that that person is inferior because of their race. Racism nearly always manifests itself as prejudice, and therefore precedes prejudice. But one can be prejudiced about all kinds of things, and not just about race.

Prejudice + Power does not lead to racism. But racism + power can lead to such things as apartheid, ethnic cleansing and genocide. That’s a different order from the Racism = Prejudice + Power equation, however.

In saying this I’m not trying to equate academic word games with original sin. But academic word games + power, well, that can be dangerous.

Another problem I have with the concept of “critical race theory” is that tacking “critical” in front of the term does not sever race theory from its Nazi roots.

But to return to original sin, I don’t think President Cyril Ramaphosa was that far off the mark when he referred to colonialist land grabs as the original sin (and remember that, by definition, sin is being far off the mark). The original sin (in Christian theology) was taking what was not given. God gave man (male and female) any fruit of the garden to eat, with one exception. And land grabs are essentially taking what is not given.




C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft and me

22 April 2018


I’ve just been reading a blog post by a namesake of mine, which set me thinking about how the order in which one reads things could affect the way in which one interprets them.

This other Stephen Hayes discovered me on Twitter a few years ago when someone made a comment to him on something I wrote that didn’t seem to fit, and we’ve followed each other there, and I’ve linked to his blog about apples. But this time he was writing as a guest blogger on The Oddest Inkling, and I felt more able to comment on it than on apples. H. P. Lovecraft, C. S. Lewis, and Me. | The Oddest Inkling:

I became addicted instantly [to H.P. Lovecraft]. Like my beloved Tolkien, and to a lesser extent Mervyn Peake (The Gormenghast Trilogy) Lovecraft had created an imaginary world which was strange and different. Unlike Tolkien, whose ‘sword and sorcerer’ adventures were in far off Lothlorien, The Misty Mountains, Rohan and Atlantis, Lovecraft’s world was rooted in our own time and space–Antarctica, New Zealand, the fictional New England towns of Arkham and Innsmouth, the swamps of Louisiana. But just round the corner from those sleepy towns and ordinary offices and universities, lay dark, hidden manuscripts and nameless horrors. Furthermore, these were horrors against which there was no defence, no God or hero to deliver you from the attentions of the mad gods of space, Nyarlathotep the crawling chaos, the evil rat Brown Jenkin, the noxious Yog-Sothoth who froths in primal slime, or countless other malign entities. A grim universe indeed, of which I will offer a handful of examples.

Of the authors he mentions, I encountered C.S. Lewis first. My mother had some theological works of Lewis, which as a teenager I thought rather dull. But she also had Perelandra, which piqued my interest, so I read Out of the silent planet and That hideous strength as well. On my first reading I regarded them more as science-fiction adventure stories than anything else. Then an Anglican monk, Brother Roger of the Community of the Resurrection, lent my mother All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams and I read it as well, and worked my way through all the Charles Williams books.

A few years later a friend lent me The lion, the witch and the wardrobe and I worked my way through the Narnia books as well. But by then I had had more experience of studying theology, and had become involved in the strange battles between the Liberal Party and the Security Police. Evil in its political form was much more existentially real, and Maugrim the wolf, chief of the witch’s secret police, was existentially real. Narnia might be in an imaginary world in another dimension, but was in thrall to evil just as South Africa was to the ideology of apartheid. As one child remarked, when her sister had told that it wasn’t real, it was in a book, someone wrote it, “Yes, but what it means is real.”

In 1966 I went to study in England, and a friend who had encountered Tolkien told me about his books, and when I saw The Hobbit I bought it, and immediately went on to The Fellowship of the Ring. I finished The two towers one evening, and could not wait for the bookshops to open the next day, so borrowed The Return of the King from a fellow student, and never bought my own copy. The friend who had told me about Tolkien, John Henderson, also told me that Lewis, Williams and Tolkien knew each other, and were part of a group called the Inklings. I hadn’t known that, and for me Tolkien was the third Inkling.

In all this, I knew nothing of H.P. Lovecraft, though I did have a taste for horror stories. Most of the ones I knew were in a three-volume set of books called Detection, mystery, horror edited by Dorothy Saywers (who I later discovered was an “almost Inkling”) — see A Taste for Horror, and Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Horrors, Kidlit & more.

In 1971, when I was living in Windhoek, Namibia, I bought a book of horror stories, The abominations of Yondo, by Clark Ashton Smith. It was a book of short stories, and I was expecting something like the stories I had read in the collection edited by Dorothy Sayers. I was sadly disappointed.

The few stories I did read were badly written. They tried to create an atmosphere of horror by piling up adjectives upon adjectives, so that they lost all meaning. That was where I first encountered the word “eldritch”, which has ever since then been for me the mark of bad horror writing.

I put the book back on the shelf and forgot about it.

Twenty years later I found Stephen King, who wrote somewhat better horror stories, and avoided words like “eldritch”. Some of his books seemed much better than others. But Stephen King’s stories seemed rather nihilistic. There were evil monsters that were just evil. More on that in another post on Monsters and Horror.

And then in an online discussion forum on New Religious Movements an old friend, Professor Irving Hexham of the University of Calgary, mentioned fictional religions that had become real. He mentioned the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and noted that a lot of them were dreck, but some had some flashes of brilliance. He said that some believed that the Necronomicon was a real book, that the Miskatonic University actually existed, and practised a religion of worshipping some of Lovecraft’s evil creatures, like Yog Sothoth.

I was sufficiently curious to go to the university library and take out books of stories by Lovecraft. The first one I read was At the mountains of madness which didn’t seem to be bad, and claimed to be the completion of an incomplete story by Edgar Allen Poe, which I also read. I read a few more, and also came across the dreck. Lovecraft was far, far more nihilistic than Stephen King. Reading Lovecraft actually helped me to appreciate Stephen King more, as in most of Kiung’s stories the focus was not on the evil monsters themselves, but on the response of people to them. His books said nothing about the nature of evil, but rather how the response of people could determine whether they were overwhelmed by it or overcame it. Evil could be resisted. Lovecraft was far more pessimistic than that. But even when King’s writing was pessimistic, as in his story The Mist, the writing was much better than Lovecraft’s.

I went back to the book by Clark Ashton Smith, and found that it was composed of stories in the Lovecraftian style. I was a bit more appreciative after having read Lovecraft. But I still found the piling up of adjectives irritating.

But when I compare my experience to that of my namesake, I see that Lovecraft influenced him far more deeply and ominously than me. I attribute this, at least in part, to the order in which we read the books. I approached Lovecraft having read Lewis, Williams and Tolkien from within a Christian worldview, and so regarded Lovecraft’s writing as nihilistic and of lesser value. We had different frames of reference from which to interpret what we read. I could understand why he burnt his Lovecraft books, because of the way they had influenced him. I would not burn mine (not that I actually have any), but might refer to them occasionally to understand the nature of the nihilism that I reject.

But I’ve just bought a copy of Turgenev’s Father’s and Sons, which is supposed to be the original nihilist work, so perhaps after reading that I’ll change my mind.

The art of serial killing

18 April 2018

Broken MonstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So how does a South African author come to write a crime novel set in Detroit?

My initial response is that there are so many crime novels set in US cities that this seems a bit like carrying coals to Newcastle. And surely we’ve got enough crime in our own country to write about. so there should be plenty of material. We have Michele Rowe, whose novel What hidden lies is set in the Cape Peninsula, but I can’t think of many others.

And then there’s Elizabeth George, and American whose crime novels are set in Britain, so why shouldn’t people write crime novels set in other countries than their own?

And, if we want to be postmodern about it, the author, and the author’s background and experience don’t matter. The only thing that matters is the text itself.

So what can I say about the text?

It starts off with a bunch of disparate people whose lives intersect when they encounter a serial killer. as the threads gradually draw together one gets drawn into the lives and concerns of the characters. The killer mutilates his victims, and sees them as a kind of art form, possessed by a dream that he cannot articulate, even through his gruesome art works.

To say more would be to introduce spoilers, but I found it was definitely worth a read.

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Literary Coffee Klatsch: the Horrors, Kidlit & more

12 April 2018

There were only three of us at our literary coffee klatsch this morning, delayed because of Holy Weeks (Western and Eastern), and there hadn’t been much time for reading. But over the past few weeks I’ve been reading a bit about Horror as a literary genre | Khanya. Click on that link to see my review of Horror by Mark Jancovich, which was not very impressive.

Slightly better was

The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of HorrorThe Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror by David J. Skal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

but it was not better by much.

The main emphasis was on films and rather than books, and potted biographies of the actors in B-grade horror films, with the emphasis on a German film called The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The film inspired xenophobic protests in America, as it was foreign, and people thought cinemas should support the native film industry, nevertheless it seems to have inspired a spate of horror films that followed.

And to make up a trilogy, I’ve been re-reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre: the anatomy of horror, which I first read 20 years ago. King describes three levels of horror story, where the author aims at

  1. Terror (terrify the reader)
  2. Horror (horrify the reader)
  3. Revulsion (the gross out)

King sees them as a progression, as differences of degree, rather than of kind. As an example of the first, he gives the story of The Monkey’s Paw. I would say it is an example of horror rather than of terror. I encountered it at the age of 8, when our class at Fairmount School in Johannesburg attended a drama evening at the nearby Orange Grove Primary School. I have no recollection of the rest of the programme, but The Monkey’s Paw was vivid in my memory. It did not terrify me, but it did horrify me.

At home we had a collection of short stories edited by Dorothy Sayers, called Detection, Mystery, Horror. I largely ignored the detection and mystery sections, but was hooked on the horror stories, the best of which, to my mind, was The Wendigo, by Algernon Blackwood.

I don’t count the “gross out” as “horror” at all — and that includes the “slasher” movies like Silence of the Lambs. They differ not merely in degree, but in kind, from true horror stories, like The Monkey’s Paw and The Wendigo.

The Monster Show seems to regard monsters as an important feature of the horror genre, but what is a monster? Reading these books, one would think that monsters are, in the first place, deformed, disfigured or mutilated human beings, the freaks from the circus side shows., the most alarming of which, according to King, and only shown to the select few rather the the general public, is the Geek.

By that definition Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings must be included in the horror genre, as it includes monsters like balrogs, orcs and Shelob. Orcs are deliberately deformed and disfigured elves, and even Gollum is a deformed and mutilated hobbit.

David Levey commented that most of the science fiction he enjoyed was published in the 1970s or earlier, and he had very little in the next 30 years. I had experienced something similar. I thought it was just me — I enjoyed SF most in my teens and early 20s, and perhaps that was the age it most appealed to, though I enjoyed rereading some of the better books I had enjoyed then, but even them, reading them again after several decades, they weren’t as good as I remembered them. Examples of these were Huxley’s Brave new world and George Stewart’s Earth abides (though A canticle for Leibowitz still seemed as good as when I first read it.

David said that this might be because books are now written to a formula. All the books on how to write told would-be writers how they must write their stories — grab your reader in the first paragraph, end your chapter with a cliff hanger and so on. And publisher’s readers probably used the same criteria, which means they sometimes rejected books that were very popular when they eventually were published, like the Harry Potter series.

I recalled challenging a group of Charles Williams fans to write a novel in the style of Charles Williams during NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month). In the end I was the only one who took up my challenge, and one person who critiqued it said there was too much backstory in the first chapter — I didn’t start in media res, as all the how-to books prescribed. I don’t think she had read much Charles Williams.

Yes, his War in Heaven does begin with one of the most attention-grabbing opening lines in English novels: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” But his The place of the lion has a much more gradual beginning. Val recalled as another attention-grabbing first line A touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood: “When Auntie Edna fell off the bus, she landed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty-three days. At the end of this period she died, and they had a funeral.”

On the other hand, I recently re-read one of the first Enid Blyton books I ever read (at the age of 9 or 10), The Mountain of Adventure. I loved it. It was 160 pages, and the actual adventure did not begin until halfway through, about page 80 (my review here).

I suspect that one reason for the success of the Harry Potter books is that, like science fiction, kidlit had been in the doldrums for a couple of decades. In the Sixties there were authors like C.S. Lewis and Alan Garner and several others. But in the 1980s and 1990s I browsed the children’s books shelves in the book shops and all I could find was Goosebumps. Eventually I bought one, to see what the younger generation was reading and, as I suspected, it was dreck.

After that, Harry Potter was like an oasis in the desert.

And Val and I both recommended to David that he read some early books by Phil Rickman, the ones before Merrily Watkins, the diocesan deliverance consultant, turns into Mother Brown, the clerical supersleuth.

Ones we recommended were Candlenight, Crybbe, and The Chalice.

For more on Phil Rickman, see here.

Unbelief and Good Friday – Glory to God for All Things

6 April 2018

I believe that Christians make a serious mistake when we begin to speak first about God rather than first about Christ and His death on the Cross and resurrection from the dead. It is a mistake because it presumes we know something about God that is somehow “prior” to those events. We do not, or, if we think we do, we are mistaken. The death and resurrection of Christ are the alpha and the omega of God’s self-revelation to the world. Nothing in all of creation is extraneous or irrelevant to those events.

Source: Unbelief and Good Friday – Glory to God for All Things

Horror as a literary genre (review)

20 March 2018

HorrorHorror by Mark Jancovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a very disorganised book.

It begins with a discussion of the 1984 Video Recordings Act in Britain, and the issue of censorship, and then eventually notes that the Bill was “the culmination of a popular campaign against the so-called ‘video-nasties’… No clear definition of the ‘video nasty’ existed but it was generally accepted that they were examples of pornography and horror.”

But Mark Jancovich gives no clear definition of pornography or horror, at least not at the beginning, so at first sight the book appears to be about censorship. I can’t help feeling that much of the material in the first chapter, titled “The horror genre and its critiscs”, could have been relegated to an appendix. There is a lot of information about the critics, but very little about the horror genre itself.

The author then goes on to trace the development of the genre in various historic periods, beginning with late 18th-century Gothic novels, in relation to the prevailing social conditions at the time and place that the particular works were written. He also usually begins with the social conditions, and then mentions the works of horror fiction that were produced in the period, or some of them.

Sometimes the description of social conditions appears quite accurate, at other times it seems rather flimsy, resting on nothing more t5han the assertions of the author. Also, the linking to the social and cultural conditions is patchy, and sometimes seems very unconvincing. Dracula, for example, is presented as a symbol of capitalism in a rather shallow analysis. A much better one appears in Vampires, mummies and Liberals. Of course a book dealing with an entire genre can’t go into the same amount of detail as a monograph dealing mainly with one work, but still it could have been more convincing.

Between the world wars of the 20th century Jancovich speaks of “Fordism”, which I assume derives from Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world, though he doesn’t mention it. In a way that could also belong to the horror genre, as could Orwell’s 1984 and Golding’s Lord of the Flies — they certainly inspire horror in the sensitive reader. But they are not mentioned, and H.P. Lovecraft is only mentioned in passing. By the end of the book there is still no satisfactory definition of horror as a genre.

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