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Helen Moffett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

André the Magnificent

DSCF7398I was woken early this morning by a text from one of my dearest friends: her husband had died in the night. André Brink had passed away on the plane journey back from receiving an honorary doctorate in Belgium. She asked me not to ring her — she was not yet able to speak.

I’ve been wide awake, pacing, drinking cups of tea ever since. Remembering André. And now I’m writing, stopping to wipe my eyes, and drink more tea, and remember some more.

It was on a dark and stormy night that I had my first meaningful encounter with André.

But first, a little history. Of course I knew André the writer long before I met André the person. At the age of twenty, I read A Dry White Season six times in succession. I read his other books as well, but nothing gripped me as much as that story of a “volksveraaier” simply too stubborn to shut his eyes to what was happening around him.

Years passed, and I went from reading books to teaching them to my students at the University of Cape Town. I was now a full-time Teaching Assistant in the department of English – these posts were held by PhD students like myself who had Masters degrees. Workloads were onerous, and it was constantly made clear to us that we were inferior to our tenured colleagues – some of whom were no more qualified than us.

So I wasn’t that excited to hear that André would be joining our department. It was unlikely that he would have any dealings with anyone as far down the food chain as myself. The first time I saw him, he was explaining his international lecturing and book tour commitments to the department secretary, and I remember thinking “I hope he’s actually going to do some work around here.” Which shows what a thumpingly ignorant young pup I was.

A year later, there was a smell of revolution in the air. Not just politically (it was 1993) – for the first time, students were being asked to evaluate their lecturers. In between the rants against notes yellowed with age, Mogadon-strength delivery styles, and incomprehensible theoretical disquisitions, I was mildly surprised to hear nothing but praise for André. He was teaching second-year English students George Eliot’s Middlemarch – at around 800 pages, an obstacle capable of bringing gifted lecturers to their knees – and experience had taught me that brilliant writers couldn’t necessarily teach. On the contrary, in this case. “He brings it alive,” enthused my students. One added innocently, “It’s such a boring book, and he makes it so interesting.”

Meanwhile, for several years I had lectured at UCT’s Summer and Winter Schools. I especially enjoyed the Winter school programme, which ran for six weeks, allowing for a more reflective pace. That year, I was teaching a course on Contemporary Literary Theories, which attracted a diverse and dedicated contingent of lay-folk interested in thinking out of the box. I became very attached to the folk who made their way to UCT on cold winter nights to pepper me with questions, and we had fun applying theoretical tools and questions to our daily experiences, especially of arts and culture.

And then came the night of the storm, one of those nights the Cape turns into a giant washing-machine, with battering winds heaving solid water in every direction, disrupting traffic, and causing untold anguish for shack-dwellers on the Flats. On nights like this, sensible people stay home. If forced to venture out, one drives slowly and gingerly, the windscreen a waterfall, eyes peeled for branches torn off trees.

Setting forth in the lashing rain, I wondered how many of my students would show up. I was lecturing on a favourite topic – post-colonial theory – and I had prepared carefully. At the venue, I stepped out of my car into a solid sheet of water – the parking area had become a minor lake. Umbrellas were worse than useless – the rain seemed to be spiralling upwards.

Nevertheless, almost all my students squelched into the lecture theatre that night, dripping wet and windblown. I was just finishing up the register when a latecomer slipped through the door. It was André. In the six years that I had taught Summer and Winter School, not one of my tenured colleagues had ever attended one of my lectures. Surely Prof André Brink had better things to do on a freezing, wet and windy night?

Then it hit me: I was going to have to give a lecture on post-colonial literary theory – a field I enjoyed, but was no expert on – in front of one of South Africa’s most senior and internationally respected writers and thinkers. I plunged in, talking about the concept of subversion, how I found that combining tools of feminist and class analysis with the principles of post-colonial scholars could provide a framework for reading literature from a flexible, yet specifically South African perspective. Halfway through, I dared to peep in André’s direction. He was taking notes.

I left the university soon afterwards, and didn’t see André again for years. But I told everyone who would listen that I had had at least one senior colleague who was sufficiently interested in what a very junior member of his department had to say to do battle with the elements on a dark and stormy night.

More years passed, and in one of those quirks of fate, I got to know Karina, André’s wife, an academic and writer of great imagination. The first time we met, she told me, poker-faced, that if she ever wrote a memoir, she’d call it “The Fifth Mrs Brink.” After that, there was no doubt we’d become friends — her sense of fun, her loyalty, her graciousness and loving heart were irresistible.

The first time I ever went to dinner at their house (it was Karina’s birthday), André was a little reserved (I later discovered he was shy — a trait shared by many people of great charisma and brilliance). Sven Eick was making pina coladas, a skill he’d perfected working on Caribbean cruise ships. I gulped one down rather recklessly, and then thought it a good idea to tell “knock-knock” jokes. “Knock, knock, who’s there?” I announced. “Sam and Janet. Sam and Janet who?” At which point I burst into song in a nasal American accent: “Some enchanted evening … you will see a stranger…” A row of polite faces looked at me, momentarily blank. And then there was a great roar from André. He was still giggling minutes later. He had such a wonderful giggle.

That's the spiritAnd that’s what I’ll remember most fondly: not the extraordinary legacy of books and writing and intellect and passion and political commitment, but the jokes, the laughter around the Brink’s dining-room table, the year we celebrated New Year’s and Sarah Lotz‘s birthday on the same day and all chipped in to buy a bottle of Veuve Cliqout — this was long before The Three, the Girl books, back when most of us were enthusiastic nobodies, and André took us all seriously. (I’ve dropped in a pic of Sarah and I taken that happy evening — very irreverent for a memorial post, but André would have loved it.)

The time André and Karina came to visit me, and I told them the news about the Girl books, still fresh and unreal — and he said, “If I’d known, I’d have worn a tie in your honour.” And then there was the lunch we had at Starke Ayres Nursery to celebrate, and it was raining again, and André sailed through the puddles standing on the running-board of one of those trolleys for carrying plants. The time we watched a video of the opera Lucia di Lammermoor, and André and I teared up at the same time, and he squeezed my hand in simpatico.

Possibly the dearest memory: it was once again a winter’s evening, and Karina and I were in front of the fire as I poured out my heart. It wasn’t strictly a private conversation, but it was an intimate one. Then the power failed, as Eskom took a load off. There was a cry of rage from André’s office: had his word processor just swallowed a freshly written chapter? Had he stubbed his toe in the dark? No, he had been cut off while watching Sevende Laan on television.

Karina and I continued to chat in the warm bowl of light created by the fire. There was plenty of red wine, cheese and steaming hot tea, which she had with foresight poured into a thermos. After a while we wondered why André wasn’t joining us, and called him. His head came round the door: he hadn’t wanted to “intrude”. In his own home, he had been sitting in the cold and dark so not as to interrupt our tete-á-tete.

I salute you, you magnificent, brave, generous, huge-hearted man. You gave grand hugs and endless encouragement. Wherever you are now, “in the slumber that does not remember or forget”, or poling across the River Styx and no doubt extracting a story from Charon the boatman, I wish you well on your journey. Our job now is to honour you by taking care of the living. I promise we will wrap your soulmate, Karina, in all the love we can muster.

DSCF0604PS: Have to add one more photo of a truly devoted couple: taken on a magical morning when Andre, Karina and I all coincided in Venice — they were there for the Rolex Mentorship Festival. They were staying at the Hotel Danieli, where we met for coffee. Afterwards, they escorted me to their suite overlooking St Marks’ Basin — I wanted to use the hotel as backdrop for some scenes for the third Girl novel, and they were kind enough to give me the grand tour. So I can say that I have bounced on the Brinks’ bed.

Acknowledgement: some bits of this post are taken from a piece I wrote for Encounters With André Brink, published by Human & Rousseau in honour of his 75th birthday. Put together by Karina and his friends, family and colleagues, it’s a wonderful bricolage “biography” of memories.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Richard de Nooy</a>
    Richard de Nooy
    February 7th, 2015 @11:02 #

    What a wonderful eulogy, Helen. Wishing you and Karina and everyone else who was close to him strength and fond memories.

  • Maire
    February 7th, 2015 @11:43 #

    Beautiful, Helen.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Jacques Rousseau</a>
    Jacques Rousseau
    February 7th, 2015 @12:40 #

    A beautiful tribute. Commiserations and warm wishes to you and all his other friends & family.


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