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To the Isis Tavern by Bicycle on Easter Sunday

March 25, 2008

From an admittedly limited sample, 50 percent of this blog’s posts to date have had something to do with rowing. This allows me to make a clumsy segue into this one: a review of the Isis Tavern, which looks out over the main rowing course in Oxford. (It turns out that coffee and books, while important, don’t quite encapsulate every aspect of our existence; you have to include pubs, and also bicycles).

The Isis Tavern in all of its former glory

So, growing restless inside on Easter Sunday afternoon, we set out on our bikes to blow away the cobwebs. The Isis Tavern is only accessible by foot or bike, which accounts for a large part of its charm. A leisurely 20 minute cycle from central Oxford along the towpath (past the ultra-flash University College boathouse), the Isis is beautifully situated, with a large beer garden out the front, a generous endowment of picnic tables, and a lovely view of the Thames sliding by. Inside, it’s cosy and homely, with an open fire and ample reading material (Cotswold Life was the pick of the bunch, with a quiz about which Jane Austen hero would be your perfect match). As well as standard pub fare, the Isis seems to specialise in less traditional cuisine such as home baking and high tea, making it popular with families on this holiday afternoon. We drank cider and micro-brewed wheat beer, both delicious, and nibbled on a tasty raspberry slice, made with homemade jam, trying not to think about the butter content. The lunch offerings also looked good: we salivated over generous slabs of toast with beans and cheese that passed us on the way to someone else’s table.

A quick google on our return revealed that it is generally agreed that the Isis has gone downhill since a change of ownership last year. This was evident in the shabby interior and the absence of a sign on the outside of the building (this photo was clearly taken some time ago). Nevertheless, we were most enamoured of the place, and thought the shabby chic actually added to the appeal. A return visit to sample the main meals will hopefully cement our new-found favourite. Visitors who come to stay with us can expect to be dragged there frequently.

Catching a Crab

March 17, 2008

In which Anne Landsman goes searching for her father, and the pre-apartheid South Africa of her childhood.

Anne Landsman
The Rowing Lesson

Granta Books, 2008
282 pages

The Rowing Lesson‘s central character is Harold Klein, a small-town general practitioner in the rural Western Cape, known to his patients as “Doktor God”. An insecure man, charming in his eccentricities yet capable of infuriating stubbornness, Harold’s life story is told by his daughter Betsy (pregnant for the first time at 40) as she sits by his hospital bed, watching his speechless and comatose body deteriorate into oblivion. As we hear from Betsy of the skinny, shy Jewish boy, frightened medical student, and feared and respected town physician, we also get memories of her own childhood and catch glimpses into the fraught, sometimes violent relationship between father and daughter. Behind all this is the natural beauty of South Africa, juxtaposed against the wider violence of racial conflict that has led Betsy to abandon her homeland for a loft apartment in Manhattan, and the life of an artist (although her latest work, a series depicting large extinct African birds, hints at Betsy’s inability to let go of the strange, primordial place she has left behind).

This is Anne Landsman’s second novel. Her first, The Devil’s Chimney, was hailed as a post-colonial masterpiece: also set in South Africa, it related the story of Beatrice Chapman, a pioneer woman, abandoned by her husband, who finds success in the Ostrich farming industry amid multiple sexual relationships with black farm workers and a Jewish neighbour. In that work, Landsman also subverted what might have been a straightforward narrative by straining the novel’s main plotline through the words of an unreliable modern-day narrator: Connie, a poor, middle-aged, alcoholic, white woman, who tells the story to her blind sister and abusive husband. By the novel’s end, both Beatrice and Connie have felt the agony of losing a child, interpreted by some as a symbol of punishment for the sins of colonialism and apartheid.

Landsman is herself symbolic of the problematic position of white settlers in post-apartheid South Africa, or more accurately of their diaspora. An expatriate, she left her home town of Worcestor in the Western Cape in 1981 to study screenwriting at Columbia University, eventually settling in New York where she now lives with her husband and two children. What are the moral responsibilities of the generations of white South Africans who left the upheavals of apartheid to live safely in America, Europe, Australasia? While The Devil’s Chimney was a response to the end of apartheid, Landsman’s second novel is more personal, a thinly-veiled novelisation of her own father’s death ten years ago. Crucially, the pregnant Landsman, upon learning that her doctor father was seriously ill in South Africa, chose not to return, opting to ensure the safety of her unborn child. Instead, we have The Rowing Lesson.

Thus, Landsman, as Betsy Klein, imagines her way into the life and death of her own estranged father, Gerald: a small, energetic, Jewish man, publicly respected for his surgical abilities and willingness to treat patients regardless of race or class but, she has hinted in interviews, often obstinate and ill-tempered in his private life. For Gerald, we have Harold Klein, a childish, mercurial, sometimes brutal father and husband, loved and feared in equal measure. In the attempt to portray (if not explain) these extremes, Besty recalls her father’s childhood and early life, seemingly through his own eyes. Often the narrative takes on a dreamlike quality, as Betsy colours what she knows of the events of Harold’s life – childhood outings, the early death of his father, medical school – with his fixations, neuroses and adolescent longings, imagining his stream of consciousness. This raises an obvious question for the reader: how much of the vivid, occasionally lurid detail does Betsy invent, and why?

Although ranging from the rural Western Cape to mid-century Cape Town, Betsy’s rendition of her father’s life has his thoughts constantly returning to the river Touw, on the southern coast of South Africa, where his family took holidays as a child. Indeed, the entire novel can be read as a Heart of Darkness-like journey upriver to Ebb and Flow, a river junction at the head of the Touw which is the source of both Harold’s abiding love for the natural world and his deep anxiety regarding family honour and sexual propriety. In Betsy’s narrative, Harold pilots a rowboat to Ebb and Flow four separate times; each occasion is somehow defining. The novel opens with the young Harold’s sexual awakenings on a river picnic with friends, his encounter with a young girl’s menstruation and shame at concealing the knowledge from his mother beginning a lifelong obsession with the inner workings of the female body. Later trips up the Touw include a sexually-charged honeymoon outing, the rowing lesson from which the novel takes its name, and a final, metaphorical death passage, with his daughter at his side.

Betsy’s account of her father’s medical training at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town and subsequent career as a rural GP allows Landsman to ruminate on the frailty and imperfection of human bodies, and what it means to be a healer in a society increasingly broken by racialised poverty and division. As Harold’s medical knowledge grows, so does Betsy’s use of surgical terminology and body metaphors (arteries, blood, bacteria) to describe his fascination with the fairer sex, family tragedies and flailing first attempts at love. This is mirrored by modern day scenes at the very same hospital, where Betsy witnesses the unseemly deterioration of Harold’s motionless body, as a seemingly routine operation for his broken arm leads to kidney failure and death. As in Landsman’s previous novel, there is a hint that Harold’s ungracious end serves as punishment for past sins, in this case a botched tracheotomy in the non-White wards of Groote Schuur which kills a Coloured man and leaves the young medical student bathed in blood. Forced to lie to the man’s wife as to the cause of his death, Harold reflects on the injustices inflicted, even passively, by white South Africans:

Maxie likes to say that these are the people we get to practise on, the poor people of Africa. The Strand boers, the Hottentots, the Xhosa, and the descendants of Malay slaves. The Cape Coloureds, the Bantu, all the shades of non-White, all the different language speakers who come here and bleed here and die here. You might as well have pulled your organ into the laager at the Battle of Blood River. At least you wouldn’t have had to lie to his wife that he’s died before you killed her.

At face value, it is difficult to accept that Betsy, the estranged, expatriate daughter, can tell her father’s darkest secrets and most intimate moments as if she had experienced them personally. However, Landsman makes effective use of the second person narrative to continually emphasise that Betsy’s narrative is not her father’s but her own: in her words, Harold is always “you”, the silent other in a conservation that allows her an explanation of his life, to accuse and suggest without any answering back. As the novel progresses, it gradually becomes apparent why she would wish to undertake such an exercise: what originally seems a loving, dutiful father-daughter relationship darkens considerably, and Harold emerges as an insecure, self-destructive man prone to physical violence, alcoholism and suicide threats. Betsy, too, has inherited her father’s body-consciousness, no doubt partly through Harold’s constant medical surveillance during her teenage years, and her narrative reads as an act of belated resistance against the controlling tendencies of a father/doctor who refuses to let his daughter/patient go.

Will The Rowing Lesson allow Anne Landsman to similarly let her father go? And what of her native South Africa? As an attempt at catharsis, Betsy’s deathbed exploration of her father’s life is only partially successful; the novel ends without a feeling of reconciliation between Harold Klein the open-minded, humanist physician and Harold Klein the erratic, misogynist father. The answer, it seems, is that he was a man of his time – a time now long-forgotten, when general practitioners treated their patients from the cradle to the grave, and women were generally subservient. One suspects that Landsman is equally un-reconciled in her feelings of grief and guilt toward her own father. As for South Africa, unlike her first novel, this is not an interrogation into the dynamics of power and fear underpinning the birth and growth of apartheid. Instead it reads as something of a love song to white South Africa in a more innocent age, before World War II changed life for the Kleins and their Jewish friends and before anyone noticed how wrong the separate-but-equal laws were. One wonders what Harold Klein, or Gerald Landsman for that matter, would make of Jacob Zuma and the new South Africa if they were alive today.

Er, gidday

March 16, 2008

In this life, one occasionally feels the urge to share one’s thoughts and feelings with others. To this end, I now have a blog.

I couldn’t decide what to name it, so I put in random things that I like until it told me nobody had thought of that before. But bridge and The Muttonbirds didn’t sound very good. And neither did New Zealand history and going for walks. Thus, coffee and books was born.

I wasn’t sure what to do next. Definitely not talk about my life. That would be dull. Not that my life is boring, but writing about it on a blog is almost as bad as bulk emails. Oh how I hate bulk emails.

So, I thought maybe I can post things I have written or interesting quotes and facts and opinions that I find out. How does that sound?

For starters, there’s a book review I did for The Oxonion Review of Books that the bastards wouldn’t print because I’m not a student at the University. You can find this above.

Apart from that, I’ll keep you posted. Until then, have a good one.