Two days ago, 19 February 2016, both Umberto Eco and Harper Lee died. Both their names were probably in the deadpools of various publications for some years since they were both in their eighties; Eco, aged 84, and Lee, an advanced 89. When I refer to a “deadpool”, I do not mean Tim Miller’s latest film, Deadpool, starring Ryan Reynolds, in which he plays a super-mercenary who kills off people with delight. I mean the advance-written obituaries that newspapers keep on file in expectation of the deaths of famous people. Who is on the lists is often proprietary information. (Heck, who wants to know that you are about to die or worse, have already died, when you haven’t?)  The Obituary Section of the New York Times has its own confidential deadpool from which obits are pulled that are “true gems: fine writing by great writers.”As to the reasons for both Eco and Lee being in deadpools for famous people, comparisons of the quality of their writing would be impossible, and neither would it be feasible to compare their relative celebrities. What they have in common is their legacies. Both will be remembered, Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, more so than for Go Set a Watchman (though time will tell) and Eco undoubtedly for Il nome della rosa (1980; English translation: The Name of the Rose, 1983). And their obituaries serve to remind us why they became famous in the first place, and why we read their works and remember them.

Authors who died in 2015 and 2016

So here is my list of deadpool Afrikaans and English writers who died in 2015 and 2016, and why – and how – I know them.

  1. Umberto Eco (19 Feb. 2016) – Master of multi-layered mysteries
  2. Harper Lee (19 Feb. 2016) – Two-trick pony, but what a Pony!
  3. Chris Barnard (28 December 2015) – Mood and milieu maestro
  4. Henning Mankell (5 Oct. 2015) – Swedish sleuthing at its best
  5. Jackie Collins (19 Sept. 2015) – Disposable but addictive novels
  6. T.T. Cloete (29 July 2015) – Poet-philosopher
  7. Ena Murray (04 June 2015) – Housewives’ Little Humdingers
  8. Ruth Rendell (2 May 2015) – Queen of the Psychological Thriller
  9. Günther Grass (13 April 2015) – Peaked Early with Tin Drum
  10. Leonard Nimoy (27 Feb. 2015) – Great Spock! What bad poetry
  11. André P. Brink (06 Feb. 2015) – Not only famous in South Africa
  12. Colleen McCullough (29 Jan 2015) – Bodice-rippers for the masses

For a longer list of who’s died, with some very interesting causes of death (gliding accident?!) go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaths_in_2016


Umberto Eco – 19 Feb. 2016

Eco, born 5 January 1932, the renowned novelist, essayist, literary critic, philosopher, and semiotician, wrote to the last, publishing Il cimitero di Praga (2010; English translation: The Prague Cemetery, in 2011), and Numero zero in 2015. While I have read The Name of the Rose a few times, I confess I’ve been trying for months to get into The Prague Cemetery, but the main characters are just so undeniably awful and the atmosphere so dire and foreboding, that I am loath to continue. However, the Name of the Rose is on my list of important novels by serious authors that I’ve read, and if more than half of the complex ideas and multiple meanings passed right over my head, I at least enjoyed the mystery plot. I also read, and somewhat enjoyed, How To Travel With a Salmon & Other Essays (1994, English ed.), and found On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea (2005), a useful reference, even today, since he explains the link between art and beauty, and defines exactly the Western idea of beauty. top


Harper Lee – 19 Feb. 2016

Harper Lee was born 28 April 1926. Her second and final novel, Go Set a Watchman, was published in 2015, to great expectation and a giant furor. As I wrote in my review of Go Set a Watchman, it cannot be discussed without reference to Lee’s first and famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I have no particular liking for To Kill a Mockingbird. I believe the popularity of the novel is a particularly American phenomenon, perhaps enhanced by Harper Lee’s status as a mysterious recluse, and the massive impact of the 1962 film adaptation and Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettably sad and captivating soundtrack of it. However, as Go Set a Watchman is set after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, comparisons are both inevitable and useful. Go Set a Watchman is adroitly written, with hardly a word out-of-place and nothing extraneous or repetitive. Reading it as a novel of and about the 1950s it is still interesting and (quite surprisingly) engaging. It might be a sequel (or even a type of prequel) but it can stand alone as a very good work of fiction. top


Chris Barnard – 28 Dec. 2015

Chris Barnard (born 15 July 1939) was a multi-award-winning South African and Afrikaans author and playwright who was one of the “Sestigers”. The Sestigers (Sixtiers), also known as the Beweging van Sestig (the Movement of Sixty), was a group of influential Afrikaans-language writers in the 1960s, started by André Brink and Breyten Breytenbach. They introduced new, radical subjects like atheism, sex, art for the sake of revolution, and anti-Apartheid ideas to South African literature, and their declared aim was “to broaden the rather too parochial limits of Afrikaner fiction.” Acclaimed South African-born author Breyten Breytenbach wrote this when Chris Barnard died (my translation from Afrikaans): “And now, Chris, He was the quiet one. The big guy. The man with the generous heart and the truly deep involvement with the nature and the complexities and fears of humanity. He was the stylist, the writer who, with economical but striking word choices, could conjure up a situation or a part of the word that seemed local – and he was always fed by his roots – but which were, in fact, descriptions of the condition humaine, the human condition or man’s fate. Others will hopefully be able to describe how their own work was influenced by Chris Barnard’s approach of sincerely, plainness, and almost invisible dexterity.”

Barnard was a master of the short story format, and published many collections. Mahala (meaning “for free”, 1971) is considered an Afrikaans classic. But of all the books he has written, and those I have worked through as a student of Afrikaans Literature, I have, and still keep, and still read, Oulap Se Blou; (Penny’s Worth of Blue) 40 short stories (2008), his last fiction work. Why? Because it is like holding a little bit of South African soil in my hands, of hearing the sounds, dialects, and musicality of Afrikaans right there in my ears. The Afrikaans that was, and that was beautiful. Not the mangled Afrikaans-pronounced-as-English monstrosity that is spoken these days, particularly by Afrikaans singers. The Afrikaans that sounds like music with gravitas and soul, like symphonies, not elevator pop. When I read the stories, my childhood comes back to me and for a second, I am young again, and a child again, and nothing at all is wrong with the world, and as yet, as Julian Barnes says, there is nothing to be frightened of.

There are too many quotes from Oulap Se Blou that move me and make me long for something that was probably not that great to begin with, but here are two:  – untranslatable, sorry, folks, because this Afrikaans very subtle, very emotive.

“Waarmee bly jy oor? Met dik geskiedenisboeke. En ‘n bietjie onbetroubare oorlewering. En plekname. Wenen. Mooinooi. Duiwelskloof. Lekkersing. Dwaalboom. Blyderivier. Mara. Baardskeerdersbos. Minnebron. Bloedrivier. Taal is meer as wat dit op die oog of die oor wil voorgee. Dis meer as net ‘n stel tekens en klanke of biblioteke vol boeke of die lawaai in ‘n duisend koopsentrums. Dis ‘n kollektiewe geheue, dis die hart van elke oomblik wat ooit in daardie taal belewe is – elke sonde, elke sterwe, elke ekstase, elke teleurstelling, elke grap en hartseer en berisping and oorwinning en verlies wat ooit in daardie taal ervaar is, lê opgeteken in een register. Uiteindelik word dit soos ’n reuse-olienhout allenig op sy stuk vlakte: ‘n sigbare en tasbare astrak van die aarde waaruit dit voorkom.” (Reise)

“In ‘n laat strepie lig onder swaar winterwolke hang brug op brug en elkeen se weerkaatsing oor die blink Seine soos armband om ‘n stil arm. Herfs se kastaiingblare val soos skoenlappers grond toe. Bo uit verligte vensters lag gewone mense. Vannag as almal slaap, sal die sneeu saggies en onsigbaar kom soos Kersvader. Maar môre oor drie maande sal die bome begin bot, soos ‘n jong meisie, asof dit vir die heel eerste keer gebeur.” (Die Stad Met Drie Gesigte [Paris])

And for every one of these forty stories, he has the perfect closing line – brief, deep in innuendo, and in itself a little work of art. top


Henning Mankell – 5 Oct. 2015

Mankell’s famous for his “Wallander” detective novels, which have been filmed in both Swedish and English. (I prefer with Swedish version, with Krister Henriksson (on the cover, left), which is as close as dammit to the settings, atmosphere and characterization of the novels. He killed off his famous creation, Inspector Kurt Wallander, in the last Wallander novel, Den Orolige Mannen, tr. The Troubled Man (2011). Over the course of the series Mankell developed the character of Wallander so that, with the last novel, Wallander is diagnosed with diabetes, suffers from memory lapses, and develops Alzheimer’s disease, like his father. For Mankell, Africa was an exotic childhood dream, and as an adult he spent half of each year living and working in Maputo, Mozambique. While Africa is a sub-theme that recurs in his novels, in the settings, the plots and the characters, the main theme of his novels is “What’s wrong with the Sweden of today?” Mankell’s answer is; just about everything, from the weather to the politics and social welfare system, and the increasingly twisted murderers as evidence of a sick society. I thought that Mankell expressed the contrast between Sweden’s image as a Nordic paradise versus its underlying cold, isolated nature, by the recurring theme of the art of Wallander’s father. He painted the same landscape of a silly grouse in front of a darkly threatening forest – over and over, hundreds of times. Nevertheless, Wallander and his murky thoughts in the murky weather grow on you and are severely habit-forming.  top


Jackie Collins – 19 Sept. 2015

Would you admit you are a reader of Jackie Collins novels? Some would not. The highly successful Jacqueline Jill Collins OBE (born October 4, 1937) wrote about Hollywood, sex, organized crime, glamor, and power and beautiful people. She kept writing right to the end, when she died of breast cancer, with The Santangelos (2015), the last in her series on the “Santangelo crime family”. Many of her novels were filmed or made into TV series, like Hollywood Wives (1983) her ninth novel, and her most successful, selling over 15 million copies. The Bitch (1979) was adapted into the 1979 film The Bitch starring her sister, Joan Collins. Romance writer Barbara Cartland, famous for her own bodice rippers, called Collins’ beset-selling second novel, The Stud (1969), “Filthy, disgusting and unnecessary”, and by doing ironically ensured it became another best-seller for Collins. Why do I mention her? Well, we all need some light relief once in a while, and Collins did the Disposable Novel really, really well. It takes skill to make superficiality universally appealing. Consider this: 32 novels, all on The New York Times bestsellers list, sold over 500 million copies, translated into 40 languages, 8 adapted for the screen. I’d call that appealing writing, wouldn’t you? top


T.T. Cloete – 29 July 2015

We studied T.T. Cloete’s poetry at university, and used his literary analyses as references. Theunis Theodorus (T.T. – not many people referred to him by his full names) Cloete (1924–2015, aged 91) was an acclaimed South African and Afrikaans poet, playwright, short story writer, translator, literary analyst, and academic. He was awarded many literature prizes for his work, amongst others, the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the W.A. Hofmeyr Prize the Hertzog Prize and the Andrew Murray Prize. His latest volume of poetry, the 12th, is Karnaval en Lent (Is Een Gedig) (2014). The title refers to a 1569 painting of Pieter Brueghel de Oude, “The Fight Between Carnaval and Lent” – the fight between enjoyment and religious observance. Phil van Schalkwyk on LitNet called it a formidable work and an amazing feat, considering that Cloete delivered it at an advanced age, and that it moves the parameters of his oeuvre, and is truly a fresh and expansive perspective on the creation, humanity, and poetry. It consists of 160 pages, divided into 7 sections in which Cloete proves himself an excellent composer and compiler, a feature of his work. An extract demonstrates this:

The I
Na A. Heschel en ‘n enkele vers van Jacob Revius

the I is a miracle
a pseudeonym for what we do not know
man is an obscure text to himself
scratch his skin and you come upon bereavement,
affliction, uncertainty, fear, and pain
a worm crawling on a pebble, the earth;
a speck of life floating aimlessly
through the immeasurable vastness of the universe
with his tiny candles in the mist…met
de beroockte slons van menschelijcke reden [tr.: the smoggy mess of human reasoning]
his being a problem to himself”

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Ena Murray – 4 June 2015

Ena Murray (born 27 December 1936) wrote 131 novels in 33 years – romances, detective and adventure novels, historical mysteries, and hospital dramas. She has been described has the “most read writer in Afrikaans” and was once voted the most popular writer in Afrikaans. I saw her novels everywhere – in supermarkets, cafés, book stores and row upon row in public libraries. Two were filmed, Vrou Uit Die Nag (tr.: Woman Emerging From The Night) and Plekkie In Die Son (tr.: A Place In the Sun). Many of her books have been compiled as omnibuses and are still in print, though her last novels were written in the 1990s. Her novels had dramatic titles like The Gleaming Scimitar, Moonlight On the Amazon, and Satan of Zimbabwe, and feature brave doctors, evil pirates, lords and ladies, counts and countesses, and most had a cover featuring a hair-flicking, big-eyed, bosomy woman. No doubt, humdingers between the covers for many, many housewives. Though her work was unabashedly populist she was known for doing thorough research into the historical settings of her novels. top


Ruth Rendell – 2 May 2015

English author Ruth Rendell, the creator of “Chief Inspector Wexford”, is up there with the most famous thriller and murder mystery writers in the world, like Mankell, Christie, Chesterton, Simenon, Dexter and Larson. She was actually Ruth Barbara Rendell, Baroness Rendell of Babergh, CBE (née Grasemann), born 17 February 1930. Rendell’s best-known creation, Wexford, was the hero of many popular police stories, some of them successfully adapted for TV. Writing as Barbara Vine, she also wrote crime fiction that deeply explored the psychological background of criminals and their victims. I went through a Rendell Reading Phase where I read all the Wexford novels second-hand, and all the Barbara Vines. She was prolific: 28 standalone novels, 25 Wexford novels, and 14 novels as Barbara Vine. Her last standalone novel was Dark Corners (2015) and her last Wexford novel was No Man’s Nightingale (2013). Of the Wexford novels, An Unkindness of Ravens (1985) is one of the most successful ones, shortlisted for the MWA Edgar Award. I found The Birthday Present, written as Barbara Vine (2008) good to read but really suspenseful, with a nasty undertone. “Though she declines to name a figure herself, Ruth Rendell’s phenomenal international success must certainly have made her a millionairess several times over. Since she sold her first novel From Doon with Death to Hutchinson for £75 in 1964, her books have been translated into 25 languages and won fistfuls of awards, including a run of diamond, gold and silver daggers from the Crime Writers’ Association. As well as her detective series, featuring the redoubtable Chief Inspector Reg Wexford, she writes stand-alone mysteries as Ruth Rendell and as Barbara Vine.” (The Guardian review here.) top


Günther Grass – 13 April 2015

Shout “Güther Grass”, and the echo will come back; “The Tin Drum. The criticism and outrage there have been about the book and the film will probably continue long after his death. Günter Wilhelm Grass (born 16 October 1927) was a Kashubian (Polish-born)-German novelist, poet, playwright, illustrator, graphic artist, sculptor, and recipient of the 1999 Nobel Prize in Literature. He wrote more than 30 novels, memoirs, plays, and essays. Grass is best known for his first novel, The Tin Drum (1959), an important novel in the genre of European magic realism. (Talk about peaking early!) It was the first book of his Danzig Trilogy, the other two being Cat and Mouse and Dog Years. In 2002, Grass had another hit with Crabwalk (German: Im Krebsgang). As to The Tin Drum, all I can say is that it is weird, normal – then-not-normal-at-all, and puzzling. This is not pleasing Magic Realism G.G. Márquez-style. This is dread wrapped up in suspension of disbelief. top


LeonardNimoy – 27 Feb. 2015

B-ehJBpCMAAcSU9.jpg-largeLeonard NimoyLeonard Nimoy was – as most people would know – an actor, director, photographer, songwriter and, as most people wouldn’t know, a poet – and a romantic one at that. This one (left) is from his collection These Words Are for You (1981).  Leonard Nimoy’s published poetry collections are You & I (1973), Will I Think of You? (1974), We Are All Children Searching for Love: A Collection of Poems and Photographs (1977), Come Be with Me: A Collection of Poems (1978), These Words are for You (1981), Warmed by Love (1983), and A Lifetime of Love: Poems on the Passages of Life (2002). His poems, which I have read, are simple, heartfelt, and not quite poetry. They are missing most of the basic elements of a poem: imagery, form, rhythm, and metre. They are free form, and apart from being in lines, with some indentation, and some indication of verses, they might as well have been sentences – prose. They are mostly simple, literal statements of love and emotions. I don’t want to put the man down, I am a huge fan of his acting, but honestly, for poems they are not very good. I don’t think it is his poetry for which he will be remembered. top


André P. Brink – 6 Feb. 2015

After all these years, I still read him – in Afrikaans and English. Just the other day I took up Devil’s Valley again and enjoyed having my hair stand on end and my stomach churn. Oh so juicy, so wicked, so scandalous, smacking of perversion and malice! What fun! Brink (born 29 May 1935) wrote 21 novels, in both English and Afrikaans, translating his own work. He was another “Sestiger” like Chris Barnard, who also died in 2015, and was also famously opposed to apartheid. He is one of a handful of South African authors who have achieved international fame. His novel Kennis van die aand (Looking at Darkness),  published in 1973, was the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the South African government. Long after it was published, his contentious 1963 novel, Die Ambassadeur / The Ambassador was on many prescribed reading lists for literature students because of its radical theme, for that time, of criticising religion. His novels were popular and translated into 30 languages, and he was twice shortlisted for the Booker prize, the recipient of the Martin Luther King Memorial prize and in 1992 he was made Commandeur de l’Ordres des Arts et de Lettres in France. His prizewinning novels dealt with apartheid issues, particularly Rumours of Rain (1978) – one of those shortlisted for the Booker Prize, A Dry White Season (1979) – which was filmed with Janet Suzman and Donald Sutherland – and A Chain of Voices (1981). Philida (2012) was the last novel he wrote before his death on a flight from Amsterdam to South Africa from Belgium. He was married six (!) times. top


Colleen McCullough – 29 Jan. 2015

Oh dear – Colleen McCullough. I wish I could say she was a wonderful author but honestly, her novels after the famed, filmed The Thorn Birds, were mediocre. The Thorn Birds was a sentimental mess, but the 1980s TV adaptation with slitty-eyed Richard Chamberlain made it bearable. Lord, the plot: a woman pines her entire life away after falling for a priest as a child. Australian McCullough has long had women’s liberation on her agenda – but she didn’t do it very well (as demonstrated by the hapless Meggie in The Thorn Birds): The Ladies of Missalonghi (1987), is about the blossoming of a spinsterish poor relation. The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (2009) is more of the same – much more, a historical romance straggled together with every imaginable element of a bodice-ripper: a spinster with potential, handsome lords, highwaymen, rakes, royalty, slatterns, orphans, hermits, belated sex, and a no-holds-barred romantic ending. All highly unlikely and rambling. All it is missing is an irresistible priest. McCullough, born 1 June 1937, published 11 novels and the successful seven-book Masters of Rome historical fiction series, and the Carmine Delmonico detective series. The Thorn Birds sold 30 million copies worldwide, was sold for a then-record $1.9 million, to be made into a TV miniseries which became one of the most watched of all time. Her final book Bittersweet was published in 2013 and she had been working on a sequel at the time of her death. top