“One Can Make Work Out of the Abandoned Stuff”: A Conversation with Ivan Vladislavić

Ivan Vladislavic Author Photo

It was via Teju Cole’s introduction to the novel Double Negative that I first encountered the work of the South African writer Ivan Vladislavić. That novel looked at the political and cultural evolution of South African through the eyes of one character, a photographer, over the course of several decades. Now, an earlier novel of Vladislavić’s is seeing release in the U.S. for the first time. The Restless Supermarket focuses on Aubrey Tearle, an aging proofreader who finds himself alarmed by the social changes in South Africa in the early 1990s.

Reactionary and obsessive (Jason Diamond has called him “a post-apartheid Archie Bunker”), Tearle is nonetheless a fascinating protagonist, and as he prepares for the closure of his local cafe and seeks to complete his long-running work, “The Proofreader’s Derby,” his daily activities provide a window into a changing nation. I spoke with Vladislavić to learn more about this novel, the process of revisiting it a decade after its initial publication, and the ways in which art can be born from ephemera.

It’s been over a decade since The Restless Supermarket was first published. What has the process of revisiting it been like for you?

It’s been quite interesting, actually. I’d read from the book occasionally over the years, but I hadn’t looked at it in detail until quite recently. It was quite challenging, in some ways, because one writes to put some things behind you; one writes to get certain things down on paper and stop thinking about them. And going back to the work requires a certain kind of effort. But I must say, I’ve enjoyed it as well.

Looking back on it, was there anything in it that might have recurred in one of your subsequent books, that you hadn’t been aware of at the time?

What I’ve certainly noticed is the continuity and the development between this work and some of the later books, especially the writing on the city, on Johannesburg. This was very much a kind of inner city book, focused on Hillbrow, which was the most urban area in Johannesburg, the most densely populated area in Johannesburg. A couple of years later, I published a book called The Exploded View, which is also about the city, but which feels like a more contemporary version of the development of Johannesburg–the suburbs and the highways and so on. And a couple of years after that, I published Portrait With Keys, which is another look at the city. What interested me were the continuities between those three perspectives.

You were writing this book in 2001, and it’s set in the early 1990s. Had the changes described in the book already happened, or was the neighborhood in question still in a state of flux?

Actually, the book took quite a long time to write. If I remember correctly, I started writing it in about 1994 or so. Which partly explains the proximity of the period when the book is set. It took me quite a long time to write it and to publish it; I think it was about seven years in all, from the first writing on it. The book covers, I suppose, the closing years of the 80s and the early 90s. The period had become a little more distant. But when I began, I was drawing upon things that were very close to me. The area that the book describes, that part of Hillbrow, I worked there in the early 80s, for a period of about four or five years. I went into it every day; it was where I spent my working life, and a lot of my leisure time as well. I was very familiar with the area at the time.

What has that area become like in the present day?

Through the course of the 90s and into the new century, it became a much more crowded, much more crime-ridden, much more dangerous area. Some of the processes which the novel described accelerated during the 90s. These days, I think it’s still an area that many Johannesburgians regard as pretty out of bounds. People don’t go there very easily. It’s still not a place that I would walk around in. One of the paradoxes of Joburg is that people’s experience differs. For many people. Hillbrow is still a viable place to live. A lot of newcomers to Johannesburg move there first; when they first arrive in the city, it’s where they first start up. There’s accommodations to be had; there are a lot of high-rise apartments. It’s the kind of place where new arrivals can establish themselves, establish networks for themselves, find work, and so on. It still plays a useful function to many people. And, of course, they have a sense of community. My own perspective on it is very much as an outsider, now. It’s not an area that I know very well.

Where did the character of Aubrey Tearle first come from?

I think he comes partly from myself. I worked as an editor and proofreader myself for many years, and some of his foibles and obsessions are my obsessions. The fictional prompt for Aubrey was, in the period when South Africa began to change, when it began moving towards democracy and society opened up, in the late 80s and early 90s, there were a lot of really grumpy white conservatives around, and they did indeed write many letters to the editor. The newspaper was full of notes from people complaining about the declining standards of the newspapers and the declining standards on the radio, and generally a lot of conservative, and often quite racist, disgruntlement with the changes in the society. I guess I was picking up on that; I found some quite amusing letters in the newspapers, which struck me as desperate attempts to shore up a system which was over and done with.

Tearle is compelling as a protagonist, but there’s never a point where he becomes softened. What was it like inhabiting his head for that long a period of time?

It is an interesting thing, inhabiting a character who is quite negative in many ways. It’s quite a challenging thing. At the same time, I certainly developed a kind of affection for him. I suppose one has to, as a writer; you have to like your characters on some level. I suppose for me, the key thing is whether he does change, or not. For me, there is a kind of subtle and slow and very small change through the course of the novel. I thought that was sufficient for me. I was, in fact, surprised that readers thought that he was completely unchanging and unbending. For me, from my perspective, the fact that he was even still there, grumping away in his corner, is a sign of a certain commitment to the place. And his engagement with the people, and their affection for him, which he endures in some way, is a sign that he’s someone, by hook or by crook, found a place in the new order, represented by the Cafe Europa. I suppose, for me, there were small signals in the book that he had shifted ground somewhat. He doesn’t move very far. That is my take on it.

Has he been a character that you’ve thought about returning to?

I actually have thought about it, interestingly enough. It’s been at the back of my mind, that I might return to him. Of course, he would be extremely old, but that’s not necessarily a problem when you’re writing fiction.

When you were reviewing “The Proofreader’s Derby,” that he’s been writing, what was the process like for that? You’re not just inside his head, but you’re also writing a work of fiction from his perspective.

“The Proofreader’s Derby” was quite an interesting process. Writing it was quite interesting. When I first began drafting the novel, I was building up “The Proofreader’s Derby” as I went along. I didn’t write the three parts of the novel consecutively. I was thinking about the broad arc of the first and the last parts of the book, and then the derby was happening; it had a sort of independent life as I was developing it on the side.

One of the things that I was doing was actually connecting typographical errors and what Tearle calls corrigenda from my own reading. So I was finding bits and pieces in the newspapers, and inventing some of them. My initial idea as I began to shape the Derby was that it would be full of errors. In the first full draft of the book, “The Proofreader’s Derby” was the uncorrected version. In the book as it stands–I don’t have a copy in front of me–part two is titled “The Proofreader’s Derby (Corrected Version).” When I first wrote it, it was the uncorrected version; it was littered with errors.

It was quite funny; when I first showed the book to a couple of readers, my initial readers, they found it too much to get through. With the shifting focus that happens in the book, the reader has to enter into this entirely new world in the middle of the novel; having to negotiate all of these typos and strange formulations and repetitions and so on was just too much. A couple of readers said, “This is impossible.” I had begun to suspect that myself. And so, what I then had to do was to correct that version. That was an ironic process: I had to be sure that I picked up all the small slips that I had deliberately introduced. It’s quite amusing. It happened in this very roundabout way, as you can hear. In the process of doing it, I was doing more or less what Tearle would have done, as the compiler. That’s what the novel imagines, that he put it together in that way. I mimicked that, if you like. And I created a whole lot of trouble for myself.

A few years ago, your book The Loss Library came out. Do you see any connection between your work there and what you did here, where you inhabited a fictional world created by a fictional character?

One of the few ideas that links them is, simply, the importance of the stuff that gets thrown away. The importance of the material that’s usually rejected, the chaff that you shed from your work. I’m a bit of an obsessive notebook-keeper and note-taker, and a fairly obsessive drafter and reviser of my work. I have a lot of material that goes to waste, if you like. Over the years, as I’ve gone back to abandoned drafts and abandoned ideas and gone through notebooks, I’ve become more and more interested in that material, and the sort of patterns that that material reveals.

There is a quite direct link with that notion, that one can make work out of the abandoned stuff. Tearle’s entire project is working with things that are broken or things that are defective.

What kind of a response are you getting to this novel and Double Negative from people in places where these books are appearing for the first time?

I’ve had a great response so far. I’ve been very pleased with the reviews so far of The Restless Supermarket, for instance. Double Negative feels a little different in that it was not published that long ago. The book appeared here in 2010 in a joint collection with a book of photography. The final version of the book only appeared in 2011. So there’s not  much of a lag. It feels to me, more or less, like it’s happening in one concrete moment, if you like. Whereas with The Restless Supermarket, I had a distinct feeling that earlier work is being published. So far, I’ve been very happy with the response. I was a little apprehensive about publishing work that goes back a few years. I would have wondered  at the time how the work would have been received outside of South Africa, because it has quite a lot of local references. That would have been an apprehension anyway. Now, one has the added thing of a bit of distance from the time that I wrote it. So far, we really seem to be engaging with readers of the book. I’ve been very happy with it.

What are you working on these days?

I’ve been working, in the last couple of years, on a novel, which is still in progress. I hesitate to say how far I am, because these kind of things are capricious and unpredictable. I think I’m quite far into the book, but it might take me a bit longer to finish than I expect. And I’ve been working on a book of stories, which is actually finished. That’s the more immediate text, which is now with publishers. That’s the thing that will appear next. It’s a book of stories; some of them go back quite a while. I haven’t published a book of stories for something more than ten years. Some of them go back quite a way, and some of them are really new. Some of them were written in the last six months or so. That’s what will be arriving.

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