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Testimonies and Memories

From the Blitz to the Boer War, Re-presenting (Inter)National and Colonial Wars and Personal Traumas: Craig Higginson’s The Landscape Painter as a lyrical epic

D’une guerre l’autre : re-présenter les conflits nationaux, coloniaux et mondiaux et les blessures intimes, ou l’épopée lyrique dans The Landscape Painter de Craig Higginson (Afrique du Sud, 2011)
Mathilde Rogez

Résumés

Après avoir aperçu le visage de l’inconnue qui emménage dans l’appartement à côté du sien, Arthur Bailey, peintre vieillissant qui vit reclus dans le Londres de l’après Seconde Guerre mondiale, voit soudain ressurgir les démons du passé qui le hantent. Les images du conflit anglo-boer du siècle précédent dans la tourmente duquel il s’est retrouvé pris lors d’un séjour loin de la métropole se mêlent à celles des ruines quasi gothiques d’après le Blitz. De même que sur la toile du peintre s’entrelacent et contrastent touches pittoresques et paysages sublimes, The Landscape Painter (2011), le quatrième roman de Craig Higginson, en revenant ainsi sur des événements survenus près d’un siècle et demi plus tôt, alterne et associe lyrisme, épopée et plaasroman (roman de ferme, genre typique en Afrique du Sud) pour mieux sonder les blessures de son propre pays encore en (re)construction et remettre en question les récits nationaux traditionnels de la métropole et de la colonie. Si tous ces conflits ont durablement brisé les esprits et mutilé les chairs, la langue même s’avère affectée, presque désarticulée au sens fort du terme : on verra ainsi comment le roman interroge la pertinence de ces genres littéraires pour re-présenter ou commémorer ces guerres si lointaines et si proches, (inter)nationales autant que personnelles, et politiques autant qu’esthétiques.

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Texte intégral

1When he sees the young woman who is going to be the new lodger of the bedsit next to his south of the Heath, Arthur Bailey, an elderly painter who now lives as a recluse in post-World War Two London, is suddenly thrown back into the past. The images of the Boer War which had been haunting him for so long resurface, and become interlaced with those of the Blitz, the still smoking ruins of London evoking a Gothic landscape. Indeed, although The Landscape Painter starts in London – as most of the covers for the novel highlight – very soon, the plot moves to South Africa, which the protagonist visited with his best friend, Christian Hamilton, just as the colonial conflict erupted at the tip of the continent. Not only does Arthur then become caught up in this turmoil: behind the scars of the wounds he received on the front can also be perceived the personal injuries and trauma which his encounter, on the family farm, with his friend’s extremely attractive and mysterious sister, Carwyn, seared deep onto his mind, now revived by the vision of her uncanny lookalike.

  • 1 Higginson, also a playwright, has, rather unusually, adapted two of his own plays into novels.
  • 2 Or farm novel in Afrikaans, a typically South African genre.

2Craig Higginson’s fourth novel is therefore not just another South African novel, nor even just a novel about WW2 in Britain, but about several intertwined conflicts in both the then colony and the metropolis, including passing allusions to “The Great War” of 1914-18, which also analyses the ties between the two places – a rather unusual topic for a twenty-first century South African novelist to tackle, from such a position as his, in a country still probing its own wounds almost a century and half later. This interweaving of periods and places is further combined with an interplay of genres1 and mediums: in the same way the “landscape painter” of the title alternates between the sublime and the picturesque, contrasting representations which are strongly ideologically connoted, in particular in the context of imperial conquest, the author mingles the lyrical, the epic and the plaasroman.2 We shall see how these writing strategies become part of a process of building a national narrative, after a series of wars which have broken the characters’ minds and maimed their bodies. Through this articulation of contrasting genres, modes, and narrations (with shifts between the first and the third person), and while language has become disarticulated, the novel questions how to re-present or commemorate those conflicts, both far and close, (inter)national, colonial and personal, the political and the aesthetic being thus intimately entangled.

Representing War: Celebrating Symbols?

  • 3 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2011, 58.
  • 4 Ibid., 222.
  • 5 Interestingly enough, it is the first illustration chosen to illustrate the Wikipedia webpage on th (...)
  • 6 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 18.

3If allusions to “The Great War” are only rather limited in the novel, the phrase itself, which is constantly used to refer to the period between 1914 and 1918, draws attention to the fact that the novel does not just focus on conflicts – mostly WW2 and the second Anglo-Boer war (or Boer war, as the first is generally less well-known – but is mentioned in the novel briefly),3 which took place between 11 October 1899 and 31 May 1902 – but on the symbols they represent. Significantly, the protagonist leaves the battlefront at the same time as Kruger leaves South Africa, and the parallel is explicitly made in the novel,4 which besides opens not with WW2 as such – the word appears only after two pages, and it has just ended – but with references to the Blitz, the last word of the first paragraph; that is, an episode in British history which is deemed to have forged the British nation. This symbol of characteristic British resilience under hardship can be compared with the key moments in the narrative on the Boer War, which focus on two similarly striking episodes in the colonial conflict: the Battle of Spion Kop, which took place on 23 and 24 January 1900,5 and the siege of Mafeking, which lasted 217 days, between 13 October 1899 and 17 May 1900. The latter two events are fairly obvious choices in a conflict which after 1900 was to go on for two more years of rather inglorious guerilla warfare and, on the British side, concentration camps and scorched earth policy. The repeated allusions to the Blitz despite the fact that the novel explicitly opens after the war is over (Part One, chapter 7, lists VE day, VJ day, and “the day that Britain’s war finally ended”)6 suggest again that this choice is meant to be symbolic of what is indeed “Britain’s war”, a World War from which supposedly emerges a strengthened singular nation – a war which is already presented as part of a national narrative.

  • 7 Mikhaïl Bakhtin, Esthétique et théorie du roman, Paris: Gallimard, 1978, 449; Sue Vice, Introducin (...)
  • 8 There are differences between epics and historical novels, which however is a topic beyond the scop (...)

4Celebrating symbolic events which contribute to nation building is central to the genre of the epic according to Mikhail Bakhtin: “The subject of the epic is the heroic national past […]. The source of the epic is the ‘national tradition.’”7 The “epic quality” of the novel is thus praised by Michael Titlestad, a key figure in the South African academic and literary worlds and the novelist’s editor, quoted in the first pages of the book, and it is also what the publisher has chosen to highlight in the blurb on the back cover, this time in relation to “the battlefields of the Anglo-Boer War”. At the very least, the novel presents itself as based on historical facts, providing at the end of the book a list of references and sources quoted, including to represent Natal and Johannesburg at the turn of the previous century: the novel explicitly attempts to give an accurate portrait of two highly emblematic periods in both the history of South Africa and Britain, and the blurb labels the work in that respect a “historical novel.”8

5Blurbs are of course not to be taken uncritically, and it is striking here that it should end by praising “Higginson’s characteristically sinuous, lyrical prose,” the lyrical and the epic modes having been contrasted by so many critics since at least Hegel, as shall be developed later. It is striking to note for now that the protagonist clearly does not join the collective celebrations at the end of WW2, cutting a solitary figure, up on the Heath. The novel adopting his voice and point of view in such parts of the narrative, it is therefore an invitation to explore how Higginson combines the two modes to question the conventional or official evocations of such symbolic moments in those two conflicts to re-present them through a different, personal angle.

Re-presenting the Official Epic: National Defeats and Personal Traumas

6What is striking is that the events focused upon in the novel are actually mostly defeats, or at least not victories – at best moments of resilience of the British troops and people. It is clearly what transpires from the representation given of the Blitz by the protagonist as he sits as a spectator on a bench on the Heath, watching London burn, and even trying to paint it:

  • 9 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 18, 261.

Several times during those long nights, the sirens brought me out the house, and I strode up to the Heath, to the very summit of Parliament Hill. From there, I watched the grand spectacle of war. Can you imagine what it felt like to stand there and watch the whole of London being obliterated? The city wailed with sirens – as it once jangled with church bells – like a great beast keening. As I looked towards the docks to the east, where the bulk of the bombing was, shafts of light probed the heavens as if seeking some higher power that might come down to help. But all that was delivered was more deaths. Yes, for many nights I watched the glorious city – my city – burn. Once I even tried to paint it. The Fire of London, I was going to call it. I could do the spectacle no justice, however, and soon gave up.9

7The evident references to Nero and Rome (although the character is unambiguously not indifferent to the fate of London, “[his] city”), to other events in British and world history, and to literary works, create a distance between the narrator and the “spectacle” he describes, the repetition of the phrase together with the adjective highlighting the frame through which he seems to be looking at what lies at a geographical distance from him, down “there… there”, not unlike the way, from the start of the novel, he looks at the scene below his bedroom through the frame of both the window and his memories. His isolation from the rest of the people is striking:

  • 10 Ibid., 18.

On VJ Day, I decided not to join the thousands in the city wearing their paper hats. I’d already been to Green Park on VE Day, where I heard Churchill’s usual self-satisfaction echoing through the speakers that hung from the trees. It was my idea of hell. … So I was home on the day that Britain’s war finally ended.10

8The lonely individual is separated from his fellow citizens, but even though the sense of community felt by other people is accepted, it is how it seems to be instrumentalized for political and (inter)national gains (for Britain as a country opposed to others) in what was a world war (as stressed by phrases like “VJ Day” and “VE Day”) which is implicitly questioned.

  • 11 Ibid., 161.

9That the meaning and value of such events depend on the light in which they are cast is confirmed by the representation of the other episode from WW2 mentioned in the novel: Dunkirk. In British historiography of WW2, it is, after the Blitz, the main point of interest. As with the Blitz, what is remembered of what is called in Britain the Dunkirk Evacuation (between 26 May and 4 June 1940) is how in very little time Britain managed to provide a huge number of ships to make the evacuation possible, and the heroic participation of civilians in the evacuation, as many of those ships were not military ones but ferries, yachts, or fishing boats. The myth of the Dunkirk spirit is one of the national narratives celebrated for instance at the Imperial War Museum in London. However, the full phrase is never used in the novel, which contents itself with the place name, and one recalls that in French it is referred to as a “retreat”, a military failure, therefore, toned down in its English translation. It is the defeat that it consisted in which is instead represented in the novel, as a personally traumatic event in which the brother of Felicity, the female protagonist in the part of the story set in London, died. This personal loss is further linked to yet another, evoked conjointly, that of her first love, who flew Hurricanes and also died in battle.11 The Blitz and Dunkirk become thus conjoined in the novel not so much as episodes of valiant resistance but as evoking death and causing personal destruction:

I caught the bus to Waterloo and took the train south. Always a surprise to get out of the ruin that is London and find the countryside apparently untouched. There were cart horses hauling hay, young lads picking apples, a man herding cattle with the he­lp of his tractor and a black and white collie. The dog was so shiny it looked as if it had just been washed.

  • 12 Ibid., 22.

Then I noticed the pylons marching across the land, and the dreariness of the stations, where no one had bothered to plant summer flowers. In a field, there was the charred skeleton of a Hurricane that hadn’t made it back to base.12

  • 13 Ibid., 8.

10What could initially have “looked” like a typically picturesque British landscape, with the use of indefinite plurals conjuring up figures in a painting by Constable, himself mentioned at the start of the novel,13 is actually struck by destructive forces (“ruin” being all the stronger in the singular and with the insistent turn of phrase) and invaded by ghosts. Behind appearances (“apparently”) and stereotypes looms a darker reality which reasserts itself strongly in the next paragraph (“there was”): it is that of the destruction caused by the war (“skeleton”) which has profoundly transformed the landscape, through which even the pylons are represented as marching, troop-like, an impression reinforced by the alliteration in plosives at the end. Such a vision is even more prevalent when the character describes what remains of London, even a full year after the end of the war:

  • 14 Ibid., 5.

Moving through the ghostly grey beeches, the fallen leaves crisp underfoot, I pick my way along the familiar path until I come upon the field and the tumulus – the ancient burial mound that looks towards Highgate, marked by a circle of pines. […] London lies behind me and beneath me, a dimly roaring sea of flickering lights, a massive army broken by battle. […] I’m haunted by dreams, phantoms. Things that no longer exist in a world that no longer exists. Tonight I imagine I’m back in Africa, at the bottom of their garden.14

11The picturesque has given way to the Gothic, the “ghostly” silhouettes of the trees become human “phantoms” in the mind of the protagonist, because the war is not just a distant epic battle from the remote past but also a very personal experience, and because it is also linked to another, previous conflict and its representation: the Second Boer war – in which Churchill also played a part.

  • 15 Ibid., 248-51.
  • 16 Ibid., 179.

12While on his visit to South Africa, and romantically involved with Christian’s sister, Arthur indeed found himself caught in the colonial conflict: enrolled as a war artist, he follows the troops to Spion Kop, and once there drops his pad and pencils to join the rescue teams helping wounded soldiers out. But he later resents the fact that Christian’s tale about surviving the siege of Mafeking, mentioned a number of times at several intervals in the novel and narrated directly by Christian towards the end,15 receives more attention from the Hamilton family, although the young man, carefully selecting the most dangerous moments when he thought he would be killed, only received a very minor wound. Mafeking, a precedent to the Blitz, is celebrated as a moment of resilience which naturally, in the national narrative, eclipses the shameful defeat at Spion Kop. However, in the novel, it is the latter which is central, with the longest chapter at the center of the novel devoted to it and fewer breaks in the narrative or alternations between the two time-frames. The defeat is thus inscribed at the core of the novel, but differently from the way in which it is described by historians: “Later, [Arthur] would read descriptions of the battle of Spion Kop and learn to fit them into the day he had experienced. The historians tended to settle on the same basic series of events.”16 The novel here recalls the genre of historiographic metafiction, drawing attention to the textualization of past events and how, as Linda Hutcheon points out, they are “grant[ed] meaning”, afterwards, “through emplotment”:

  • 17 Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge, 1989, 57-8.

We only have access to the past today through its traces – its documents, the testimony of witnesses, and other archival materials. In other words, we only have representations of the past from which to construct our narratives or explanations. […] [P]resent culture [i]s the product of previous representations. […] The historian’s job is to tell plausible stories out of the mess of fragmentary and incomplete facts.17

13What the text foregrounds is therefore this double “process”, to quote Hutcheon again, at work in history writing, in particular when it comes to commemorating battles and war: that defeats are put in the background, and that history is but one version of the events. By contrast, what is given primacy in the novel itself is the raw and fragmentary experience of such events which, like those witnessed by Fabrice Del Dongo at Waterloo (Stendhal’s novel The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) is mentioned in the text), do not fall into any meaningful pattern:

  • 18 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 169.

Much of what followed came to Arthur only in fragments, images, words said in passing. […] For the first time Arthur and Dixie had entered the real battle – no longer observing it through field glasses from the safety of a hill. No one seemed to be in charge. The enemy was invisible. Their position meant nothing. One rocky outcrop was like another. One may as well have been fighting against the same soldier, again and again. All was chaos.18

14The chapter, structured in the exact same way as the battle, adopts the limited perspective of the character, despite the shift to the past tense and the third person, a perspective which becomes even more limited once he gets into the thick of it: the succession of short sentences, the alternation between subjects which become less and less specific (“the enemy […] their position […] one […] all”) conveys the blur of it all (“seemed”), which narratively mimics the fog experienced that day by the soldiers on the ground. What is conveyed is the inability to decipher signs or find a meaning in the movements of the troops, which makes of the battle a personal experience and trauma which cannot, therefore, be spoken about in the family – and goes against the grain of epic representations of what was, in fact, a nonsensical defeat, the result of misjudgements and mistakes. It came at a tremendous cost in lives, many of which are given an individual name and personal – albeit short – story in the passage, contrary to what one would find in the “basic series of events” of historical accounts.

Describing the Indescribable: Sublime Landscapes vs. Lyrical Memories

  • 19 Ibid., 271.

15The novel alternates two periods (Arthur’s visit to the Hamiltons in South Africa and his involvement in the Boer War; his encounter with Felicity in post-WW2 London) and two modes and tenses of narration, the first person for the latter period, narrated in the present tense, and the third person and the past for the former. Yet the perspective remains Arthur’s throughout, and despite the time gap, there is no sense of an overarching perspective which would be provided by the whole narrative, whose nature besides remains rather obscure: only at the very end of the novel does the narrator mention that “[i]t’s been some years since I last wrote anything down,”19 which reinforces the metafictional nature of the novel; but of course, and even though it has recently become a convention, the congruence between the time of the actions and the time of writing is impossible, and the exact nature of those accounts remains undefined. His rather dismissive tone corresponds to the slightly self-deprecating and often deluded outlook to be felt throughout, and the narrator does not even have the last word, which is left to Carwyn’s letter, copied in full, which reaches Arthur through three wars and fifty odd years later. There is no signature, no explanation, no comment: to the end, and directly in connection with the wars highlighted at the beginning of Carwyn’s letter, the novel does not offer any conclusion on what remains personal experiences, not a master-narrative.

  • 20 Mikhaïl Bakhtin, op. cit., 449; Sue Vice, op. cit., 79-80.
  • 21 David Quint, Epic and Empire, Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton, Princeton: Princeto (...)

16The novel, therefore, discards the epic, as defined by Bakhtin, a genre whose subject matter belongs to the “absolute past”, whose source is a “national tradition” or legend, as opposed to mere personal experience, and which requires an “absolute epic distance” that “separates” it “from the present.”20 As such, as David Quint underlines, it is “politiciz[ed]”,21 the victors often thus building a national narrative to unite the community:

  • 22 Ibid., 9.

To the victors belongs epic, with its linear teleology; to the losers belongs romance, with its random or circular wandering. Put another way, the victors experience history as a coherent, end-directed story told by their own power; the losers experience a contingency that they are powerless to shape to their own ends.22

17The experience of the Blitz, debunked by the narrator in the present tense, is too raw and vivid to be turned into a national narrative, despite what politicians may attempt and, it is implied, no hindsight has been gained either on the Boer War, whose haunting memories keep returning, as in the structure of the novel, in a circular manner, the way in which trauma works.

  • 23 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 34.

18This was intimated earlier in the novel through a rejection of another mode, similar to the epic when it comes to painting: the sublime. On his arrival in South Africa, Arthur “do[es]n’t quite have the words for” the land he discovers,23 and hardly does any better when he tries to put brushes to canvas, whether then or when painting the battles:

  • 24 Ibid., 157-8.

The mountains gave the event a grandeur and significance it might not otherwise have possessed. … Arthur would recall those days spent riding towards the Tugela mainly through the drawings he made. … As there was little to represent but the caravan of wagons and people, he concentrated on this spectacle – the white canvas of the wagons always stark against the mountains or a lowering sky. But the results were always unsatisfactory. The landscape was too large, and their party appeared too scattered and insignificant against it. Many of his pictures might well have passed as records of the Great Trek. They spoke of labour over a hostile land, its consequences and meaning obscure, instead of the site for a heroic battle.24

  • 25 Pratt 1994; J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, New Haven and (...)
  • 26 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 34-5.
  • 27 J.M. Coetzee, op. cit., 9.
  • 28 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 162.
  • 29 Mathilde Rogez, “‘White Writing’, ‘Dark Continent’: les enjeux de la représentation du paysage dan (...)
  • 30 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, O (...)
  • 31 Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 113.

19This is reminiscent of the approach chosen by his predecessors on South African land, who initially resorted to genres imported from Europe, in particular the sublime which, using a dominant perspective, duplicated on the landscape the control the colonizers wanted to assert on the land.25 One finds similar phrases to refer to the Karoo Christian and Arthur go through by train to reach Johannesburg,26 the scene of the battle at Spion Kop, and the “empty landscape” of earlier colonists27: “[T]here was little to draw. The landscape appeared almost empty.”28 This emptying of the land was the first step before appropriating it: if there was no one, it belonged to no one.29 But the sublime proved ill suited to a land which expands horizontally (“too large”) rather than vertically:30 “The Sublime […] is pictorially unframeable, and it cannot be framed in words. The Sublime is that which cannot appropriate, if only because we cannot discern any boundaries. If anything, it appropriates us.”31 The allusion to the Great Trek is, in that context, not only dismissive of Arthur’s attempts, but also reflects critically on the colonial adventure itself, that of the Trekkers, repeated by the British in the war against the Boers, and implicitly risible. Later, Arthur paints sublime landscapes only as works for further representations, as if to point out their artificiality, as scenery for the stage, and their inadequacy to represent his own lived experience:

  • 32 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 8.

If he was recalled […] it was as a scenery painter – first for the theatre and later the film studios. His work could be seen in the backgrounds of several well-known epics, always in black and white. The crags of Montana, the smoggy labyrinths of nineteenth-century London or the temples of Pompeii, Ancient Athens or Rome. All castles in the air.32

  • 33 Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale I, Paris: Gallimard, 1966, 162-6.
  • 34 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 8.

20The nominal sentence inscribes those remote places, whether geographically or temporally, in a time frame frozen in the permanent present of the imagination,33 irrelevant either to the personal experience of post-WW2 London or Spion Kop. No wonder Arthur has now turned to painting milder picturesque British landscapes, or clouds and skies, “paying surreptitious homage to the unexceptional, the easily overlooked”34 – what could recall, in writing, the lyrical.

  • 35 Ibid., 274.
  • 36 J.A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, London: Penguin, 1998., (...)
  • 37 Njabulo S. Ndebele, Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Essays on South African Literature and Culture, S (...)

21The genre etymologically goes back to song and singing and evokes poetic forms inherited from the Antiquity like the ode or the elegy, and the last words of the novel, penned by a dying Carwyn, have indeed an elegiac tone: “I’m going to stop writing now in case I start to weep.”35 Cuddon notes that “a lyric is usually fairly short […] often only between a dozen and thirty lines [and] usually expresses the feelings and thoughts of a single speaker (not necessarily the poet himself) in a personal and subjective fashion.”36 What is relevant here is the modest ambit of the genre, in direct opposition to the epic mode favoured by nationalist discourse, and the fact that it acknowledges loss and trauma. Yet if Carwyn’s letter stops abruptly, her restraint prevents nostalgia – and often the characters stop short, at a loss for words, because language itself seems to have been affected by the war. Arthur may initially fail to find the right words or the right angle to describe or paint what he sees in South Africa, but his ultimate shift to other modes which favour small details is reminiscent of Njabulo Ndebele’s seminal essay about literature in the apartheid context, advocating a return to the “ordinary” instead of a focus on the paralyzing “spectacle” of apartheid – another, enduring, conflict.37 The small scale of his paintings allows them to find a place in young Felicity’s lodgings, which enables a form of communication between the generations – however modest and tentative. The lyrical tone of the novel, its broken rhythm and unassertive tone, full of question marks in the last chapters, may be more apt to describe what otherwise resists description, echoing what another South African writer, Ivan Vladislavić, said about the “nondescript”:

  • 38 Ivan Vladislavić, “Modderfontein Road”, in Tamar Garb (ed.), Home Lands – Land Marks, London: Haun (...)

Is there a more dismissive adjective? It suggests that a place cannot be evoked, that it has no qualities to distinguish it, that it is not worth remembering. But places are rendered vivid as much by what we bring to them as what we find there. ‘Nondescript’ has this older, technical meaning: a species or specimen that has never been described before.38

  • 39 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 198.
  • 40 Ibid., 265.
  • 41 Jean Sévry, “La littérature sud-africaine et ses espaces,” Travaux de l’Institut de Géographie de (...)
  • 42 Michael Chapman, Southern African Literatures, Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2003, (...)
  • 43 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 24.
  • 44 An analysis of the use of the Gothic to rewrite the plaasroman in the novel would deserve a whole a (...)

22It is not, however, immediate for Arthur, who first chooses escapism, going through a phase when to “will himself into paradise” and “forget about […] that which he’d witnessed at Spion Kop,”39 he paints seascapes, or the family farm, or a carefully framed watercolour of the safely enclosed world of Highwood House, the Hamiltons’ property in Johannesburg.40 Their secluded garden in particular is repeatedly described in the novel, with an insistence on its separation from the rest of the world, as is the other property of the Hamiltons’, a farm near Durban, or another farm in Natal Arthur stays on for a few days after Spion Kop. The allusion is double in that it evokes Carwyn’s fairy tale like isolation, as she is often compared to a princess kept prisoner by her witch-like governess, with plenty of allusions to the stories the latter read to her as a child, in particular Grimm’s tales, and to a genre specific to South Africa, the plaasroman. Yet again those aesthetic choices, and the fact that they are later discarded, contribute to undermining the ideological tenets they are linked with, as the garden and the farm are “a microcosm of the apartheid regime, of racial segregation,”41 and the literary genre of the plaasroman, inspired by the same theories as Nazi Germany, against which the British fought in WW2, “takes its ideological role in the discourse of national destiny”42 in the period between the Boer War and WW2 up to the 1948 elections – that is, the period covered by the novel. The novel indeed evokes this South African genre, but gives it several twists, in particular by representing the farm and the garden not as the Gardens of Eden but as literally infested with cobras43 and, figuratively and morally, borrowing from the Gothic,44 as places of utmost corruption, which affects all of the settlers: the Hamiltons are British, not Boers, as in traditional plaasromans. Rewriting the plaasroman in this way, in a novel inscribed in the time frame of WW2, amounts to a radical criticism of colonial conquest. The picturesque and the pastoral, two genres associated with the plaasroman, are therefore also debunked, and the white presence in South Africa unsettled:

  • 45 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 192.

[Arthur] returned to Durban believing himself a changed man. […] [H]e looked at everything with altered eyes, noticing more, perhaps judging more. He’d never questioned the right of people like the Hamiltons to preside over the running of the country. They were people he himself had aspired to be like. But something about the relationship with his surroundings had shifted. He had started to see the country as a thing that was fought over – at a great cost to all. He wondered why it was considered worth the fight. Why the fight was even necessary. The land might have been beautiful, but it was not a place where he’d ever feel at home.45

23Arthur’s enlightenment may still be minimal, but he has clearly moved away from any grand attempt at appropriating the landscape aesthetically: the sublime has proven inadequate; the picturesque he must discard as the plaasroman has been shown to be deceptive. The aesthetic tensions between genres in the novel, or on Arthur’s canvasses, therefore become a way of exploring political fault-lines, and actually, as Arthur’s revelation suggests, of making them visible, even if the questions they raise remain as yet unsolved. The colonial and the (inter)national are therefore always personal, the first step towards the ethical.

Conclusion: a Tale of Two Wars and Two Nations, from British Imperialism to South African Past and Present Politics

24The re-presentation of the two conflicts, so intimately interlaced, is thus a way of questioning in particular one’s relationship to the land and its possible misappropriation, to direct a criticism against both British imperialism and South African past and current conflicts and concerns – a criticism which in that way is indirect but always perceptible, and perhaps even keener for being in a minor key.

  • 46 Ibid., 11.
  • 47 Ibid., 147.
  • 48 Ibid., 152.
  • 49 Ibid., 147.

25As a painter and a focalizer in the narrative, someone who for too long mistakenly sees things through pre-established frames, whether Felicity through his window and his memories of Carwyn or Carwyn herself whom he first visualizes as a portrait hanging in a gallery,46 Arthur gradually becomes able to see through other frames, be they the propaganda of the postcards representing Queen Victoria at the time of the Boer War, or Churchill’s carefully staged escape from Mafeking. As an official painter of the war, asked to draw “political caricatures and cartoons, but also naturalistic scenes from the war – all entirely imaginary,”47 Arthur sees the postcards for what they are, as an “exercise in propaganda, resplendent with Union Jacks, images of soldiers doing heroic deeds and portraits of the queen,” who in filigree, becomes “an impostor in these portraits, like the wolf in ‘Little Red Cap’, dressed up as a grandmother, so she would swallow young children whole.”48 Left for the reader to decode implicitly, but nevertheless clearly, the reference to “Rule Britannia” and the presence of rickshaw drivers in the second instance,49 or of Indian stretcher bearers at Spion Kop, compound the criticism already levelled by the questioning of the way in which the colonial Boer War could be represented, so that it encompasses Britain’s imperialism more generally. Given the time frame of the novel and how it opens, with many derogatory allusions to Churchill, it also sheds, fifty years later, an ambiguous light on the politician who would pose as the uncontested victor of WW2.

  • 50 Ibid., 228.
  • 51 Ibid., 220.

26This same time frame allows for a reflection on the fate of South Africa, the locale for the Boer War, with the novel ending at about the time of the 1948 elections: “‘You know the Afrikaner nationalists won the last election? […] They finally have the power they want – the power they’ve sought since they lost the war. You’ve heard of their new idea? They call it apartheid.’”50 This echoes an earlier passage in the novel, where the characters wondered what would become of the settlers at the tip of the continent: “‘We must wait till the war ends. […] Then we’ll see what kind of place this new South Africa turns out to be.’”51 Found under the pen of a twenty-first century South African novelist, the phrase “new South Africa” cannot but evoke the current situation in the country, after it has seen the end of another, enduring conflict against apartheid and white supremacy: for all its remote historical references, the novel is also very much about contemporary South Africa. It may even be said that the novel broaches current issues all the more acutely precisely thanks to its indirectness and its play on genres: the aesthetic makes it possible to address the political and the ethical. Indeed, besides the reflection on the appropriateness of genres like the epic and the lyrical, or the sublime, the picturesque and the plaasroman, the novel is also discreetly metatextual: on top of the elements of historiographic metafiction and the allusions to the act of writing on the part of the narrator, there are many passages which could be read as references to Higginson’s own work – he, like Arthur, directed a play entitled The Grimm Tales, adapted from the fairy tales, and Higginson’s two middle names are Arthur and Baillie. The way he depicts Arthur looking for a mode which would translate the personal and national issues he faces in Britain and in South Africa also engages his own practice as a South African writer faced with contemporary challenges.

  • 52 Frédéric Maurin, “Adapter ad lib”, in Yannick Butel and Gérard-Denis Farcy (eds.), L’Adaptation th (...)
  • 53 Jean-Michel Maulpoix, “La quatrième personne du singulier”, in Dominique Rabaté (ed.), Figures du (...)
  • 54 Craig Higginson “Positive Capability: The Uses of the Dialogic Mode in Contemporary South African L (...)
  • 55 Goyet Florence, “L’épopée (seconde partie)”, “Bibliothèque comparatiste”, Société française de litt (...)
  • 56 Mathilde Rogez, “L’épopée chez Sol T. Plaatje. Une relecture de Mhudi”, in Inès Cazalas and Delphi (...)
  • 57 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, (...)

27Beyond that, his reflection on genres and their interactions, or the adaptation of one genre to another, seems to be what fundamentally helps him navigate the issue of giving an appropriate representation of South African issues, as it allows by essence to hear the voice of the other: “Adaptation is first and foremost the site where something is said again – is said in another way, and where the other is given a say, or othered sometimes in the way it is said. It is always the other which is adapted, or what is adapted which is made other.”52 Ultimately, the novel almost amounts to a rewriting of the epic, no longer a master narrative, but as a genre which would leave room to more singular voices – giving way to the lyrical, which is perhaps more suited to make other voices heard, if we are to believe Jean-Michel Maulpoix: “The lyric subject is the voice of the other, the one who speaks, it is the voice of all the others who speak inside of me, and the one I address to others.”53 It may be thanks to the tentative dialogue it stages between narrative voices, as well as between “the choral voice and the individual voice,”54 between contending and intertwined representations of historical conflicts and personal traumas in the past, that Higginson’s novel becomes a lyrical epic, “truly polyphonic”55 and manages, not unlike Sol Plaatje’s revisited epic, Mhudi, before him,56 to achieve the goal set by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: “to talk about the past as a way of talking about the present.”57

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Bibliographie

Andrews Malcolm, Landscape and Western Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bakhtin Mikhaïl, Esthétique et théorie du roman, Paris: Gallimard, 1978.

Benveniste Emile, Problèmes de linguistique générale I, Paris: Gallimard, 1966.

Burke Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990 [1757].

Chapman Michael, Southern African Literatures, Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2003.

Coetzee J.M., White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988.

Cuddon J.A, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, London: Penguin, 1998.

Goyet Florence, “L’épopée (seconde partie)”, “Bibliothèque comparatiste”, Société française de littérature générale et comparée, 2009. <https://sflgc.org/bibliotheque/goyet-florence-lepopee-seconde-partie/>, accessed April 28, 2022.

Higginson Craig, The Landscape Painter, Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2011.

Higginson Craig, “Positive Capability: The Uses of the Dialogic Mode in Contemporary South African Literature”, PhD thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 2018.

Hutcheon Linda, The Politics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge, 1989.

Joseph-Vilain Mélanie, Post-Apartheid Gothic. White South African Writers and Space, Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2020.

Lukács Georg, The Historical Novel, London: Merlin Press, 1962.

Maulpoix Jean-Michel, “La quatrième personne du singulier”, in Dominique Rabaté (ed.), Figures du sujet lyrique, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1996, 147-60.

Maurin Frédéric, “Adapter ad lib”, in Yannick Butel and Gérard-Denis Farcy (eds.), L’Adaptation théâtrale, entre obsolescence et résistance, Caen: Presses universitaires de Caen, 2000, 86-92.

Ndebele Njabulo S., Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Essays on South African Literature and Culture, Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, London: Heinemann, 1972.

Plaatje Solomon Tshekisho, Mhudi, Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1978.

Quint David, Epic and Empire, Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Rogez Mathilde, “‘White Writing’, ‘Dark Continent’: les enjeux de la représentation du paysage dans la littérature sud-africaine contemporaine”, Etudes littéraires africaines 39, 2015, 51-65.

Rogez Mathilde, “L’épopée chez Sol T. Plaatje. Une relecture de Mhudi”, in Inès Cazalas and Delphine Rumeau (eds.), Épopées postcoloniales, poétiques transatlantiques, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2020, 151-63.

Sévry Jean, “La littérature sud-africaine et ses espaces”, Travaux de l’Institut de Géographie de Reims 25, 1998, no. 99-100, 15-26.

Vice Sue, Introducing Bakhtin, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Vladislavić Ivan, “Modderfontein Road”, in Tamar Garb (ed.), Home Lands – Land Marks, London: Haunch of Venison, 2008, 154-61.

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Notes

1 Higginson, also a playwright, has, rather unusually, adapted two of his own plays into novels.

2 Or farm novel in Afrikaans, a typically South African genre.

3 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, Johannesburg: Picador Africa, 2011, 58.

4 Ibid., 222.

5 Interestingly enough, it is the first illustration chosen to illustrate the Wikipedia webpage on the Boer war. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Boer_War>, last accessed March 6, 2022.

6 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 18.

7 Mikhaïl Bakhtin, Esthétique et théorie du roman, Paris: Gallimard, 1978, 449; Sue Vice, Introducing Bakhtin, Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997, 79-80.

8 There are differences between epics and historical novels, which however is a topic beyond the scope of this article. Of note here would be for instance how Georg Lukács (1962) repeatedly conflates the two in his study on the historical novel. Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel, London: Merlin Press, 1962.

9 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 18, 261.

10 Ibid., 18.

11 Ibid., 161.

12 Ibid., 22.

13 Ibid., 8.

14 Ibid., 5.

15 Ibid., 248-51.

16 Ibid., 179.

17 Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, London: Routledge, 1989, 57-8.

18 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 169.

19 Ibid., 271.

20 Mikhaïl Bakhtin, op. cit., 449; Sue Vice, op. cit., 79-80.

21 David Quint, Epic and Empire, Politics and Generic Form from Virgil to Milton, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, 7.

22 Ibid., 9.

23 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 34.

24 Ibid., 157-8.

25 Pratt 1994; J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988, 61-2.

26 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 34-5.

27 J.M. Coetzee, op. cit., 9.

28 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 162.

29 Mathilde Rogez, “‘White Writing’, ‘Dark Continent’: les enjeux de la représentation du paysage dans la littérature sud-africaine contemporaine”, Etudes littéraires africaines 39, 2015, 52-3.

30 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990 [1757], 66; J.M. Coetzee, op. cit., 52.

31 Malcolm Andrews, Landscape and Western Art, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 113.

32 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 8.

33 Emile Benveniste, Problèmes de linguistique générale I, Paris: Gallimard, 1966, 162-6.

34 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 8.

35 Ibid., 274.

36 J.A. Cuddon, The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, London: Penguin, 1998., 481.

37 Njabulo S. Ndebele, Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Essays on South African Literature and Culture, Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2006.

38 Ivan Vladislavić, “Modderfontein Road”, in Tamar Garb (ed.), Home Lands – Land Marks, London: Haunch of Venison, 2008, 159.

39 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 198.

40 Ibid., 265.

41 Jean Sévry, “La littérature sud-africaine et ses espaces,” Travaux de l’Institut de Géographie de Reims, no. 99-100, 1998, 20, 25; my translation.

42 Michael Chapman, Southern African Literatures, Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 2003, 193.

43 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 24.

44 An analysis of the use of the Gothic to rewrite the plaasroman in the novel would deserve a whole article. On the plaasroman and its rewriting, see J.M. Coetzee, op. cit.; on the Gothic in contemporary South African fiction, see Joseph-Vilain Mélanie, Post-Apartheid Gothic. White South African Writers and Space, Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2020.

45 Craig Higginson, The Landscape Painter, op. cit., 192.

46 Ibid., 11.

47 Ibid., 147.

48 Ibid., 152.

49 Ibid., 147.

50 Ibid., 228.

51 Ibid., 220.

52 Frédéric Maurin, “Adapter ad lib”, in Yannick Butel and Gérard-Denis Farcy (eds.), L’Adaptation théâtrale, entre obsolescence et résistance, Caen: Presses universitaires de Caen, 2000, 9; my translation.

53 Jean-Michel Maulpoix, “La quatrième personne du singulier”, in Dominique Rabaté (ed.), Figures du sujet lyrique, Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1996, 153; my translation.

54 Craig Higginson “Positive Capability: The Uses of the Dialogic Mode in Contemporary South African Literature”, PhD thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 2018, 360.

55 Goyet Florence, “L’épopée (seconde partie)”, “Bibliothèque comparatiste”, Société française de littérature générale et comparée, 2009, <https://sflgc.org/bibliotheque/goyet-florence-lepopee-seconde-partie/>, accessed April 28, 2022; my translation.

56 Mathilde Rogez, “L’épopée chez Sol T. Plaatje. Une relecture de Mhudi”, in Inès Cazalas and Delphine Rumeau (eds.), Épopées postcoloniales, poétiques transatlantiques, Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2020, 151-63.

57 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Homecoming: Essays on African and Caribbean Literature, Culture, and Politics, London: Heinemann, 1972, 39.

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Mathilde Rogez, « From the Blitz to the Boer War, Re-presenting (Inter)National and Colonial Wars and Personal Traumas: Craig Higginson’s The Landscape Painter as a lyrical epic »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 20-n°53 | 2022, mis en ligne le 20 juin 2022, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/14050 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.14050

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Auteur

Mathilde Rogez

Mathilde Rogez is a Senior Lecturer at the Université de Toulouse (CAS EA801) where she teaches translation and literature. Specializing in South and Southern African literature, she is the Commonwealth editor for Miranda and a member of the editorial board of Études littéraires africaines, and co-edited a special issue of ELA on South African literature in 2014. She recently co-edited The Suburbs, New Literary Perspectives (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2021), and The Legacy of a Troubled Past, Commemorative Politics in South Africa in the 21st Century (Presses universitaires de Provence and Liverpool University Press, 2022). Her research interests include the representation of landscape and cityscape through fiction and photography, and the relation between various arts and genres, in particular the novel and theatre, in contemporary South African fiction.

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