The Book of Happenstance - excerpt
Of that particular evening I recall first of all that I drank too much. I remember that the young editor Herman Holst was there—a neat, inhibited fellow, who has since vanished into the void to seek his happiness in America. He and the poet Marthinus Maritz often hung out together at the time. I went to Felix du Randt’s flat with the two of them. I regretted having ended my relationship with Felix some weeks previously and wanted, at least, to restore something of our relationship of trust. If I remember correctly, the poet and the editor were more than keen to accompany me. Starved for a little action. It was late when we arrived at Felix’s flat. I was in a worked-up and overemotional state. Sexy Felix du Randt, with his sharp, sly, foxy face, received us politely, but was icy cold towards me. From his side, reconciliation was not an option. Never could I have foreseen that foxy Felix, with his warm, freckled skin, who just a few months before had regarded me with such passion, such tenderness, such loving certainty, would turn his back on me so implacably. The more he distanced himself from me that evening, the more hysterical I became. What did I want from him? That he should take me back into his arms? That he should smile on me tenderly and intimately as he had done in bed some weeks before? That he should promise eternal fidelity, after I had made it clear that he was not the right man for me? Felix revealed a different side of himself that evening, the existence of which I had never suspected.
Marthinus Maritz is dead. Felix I never saw again; he had been head of some language institute or linguistics department somewhere up north before dying in a car accident in his early forties.
The poet Marthinus Maritz, filled with grim and misguided yearning, walked with a slight stoop. His torso was fleshy, his feet pointed slightly outwards; his heavy, dark, bearded head was too large for his body. His gaze was at once challenging and bewildered; in his eyes was the light of poetic possession. His first volume of poetry was a huge success. He was passionate about poetry, ambitious, intellectually energetic—even indefatigable—but an emotional cripple. A despairing, tormented man. His childhood had been difficult, his mother had neglected him shamefully, her lovers had mistreated him. He was married; we attempted something sexual once or twice, but we were verbally attracted to each other, not physically. His first volume of poetry was hailed as a gift of God to the language. Where else in Afrikaans is there another debut—a comparable volume, in fact—in which pain, uncertainty and emotional abandonment are expressed equally poignantly, where there are as many heart-rending poems about youthful illusion and despair as in that first collection of poems by Marthinus Maritz? He could not equal that again. Wallace Stevens was one of his favourite poets. The motto in that first volume was a quotation from a poem by Stevens. Marthinus was an incongruous figure, and he felt himself increasingly disregarded and isolated. He abandoned poetry, tried to make money. Succeeded. His business enterprise was a huge success; he became very wealthy, took up poetry again, but could never write anything to match his first volume. Perhaps he thought that if he became a fat cat like Wallace Stevens, he would be able to write like him.
Marthinus was a man with a penetrating intelligence and an uncontrolled ag--gressive streak that ran like a fault-line through his personality. His aggression was mostly directed at women, though. I did not realise it then. That evening, when I ranted hysterically and deliberately spilled wine on Felix’s new white mohair carpet, Marthinus slapped me on both sides of my face with abandon. I recognise the intensity only now, thirty-odd years later. It gave that man great pleasure to slap me publicly, on both sides of my face, so that the fingermarks were visible, ostensibly to calm me down. Felix du Randt, my ex-lover, looked on expressionlessly and fetched a cloth to mop the red wine from his expensive new carpet. It was clear that everything he had previously emotionally invested in our relationship he had now reinvested in that costly white woven mohair carpet. He regarded the wine stains with abhorrence. I doubt if he would have intervened if Marthinus had treated (punished) me even more roughly.
But besides Marthinus Maritz, Felix du Randt and Herman Holst, there appears to have been a fourth person present, the indistinct Freek van As, who observed everything that evening and had a conversation with me about Plato, if I am to believe him. The editor has disappeared, the poet and the former lover are dead, only Freek van As remains. After twenty-seven years he strides forth from the nebulous regions of the past to remind me of an incident that occurred in my late twenties. Am I still interested? It is over and done with, that period of delusion and poor judgement.