Gabriel Gerrity made his first trip to South Africa to
cover the election. He also went there to write a novel. Well before he arrived, he knew both what his dispatches and his novel would say. He figured that out on the train down from Rhodesia.
It was a boring and bumpy ride, a day and a half of high dry veld, first in western Rhodesia, then in eastern Botswana, lastly in the northern Transvaal. Gerrity kept busy, though. He read the papers he bought in Salisbury and the papers he bought in Bulawayo and did a wrap-up of his Rhodesia coverage. He took his meals in his compartment.
By the time he stopped for afternoon tea, he realized the train was passing through Botswana. He drank his tea looking at the high dry veld. When the train stopped at a siding, Gerrity got off and stood beside the track. He listened carefully and smelled the air for sense-impressions he would use in his novel. He stamped the ground and kicked together a pile of earth. Then he bent down, scooped the earth into his hands, smelled it, and let it filter through his fingers.
By this time Africans had appeared – apparently from nowhere – to hawk carvings and trinkets, woven baskets and hats. When Gerrity reached into his pocket, the Africans clustered about him. He took out a notebook and said nothing. He jotted notes about the scent of the earth, the imploring faces, the ragged clothes, and the arrogance of white South Africans who leaned out of the train windows and bargained down the price of the trinkets. Then Gerrity took a deep breath, assessing the odors of the people about him, did a jotting, put away the notebook, and got back on the train.
When he appeared in his compartment, the hawkers clamored outside it. They knocked on the window, crying, “Baas, baas, master, master.” They hoisted carvings about their heads, chanting the only English they knew, “Lovely souvenirs! Very cheap! Make me an offer, baas.”
Gerrity turned away from the window and got out his typewriter. By dinnertime he had finished two pieces on Botswana: one a new-eyes-impressioner that catalogued the smell of the earth, the look of the people and the emptiness of the veld; the other a general situationer in which he discussed Botswana’s development prospects.
After dinner he wrote a story describing a first-time visitor’s sense of moral outrage upon entering South Africa and realizing what apartheid really meant. Gerrity himself had not yet entered the country. He had not yet looked apartheid in the face. That was not a problem. That was the advantage of knowing the kind of reportage his editor expected.
The outrage piece completed, he opened his compartment door, stuck his head into the corridor, and yelled to the African steward at the other end of it. “Hey, boy! C’mere!” When the steward arrived, Gerrity ordered early morning tea.
Late that evening at Mafeking the train actually crossed into South Africa. By then Gerrity was working on his novel.
Gerrity’s novel was going to be about a journalist who went to South Africa to cover the election.
Gerrity saw South Africa – without ever having seen it – as so full of contradictions and tensions, conflicts, and submerged anxieties that all by itself his novel would explode into action. The country’s cruelty would provide its own elements of drama. The journalist wandering through those elements would serve as the Catalyst; he would make the elements flame and flare and shatter. The journalist would be a kind of Graham Greene character: rootless and urbane, a world-weary Actor-Observer. Someone like himself, Gerrity thought.
Gerrity had a Theory about the creation of a novel. The main thing was truth – Truth. There was nothing complicated about capturing Truth. All you did was write everything down just the way it happened. Get it down, that was the basic thing.
Then you went through and tightened it, compressed it, eliminated all but the bare essentials. The fact that you scratched out the dross meant that what remained had Tension and Solidity. Tension and Solidity were parts of the iceberg that didn’t show. They were there all the same, the sub-structure of what did show. And what did show was Art.
Of course, you had to have a story to tell. Gerrity had Theories about that, too. First, you had to have a Stress-Locale where contradictions and tensions, conflicts and submerged anxieties were present.
Second, you needed a Catalyst, an Actor-Observer, the novel’s protagonist, its hero. (Gerrity knew that he himself possessed Actor-Observer potential. He was not merely one of those people who said, “There are several novels in my life.” He had proved it. He had already written the first of them.) Once you identified the Actor-Observer, you introduced the character into the Stress-Locale.
Third, you required a Foil, a contrasting character, the Actor-Observer’s opposite. Gerrity’s instincts told him that you could no longer do a novel where sex existed only for the reader who saw between the lines. Readers went to novels, in fact, to have non-physical sex experiences.
And so for Gerrity the Foil was a device for SEX. The Foil became the Actor-Observer’s lover. Gerrity would deign to be obvious. His novel would describe coitus every twenty pages: in half a dozen different settings, using at least as many positions, at five different times of day, in three different states of passion: raw, refined, and relaxed.
It was more than Gerrity’s instincts that produced these Theories. It was experience. He had learned from writing his first novel, from its failure. Writing that novel had taken him five years. He had started it the summer he returned from a year as a Fulbright scholar in Luxembourg. (Few scholars applied for Fulbrights to Luxembourg and so Gerrity was able to secure one.)
At the time of writing he had considered Luxembourg, where he set the novel’s action, to be a Stress-Locale. This was because Charles De Gaulle had said no to British entry into the Common Market the winter he was there. That had seemed (incorrectly, as it turned out) to change the course of Europe. A figure very much like Gerrity himself had been the Actor-Observer. There had been a Foil, too, a Luxembourger girl who was passionate while he was calm, emotionless, never ruffled.
Unfortunately, Greta was not passionate. She refused to have sex with him. That refusal caused Gerrity literary as well as physical frustrations. She came often to his room and lay with him on his bed in the darkness. She allowed him to kiss her and touch her a little, but that was all. When he begged her to be more adventurous, she refused. When he demanded the reason, she would say, “I am a good Catholic.” He would answer, “But for God’s sake you’re not a nun!” She would push his hands away and turn her back.
Unable to undress her, Gerrity undressed himself. He paced naked about the room, cursing the Pope and her convent education. He begged her to join his nakedness. He kissed and caressed her, but still she refused him. Finally he asked her to marry him. She refused him that, too.
To achieve Truth he had written it all down just as it happened. Then he had chipped away to get Tension and Solidity. Still, even after five years, it didn’t quite gel. At least not for publishers.
At first Gerrity thought himself ahead of his time, a stylistic pacesetter. Then he realized what he had vaguely suspected all along. The trouble was the absence of SEX. Damn Greta! He had described his sexual frustrations which was not quite the same as describing sex.
With this new novel there would be purple passages of SEX every twenty pages.
Gerrity regarded South Africa as the ideal Stress-Locale. There a Foil would appear like a Femme Fatale emerging out of mist. However she reacted to the Actor-Observer (that is to say, to Gerrity himself), her response would pulsate with political implication.
If she seethed with a passion so fierce as to devour him (which was what he hoped), that would demonstrate that apartheid civilization was a time-bomb on which the Foil must dance until the explosion came. If she reacted with inhibition, that would dramatize apartheid’s blockage of normal human relations. Hesitation, explosion or vacillation: whichever they were, they would indicate insoluble moral dilemmas.
Whatever her response, there would be SEX. Despite her inhibitions the Foil would submit to him. Amid a rising crescendo of coital descriptions, the Stress-Locale would explode for the lovers. And Theme would emerge.
Just how it would do this, Gerrity did not know. But it did not matter. Once things were started right, the end would take care of itself. The muses would appropriate The Work and finish it for him.
The most important thing was to find the right Foil.
Notes on the novel so absorbed Gerrity’s thoughts that he did not even realize the train had stopped. Then the door of his private compartment opened. A young woman, blonde, in a jersey and very short skirt entered the compartment, carrying a small plastic suitcase. Gerrity looked up. The girl glanced at him with wide and frightened eyes, then looked away. She sat as far from him as possible. She held the suitcase on her lap and bit her lips as if to control turbulent emotions.
Gerrity peered out the window and saw the station lights. “Have we stopped?” he asked. “What place is this?”
“Mafeking,” the girl whispered.
Gerrity heard the awkward music of Afrikaans in her voice. He looked back at her and examined her carefully. She was tall, rather pretty, eighteen, maybe twenty. She looked straight ahead as he studied her, absenting herself from his scrutiny. She seemed very vulnerable as she rested the plastic suitcase on knees held rigidly clamped together. She had long splendid legs that narrowed to bare ankles and feet that were encased in shoes so worn the leather had begun to split at the heels. Gerrity was a legs man. It was not easy for him to lift his eyes from the girl’s tapered cylinders of temptation.
When he managed to do so, the girl looked at him. She said, “Sir, I know this is a private compartment. But, if you please, could I ride here for twenty minutes? Just till we get well away from Mafeking.”
“Of course,” said Gerrity. He wondered if she were a terrorist. He told her, “I think The Fates intended us to meet.”
That was all there was. The writing simply stopped.
Derek shook his head and studied the notebook. It was gray, of a convenient size to stick in your jacket pocket – just right for a journalist – and on its cover within a red shape that looked like an ink blot were the words CROXLEY NOTES a John Dickinson Product. Up in the top left-hand corner was the word GERRITY. It was printed by a hand that Derek recognized as his own.
Inside the front cover were stapled notes about how the whatever-it-was-to-be about Gerrity writing his novel might evolve. They made little sense to Derek. He could not remember writing them, but knew that he must have. And when would that have been? He had not been in South Africa since that election long ago.
In the back of the notebook several pages lay covered with cramped scribblings, overlaid with interlineations, squiggly arrows, and marginal scratchings: the beginnings of another whatever-it-might-be. The scratchings read:
“Two extraordinary things happened to Ernest Dace that winter quarter. First, he fell in love with a student in one of the classes he taught. Not really in love, of course – although his dry throat did croak the words ‘I love you’ that late afternoon in his office as he flung himself upon the thigh-booted but otherwise naked body of the girl. Not really in love, of course, because Dace believed that no man could love, truly love, more than one woman at a time, and Dace, of course, loved his wife.
“The second thing that happened to the professor that winter quarter was a threat against his life.”
There was more about Dace, but not much more. There were also notes about a Cape Province town called Franschhoek, originally settled by French Huguenots. Derek and his wife had holed up there for a week while he wrote dispatches, reporting on interviews with government leaders in Cape Town.
The notes said, “The valley was almost always windy. Sometimes the wind was gentle, sometimes harsh, heralding the approach of winter. Sometimes the sky was patched with clouds and sometimes it was a clear, uninterrupted curtain of blue with banks of clouds hovering behind the mountains, now and then caught in the spiked peaks that circled the valley, occasionally shrouding the peaks and flowing down from them – flowing, flowing but never actually reaching into the valley. Sometimes they hung there like a thick tablecloth edging over the headland.”
There were too many uses of “sometimes” in the paragraph, Derek thought, and the long sentence was much too long. But he recognized what the notes were: a newsman scratching an itch, working at being a writer. The scratcher was not satisfied with being merely a collector of facts, a rehearser of interviews. Something in him yearned to be more: a writer, an artist. He longed to create – in Dace and Gerrity and the girl who entered the compartment at Mafeking – characters who would have some semblance of life. He wondered if that long ago note-taker who was he had planned to place Gerrity in Franschhoek.
Would he seduce the Foil there? Or encounter some Catalytic Event?
And what was the threat against Dace’s life? He had no idea.
How cynical he had been! Gerrity and Dace, journalist and professor. Two purveyors of knowledge, both fools. Had he been writing about himself? Wasn’t that what writers did? He had been a newsman then, one of those self-professed priests of Objectivity. Had a reporter’s skepticism required him to view his characters – even himself – as fools? Had he regarded purveyors of knowledge as know-nothings? In any case, self-interested dunces did not make sympathetic Actor-Observers. Perhaps that was why he wrote about clouds over Franschhoek.
These scratchings of an itch that would not stop: they had punctuated Derek’s life as a journalist. The newsman knew more about the stories he reported than he could possibly tell, more about the people and how they looked and smelled, more about their probable motivations than space or the God of Objectivity or the Cult of Just-The-Facts would allow him to include.
If the reporter were a writer, he sensed that fiction and the characters it would permit him to create could reveal a deeper, more complete truth than mere news reports. Moreover, his imagination needed freedom, room to run. It wanted to throw words about extravagantly, wantonly, not responsibly, but like a profligate.
But the paper demanded news: dispatches, situationers, brighteners, at least three pieces a week. News was like a train that never stopped. The reporter was on the train and if he were doing his job, he left his imagination in the baggage room at the station. He was always hustling. He was far too busy to spend time with characters like Gabriel Gerrity and Ernest Dace. He could allow them no more being than a shadow possessed flashing past the window of a train.