When you grow up in a house that doubles as a doctor's surgery, your memories are filled with the sound and smells of life's misfortunes. Pain and poverty, fear and misery. Even childbirth comes with loss and suffering. 'Growing up in a medical house was very intense,' recalls author Anne Landsman of her childhood in the Western Cape.
That intensity is evident in her first novel, The Devil's Chimney, a surreal story of passion, pain and madness that has received acclaim in the United States and was nominated for the PEN Hemingway Award, the highest prize in the US for a first work of fiction.
The 39-year-old daughter of a GP in the Boland town of Worcester has drawn on the drama of her father's waiting room and the terrible, mysterious compulsions of the human body for her novel. It's a book that 'bristles with creative energy,' says author J M Coetzee. Andre Brink has called it 'a remarkable first novel, with an intensity of imagination that lights up the dark places behind the world and the history we think we know'.
Landsman's protagonist is a poor white woman who, between dops of meths and slaps from her husband, finds relief in an imagined world. Her reverie weaves between her life as a dog kennel keeper near the Cango Caves and the lives of an aristocratic British couple who fled gambling debts at the turn of the century, taking refuge in Oudtshoorn in the hope of profiting from the booming market in ostrich feathers.
Landsman cautions that the book is not a roman a clef. 'No one will recognise themselves,' she laughs, 'but there are little things, little facts, that might sound familiar.' It's ironic that she has drawn on life so close to her childhood home, when her dreams were always about the world beyond the Brandwacht Mountains that encapsulate life in the Boland. 'I always felt quite alienated, growing up as a dark-haired Jewish child in a world of blue-eyed, blonde Afrikaners. I felt different. I suppose I was also a bit lonely—my sister is eight years older than me and my brother six years older.' On hot afternoons her mother would take her to the public library where she would sit with the octogenarians who were reading Georgette Heyer novels. Landsman's parents were the children of Lithuanian Jews who had settled in South Africa around 1910, and she was inevitably drawn to Jewish literature. 'By the time I was eight, I'd already I read Leon Uris's Exodus.'
After leaving Worcester High School, Landsman did a BA Honours in English at the University of Cape Town, graduating in 1981. She paused just long enough to put down her mortar board and pack her bags for the world of her dreams—Paris, London and New York. 'But it was New York that captured my soul. I felt I already knew New York from the books I'd read,' she said when we met in her sunlit loft apartment on the edge of NoHo, the section of converted warehouses and art galleries east of Greenwich Village, where until recently she lived with her architect husband, James Wagman, and their three-year-old daughter Tess. Apart from a brief sojourn in Germany—and three trips back to South Africa to visit her parents —Landsman has lived in New York all her adult life. She is, she says, a South African New Yorker. As we drank rooibos tea and talked about the taste of nostalgia, a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed cherub suddenly burst in and ran into her mother's arms.
AFTER ARRIVING IN NEW YORK, Landsman enrolled at Columbia University to do a Masters in screenwriting and directing. Her first commissioned screenplay was for a feature film about the legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright 'He was brilliant, charming, handsome and a complete I egomaniac,' says Landsman. The screenplay was selected for I workshop attention at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, and I Dustin Hoffman's production company was interested in making the film. 'But we just couldn't raise enough money to get it I made. It was very frustrating,' she says. The work brought other rewards, however—the landlord from whom she was renting an apartment in Brooklyn turned out to be passionately I interested in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. 'He was just out of architecture school and the apartment was his first project. One cold day he arrived with some space heaters and we started talking about Frank Lloyd Wright.' The landlord was James Wagman and they were married in Philadelphia in a synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright about two years later.
Landsman's thesis for her masters degree was a screenplay for a feature film set in the world of ostrich farming in the Eastern Cape. 'I knew that part of the world well and was incredibly fortunate to find in the university library two ancient manuals on how to run ostrich farms.' In another of the little ironies that amuse Landsman, she remembers that her mother thought she should recycle her work. 'Put it all in a novel!' she said. But Ruth Landsman, now a widow living in Rondebosch, takes no credit for what resulted when her daughter did just that.
After graduating from Columbia with a masters degree in Fine Arts in 1984, Landsman did a variety of things—waitressing, temping, teaching, 'just the way you do in your twenties'. She went on to lecture at the New School for Social Re-search in New York and wrote scripts and short stories. Then her life took a magical turn. A surreal short story she wrote about a young woman lost in the Cango Caves was published in the American Poetry Review. An editor at Soho Press in New York read the story and called Landsman to suggest she should write a book.
So Landsman went back to the short story and found in the characters a voice to tell an extraordinary tale in a rich, multilingual vernacular—with enough Afrikaans, English and indigenous slang to warrant a glossary. And she brought to the novel some of the characters and much of the research she had done for her screenplay on ostrich farming. She also brought her own condition—for much of the time she was writing the book, Landsman was pregnant with her first child. Childbirth and loss are at the core of the story.
'After Tess was born I had a sort of identity crisis. I was confused about who I was and where to go with the book.' Luckily, Landsman asked the advice of several people, who read the manuscript and urged her to finish it. She arranged day-care for her baby and, because she finds it hard to work in isolation, took a desk at the Writers Room, a quiet refuge on a tree-lined street in Greenwich Village where hundreds of people have gone to find their muse. She rewrote whole passages of the book - especially the parts about childbirth—and there The Devil's Chimneywas completed.
'I really didn't know if it was any good,' she recalls. However, the novel's use of magic realism, the exotic setting and the original narrative style drew the attention of Publishers' Weekly, the bible of the industry, which carried a glowing preview. Word spread and warm reviews appeared all over the United States. Quality Paperback Book Club chose it as one of its selections and soon it was picked up by Penguin paperbacks. Granta, the prestigious British publisher, bought it for the UK, and Jonathan Ball bought the publication rights for South Africa and asked Landsman to come out for the launch of the book this month.
At one stage, all the attention paid to the novel was almost overwhelming. Landsman was giving radio interviews and public readings, and negotiations for the screen rights were underway. 'It made me dizzy,' she says, admitting that she wasn't sure if the dizziness was induced by the brouhaha surrounding the book or the fact that she was pregnant with her second child.
Since the US publication of The Devil's Chimney, the Landsman-Wagman family—including Adam Gabriel, born with dark hair and dark eyes last December—have moved to an apartment in Greenwich Village and Landsman is already far into her second novel. This one is again set in the Cape. It all suggests that even though our dreams may be filled with visions of distant places, it is the music of the vernacular on our own streets, the light reflected off the silver trees and the drama of our childhood homes that feed our innermost imagination. 'Everyone has a place where they can write and for me it isn't South Africa,' says Landsman. 'If it's New York, it's because I feel at home here. My wonderful screenwriting teacher taught me that to write you have to have a sense of freedom. Here, in New York, I feel free.'
- Fairlady. 22 July, 1998