Wine writer Emile Joubert recently published a collection of fictional short stories in Afrikaans. Lafras Huguenet sat down with Emile and a glass of Chardonnay to talk about wine, writing, fiction and the book So Byna Blou.
Lafras Huguenet: You mentioned this book started with wine. How?
Emile Joubert: I hadn’t published fiction since 2007 and was looking for stories. A few years back I went to visit Anthony Hamilton Russell in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. Between cigars and Pinot Noir, Anthony told me about a Portuguese cross that had been carved into a boulder on his farm in the 1400s. We went to have a look, and there it was – on a rock perching above Walker Bay. I began to think of the Portuguese sailors who fared around the Cape and wondered how they would have seen Africa. And so, a story was born – “Die Beitel” (The Chisel). Once I’d found one, the stories followed until I had enough for a collection. Fortunately, the publishing house Protea deemed the manuscript worthy to make a book of.
LH: You write in English as well as Afrikaans. Why not publish in English which has a wider reach?
EJ: In prose, I am very aware of the cadence and rhythm of language. The kind of stories in So Byna Blou just lend themselves to Afrikaans: character, landscape, dialogue. Also, perhaps I am a bit apprehensive about attempting to publish in English, as then I’d be thrown into the same pool as the world’s best authors. I’d sink pretty quickly there. You must also remember that in South Africa, Afrikaans fiction out-sells English. And then some.
LH: Tell me about the book’s title – So byna blou?
EJ : It means “so almost blue”, and I grabbed it from Chet Baker. I got into jazz, heavily, a few years back and Baker’s got a track he re-made from the Elvis Costello song “Almost Blue”. Great song, and I used it in one of the stories. The one about a mediocre journalist who finds himself suddenly writing brilliant prose after he begins sleeping with the widow of a famous Afrikaans author. When the music appeared in the story, the track’s title stayed.
LH: The themes of the stories are varied and diverse: Portuguese sailors, vampires in the Anglo-Boer war, the South African Border War, father-and-son issues on a wine farm…..do you have a restless mind, too restless to do the novel?
EJ: Probably one-part short attention-span and one-part curiosity and wonder. I’ve tried the novel but going for 80 000 words on one story with one set of characters bores the hell out of me. Perhaps I’m a late starter and will learn how to do it someday. The novel is the greatest art-form of them all, but it avoids me. As a former journalist, I like to get things down on the page quickly and head-off in another direction. Raymond Carver, one of my idols, wrote short fiction because he wanted to “get in, and get out”. That’s my way of looking at it.
LH: Many of the stories have sharp, decisive and disturbing endings. Road Dahl, anyone?
EJ: I adore Dahl, yes, and what I liked about his stories was that you knew they were over. The endings can be shocking and disturbing, that was what made the stories satisfying to read. So, I too would like the reader to know when the story is over so he or she can get out and move to the next one. The last thing I as a writer want to do, is to bore the audience. That’s probably why I go for the action in the closing of the story.
LH: Who are your other literary heroes and inspirations?
EJ: Ernest Hemingway will always be right-up there with his clear, precise and fragile writing. His underrated novel The Garden of Eden is one of the most beautiful books I have read, and I do so each year. Herman Charles Bosman is probably the only true literary genius South Africa has ever produced. His stories are incomparable in uniqueness of tale and of voice. I can think of few writers who can allow the reader to taste and smell the atmosphere in which a story takes place the way Bosman does. When I think of the greatest short-stories in the world, ever, I go to Bosman’s “Mafeking Road”, Hemingway’s “A Big Two-Hearted River” and “To Build a Fire” by Jack London.
And when it comes to Afrikaans, Karel Schoeman is a long way ahead of anyone else.
LH: Do you use any aspects of fiction in your wine writing?
EJ: Wouldn’t you – and perhaps many others – like to know?! I began my career in journalism writing about films, music and drams. My colleagues then were all great authors and critics – André le Roux, Kerneels Breytenbach and Zirk van den Berg. We challenged each other to write as entertainingly and humorously as possible, seeing how far we could push the boundaries of Afrikaans journalism. Today I try and approach wine the same way, although it is far harder to write engagingly about a glass of Shiraz or Chardonnay than it is to review the latest Chili Peppers album or Martin Scorsese movie.
My wine writing is, thus, not fiction. I’d struggle to get away with that in the company of wine experts I keep, would I not? But just as I attempt to entertain and grab the imagination of the reader of my fictional short stories, so too I try to give the reader of my wine columns something to think about in a tone that does not read like a dishwasher manual.
LH: If you could share three bottles of South African wine with three of your literary heroes, what would they be?
EJ: Hemingway would appreciate the grace and power provided by a Kanonkop Paul Sauer. Hamilton Russell Chardonnay will get Herman Charles Bosman to look beyond his peach brandy. And a fine Diemersdal Pinotage will, I am sure, get Roald Dahl thinking differently about South African wine – the only time he tasted Cape wine he threw it down the basin and called it “crap”. I’ll like to give that story a different ending.
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