“I learned how precarious every day is in an old-person’s life.” Elsa Joubert is disarmingly honest. A person’s winter season may be a time for rest and reflection, but it’s no easy subject matter. Elsa has nonetheless tackled it as she has all her writing, with commitment and insight.
The precariousness was not the only lesson she learned in writing this book. “They say you fall back on your roots when the winds of time start buckling your body and your spirit,” she says, and that “the only road that can be ventured upon with a minimum of anxiety is the road to the past.”
Understandably, she’s not up to giving a face-to-face interview and sends written answers to questions instead.
What prompted her to write this book, she says, while her son, Nico encouraged her, was “feeling the need to write down the experiences I had been having as an old lady… to evaluate my new experiences, especially as they shifted the parameters of my life.”
And shift they do. “You need to learn to submit, graciously, to being helped.” She describes how her daily walk from her home at Berghof Retirement Village around the Molteno reservoir in Cape Town has to be curtailed. “Wherever I turn to explore, there are obstacles.”
But the act of writing is, in itself, a solace. “Every morning I spend time in my study among my books and papers. It not only gives me a sense of peace, but some little thought always reveals itself. I sit at my computer and ponder over whatever has been woken in my mind.”
But she insists that she did not “plan the writing of my memories. They came of their own impetus and, strangely, at that moment they fulfilled some need of which I wasn’t yet aware.” But, she felt, that gave the book its structure and shape.
Books ‒ her own and those of others ‒ have played an important role all her life, and continue to do so, but for different reasons. “Books fill the place of friends. When most of your dearest friends, your soulmates, have passed away, it is pleasant to be reminded of their thoughts, or your conversations with them, by revisiting favourite books.”
Returning to books is also a trigger, “I recently reread the work of Katherine Mansfield, a New Zealand author I liked very much in my younger days and realised how deeply her style had influenced me. Although I changed the meaning of her words to suit myself.”
The influence of Elsa Joubert’s own writing on the literary landscape ‒ locally, internationally, and in Afrikaans especially ‒ has been massive and enduring. Her multi-award-winning 1979 novel The Long Journey of Poppie Nongena, about the relentless struggle of a humble, black woman under apartheid, was groundbreaking. It earned acclaim as one of the most important books to have come out of Africa in the 20th century. It was translated into no fewer than 13 languages and turned both into a successful play and more recently a movie.
Part of the appeal of Poppie was the simple but detailed style in which this woman’s story was told, a testimony to Joubert’s attentive listening skills. “I think I listen carefully to what people say. Only afterwards can I distil the essence of what moved me, what I want to write. I am cautious not to create what I want, not to put words into people’s mouths.”
This skill, still with her, is what she uses in this, her third autobiographical work, to bring friends and family, living and passed, so vividly to life. But the character she portrays most beautifully is herself, her new, old self.
Elsa Joubert’s Cul-de-sac (R310) is published by Tafelberg. tafelberg.com
If you like this you may also like: The bookman of Bethulie