EXTRACT: The love song of André P Brink

This is an extract from The Love Song of André P Brink by Leon de Kock published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.
This is an extract from The Love Song of André P Brink by Leon de Kock published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

André Brink's journal entry for 22 April 1963 opens with an announcement: 'Ingrid'. And here, in exquisitely intimate diary entries, Brink launches his own account of South Africa's most fabled literary love affair. It is a story that will change the course of Brink's life.

Using his journal to keep track of developments on an almost day-to-day basis, Brink embarks on a quasi-novelistic account of his notorious affair with the revered South African poet. It is a story that fills up almost two A4 journal volumes, each running to over 250 pages of compact handwriting – enough material for a book.

In vivid, well-constructed sentences, Brink's prose displays touches of a true storyteller. In addition, his powers of observation are such that a colossal amount of data comes to the fore. Indeed, about the night he first made love to Jonker, Brink would write: 'The sense would grow ever stronger, that whole evening and night: I wasn't just involved, I was also taking stock of everything as an observer.' However, Brink's acts of doing, observing and reporting, which brought him relief from his anxiety about maintaining control, could do nothing to stop the affair from ending in disaster. Jonker would commit suicide by walking into the sea less than three months after the choppy relationship with Brink ended. She would ultimately be compared with Sylvia Plath and also Anne Sexton, yet another sensitive and accomplished poet for whom the world – and the trials of love – became too much.

'I must make notes now,' Brink urges himself as he writes in his journal just four days after first meeting Jonker on 18 April 1963, 'because with every day's new living and experiencing, it all changes. I should actually have done this from the start, so as to be able to follow each day's transformation.'

And with this will to narrative capture – a need to tell and relive each and every nuance of what for him was the most momentous experience of his life thus far – the 28-year-old begins to tell the inside story of the Jonker affair. Brink's journal account is replete with bare facts, but the stark details on their own – with all the wild lovemaking close-up – are not in themselves all that significant. It is Brink's backstory that makes this relationship so heavy with implication.

As Brink returns from the first of what would become regular trysts with Jonker in the Cape, rejoining his wife, Estelle, and seven-month-old Anton in Grahamstown, he immediately retreats to his study and journals: 'Now, back at home, after just three days of living and one of meditation (in the car on the way back yesterday), I already have no more than a collection of impressions.' The observable reminder of his encounter with Jonker he records in a list: 'A few strategic little wounds, sore ribs, a small mark on my right shoulder, a sore tongue. I have a manuscript of poems.' What comes next are memories that would remain imprinted in Brink's mind for as long as he lived:

Otherwise: a scent (hers; odor di femina; perfume – slight; cigarette- smoke-in-hair); the odd word here and there amid the noises of that night; slender feet; trim green trousers accentuating her mound – the origin of the world;4 tears; unexpected outbursts; the way she says 'God'; the way she plays with the curls on her forehead when she gets sleepy ('and when I sleep with a man, he must put his hand on my head, like this'); cynicism; her exceptional breasts: small, round and firm, with those long, slender, lactating nipples that constantly drip milk ('Look. Do you see? It's always like that'); the narrow, white bikini line across her breasts, her sharply accentuated little hips and her rounded backside; her slurring after taking sleeping tablets; her lying-in-the-bath-and-smoking; the variations of her mouth: sceptical, cross, contemptuous, furious, friendly, playful, satisfied, ugly-beautiful; and her eyes: empty, disenchanted, bitter, mocking, playful, quiet yet happy, wild with ecstasy.

Brink's account, which he kept to himself for over 50 years, reads best when taken up at the precise moment it is recorded in the journal, in a tense Brink called 'onvoltooid teenwoordige tyd' (present tense incomplete):

It happened on Thursday afternoon when, calm and tousled, she sauntered into Jan Rabie's place; shaking hands neutrally, appraising the situation and saying 'hello'. Already visible were the variations of mood that would later become so baffling: detached as she sat and drank; sharp and shrewd as she made her points with great certainty; messing about with Jan Rabie and Jack Cope, buttering them up; later, fighting with them – heatedly discussing the 'cancer' of the church. ('I broke with them when I was ten years old'; it was cowardly to try 'regenerating' the church 'from the inside', slowly trying to quell the storm; [with her] everything had to be instantly done and dusted.)

This fateful trip to Cape Town was Brink's first physical separation for longer than a few hours from his wife since their marriage more than three years earlier. The Thursday-afternoon writers' gathering had been arranged to discuss looming new censorship regulations and to draw up a petition; a prime driver of this sinister legislation in parliament happened to be Ingrid's estranged father, Dr Abraham Jonker, who was a member of parliament for the National Party. When the get-together (at the home of Rabie and his wife Marjorie Wallace in Cheviot Place, Green Point, along Cape Town's Atlantic seaboard) came to a close, Brink had already decided to make a play for Ingrid:

I took her and Jack home. By then I was already thinking that I wanted to sleep with her. So I suggested looking at her poems at her place (implying that we'd first drop Jack off); but it turned out that he lived farther away than her and so he came along. They started debating whether or not her volume of poems should have a blurb. It turned into an argument. Eventually I said we had to get going. At her door, I said to her: I'll be back in a minute; I still want to talk about the poems. And return I did. Her eyes were searching, apathetic, disillusioned. Almost immediately she began unloading. Why does Jack keep fighting with her?

Before continuing with the details of Brink's budding affair and his 'authorial' commentary on his self-narrated life, it is necessary to backtrack two or three years, so as to gain a clearer impression of his Paris awakening, an experience that conditioned him in profound ways, readying him for the irruption of Ingrid into his life.

* This is an extract from The Love Song of André P Brink by Leon de Kock published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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