I was nineteen years old and a 'seasoned' novelist (I'd written anythng between three and six novels by this age, depending on whether you wanted tou count only the 'good' ones or everything...) when I hit upon a brililant idea.
I would rewrite the Matter of Britain.
In the first person.
As the Queen.
The book (entitled, amazingly enough, "I, Guinevere") was duly produced - and it worked, up to the point that I got so identified with it that my boyfriend at the time used to send me little cards adressed to "the Princess" (I still have those cards. They'are little reasures...) It was a serious attempt to get to grips with a topic I passionately loved, with characters whom I'd known well for years through dipping into their stories as told by many other folks,with the kind of lush language with which I was to become familiar as my writing later grew more fully into that shape.
"I, Guinevere" was promptly picked up and handed (by my father) to a South African publisher... who, against all odds, loved the thing. I was close enough to a published book to smell it... and then he said that the novel had to go to a beta reader first for his report.
And off it went.
Th beta reader... was Andre Brink.
One of South Africa's great writers, who died on ^ February 2015 aged 79. He was a Name, a famous and well regarded author, and I confess the breath was driven out of my body when I was told who it was that had gotten my little book thrust into his hands. But for all his stature Brink was perhaps the last person who might have had any sympathy for the kind fo writer I was - or I was shaping to be - or for hte subject matter that I had chosen.
I waited for his report with bated breath, and trepidation, and something like existential dread.
When it came back, it opened with a sentence which still takes my breath away.
"I have no doubt at all that this work was written by someone who will be a great writer one day."
If you can smell the next word, you're right.
It was "But..."
One of the reasons he gave for my novel's having missed its mark was that it lacked, as he put it, "what Nikos Kazantzakis called madness". (It was because of this that I went on to read Kazantzakis whom I had not read before then - so thank you, Mr Brink, for Zorba the Greek...) WHat he meant, I suspect, was the rawest kind of passion, a sexual energy with which this story was charged - but which I failed to imbue it with.
It rankled, then, but of course he was utterly correct - I was nineteen years old, and a very young and innocent nineteen, and my attempts to write adultery in THE FIRST PERSON (even adultery decorously clad in the robes of High Chivalry) were probably laughable. I say "were probably" because, to my chagrin, I seem to have permanently lost every last copy of that manuscript - and I would have loved to have read it now all these decades later just to see by how much I had sailed past my mark but that is no longer possible. All I have is a memory of that nineteen-year-old girl and her romantic-but-attempted-to-be-gritty vision of Camelot and its shenanigans, and of the book that was born out of that.
And that sentence. The sentence that - in spite of himself - in sppite of all his misgivings and his caveats and eventually his veto - Andre Brink could not help but give me.
Thank you for that, sir.
With gratitude, and respect, I bid you farewell. And may Nikos Kazantzakis greet you with a does of 'madness' out there in the light where the passion of words (which you have always carried with you) blazes like a star,