RECENT READS #20 – The Typewriter’s Tale by Michiel Heyns


Typewriter

 

I had to read this novel in little sips, due to its ponderous, ornate style. In short, it tells the tale of Miss Frieda Wroth who is engaged to be the  typewriter to the novelist Mr Henry James, at his home in Rye, on the coast. The year is 1907. The typewriter was viewed as a newfangled thing, ditto the young women who went out and earned their living, whether by typing or other means. Shock/horror.  Frieda typed on a Remington typewriter, as did I, in my first job in 1959 in a positively Dickensian lawyer’s office in Bulawayo. Any firm that is called Calderwood, Bryce Hendrie, Smith & Abercrombie belongs in the pages of Dickens, not in central Africa!

The Remingtons were solid metal beasts that left the typists’ fingers  aching with the physical effort of striking hard at the unyielding metal keys. People have no idea how lucky they are these days with touch-screen typing and ergonomically designed desktop keyboards.

But I digress.  I don’t know enough about Henry James and his work to say whether Michiel Heyns wrote the novel in a parody of James’ style, or whether he wrote it as a homage to the Master. All I know is the slow, ponderous elegance of the narrative took a lot of getting used to, as did the florid words like  ‘lucubrations’ and  ‘disquisition’.  When the reader has to scurry off to the dictionary every page or two, it makes for a lengthy reading  process. Fortunately the novel was not that long.

Having read the novel I have no desire to try any of Henry James work in the original. I have a vague recollection of trying to read one of James’ novels (possibly The Bostonians ? I forget now) and abandoning it around page five as being altogether too high flown and tedious. It must be said that Michiel Heyns interjected quite a lot of humour into the narrative, for which I was thankful, but it was humour of a quiet sort. Understated is the word I am hunting for.

Accustomed as I am to the modern novel which generally moves along at a brisk pace (I’m thinking of Australian Tim Winton’s superb, pared down style) these quasi-Edwardian novels are not for me. And I was taken aback to see the excruciatingly meticulous notes MH adds to the end of the novel, rectifying with scrupulous care details of Henry James’ life & times that he, Heyns, had fictionalised.  The back cover informed me that MH was until recently Professor of English at Stellenbosch University, so I suppose it is academic good manners to do this sort of thing.

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