i always write of you
a profile of sheila kohler
Therese Eiben is the editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.
Now you see them:
A young woman, sparks of light as she moves a brush impatiently through her hair. Beyond, the garden aﬂame with jacarandas and ﬂamboyants. Outside its perimeter a sheer cliff, a roiling sea, homing sharks.
Two sisters, their shaved heads sprouting tufts of new growth, silent behind the velvet curtains of a French provincial box-bed, the volley of sibling squabbles scrawled in the margins of La Semaine de Suzette. Below, in the courtyard, gendarmes arrive.
A boarding school girl recedes slowly, ﬂickering, dissolving in the haze of heat and dust. The wind stirs a dry leaf on the veld. A seringa tree droops. Wisteria petals fall. The search parties continue long into the night.
Now you don’t.
Girls go missing in the novels of sheila kohler. They slip from memory, they vanish in the dark, they hide in plain sight. So powerfully does Kohler orchestrate the inevitability of their fate—and evoke the landscapes into which they disappear—that the reader cannot help but close one of her books with a vague but discomforting sense of complicity. Willingly, hungrily, a reader travels the seductive, cinematic terrain of a Kohler novel destined to witness time and again the weakness of human nature expressed in the form of
sexual impulse, a desire irrepressible and, most often, inappropriate.
Invariably there are consequences. Virgins are sacriﬁced, but the offering doesn’t yield protection from the gods. Far from it. The lives of those who set in motion the fate that befalls a Kohler protagonist are inexorably diminished, often reduced to isolation, memory, and regret.
“I suppose my view of human nature is the two extremes,” South African–born Kohler says. “Loving, very loving, and then this violence that seems to run through even the youngest of us. But then writing is always about paradoxes.”
The author of two collections of short stories and four novels, including the just-published Children of Pithiviers (Zoland, 2001), Kohler knows a thing or two about paradox. Coming of age in South Africa when she did, the middle years of the last century, made her something of an expert on the subject. To this day Kohler can recall the quality of the light that shone on the 6,000-foot-high plateau where she grew up near Johannesburg: “Sunlight never quite looks like sunlight again. Everywhere else it looks like something slightly diluted.” But the human situation this gilded translucence illuminated—the ravages of apartheid—stood in stark contrast to the country’s unsurpassed natural beauty, and rendered her homeland an international pariah until Nelson Mandela took ofﬁce in 1994. Kohler left South Africa in 1959 when she was 17, never to live there again, but carrying the paradox of the land of her birth with her always.
And what of this author whose work combines beauty and violence, who populates breathtaking depictions of landscape with images of snapped limbs, drowned girls, predatory authority ﬁgures? Paradoxically, she’s lovely: late ﬁfties, softly coiffed, polite and gracious, cultured in a manner a different generation would have called “European.” She speaks French without an accent and her slightly formal English retains a subtle underpinning of her South African back-of-the-throat vowel song, despite her having lived in Europe and the U.S. over the last 40 years.
It would be easy to mistake, especially reading the synopses of her books, the novels of Sheila Kohler for works of suspense, to see her as a contemporary Daphne Du Maurier, perhaps. But as Booker Prize–winner J.M. Coetzee has said, “There is a territory—ﬁctional and psychological—that Sheila Kohler has now marked as her own.” Several elements combine to set her work apart from what has come before, including the virtuosity of her craft. Her language is spare; she never uses two words where one will do. (She studied with Gordon Lish, who she says is “famous for the use of his pen.”) Her inventive use of point of view makes the structure of each book organic to the story it tells. One novel, The House on R. Street (Knopf, 1994), in which a nubile child nicknamed Bill prostitutes herself misguidedly for a noble cause, is written in something akin to an omniscient imperative. With the dispassionate insistence of a camera lens, the voice keeps the reader’s attention trained on the story:
Imagine a high plateau, a thousand miles from the sea. The ﬂat ﬁelds lie in the glare of hard light. The sky is a glassy void. The midday sun is hot. It dries the earth until it cracks, and the grass turns dun. There is no rain. The gables of the house are white, the paint bleached and ﬂaking in the arid air. The gate and gateposts are white.
Look, two forms move across the grass toward the gate. There is a girl who seems to ﬂoat through the gate in the harsh brightness of the autumn day. Someone follows behind her, like a shadow, but, of course, there are no shadows now. Bill is holding someone by the hand, dragging someone along like a weight as she tries to run to the tram in the dying time of year. As she glances back, she sees someone watching from the window of the house.
Another novel is told in ﬁrst person plural. She says her influences for the voice of Cracks (Zoland, 1999) include Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily” and Gabriel García Márquez’s novel The Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in both of which narratives the town tells the story. Her application of that voice augments the psychological subtext of the story: A group of 12 women return to their boarding school in the high plains of South Africa’s Transvaal for a fund-raising event, over the course of which their collective memories recount the circumstances that led to the disappearance more than 20 years before of the 13th member of their swimming team, the lovely and enviable Fiamma.
We are here together again, going through the long, wet grass and the low scrub, up the bank to the graves of Sir George Harrow and his dog, Jock. The gray-branched frangipanis still spread their pale blossoms. Nothing seems changed except the dog’s gravestone, which has been spray-painted yellow.
First we talk, then we fall silent. It is the dead quiet we noticed when Fiamma ﬁrst walked into the dormitory and stood there, blinking her dark eyelashes, and it all began.
The voice implicates them all.
Matters of craft aside, the most distinguishing quality of Kohler’s ﬁction, especially given the terrain she narratively explores, is the fact that she does not write morality tales. Kohler never stands in judgment of her characters. In fact, in Cracks a character named Sheila Kohler is one of the twelve complicitous boarding-school girls, as if to say, “They are we.” Her characters are not monsters. They are not outcasts of society, but rather members of it. While Kohler does not condone the actions of her characters, she stretches the mantle of humanity far enough to include the evil that men (and women) do, and in so doing acknowledges their all-too-human attempts to cope with the situation at hand.
Kohler identiﬁes with this profoundly. Trying to cope with the situation at hand is the reason she writes, the reason she writes about what she characterizes as “lost girls.”
“I lost my sister in a very dramatic and violent way,” Kohler says. “I really started writing after that. I was in my late thirties. And she was two years older than I was. There was something about her death that was so traumatic for me that I just keep writing about lost girls, in one way or another.”
Witnessing the brutal regime that institutionalized racism in South Africa during her early years afforded Kohler the opportunity to observe prejudice in a multiplicity of forms. Where she can in her novels, she skewers the prejudice that was for too long South Africa’s national trademark. In The House on R. Street a blind Zulu servant, who is casually demeaned as a matter of course by the mistress of the house—“Clean this cupboard, John. It smells Zulu”—is the only one who can ﬁnd lost objects for her. “John, have you seen my address book? I cannot see it anywhere.” “Here it is, madame,” John says. At the boarding school in Cracks, daughters of families who were members of the Anglican and Dutch Reformed churches look down on those among them who are Roman Catholic. Kohler deftly undercuts their social superiority by having them strut their ignorance as they declaim the “R.C.” rituals of, among other fantasies, nuns who bury their dead babies behind the convent.
“It was an extraordinary, dogmatic way of looking at life and race and everything else,” Kohler says of the prejudice that was rife in South Africa during her youth. “The Dutch Reformed Church really believed it was as simple as Cain and Abel. They said Cain was black and Abel was white and this was in the Bible and this is how it was. Cain was the hewer of wood. The servant came from Cain.” Kohler’s family was of English descent, and so it was more liberal, “at least theoretically,” she says. She believes the events that have changed the course of South Africa over the last seven years are “nothing short of miraculous.”
Although she is engaged in telling stories rife with passion and consequence, humor runs just below the story line, sly but ready for the reader who ﬁnds it. In her ﬁrst novel, The Perfect Place (Knopf, 1989), her nameless female protagonist is an expert in litotes (“He was not an unpleasant man”), preferring to speak in the negative even if she has something mildly positive to say, which, for her, is rare. She disparages the Swiss hotel her doctors have referred her to for a retreat—“It was one of those hotels so reﬁned in its elegance that the elegance was really perceptible only in the price of the room”—and dismisses the renowned view from the hotel’s terrace as unsatisfactory: The air is “far too altitudinal”; the lake oppressive—“just the thought of that trapped, still water was somehow dreadfully depressing”; and the “towering snow-tipped peaks, with their steep craggy treeless surfaces,” ﬁll her “with an almost physical malaise, an impression of being shut in, or perhaps it was shut out.”
Her current novel, Children of Pithiviers (pronounced pit-e-vee-ay), is a remarkable representation of the themes and iconography at the heart of Kohler’s work: a seductive landscape, in this case a converted mill and the surrounding grounds of a former estate in a small town in the Loiret, the “bread basket” of France; authority ﬁgures who inevitably abuse their power; sexual corruption; the manifestation of a long-denied crime; a skilled skewering of snobs and bigots and boors, in this case several different class-conscious French, from a deposed aristocrat to a bourgeois doctor; and, of course, lost girls.
In the 1970s Kohler and her family had a house in the region of Pithiviers, which was the site of a concentration camp during World War II where more than two thousand Jewish children were kept behind barbed wire without adult supervision until ﬁnally the French persuaded the Germans to ship the children to Auschwitz and other camps, where they were killed. At the time Kohler had no idea the camp had existed. “The French were very good at hushing up their role with the Vichy government,” Kohler says. “The Germans really had no choice but to face it all, but the French were able to camouﬂage what happened. My French friends always said, ‘Well, we had no choice. We were under occupation. And unless you wanted to be a saint—you know, give up your own life—there was nothing you could have done.’” Years later Kohler began her research for this novel and discovered that was not the case at all. Some of what she read bordered on the absurd: “There were accounts of one French general saying to a German one, ‘We were anti-
Semitic long before you were.’” Kohler believes many of the townspeople of Pithiviers were glad to see the Jews go—ﬁrst the adults, whom the Germans took immediately, after locals relieved them of their valuables, and eventually the children, even though the Germans hadn’t asked for anyone under the age of 16. There is documentation that Jewish organizations had offered to take the children but that the French persuaded the Germans to take them instead. “So it was unconscionable,” Kohler says.
“If you type in Pithiviers on the Internet it comes up that there’s a maternity hospital there, famous for a particular method of birth where the baby is born in the dark. And that it’s famous for a pâté they make from larks, pâté d’alouette,” Kohler says. “And the camp was right in the center of town by the railway station, and there’s not even a plaque on the wall.” So Kohler wrote Children of Pithiviers, acting as a witness. The book is dedicated to the children who passed through the camp and were sent on to the gas chambers.
In the novel, Deidre, a young South African girl who is studying at the Sorbonne in 1959, is sent by her family to the town of Pithiviers, where she is meant to spend the summer practicing her French at the home of an aristocratic couple who have been reduced by the occupation and the lean years after the war to taking in boarders. As is typical for a Kohler protagonist, Deidre is unprotected from the events that await her. Her mother is far away, both geographically and emotionally—“When I thought of my mother I could hear the curtain rings drawn across the rod,” says Deidre. Her sister in Paris is busy with a new baby. Deidre, having digested a rich diet of romantic French literature, endows her hosts with the noblest of qualities, ﬁrst falling under the sway of Madame, with her elegant manner and dress and her seductive confessions, and later Monsieur, who takes her as a lover. Running in counterpoint to the “education” of Deidre is the diary she ﬁnds in the attic of the room where she sleeps. Written in the margins of a bound volume of a girls’ magazine, La Semaine de Suzette, are the conﬁdences and memories of two sisters who escaped the camp at Pithiviers almost 20 years before and came to Madame and Monsieur for refuge.
Told with imagery both archetypal and unique, Children of Pithiviers emerges as a novel of witness so powerful that the intertwined fates of the three girls, in the words of novelist Frederick Busch, “ﬁnally indict us all.”
Kohler, who lives in Manhattan and teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, New York, is currently writing her ﬁfth novel, “Empire.” It’s the story of a writer who has written about her sister’s death. The sister has been murdered by her husband, and the brother-in-law comes after the sister who has written the book. Once again, a lost girl.
“Writers do come back to the same themes,” Kohler says. She was happy to recently come across a Shakespearean sonnet (lxxvi) in which he addresses this very topic, wherein he proclaims, “O, know, sweet love, I always write of you.” She continues, “So much of my work has come out of this really traumatic event in my life, but even though this novel is closer to home than I’ve ever written before, writing is always about getting the right distance from your material. Whether it’s autobiographical or whatever it is, you’re always treading a ﬁne line, because obviously one’s own private life or private fantasy is not particularly interesting unless you structure it in such a way to make it possible for the reader to share in what you’re writing. To make it universal in some way. Well, at least one tries.”
With translations of her novels into Dutch, Japanese, French, Portuguese, and German, and English-language editions published in the U.S., England, Australia, India, and South Africa, it seems Sheila Kohler is well on her way.
Therese Eiben, “I Always Write of You: A Profile of Sheila Kohler ,” Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 2001. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Poets & Writers, Inc., 72 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012. www.pw.org.