Elaine Proctor on The Savage Hour: trying to give goodness a shape
Whenever the woman who helped raise me was witness to apartheid’s cruelty, she would say, ‘Did they not know he was a somebody?’If there is ever an absolute beginning to any book as personal as this, it would be the moment I first understood that phrase
Elaine Proctor: To enrich the articulation of good people in literature has been one of Toni Morrison’s great contributions. In a modest way I have also tried to give goodness language and shape in The Savage Hour, or at the very least describe what happens to good people when bad things assail them one too many times
There are tropes associated with authors and “the day my book arrived at my door” stories that veer terribly close to cliche. Mine is no exception, so when the box of newly-minted copies of my second novel, The Savage Hour, arrived at my door I felt a ringing in my ears and a thumping in my heart. I stacked the books on the piano in my living room. And, as is my wont when faced with portentous events of any kind, I made a cup of tea then I trimmed the lavender in my back garden and I wondered if the books would still be there when I went back inside or whether they’d have been spirited away to their rightful progenitor.
It was a little like wondering, as one arrives at the delivery room, enormously pregnant, whether you really belong in a parallel universe that doesn’t involve pain, or responsibility or falling in love with a new life. But the truth is writing this book involved all of that and my understanding that its passage into the world would be attended by some of the same.
Of course the books were still on the piano when I went inside and their presence there bound me to them just as my human children did when they entered this world. It was a somewhat sombre moment because it illuminated for me not only my duty of care to this book but to the conversation about writing and life as it manifests in my ordinary life now and forever.
It also compelled me to acknowledge those who played a part in getting me to this point. In truth, I have been blessed with more than my fair share of great teachers. My directors at The Market Theatre, lecturers at film school, particularly Mike Leigh, my publisher, Jon Riley, my agents, colleagues and friends; but there was someone who, along with my parents, preceded all of those adult guides, someone yet closer whose passing this year marked the end of a lifetime of care.
You see, my brothers and I were raised in part by Elisabeth Moekesti, daughter of a Sotho farm worker from the Orange Free State who suffered, as did most of her generation, the iniquities of apartheid South Africa. Throughout my childhood, whenever she was witness to its cruelty, she would shake her head and say, “Did they not know he was a somebody?”.
If there is ever an absolute beginning to any book as personal as this, it would be the moment I first understood that phrase. When I travelled through the portal of her compassion and began to consider the world of people and stories from that liberating perspective. Because in truth a Somebody can be found in the most ordinary and extraordinary of human moments. To find the language to describe it for others, frees one from the discourse of power, politics and place that interrupts our communion with one another.
In the 2012 Ingersol lecture on altruism and the literary imagination given by Toni Morrison at Harvard Divinity School she observed that contemporary literature does not seem interested in complicated, authentic goodness. In her view good characters are often mute, weak or pitiful and that evil has a starring role. To enrich the articulation of good people in literature has been one of her great contributions. In a modest way I have also tried to give goodness language and shape in The Savage Hour, or at the very least describe what happens to good people when bad things assail them one too many times.
The critic James Wood in his brilliant paper on home borrowed Freud’s term “Afterwardness”. I suspect many of us who have left our homes for new worlds will find this idea familiar. This state of finding yourself away from home for years and years, having intended to leave only for a short time. And that home with its senses and smells remains the place most central to your being even if an actual return to it is fraught with complication. I have returned home in this book, it was a necessary journey.
I found myself drawn to a universe of unmoored people, those forgotten by the grand sweep of history, who endeavour to bind themselves to the future and its promise through an unpromising piece of land. I found myself writing about loss and abandonment, both personal and political. And, as I knew I would, I found myself writing about our right to die when we are ready. But most of all, I found myself writing about love, and redemption, and what we do about being alive in the here and now, wherever we are.
Elaine Proctor is the author of The Savage Hour, published by Quercus £8.99