The camera never lies, we’re told. The cliché expresses the misleading view that photography is representational, holding up a mirror to the world and reflecting it without distortion. Yet even a realistic image, like a good work of fiction, can lead the mind into hidden narratives and open avenues of symbolic discourse.
It, therefore, works well to use photography as the deceptive subject matter of a broader meditation, as Ivan Vladislavic does in Double Exposure.
The novel follows its narrator, Neville Lister, through three periods of his life. In the first, he is a conventionally radicalised university dropout in the 1970s.
His worried father arranges for him to spend a day shadowing a famous photographer, Saul Auerbach, in the hope that it will give him direction.
It’s Neville’s first encounter with the art of photography, and so begins a reflection on the capturing of images, the perplexing distance between images and their live subjects, and the way both contain, and are contained by, the spaces of Johannesburg.
An equally subtle component of this narrative is Neville’s relationship with these spaces, both social and architectural. He is drily fascinated by the mundane and curious facets of the city, and his understated love of the urban sprawl is evident.
Yet, he struggles to belong, to find some kind of sea anchor within this shifting ocean of buildings and people.
These threads of reflection continue in the second sequence, where Neville returns from several years in the UK to our newly minted democracy. Now he is a photographer himself, not quite successful and still disengaged, unable to fit himself into the corners of his world.
There are two centres to this sequence. One is his relationship with his wryly humorous mother, which I found entertaining and moving.
The other is his relationship with Mrs Pinheiro, whom he encounters on a photographic mission. She is the custodian of a collection of dead letters; missives that have fallen out of the system because the addressees are illegible. The presence of these artefacts subtly shifts the focus of the narrative meditation, which now turns to how language itself forms images.
A double exposure, as older photographers will remember, happens when two images are exposed on the same rectangle of film. Here the writer Vladislavic is increasingly juxtaposed against the photographer Lister. And here the Vladislavic within the frame echoes Aubrey Tearle, the linguistically obsessed narrator of his earlier novel, The Restless Supermarket, a man whose identity is more defined by grammar and style than by the visual disclosures of his city.
The third sequence is set in the present, in a confidently digital age. Much of it follows an interview: Janie, a blogger, interviews the modestly successful, almost middle-aged Neville. The lens turns to the cultural mores and fashions of our time, though the concerns of the text with space and image are not lost.
The focus of this section is less certain than the preceding two, and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the assemblage of topics. In addition to the themes I’ve discussed, the text ranges across the fashionable language of cooking, the ironies of digital culture, the distance between the space cadet Janie and Neville, while it almost dismissively explores his relationship with his partner, Leora.
I felt that the focus became too diffuse, and the narrative rambled at times. Yet, it closes with an important realisation; Neville realises with some bitterness that he has grown up, that his life and the city belong together at last, and that it is a harder space than he might have anticipated.
Talking about the photographer Auerbach, Neville comments: “He had a body of work and it held him steady in the world. More precisely: he was a body of work… He had soldiered on, one photograph at a time, leaving behind an account of himself and his place in which one thing followed another, print after print. My own story was full of holes.”
In 1990, I reviewed Vladislavic’s debut short story collection, Missing Persons, and cautiously described him as “an author who probably has what it takes to establish a dominant place in South African fiction”.
Hindsight shows that my caution was unnecessary; Vladislavic certainly can claim a defining body of work, and Double Exposure is not at all full of holes.
The prose is masterly, and Vladislavic lets slip his baroque fantasy judiciously, as if quoting himself rather than placing his trademark absurdity at the core of this narrative. It does not have the power and gravitas of The Restless Supermarket, nor the wild confabulation of Vladislavic’s earlier short story collections.
It remains, however, a thoughtful and complex essay in novel form.
l Barris is a writer and poet, and teaches at Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Find out more about his writing at www.kenbarris.com and on twitter @kenbarris