They stood and cheered. They waved their discounted copies of her new novel in the air. Why? Because the event was organised by Dillons, and Toni Morrison is not so much an individual novelist as a representative voice of black people throughout the world - the voice of people shaping and re-defining their own histories.
She therefore appeals to two quite distinct types of reader. She is both a popular author, who writes with a compelling simplicity, and a favourite choice of those preparing arduous theses on the classics of slave literature. She wins both ways.
The earnest human resources manager with the badly chipped, green toenails who was sitting next to me told me that she had tried and tried again to get on to the Toni Morrison option at Cape Town University, where she had majored in English. Alas, the course was too popular...
But some authors seem to have a natural, God-given eloquence, too. Words issue from them, unforced, like water from a mountain spring, with a glorious shapeliness and cogency. Seamus Heaney is such a man. And so was Laurie Lee, though he may have burnished the truth somewhat from time to time to fit the demands of the retelling.
One of the consequences of this gift is that lesser mortals become confounded in the presence of such people. They seem awkward, flustered, ill at ease, incapable of competing in the race at all...
This thought struck me as I watched and listened to Toni Morrison reading from Paradise. There was a great dignity and serenity about the performance. Reading with relaxed, mellow, good-humoured authority she picked about amidst her words like some gardener working a familiar, beloved plot, taking every phrase, and every word within each of those phrases, at its natural pace.
She answered questions in sentences that seemed to have been honed beforehand. A girl asked her about the influence of music upon her use of language. Generally speaking, music was of secondary importance, replied Morrison. A more crucial matter was the act of collaboration between author and reader.
"I'd like my language to invite and have resonances that the reader supplies, to summon up complicated thoughts and feelings. You bring your own sensuality into a scene. If the words are placed right, we together make this a palpable and passionate event..."
More's the pity then that the organisers should have chosen the editor of the Times, Peter Stothard, to introduce a woman who was capable of choosing her words with such care, and with such attention to the radiant detail.
Poor Stothard, locked inside his dark and dingy day suit, looked sweaty, pent and mildly embarrassed. He bore an uncanny resemblance to a biro- twirling John Majorette - or could that have been a mere trick of the light? His salt-and-pepper hair seemed freshly sheared by some madman who had just jumped out from behind the hut in the allotment. Had the madman charged for his grotesque performance - or had Stothard thrown the money at him before taking to his heels? We shall never know.
All he could think to say when Toni Morrison had finished reading from her book was: "Thank you, thank you, thank you, and ... well, thank you once again ... I hope that the audience will now come down from the hypnotic state in which you are ..." We all laughed. Well, what intelligent person - and there were many of them in this audience - would not have laughed at such a sentence structure?
But it was not the sentence structure alone, it was the way in which the words had managed to slip out of his mouth in the first place, as if the appearance of every single one had involved not only an act of pushing out, but also a simultaneous swallowing - difficult, dangerous and evidently painful - of individual teeth.
Toni Morrison, being gracious and forgiving, merely smiled indulgently.
`Paradise' is published by Chatto & Windus, price 16.99.
`Paradise' follows the lives of four young Oklahoma women who take refuge in a former convent in the state. The passage below is from the novel's opening:
`They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun.
`They are nine, over twice the number of the women they are obliged to stampede or kill and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement: rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, Mace and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns.
`They have never been this deep in the Convent. Some of them have parked Chevrolets near its porch to pick up a string of peppers or have gone into the kitchen for a gallon of barbecue sauce; but only a few have seen the halls, the chapel, the schoolrooms, the bedrooms. Now they all will.'Reuse content