Mischievous guru of South African letters
Wednesday 09 June 2004
Lionel Abrahams could be described as the yeast in the dough of South African literature.
Lionel Abrahams, writer, poet, publisher and editor: born Johannesburg, South Africa 11 April 1928; married 1986 Jane Fox; died Johannesburg 31 May 2004.
Lionel Abrahams could be described as the yeast in the dough of South African literature. He loved, honoured and delighted in language, could make it dance as he himself, severely disabled from birth, could not, and was master of the wittiest, often wickedest bons mots - which he might struggle to splutter out, and which often caused him to giggle as much as his audience.
Above all Abrahams was humane, and if humane-ness can be seen as a leavening agent it was perhaps this specific quality that he imparted as a teacher, editor and critic to the innumerable writers and artists whose work he influenced; as a poet and prose-writer; and as a columnist and writer of letters to newspapers. His humanity infused and lifted whatever he did in his life.
Lionel Abrahams was a walking miracle. He was born, in Johannesburg in 1928, with a form of cerebral palsy and was in a wheelchair until the age of 11, when he was taken to a faith healer who put him on a kitchen table, rubbed his legs and told him, "Stand up and walk for Jesus." Lionel did, and continued walking, with the strangely graceful, undulating movements of an underwater creature, catching buses on his own, having adventures, and exploring as much of the world as he could eagerly embrace, until his body gave in after 55 years and forced him back into the wheelchair.
He studied at Damelin College High School in Johannesburg, where one of his teachers was the writer Herman Charles Bosman. Lionel Abrahams's parents (Jewish immigrants from Lithuania) "hired" Bosman - a brainwave - to teach his craft to their unusual son. After Bosman's early death in 1951, it was thanks to Abrahams's devoted editing and promotion of several posthumous collections of his work that Bosman's stories and the lost Afrikaner world they evoke are known and enjoyed beyond South Africa's borders. Bosman's light touch even when dealing with heavy issues, his acute yet always gentle eye, his great love of life and - importantly - his gift of knowing what to leave out, all seem to have been inherited by his pupil.
In 1956, Abrahams founded and became editor of the literary magazine The Purple Renoster, and thus was able to publish the poetry he liked. A lot was being written between the 1960s and 1980s in Johannesburg, when theatre, poetry, fiction and the visual arts were providing a soapbox for all that was being suppressed by the apartheid laws. There was real danger in going too far. Writers faced the possibility of banning and house arrest, and as a writer and an editor, Abrahams had to bear these dangers in mind. His Renoster Books, co-founded in 1971, published groundbreaking works by black South Africans, including Oswald Mtshali's Sounds of a Cowhide Drum (1971) and Mongane Wally Serote's Yakhal'inkomo (1972).
Abrahams himself published several volumes of poetry - Thresholds of Tolerance (1975), Journal of a New Man (1984), The Writer in the Sand (1988) and A Dead Tree Full of Live Birds (1995) - and two novels, The Celibacy of Felix Greenspan (1977) and The White Life of Felix Greenspan (2002).
Another important area of influence was the writing group that formed around Abrahams about 40 years ago, with him as mischievous guru. It continued, despite his increasing frailty, until his death. Work was read and discussed, arguments and a lot of laughing took place, writing was treated with great respect.
Lionel Abrahams had lived a whole and coherent life before he met and fell in love with the writer Jane Fox - and so had she - but the life they formed together, marrying in 1986, the creativity, enjoyment and peacefulness they shared, with a country house on the outskirts of Johannesburg full of children and grandchildren (hers), friends and fellow writers, pets, books and at last enough wall space to hang his friends' paintings, was nothing short of a second miracle.
Taking a stand against the injustice in South Africa was basically a simple, black-and-white issue but sometimes standing up for liberal values, as Lionel Abrahams did, demanded its own brand of courage and defiance. The badge of "liberal" became an accusation from the Left as well as the Right in the changing political climate of South Africa. "People like you complicate the issue," Abrahams was once told by a black friend whose poetry he nurtured and published. "Long may the issue remain complicated" was his reply.
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