Recalling his youth in Johannesburg during apartheid, Neville Lister states early in the novel: ‘I wanted to be in the real world, but I wasn’t sure how to set about it’. Double Negative is essentially a meditation on the process: how we navigate ourselves into the real, both experientially and politically.
The novel centres on an encounter between Neville and the fictional photographer Saul Auerbach, paralleling the real life meeting between Vladislavic and David Goldblatt – the South African photographer whose collection of photographs this novel accompanies and was inspired by.
Neville’s father arranges for the two to come together on the basis that Auerbach is ‘a man with strong convictions’ who, unlike Neville, has ‘learned to direct them’. Neville infers that the defining characteristics of Auerbach both as a person and a photographer are his insistence on ‘independence’ and his open regret for ‘his limitations as a photographer and a human being’. At first Neville rebels against this ‘peculiar passivity,’ but soon realises that though it sounds ‘so easy’ to do the right thing, especially in the context of apartheid, ‘it was difficult. Wasn’t it?’
The passage below follows a scene in which Neville is accused of having been infected by Auerbach’s philosophy of passive observance:
Repetition. Things had begun to double. There must be a term for it. Is it a natural process or an historical one? Should it be encouraged or suppressed? Or simply endured? Perhaps every gesture will beget its twin, every action find an echo, every insight become a catechism, like some chain reaction that can never be halted. The concatenated universe.
The novel is full of loops like these. Neville retraces Auerbach’s footsteps, becomes a photographer, explores similar themes in his photographs etc. When he first visits Auerbach he marvels: ‘I had never seen a cafetiere before’. Later, when it is suggested to him that he was influenced by Auerbach, he reflects: ‘I let the statement settle while I drove the plunger down to the bottom of the cafetiere’. At one point we learn that Auerbach ‘declared that he was not an artist’. Later, Neville insists: ‘I’m not an artist at all’.
It’s not just that characters repeat others: they also repeat themselves. Meeting an old friend, Neville remarks: ‘The laugh was not as enticing as it had once been. Was she putting it on a bit? As I get older, I’m discovering how hard it is not to start playing yourself’. Interviewed for a film, Neville has to pretend to open the door for the reporter: ‘Five minutes and I’m already being asked to play myself.’ During the interview he reflects that he’s ‘repeating things’. At one point the interviewer comments, ‘I can’t help quoting myself’. Neville: ‘That makes two of us, I thought.’
This process of repeating others and repeating ourselves is obviously emblematic of photography. In looking at a photograph, we try and find value in repetition, each glance taking us further into history. In perhaps the most telling passage in the entire novel, Neville reflects on the value of history in relation to the innocence of his youth:
You could not see Benjamin’s Angel – Klee’s Angel, strictly speaking, memorably captioned – leaning beside me with his wings folded across the bonnet. I was troubled. […] If you had a sense of historical destiny, if you were sufficiently drunk with it, you might expect to ride out any storm. I did not imagine I would be carried in one piece to a classless shore.
It’s worth quoting Walter Benjamin’s Thesis on the Philosophy of History, from which his analysis of Paul Klee’s Angel of History originates:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin’s point is that, immobilised by history, we succumb to it: caught up in the historical process, its patterns repeat itself and wreckage is piled upon wreckage. What is needed is to ride out the storm – to have a sense of ‘historical destiny’ and to seek a ‘classless shore’.
Neville singularly fails in this. He writes: ‘The more I tried to focus on the present, the more my questions dragged me back into the past.’ Throughout the novel, he Hamletises himself into a state of petrified inertia, like the Angel of History – incapable of soaring into the present.
Towards the end of the book, Neville recalls a game his dad had played with him when he was younger. His dad would drive him around in his car, with Neville lying down in the back so that he couldn’t see the road. At the end of the trip Neville’s dad would ask him where they were. The final lines of the novel describe the moment when Neville eventually mastered the game: ‘I lay in the dark with the bitter knowledge that I had unlearned the art of getting lost.’
In a sense, this is photography: the art of finding ourselves, pinpointing the present and delineating the past. And yet our sense that we see everything, and the utter complacency it breeds, is clearly presented here as a negative thing. Vladislavic’s book, in this sense, might be seen as an urgent plea: we must get lost in the present. Picking up on the Benjamin reference, this suggests a dissatisfaction with ‘what we call progress’; instead, unlike Neville, we must rupture the process of repetition.
As a post-apartheid novel, this is a breath of fresh air. It’s a challenge to complacency, not a paean to liberation. Vladislavic’s argument seems to be that the photographs of David Goldblatt and the likes are valueless as images of a forgotten wreckage; the real challenge is to look away from history and face the political situations of the present.