It’s difficult to pinpoint when and why, precisely, this complex biography captivates and enchants.
Ostensibly, the subject is Jules Browde, a legal luminary who studied with Nelson Mandela, served with distinction in the North African and European theatres during World War 2, forged comradeship with many leading lights of the struggle against apartheid and became one of the country’s early human rights advocates. These were the big things in his life; he lived to the age of 97, and was a witness – and an esteemed contributor – to tumultuous decades in SA’s history.
But it was his private persona, and in particular the part of him that defined him as a raconteur (“Look here, that reminds me of a story”), that seeded this book.
“These stories should be written down,” his family agrees firmly, definitively, when Jules is in his 80s. Grandson Daniel, who has inherited Jules’s extraordinarily observant eye for the detail that enriches a tale, is given the task – a privilege as well as a burden – of capturing Jules’s life and his myriad experiences.
Initially, the enveloping comfort of his rapport with his grandfather means that Daniel has no sense of urgency. In the salad days of a career in journalism he is initially keen to start writing; in his mind’s eye his intention is to map where Jules stands in the pantheon of SA’s eminent persons. But he is conscious that a hagiography would be superficial and uninteresting. In seeking a point of difference he flip-flops repeatedly between various conceptual angles, and soon loses all perspective and focus. He ponders fruitlessly, applies himself sporadically and reluctantly to the task, and the project changes from an intriguing labour of love to an angst-ridden chore with no evident path to completion.
Changing tack for the umpteenth time, he summonses his own memories in an attempt to explore and unravel the depths of his familial relationships, especially his tender bond with Jules. Like the intricate, finely nuanced movements of a ballet, the centre shifts, and the book mutates into a gentle but incisive commentary on the human condition, encompassing themes of love, loss, sacrifice and growth.
Thus, Daniel also becomes a storyteller, and the narrative unfolds into two biographies, one at the forefront – full of action, the consequential and convivial life of a mensch – and one in the shadows, namely Daniel’s introspective tales of loneliness, depression and finding one’s way in the world.
Jules’s stories themselves are an oddball blend. Some are frivolous or innocuous anecdotes; others are meaningful memories that encapsulate and contextualise SA’s rich but often tragic past. The book structures them in seemingly random fashion, with no chronology. But this mirrors the nature of Jules as a storyteller: picking up on cues here and there, and embellishing in conversational charm.
The passage of time forces another twist. Over the course of a decade the work remains unfinished. Daniel is fiddling on the fringes while his grandfather fades. This, then, is the intriguing hook: the narrative’s transformation into a third dimension, becoming, also, a book about writing a book. As in life, writing is on-the-job-learning, and in Daniel’s interminable process loops we see the backstory to the writer’s craft: the dedication and dead-ends, the research and the rejected drafts, and the anxiety that infiltrates an overthinking author’s mind in the quest for inspiration.
His grandfather was always avuncular, never pejorative in trying to coax the book from Daniel. But the long delay causes creeping discomfort, and catalyses disconnect over Jules’s request for a modicum of Jewish tradition at Daniel’s wedding. They become momentarily estranged, but this is petty stuff, the norm in families when too much analysis takes hold, and proud older chests butt against newer directions and a fresher idealism.
Daniel’s writing has an ephemeral quality, as if he is both a wordsmith and someone who is occasionally tentative – even uncomfortable – with words. This generates an appropriate sense of melancholy to the chapters narrated by Daniel. But a degree of tension builds. There is, finally, a real deadline: inexorably, and inevitably, we know that he is in a race against time to fulfil his promise of a book before his grandfather dies.
Near its climax, the book is about holding on – and letting go. Because he subconsciously fears and dreads his grandfather’s passing, once again Daniel pauses the task of writing, dragging it out to the point of exhaustion and near-depression. Hesitancy has become the leitmotif of his very being, and it is only when he makes a conscious decision to embrace the reality that his grandfather is approaching the end of his life can he finally lift the shroud. As his fiancée tells him: “...no matter how well you write this book, it isn’t ever going to be enough to stop him dying”.
The final chapter has its roots in this acceptance, together with a reawakening and uplift of Daniel’s spirits on the eve of his wedding. It is an exquisite imagination of a soul’s final moments, and represents Daniel’s realisation that his grandfather’s wisdom and humanity, and an understanding of his role in the universe, has been passed to him. His grandfather died just before actual publication of the book, but knowing that – like his life – it was complete.
So, this is a book about living, dying – and everything in between. In our frenetic digital age, compressed into bits and bytes, it’s refreshing to read a book that takes its time to breathe. Like a chord played in arpeggio, it has a fragmented, simple beauty, and in its multifaceted cumbersomeness it mirrors life. Not least, at the heart of life is love, and ultimately this biography is a moving testament to the loving connection between grandfather and grandson – one which was not often expressed, but was articulated through common gestures, shared habits, and surrogate everyday language which seals trust and binds families.
As his grandfather tells him near the end of his life, “everything else pales next to that.”
The Relatively Public Life of Jules Browde, by Daniel Browde,