The love affair of writers Ingrid Jonker and André P Brink has captivated the literary world for decades – and now, 50 years after Ingrid’s death, their fiery love letters are finally being published. 

On 1 May 1963, poet Ingrid Jonker wrote her first letter to her married lover, the acclaimed author André P Brink. In it, she partially – and not entirely precisely – quoted lines from a poem called ‘News of the World’, by George Barker: ‘Before the battalions of lies and the organizations of hate / entirely encompass us / lie one night in my arms and give me peace.’

It took just over two years from Ingrid and André’s first meeting for Ingrid to be entirely encompassed by the battalions of hate and lies. In the middle of the night of 19 July 1965 (just two months after their correspondence ended), wearing a black coat, she walked into the sea at Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town to end her life, a mere two-minute walk from the beachfront flat where her small daughter Simone slept in the company of one of Ingrid’s supportive friends. She was 31.

André went on to become one of South Africa’s most celebrated authors, with an international reputation as a literary giant. Ingrid’s small but powerful contribution to literature was consolidated when President Nelson Mandela opened the first democratic parliament of South Africa on 24 May 1994 by reading her moving poem ‘Die Kind (wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga)’ (The Child [who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga]).

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Ingrid always had a propensity for darkness, but she had also always been cheerful and funny – and with a seemingly endless lust for life. She walked and climbed; danced and partied; read voraciously in spite of the education her father (a National Party MP responsible for censorship laws) denied her; wrote and published abundantly; and played with her daughter. And she swam – in any weather, at all times of the year. Her death by drowning has always struck an ironic, painful chord, especially in light of her poem ‘Ontvlugting’, which ends with the couplet: ‘My lyk lê uitgespoel in wier en gras / op al die plekke waar ons eenmaal was’ (translated into English by André and Antjie Krog as ‘Washed out my body lies in weed and grass / in all the places where we once did pass’).

André refused to engage with the gossip and speculation about her death. He would not feed the frenzy of titillated interest that grew around Ingrid, who would later lend her name to one of the most prestigious poetry prizes in South Africa. Then, in 2007, in the introduction to Black Butterflies (R242, Human & Rousseau), a selection of Ingrid’s poems translated by him and Antjie, he broke his silence. He had been deeply, maddeningly in love with Ingrid and wrote that her influence on him was felt in every female character he had written since they met.

‘However predictable [her suicide] seemed in retrospect,’ he wrote, ‘when it happened it was unbearable, and unbelievable. I felt the world grow dark in front of my eyes. For the rest of the day I was blind and could not see.’

André died in February this year, while writing his novel Gold Dust (it remains unfinished). He had written 26 novels for adults, has been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature and was twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Towards the end of last year, André handed Fourie Botha, his publisher at Umuzi, two brown envelopes containing his two-year correspondence with Ingrid. He’d kept copies of all his own letters, too.

‘The interest in these letters is almost unprecedented,’ Fourie says. ‘This collection has enormous historical literary importance, but the letters have a wider reach, because they are deeply moving. André and Ingrid were, first and foremost, great writers, and their talents as such are lushly on display, even though they were writing privately. It makes for almost breathless reading, whether or not you know their work or their biographies.’

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André’s widow, writer Karina Magdalena Szczurek, says, ‘André contemplated the publication of the letters for a long time before he spoke to Fourie. He discussed the project at length with close friends, who all encouraged him to go ahead with the idea. I do not recall what the final spark was. I know he intended them to be published only after Gold Dust.’

Ingrid and André’s romantic correspondence is to be published in English and Afrikaans this month, in a book called Flame in the Snow (R350, Umuzi). They wrote more than 200 letters between them. These compelling billets-doux sparkle with wit and intelligence, dense with fascinating and apt literary quotes. They are full of gossip and news about the artists and writers they both knew, and about South Africa’s politics at the time. And also often full of endearments and jokes, and scintillatingly full of references to their overwhelming sexual attraction, which could only find expression during the few stolen days they managed to be together in the two-year period. They were two young lovers; rebellious and sexually liberated artists in a time when conformity and randomly applied moralising
were the norm.

‘The Lord shook the dice,’ writes Ingrid, in her usual way of poking fun at the pomposity of a religious upbringing, ‘they fell wrong for us, that’s all really.’

Willie Burger, professor of Afrikaans at the University of Pretoria, says, ‘The letters are a knock-out blow to the idea that she was a bubble-headed blonde with a few good verses. She displays clear political thinking, good literary discernment and sharp insight. She had a particularly difficult life. Towards the end of the correspondence it becomes clear that her loneliness has become more desperate, while he slowly withdraws. It’s the stuff good novels are made of.’

In the weeks before her suicide, friends noticed a change in Ingrid. Where once she had taken enormous pride in her looks, she had become sloppy. Her cheerfulness had receded into an almost constant bleakness. An extremely difficult childhood and adult life, and a possibly genetic predisposition towards depression and anxiety, had caught up with her. She was poor, had worked in soul-destroying bureaucratic jobs and could not find safety and succour from the maddening world with any of the men who loved her. It is clear, from all the literature available – and now these letters – that the talented poet Ingrid Jonker had run out of the emotional resources required to go on with life.

Her last letter to André ends: ‘Stay well with all our secrets…’

Vlam In Die Sneeu (Flame In The Snow) is on sale now.

Words Karin Schimke

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