I met Olive at the library, she was strange but familiar. At the time I couldn’t know that we were going to spend a few months together, sharing our deepest thoughts and so many intimate details of our lives.
There was a distance between us, but we recognised each other. A few hours spent between the shelves, a few whispered words. Her voice intrigued me immediately and when she told me: “There are only two real things, love and knowledge, and you can’t escape those” I looked at her fixedly, like when an unusual book catches your attention all of a sudden. When it happens, you know there is a reason, maybe hidden in your mind or in the memory of your body. You can decide to go further or stop, take it in your hands and leaf it through. Sometimes you need to take it home.
Olive had a German surname and a curious accent, she came from South Africa, although to put it in her own words “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world. ”
She saw her personal life as a great battlefield. Her epic stories about her childhood, spent in unspoiled nature, were both frightening and funny. Once she had to hide with all her brothers and sisters in the bushes for hours to escape a violent death. Even at the height of the tragedy, the comic effect was never too far away. While I listened to her, incredulous and amused, I was thinking: “you’re pure spring water, go on, tell me more”.
She had a lively way of doing things, something penetrating in her eyes and a posture that was both simple and proud. She tried to take on the role of the committed intellectual, but the spontaneous, idealistic and somewhat wild girl was always around the corner. One could not survive without the other, finding a balance was a real struggle which exploded in appalling asthma attacks. It was painful to see how hard it was for her to breathe the air of this world.
We started meeting every day. At the beginning we shared our passion for books, we were both in love with Conrad at the time. Thoreau, with his life in the woods, was our hero, and every day we discovered our common admiration for this or that author. She showed me her volumes, all full of notes in the margins, telling me how they had helped her as a child, when she suffered from loneliness in the middle of the vast South African highlands. As a young girl she walked alone, observing insects and blades of grass, talked to herself animatedly, sometimes she screamed, sometimes she cried. Her missionary father often moved house, her family was numerous but isolated, the natural world was a demanding, challenging partner, difficult to interpret. At the same time there was a joyful interaction with the landscape, an integrity, a fertile void. Life in the African veld allowed and encouraged a relationship with nature that in the grandiose and terrible forms of Africa became a relationship with the universe. A universe perceived as a vital and creative flow, but also as an expression of an immutable meaning. An essential, hard, fascinating world, capable of provoking “such a sense of freedom and wild joy”.
No subject she suggested to me left me indifferent. We were very excited about education, I smiled as I listened her describing school programs designed to perfect human weakness and imbecility, cultivating them with care: “Into how little space a human soul can be crushed?”
Olive wrote wonderful pages on the individuals’ struggle to find and realise themselves, on that frustrating and painful oscillation between the movement impressed on life by an existential search and the satisfied stasis of those who accept the imposed rules. Those who make social and family traditions their own without ever asking why, ignoring their originality in favour of established forms. We agreed on how, for a woman, the conflict was even more burning, accused of selfishness if she tries to follow her own intimate aspirations. “I am not a woman to be married” she told me, yet I felt her sociable and even sensual nature aspiring to a communion of feelings and thoughts, to an equal, respectful and free sharing of each other’s human adventure. Friendship with passion, she would say.
“People with a sympathetic nature like mine must protect themselves from what involves them, otherwise they are destined to be cruelly shattered so that vital work remains unfinished.”
I nodded, looking away as if to better hear the echo of her words inside me.
Our conversations were food for thought. We were inspired by the same subjects, her position on some central questions of our lives as young women reflected my rebellions and worries, her articulate and profound ideas shed light on my shy inner reflections, which were still struggling to come into the open. Like an older sister who has already left for battle, she brought me news from the front. I admired her courage, sympathised with her difficulties and was truly excited about her successes. I also liked listening to her little girl voice, the one without armour, the one she used only with close friends. I felt honoured by those confidences and at a certain point I began to love her with sisterly love.
I wanted to let her know that she could tell me everything without fear, that I had no intention of betraying her. Olive, I told her, I will not misrepresent a single thought, and if in telling about you I will allow myself some exaggeration, I will try to be faithful anyway and if there is a mistake, it will not be serious, it will be a small misstep caused by nothing other than affective myopia.
Sometimes she disappeared for days, she needed to isolate herself and listen to her soul carefully, to focus onto the essential questions, without being overwhelmed by the ordinary events of daily life. Exchanges of opinions and views were precious and necessary, but they tired her terribly, perhaps also because of her radical and non-conformist positions that almost always ended up triggering reactions of surprise, explanations and endless discussions.
I learned that, thanks to her first publications which had created a certain sensation, she was contacted by famous people: thinkers, writers, and politicians. When meeting them, Olive went straight to the point, she didn’t let herself be duped by the paint of success. She seemed to see right inside people and she tried to dialogue with the most authentic part of them; sometimes it was not worth it and she cut it short, sometimes she appreciated the person but could not digest his or her retrograde and anti-libertarian ideas. She vehemently defended all the oppressed, there were no compromises on this point. Her South African experience had opened her eyes since she was a child, despite a strict traditional education, in the name of obedience and the fear of God.
During these breaks I read her first novel, The Story of An African Farm. “You will find many artistic faults, but I think you will sympathize with it,” she once told me about her prose.
The first English publisher to whom she had sent the manuscript had responded by praising her talent, pathos and originality, but he had decided not to publish it because he found it depressing and “the British public does not like to be depressed”. Unexpectedly I smiled a lot reading it, I recognised Olive’s vivacity in the pages, telling tasty anecdotes and painting scenes of immediate vividness with few precise brushstrokes. On the other side, Lyndall, the protagonist of her novel, lived an existential drama on the fringes of the life of an African farm, struggling against an environment with suffocating limits, dried up by destructive aridity. Yet, her determination to fight, the sincerity of her feelings were so vibrant and moving. She was real, and so was her life’s battle.
Olive didn’t want to guide the characters like puppets with the tips of her fingers, she said she needed to hold them close to her, so close that she could hear their heartbeats.
And when the last breath arrives to the heroine of her first novel, Olive sits next to her. She tells us with pure imagination and poetry about that crossing of looks between those who die and the world that remains, that breach in the mystery. Her description of death is a very special moment, experienced as a reunion with the cosmic unity. Death becomes a sort of mystical celebration that takes place in the open, in a serene abandonment of the body between the earth and the sky.
I was sure that one day she would tell me who she had seen die; for now she just staring at me with black frozen eyes, too crushed to talk about it.
One day we were discussing spirituality. Olive had lived with a desperate inner suffering the separation from religious faith. Daughter of a missionary, as a girl she had feared she had a deviant mind, she had tortured herself in doubt. The words that came from the pulpit were definitive and unequivocal, since her father was to pronounce them, the betrayal was almost unbearable: “The one who believes will not be damned”.
Then something happened. Olive was nine and her adored little sister was eighteen months. Her birth had been the most important event of her childhood, she had told me more than once. An immense joy: “the following months I lived for her and through her”. There was no exaggeration, I knew, the image of my mother returning from the hospital with that tiny little brother, with his flushed face, was also printed in my memory. My own mother with her tired face, leaning against a corner of the kitchen, held him tightly to her while he sucked greedily and noisily. Breathless after having rushed up five flights of stairs, I watched incredulous, feeling the beating of my heart calm down slowly.
Olive’s sister had fallen ill and she had witnessed her agony. I could imagine the devastation of that death, the impotence and the sense of injustice, the why? screaming in her head. After that she decided: she would no longer fulfil the rite of the Mass. As an adult, faced with the most rigid religious conventions, she looked with a slightly ironic attitude to people deploying before her eyes strange formal and empty rituals, performed with the utmost seriousness. I enjoyed her funny narrations and I recalled the words of Gustav Mahler “The tradition is to keep the fire, not to worship the ashes”.
Olive’s relationship with “God” was simple and direct. “The Universe is One and Lives – she said – or if you prefer to use other words, there is nothing but God! If you ask me what the practical effect of this feeling is, it is that it makes my whole life very precious to me, and also robs the death of all its horrors.” I found myself in her thoughts, word by word. My path was less rugged, but it was groping in the same direction. The feeling was the same.
Being a free thinker demanded a high price, isolation and solitude, but Olive was not seeking proselytes in her circle, reacting with respectful silence to the accusations of friends and family. As a girl she was not a propagandist; her idea of freedom included the freedoms of others. As a young governess, however, she had given up part of her salary to be spared the pain of teaching the religious subject.
Even without God, one day the earth ceases to be a chaotic mass, everything around inspires wonder and reverence. Everything is part of a whole. “The life that pulsates within us is a throb of that whole, too powerful to be understood by us, not too small”.
The issues to be debated were many, but nothing excited us as more than the women’s question. Like Virginia Woolf, forced to “kill” the angel in the house that hindered her journey, we had to deal with that tendency to always want to understand and sympathize with the thoughts and desires of others. We had fallen in as a child, without being aware of it. That ideal of purity and altruistic perfection haunted us and muddied the waters, so that when faced with fundamental choices for our life, we no longer knew how to listen to our voice. If there was chicken, we took the leg … as Virginia Woolf masterfully wrote.
Actually Olive had already done a lot to free herself and included this question in a wider context of struggle and awareness towards all minorities. Still, her suffering for her “sisters” remained among the most acute. “It is not what is done to us, but what is made of us”. The parts of us that we do not use completely atrophy, or, tight in bandages, they hurt. Once upon a time there were the narrow shoes of Chinese women, today dreadful stilettos. In both cases the body of women is deformed, it is forced to advance with suffering, adapting itself to shapes as improbable as they are far from natural ones. As a curious paradox, the hammering of advertising has managed to make us believe that those fearsome trendy shoes are choices of audacity and freedom. At the time, in our lively discussions on the condition of women, we were not aware of the other fabric prisons developed by men.
Olive in public became a striking orator and she wrote powerful pages on the subject. The cornerstones of her thoughts have become classic pillars of the question: free access to every field of work, education without discrimination and equal pay. I liked to hear her explain: “we ask this not only for ourselves, but for mankind, for the whole humanity impeded in its progress towards truth and justice.”
I don’t know if it was me or she who found me. When I met Olive I almost immediately I decided that I would stop, I would open my suitcase, small and light at the time, to make room for her treasures. When I resumed my journey, I was carrying a trunk full of manuscripts, letters, images and thoughts.
Then came the day of the presentation of my thesis. I remember it very well. I was wearing a beige knitted dress, which rose a little too much when I moved my arms. I was anxious and confident at the same time, eager to conclude a long and demanding project. I wanted to enjoy every crumb of it, every feeling. Next to me was a brigade of smiling relatives and friends. In the end the professor had cited aloud a passage from my thesis … then there had been applause. We all talked about her beautiful humanity, the way she aroused affection and sympathy. I welcomed the honours and handshakes, celebrated that day joyfully.
In the evening, alone in my room, I took leave of Olive. Our encounter was forever, but I knew that opportunities to meet again would be rarer, other projects and other horizons awaited me.
I am not sure if it was a breach in space-time or pure suggestion, it doesn’t really matter. The next morning when I woke up I saw her next to me, next to my bedside table, smiling.
It lasted only a few moments; I felt more surprise than fear. I didn’t have time to think … only to observe her old clothes, her dark curls, her gaze alluring and serene. I returned her smile and she evaporated the same way as she appeared, leaving me alone and absorbed in the warmth of the bed linen, pervaded by the enveloping sensation of a radiant morning and a pure, immaterial and splendid friendship.
“It’s beautiful to think you are living somewhere in the world, dear.” (Olive Schreiner)
Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) left us a hundred years ago, precisely on December 11th. By her express wish, she was buried on a hill overlooking the immense highlands of the Eastern Cape province in South Africa. Writer of novels, short stories, allegories, political and social essays, Olive was very influential and engaged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She lived between two countries: England, where she participated in the late-Victorian progressive debate, writing memorable pages on women’s emancipation and the religious question, and South Africa, where with courage and determination, as a self-taught, she managed to break the silence and raise her emotional and prophetic voice in defence of peace and the victims of colonialism.