Early in 1925 there arrived at the Hogarth Press in London’s Tavistock Square a parcel, sent from Zululand, containing the manuscript of Turbott Wolfe, the first novel of an unknown writer named William Plomer. Leonard Woolf wrote back promptly, saying it looked ‘very interesting’ and that once Virginia, who was ill, had read it, he would write again. Plomer, living at a trading store in Entumeni, outside the forested hilltop town of Eshowe (named onomatopoeically in Zulu after the sound of wind in trees), was overjoyed. Two months later, Leonard wrote again, making an offer of publication, and weeks afterwards followed up with the news that Harcourt Brace & Co. in New York wanted to publish it too.
Decades later, while a young sub-editor on The Natal Witness, a liberal newspaper in Pietermaritzburg, then something of an English county town transplanted to Africa, I found among the Len Deightons and Wilbur Smiths in a local bookshop a handsome hardback copy of Turbott Wolfe, reprinted by the Johannesburg literary publisher Ad Donker and including essays by Roy Campbell, Laurens van der Post and Nadine Gordimer. Being bookish, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of the novel, particularly as I had spent my childhood and youth on a sugar-cane farm not far from Entumeni, only to discover that it had long been out of print.
What I then began to read, as Leonard and Virginia Woolf had done half a century earlier, had been written hurriedly by lamplight, in hard pencil on thin paper, by a young man barely out of his teens, in his family’s wood-and-iron house beside their trading store. Entumeni becomes the fictional Ovuzane, and Zululand Lembuland, where noble Zulus, like the Msomi cousins and the enigmatic maiden Nhliziyombi, are oppressed by settlers with Dickensian names such as Bloodfield and Flesher. Telling the story in the manner of Conrad’s Marlow is the eponymous Turbott Wolfe, an artist and former trader, perhaps
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