Egonne Roth



An effective letter

Posted by Egonne Roth on January 8, 2019 at 10:20 AM

The mail brought a most unexpected surprise and delight today: a letter from a woman whose daughter and I had been friends more than twenty years ago and whom I have not seen in as many years. A number of things about this letter really made me rethink my perceptions of what was happening in my life.

In the letter she told me that her daughter, my friend from long ago, had given her my biography of Kirsch as a gift. Really? Somehow I had thought that if anyone buys this book, it would be academics like myself or maybe poets or simply close friends and family as an act of loyalty to me or Kirsch. So many important people in publishing had assured me that there would be no interest in the book by the general public and while I had symbolically lifted the middle finger at them, I realised as I read her letter that I had actually believed those naysayers. Ordinary intelligent people, who care about South African cultural matters, are buying this book. Wow! Good for them!

The second thing that made me perk up was the acknowledgement in the letter that a project such as this is enormously hard work, an endless slog that goes on for years. At one of the “In conversation with” functions I did, a woman asked me why don’t I now write the more important biography, namely of Elisabeth Eybers. I responded that I was too old and did not have the energy, but this she simply brushed aside. I mean if you’ve done one, you can do another. NOOOOO! Not true. I spent nine years working on Kirsch, Eybers would probably take fifteen years at which time I would be eighty! What a thought.

In some ways the third thing in the letter that struck me was that she said she had written to simply say thank you. The implications of this expression “thank you” are more specific. Many people congratulated me with the publication of the biography and I was delighted by that. Clearly they thought I had accomplished a worthwhile goal - several definitely had not expected that I, Egonne Roth, could pull this off. One friend asked me directly what made me think I was qualified to write such a biography. I remember being so caught off guard by that question that I had no intelligent response and when I posed the question to Yehudit, she told me simply to get on with the job and the answer would reveal itself. She was right – I had the curiosity and the tenacity, the encouragement of loved ones around me and the guidance of faculty at the Department of English at Bar Ilan University and so I did it.

However, when you thank someone it means something else – it is closer, more intimate. They are telling you that you have given them something that is of value and that they appreciate it; you have in some way enriched their life. On the flight back to Europe, in-between praying that a second DVT would not send me into eternity, I thought about the Book of Ecclesiastics where the preacher writes “I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” Later he says, “And I saw it was all vanity.” And as I tried hobbling up and down in the plane I thought – all this was meaningless and vanity. The DVT and the hip needing replacement were largely due to sitting too much, exercising too little and for what? Until today the only real comfort had come from Jolyn Phillips who wrote in the Burger: In baie opsigte voel die boek soos iets wat ek my hele lewe voor gewag het … (In many ways the book feels like something I have waited for my whole life …). That felt really good coming from this young poet from Gansbaai whose work I had fallen in love with at Die Tuin van Digters. So when the letter came today and also this older friend thanked me, I felt that maybe it had not all been purely vanity; maybe I had not only contributed to knowledge which according to the preacher is meaningless but I had given someone something even if only the joy of reading about another woman’s life and that pleased me.

So I did the right thing and pressed reply with the intention of thanking her again, but how to address her. In my young woman days I called her tannie A as determined by Afrikaans culture, but I am no longer young; I have lived outside of Afrikaans culture for nearly two decades and in Israel “titles” are not really used – old and young address each other on their given name and it does not imply intimacy or a lack of respect. It simply is the way things are done here. So there I sat – Dear tannie A or Dear A. In part, I realised that my problem lies in the fact that I hate having something in front of my name – I tolerate Dr Roth when it is either a very formal situation or I am trying to get the other person not to mess with me, but in passing? No! As Daniel Hugo said to me – titles are only meant for people who need to support their egos. Now I know this woman well enough to know that her ego is healthy and she does not need to be buffered by such things, so I wrote Dear A. I hope she is happy with that.

All these thoughts ran through my mind at the reading of a simple little letter, but it had a profound effect on me. I am sure the writer never anticipated that just as I did not anticipate that a young poet receiving much complimentary attention at present would feel like that about my book. Life brings rewards in strange ways. Thank you!


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1 Comment

Reply Stephen Rifkind
2:50 AM on January 9, 2019 
Dear Egonne,
Achievement and courage are outwards-seen characteristics. The doer only follows his/her heart and/or instinct. The act of heroism or accomplishiment is as natural as a sneezing for that person. I could not write a book, not to speak of a poet, for sheer lack of long term interest in any one thing. Jack of all trades and master of none. However, for you, it was natural and necessary to write your book. You do deserve the credit not only for completing it successfully but listening to your soul despite all obstacles. Take a break and find out what is next on your soul's agenda.