You are currently viewing Searching for Sarah, Joanne Hichens interviews Dominique Malherbe

Searching for Sarah, Joanne Hichens interviews Dominique Malherbe

Joanne Hichens interviews Dominique Malherbe, author of Searching for Sarah. Sarah Goldblatt was Dominique Malherbe’s great aunt.

You have dedicated Searching for Sarah “to the countless women whose lives were lived in the shadows”. I read the book in this light – as a story illuminating one woman’s life hitherto untold in a fuller sense. I found it deeply humane and moving, and was hooked from the start to read more about Sarah, your great-aunt, and her dedication to CJ Langenhoven. What prompted you to tell the story of Sarah Goldblatt?

At the outset, I knew virtually nothing of either Sarah or the great Afrikaans writer CJ Langenhoven, other than that Sarah was quite a fierce, strict, tenacious woman who had not only spent her life dedicated to the work of Langenhoven, but, as the rumour went in our family, had a particularly close personal relationship with him. Our family said that she’d had a child with Langenhoven, but no one could tell me more than that. My aunt (my mother’s sister, Naomi Jacobson), who passed away in May 2016 just before her 91st birthday, would have known more of these details, but no one thought to ask her about Sarah while she was alive.

In 1932, when Langenhoven died and Sarah was appointed as literary executrix of the Langenhoven legacy, Langenhoven was the most prolific, well-respected writer of Afrikaans and contributor to the language of Afrikaans and its development. As poet, parliamentarian and writer of the national anthem of South Africa, he was a literary icon. At that stage, the appointment of the Jewish woman, with whom he was also thought to have supposedly had an intimate personal relationship, was scandalous.

I wanted to uncover Sarah’s story.

Kannemeyer, in fact, casts Sarah as a “villain” and “a woman possessed” in her seemingly overzealous attitude to Langenhoven and to promoting the “Langenhoven industry”. What are your views in this regard?

It seems to me that his attitude was indicative of the overarching theme of patriarchy and superiority of the male biographer.

At the very end of his biography, he does admit to a relationship of sorts between Sarah and Langenhoven, and even tries to hint at a scene of “sexual activity” on a certain occasion. But overall, he seemed loath to admit that this was a relationship of any significance. He alludes to the “Victorian attitudes” of the times, which would have precluded any blatant recognition of extramarital affairs. One must also remember that this was a young, unmarried Jewish woman. Anti-Semitism played a crucial role in this story.

Whereas, in the main, Kannemeyer insisted that Sarah Goldblatt was always wanting to “steal the limelight”, from my research, my view is that “she basked in the light of the man she adored”.

Throughout the book, your motivation is to uncover a “truer” version of her contribution as editor and writer, but more than that, you strive to find Sarah’s “essence”, a sense of her emotional authenticity. You write of the young Jewess, the feisty redhead, the passionate woman in a relationship with an older man. Is this, in the main, the revelation of a love story?

In hindsight, it may appear as if it is predominantly a love story, but this was only part of my initial interest. Of course, there was this intrigue about their relationship, but I am not a romance writer. However, with my interests in women, history, identity and, of course, law and justice, I was intrigued on many other levels. There also seemed to be many myths around Sarah that needed to be dispelled.

The spark for my research came about while I was working on a chapter of my previous memoir – and considering the origins of my roots, namely my great-grandfather, David Goldblatt, Sarah’s father, whom I knew to be an influential writer of his time and similarly interested in identity – in his case, Yiddish.

Sarah’s letters to Langenhoven, many quoted in your book, are clearly affectionate and familiar. Would you say they were mutually devoted?

The letters were numerous. Virtually every day they corresponded, though most were obviously to do with his work, his manuscripts. More often than not, the tone was warm and tender, and evidenced a genuine care from both sides. And then, of course, as described in the book, she admits to destroying many of the (possibly more personal) letters between them and keeping only those which dealt with his manuscripts. This, she wrote, caused her a great deal of heartache.

When Langenhoven died, her friends worried that Sarah “would drown in grief”. But even as she exhibited a spectacular level of loyalty to Langenhoven – beyond death – it was not simply love that drove her?

Apart from her appointment as literary executrix, there seemed to be a combination of factors. Her background interests and experience of language in general, the work she undertook with her father in trying to get Yiddish recognised as a language in South Africa, and then, of course, the relationship that had started with Langenhoven when she was a young woman. He included her in his life’s work for close on 20 years until his sudden death: in his early manuscripts and writings, in his work as parliamentarian to have Afrikaans recognised as a language of instruction in 1925, and as editor; she was a sounding board for his prose, poetry and the writing of the national anthem, etc. And then, of course, he appoints her as literary executrix of all his manuscripts. With the task of executrix of his extensive work, she must already have shown him that she could assume such a role.

Significant, of course, though still speculative despite evidence from various sources, was the supposed “love child”, who might have died, or whom she either had to give up for adoption or possibly had to abort.

I have wondered why there are not more documents relating to the possible love child of Sarah and Langenhoven – an intriguing part of the story. And I have wondered, too, whether the quoted unpublished poem, penned by Langenhoven, included in the book as referencing the child, could be interpreted differently:

For the last time, and for the last time,
I called him by name – my name for him
The name just the two of us alone

Each time I read it (and then another poem dedicated to “my son”), it felt to me so clearly to be a reference to a child. Whether the child died or was given up for adoption is really almost superfluous to the story, sad as that may sound. The only reason I thought the child survived and was given up for adoption was because my family had hinted at it, and because the rumour was then corroborated by the Brümmer family (Langenhoven’s descendants).

From the letters and correspondence (and particularly the gaps of information during certain years in an otherwise comprehensive catalogue), there was a period in which things were not documented. And, in answer to repeated questions to my family, they are all convinced there was a child – and that Sarah went “quiet” for some time.

But my story was about Sarah, not the child.

Interestingly enough, however, since the release of the book, my discussions with readers – and one in particular, who told me of conversations in his family regarding Sarah (their neighbour) and the existence of a child, which they were not allowed to mention – have reinforced my belief that there was a child.

Other mentions – of the rape of Sarah, and her possible molestation by her father – seemed unsubstantiated, but were included in the text by allusion to family folklore and hearsay. How convinced can you be of these matters without written evidence?

The matter of the rape was a shocking revelation for me. It was told to me unflinchingly and without any prior knowledge on my part at all. The reason I found it worthy of being included in the book was that it was told to me by a completely independent third party – as if it were a common fact of Sarah’s life.

While in law there are specific and certain hierarchies of evidence, and these are important in order to discharge the burden of proof, in storytelling no such onus exists. Furthermore, it seemed to me that one cannot exclude versions of oral history: that there are often truths in spoken messages passed down from one generation to the next which make them no less relevant than so-called written evidence.

I never heard about the rape from anyone else. My own family were horrified when I relayed the story to them, though I have no reason to want to find out more. There seems no purpose, and it was far too long ago. So, too, with the allegations of her father possibly molesting her. The only person it could have affected deeply and irrevocably was Sarah. And she is long gone. Written evidence is only of import and useful if you are trying to prove something. I did not set out to prove anything. Merely to tell a story.

The concrete evidence I have is the various emails and messages between Willemien Brümmer, Langenhoven’s great-granddaughter, and me, going back to 2017. In November of that year, she enquired as to how my research for the book was going, and advised that her father was more lucid than her mother at that stage. It was quite clear that she knew I wanted to write about Sarah.

Your research was extensive. What challenges did you encounter in accessing material, and interviewing people who knew “Saartjie”, as Sarah was known to many?

The greatest difficulty I found in interviewing people was that unfortunately, there were not many people still alive – or certainly not many I knew of – who could tell me much about her from personal experience, so I was confined to what I could find in documents. Since I wasn’t a registered student at Stellenbosch University, I think the assumption was that I was merely on a personal quest to find something of my Jewish great-aunt. Over time, and with my successive returns, the librarians were extremely helpful and cooperative.

I scoured various sources I thought would be relevant: from vast and comprehensive catalogues and records of hundreds of letters kept in the Stellenbosch Library, to books in the National Library and documents in the archives in Cape Town, and from Oudtshoorn to the Overberg. I made enquiries at NALN regarding an article I had seen on a panel discussion that had taken place in Bloemfontein, and made some enquiries at Die Burger. From NALN I was emailed supposedly everything they had about Sarah. Die Burger never responded to my telephonic queries.

Also, I was acutely aware of the sensitivities of this story, and my approach with the extended Langenhoven family was cautious. I sensed from the beginning that Sarah was a complex character for them, and that whatever documents they had were not to be shared. It was quite tricky, as I was faced with the repeated refrain that Kannemeyer – seemingly the sole gatekeeper of the Langenhoven industry and the story of Sarah – was the incontrovertible authority.

Notwithstanding my acceptance of their decision not to share any documents, I have been surprised to read of the extensive “crates” of documents belonging to Sarah (including photographs and her passport and personal diaries) which have recently emerged.

Were you concerned that the book might spark controversy?

I suspected that anything I wrote would be controversial, since I – as an unknown writer and not a literary authority, especially in Afrikaans – was offering an alternative to the Kannemeyer narrative. I also sensed that the extended family were not quite as enamoured with Langenhoven as a character as Sarah clearly was. Also, as I write in the book, the family insisted that Kannemeyer’s version was gospel and that I should study it carefully. That I should forget about the child. And improve my Afrikaans.

It was clear that there must have been another version of Sarah, and as a family member and interested writer, I wanted to explore an alternative version.

This is certainly also a story about you, the writer, the woman fascinated enough to spend hundreds of hours reading letters and documents, reading the Afrikaans, which is not your first language, learning as you went. You said in a recent interview: “The story needed to be told, and it needed my voice ….” What does “your voice” bring to Sarah’s story?

I really did not want my voice in the story initially. I was fearful that the reader would sense a bias and unfair subjectivity, which I am acutely aware of when we tell stories of those close to us. But my editor and publishers were adamant that this was vital to the story, and I suppose, in a way, my voice brings a certain empathy which an outsider may not have added. There was certainly no one who was going to explore it as I did – from a family perspective, at least.

You describe Sarah as “a woman both in his shadow, and his wings”, who gave up largely on her own writing in service to Langenhoven. In her final days, she wrote: “My life is only a reflection of external incidents.” Was there, at the end, for her, a sense of sadness and regret?

Normal dementia and old age must be a time for difficult reflection in many ways. For a life well lived, loved and witnessed, it’s possibly easier to be at peace. But from the diaries she shared and the insights of Elsa Joubert that Sarah was in a deep depression at the end of her life, I formed the distinct impression that Sarah was saddened and traumatised at the end of her life. How was she going to protect her secrets anymore? Who would discover the life she had led?

You’ve written extensively of Sarah’s personal contribution in support of Afrikaans. Phil Weber of Die Burger wrote, at the time of her death: “There was no end to her spirit and ability to work. Never did she demand more than she herself was willing to give.” How would you like her memory to be honoured?

All I really wanted to achieve was to tell Sarah’s side from a different perspective. My intention was not to sensationalise Langenhoven’s personal life, or to undermine the relationship that Langenhoven had with his wife, Vroutjie. She was dearly loved by him and was a safe haven.

What I hope is that Sarah is afforded recognition for the role that she played in his life – both personally, as a like-minded literary person who was clearly devoted to him, and as someone who really fulfilled her task as his literary executrix in an extraordinary way.

And also for her role in the furtherance of Afrikaans.

It’s interesting to note that your publisher, Tafelberg, is also the publisher of Langenhoven’s work. You’ve added to the richness of the South African literary history in this way. Do you see it as closure of sorts?

In many ways yes, though in others it has opened other new conversations.

In this slice of a literary biography, you certainly wanted to dispel the unfavourable “Kannemeyer context” – his views that Sarah Goldblatt could claim no authentic place in Langenhoven’s life. Is it true to say that you wanted to ensure that her contribution be understood more fully? And that she be seen as a woman in her own right?

I never quite intended to write a biography, but it dawned on me that Sarah was a remarkable woman – and particularly of her time, when, in the 1920s and 1930s, South Africa was a hotbed of anti-Semitism.

She must have met Langenhoven in her early twenties, as when she took up her post at his Oudtshoorn newspaper in 1912, she was 23. He was 39 at the time and married to a widow, Vroutjie, ten years his senior, who had had six of her own children (though two had sadly died premature deaths as infants long before), and fairly quickly Sarah seemingly became very much part of the Langenhoven family. The “Chief”, as she called him, was equally enamoured of his “Sub”, his pet name for her. (In fact, Vroutjie even addressed her as “Our Sub”.)

Sarah and Langenhoven worked tirelessly together for the duration of the existence of the local newspaper Het Zuid-Westen, though she was also always interested in teaching and obviously had a love of language. When the newspaper closed, it was to the teaching profession that Sarah returned, although she continued to work on his manuscripts. She was widely recognised for the work she did in education.

But, more than that, Sarah was seemingly a woman ahead of her time, who had devoted herself to Langenhoven and his work. Unfortunately, Langenhoven’s biographer, JC Kannemeyer, while unable to ignore Sarah in that biography, unfairly dismisses the role she played in his life and her contribution to Afrikaans in general.

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