Review – ‘Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”’: Prufrock, the Magazine

AiW Guest: Graham Riach.

Prufrock_coverThe first edition of new literary magazine Prufrock, which appeared in autumn this year, cuts quite a dash. The cover must be somewhere around a Pantone 2635c, I imagine, with a line drawing of J. Alfred’s notorious rolled trousers. Why do I know these things, or rather, why do I feel I have to let you know that I do? Because I want you to think that I am the sort of young man who can, as a quotation from Robert Littel on Prufrock’s tumblr puts it, ‘drive a car, speak French fluently, play the piano, set a broken leg, and make horses do [my] bidding’. In other words, I am trying to pull off the kind of sprezzatura performance Prufrock does so well, and which, by so laboriously explaining myself, I am now making a fine flop of.

Prufrock has some good writing in it, sometimes some very good writing, from remarkably big catches for a new magazine – Koos Kombuis and Etienne van Heerden in issue two? Be still, my beating heart! The production is polished, with an immediately recognisable design, and a layout that has become more adventurous, and, with it, better, from the first edition to the second. prufrock_komb1Publishing an excerpt from Kombuis’ bilious ‘unpublished one-sentence novel written in a fit of depression […] in the winter of 2012’ in tightly-packed, crotchety nine-point print was inspired. Hedley Twidle’s playfully Oulipian ‘N2’ is a psychogeographical ‘non-travelogue’, an ‘anti-travel guide’ to a highway, punctuated by textual lay-bys and pee-breaks, ludic digressions and meanders. Everything is printed on a sensuous, textured, off-white paper that provokes in me an urge to loiter and thumb, to mooch by the book-racks.


Georgia Mae Grundlingh (Issue 2, p. 16)

The magazine has so far published pieces in English, Afrikaans, and a ‘Zulu, Xhosa and Bhaca amalgam’ that remains, sadly, beyond my ken. The author, AbdulMalik Sibabalwe Oscar Masinyana, describes the piece as a Traumnovelle, or dream story, and it hovers at the intersection of history and ecology. There is both fiction and nonfiction, should such a distinction be thought useful when dealing with some of Prufrock’s more chameleon pieces, and photographs, imbued with an Instagram-filtered fuzz that well suits the magazine’s muted palette. There are adverts for small publishers, boutique clothes shops, web design companies, and a service offering something called ‘brand consultation and experience design’. There are ads for Equal Education and a print-on-demand service that offers to print books not only ‘cheaply’ and ‘quickly’, but also ‘legally’. Issue two even hosts an advertisement advertising advertising  – a kind of advertising mise-en-abime. Perhaps inevitably given such a context, issue one also features an advert for a Creative Writing course.

Jody Brand (issue 1, p. 49)

Jody Brand (issue 1, p. 49)

These adverts, and the magazine’s aesthetic more generally, suggest an achingly hip target market, for whom design is paramount, and whose literary coordinates might not be South African in the traditional sense, that is to say, deeply rooted in local politics. In an interview, editor Helen Sullivan gave a map of the constellations by which Prufrock steers: ‘The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, The Oxford American.’ No sign here of the more local and politically volatile Staffrider, Bolt, or Wurm. While Staffrider’s Mothobi Mutloatse wanted to ‘donder conventional literature’, to ‘pee, spit and shit on literary convention’[1], Prufrock’s attitude towards the venerable institutions of American and British magazine culture is altogether more respectful. This is not to say that politically aware writing is absent, rather it feels as if much of it has been passed through the same muting filter as the images. Anton Harber’s ‘The South African Problem’ is perhaps the most openly engaged piece, using the 1988 stand-off between Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee over the censorship of Salman Rushdie as a means to question the current Protection of State Information Bill – effectively a press gagging order. Also in issue one is a piece on young activists and artists in Gaza by Victoria Schneider, showing an international political engagement that the immediacies of apartheid-era South African politics tended to drown out. However, the majority of the writing in Prufrock is political only implicitly if at all, a state of affairs that will give some reason to celebrate, but will just as likely provoke the ire of others.

The magazine is perhaps attempting to find a space to talk about South African society in less engaged terms than was thought obligatory in the past, and is looking for a language in which to do so. The magazine’s title heralds what this language might look like – Prufrock is, of course, the protagonist of T.S. Eliot’s dyspeptic ‘Love Song’, and as Andrew van der Vlies has observed, South African literature’s ties with Eliot have a long history. He pops up in the most unusual places, from publishing Roy Campbell’s Adamastor to being intentionally misquoted for humorous effect in Zoë Wicomb’s ‘In Search of Tommie’ (in response to the poem’s august lines, TS, the story’s protagonist, retorts: ‘Only a moffie would worry about eating a peach’). Each time Eliot’s name appears in or near South African writing, his ‘brand’ serves as a code for the literary – Eliot™ grants a certain kudos, or as van der Vlies puts it, he acts as a ‘marker of authority and authenticity, of an ostensibly established literariness.’[2] By invoking Eliot in this way, Prufrock makes a bid for the literary high ground, a provocative act given South African writing’s long and complex relationship with the canon. Prufrock’s fresh approach and distinctive design are likely to draw a lot of attention, so it will be interesting to see which voices are allowed to occupy its platform in the future.

1. ^ Mothobi Mutloatse, Forced Landing: Writings from the Staffrider Generation (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1980), p. 5.
2. ^ Andrew van der Vlies, ‘Zoë Wicomb’s Queer Cosmopolitanisms’, Safundi, 12 (2011), 425–444, p. 428 <doi:10.1080/17533171.2011.586838>.


Photo_GRiachGraham Riach studied at the University of Glasgow before starting a Ph.D. at Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 2011 on the contemporary South African short story. He works as a translator of French and Japanese, and composes music for films.
Along with a number of fellow postgraduate students at the University of Cambridge, he is starting a blog dedicated to all things literary in South Africa. Watch this space:

_AiW_Prufrock logoThe first two issues are available at these places (South Africa), as well as selected Exclusive Books:
Gauteng’s Edition, Love Books, The Street, Wolves Café, Warm&Glad, The Western Cape’s Blank Books, Book Lounge, Clarke’s, Kalk Bay Books, and Rattlesnake books. KZN’s Factory Café, and Exclusive Books at the Pavillion & Gateway.
If you’re far from these places, visit and we’ll send you one in the mail.
Twitter handle: @prufrockmag
Facebook Page:

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1 reply

  1. this is good. please publish more articles like this.

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