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Prof Catherine du Toit looks at climate change through lens of crime fiction
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing/Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking
Published: 22/05/2024

​Prof Catherine du Toit from the Department of Modern Foreign Languages in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Stellenbosch University delivered her inaugural lecture on Tuesday, 21 May 2024. The title of her lecture was “Crime Fiction in a period of consequence. Climate change and the limits/limitations of literature".

Du Toit spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about her interest in crime fiction and how she studies different themes, especially climate change, in French and English crime fiction novels.

Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.

When it comes to determining research subjects, we enjoy great freedom. The years I spent researching the works and the long life of Henri Pierre Roché, took me down many different avenues in culture, the history of ideas and literature in the 20th century. With my work on Michel Houellebecq, I explored the extrème contemporain in French literature and the darkness of contemporary individualism and materialism. Alain Resnais opened new perspectives on cinema, time, memory and forgetting.

Apart from this kind of research on specific authors, I learned that I could harness research to the need for a deeper knowledge of things that scared, bothered or intrigued me. This led to research about the literary expressions of ageing and dementia in literature of the 21st century, animal studies, the mystery of the female orgasm, and various topics involving crime fiction.

I've always enjoyed reading crime fiction. As the popularity of the genre exploded in Africa some decades ago, I decided it would be worth investigating how one could bridge the linguistic divide by studying themes in francophone and anglophone crime fiction novels. The scholarly study of crime fiction was still relatively new when I embarked on this branch of research. Today, I no longer need to justify this interest. It is no longer regarded as a questionable sub-genre, written according to a formula and read only for the purpose of entertainment. Critical works on crime fiction now abound, and a number of academic journals are dedicated to the genre.

Among the themes studied in my earlier work, I included the conflict in African crime fiction as it reflects the reality of the postcolonial situation: the tension that exists between a pragmatic adherence to a legal system largely inherited from the colonial regimes and adapted to a greater or lesser extent and the preservation of secular traditions that involve their own hierarchy, belief systems and perceptions of justice that are not necessarily shared by all generations or groups.

I consider climate change the single most important challenge that faces humankind today. This concern, too, is anchored in a long history – with some genetic predispositions. Earlier this year, in an interview for Maties FM, journalist Susan Booyens commented that she remembered my environmental concerns from a school camp where I campaigned against aerosol deodorants.

But the history goes back even further. In 1913, my paternal grandfather published a pioneering work on “Dry-farming" in which he advocated for reasoned agricultural practices that would take into account limited and uncertain water resources, soil conservation and the planting of indigenous grains and vegetation. As a child, I learned the true value of water from my maternal grandparents on their farm in the Boesmanland. My mother was seven when she saw rain for the first time. She was extremely upset with whoever was wasting such a lot of water. This image shows my grandfather digging to determine the penetration depth of a rare summer rainfall.

These personal narratives may explain why I was particularly receptive, from an early age to the idea that we, as humans, are accountable for our stewardship of the Earth. In the early 1980s, astrophysicist Carl Sagan's television series Cosmos was a clear revelation to me of perspective.

How would you describe the relevance of your work?

As I teach French as a foreign language to students and delve with them into texts that they may, at first, experience as an impenetrable and confusing forest, I hope to guide them in an understanding of what language is and of the sharp skills required to unlock all the meaning of a literary text. If they can master these skills, they can interpret any text, be it literary, legal, philosophical, political, or even scientific.

Between what I learned and what I teach about thinking for oneself, language and the broader values of literature, I know that my work can contribute to the invisible but essential backbone that the human sciences constitute in any society.

Your connection with the French language goes back many decades. How has your fascination with it evolved over the years?

French has long been a language entwined with my thinking and feeling, on the same level as my mother tongue, Afrikaans, and my second language, English. The aspect of French that will probably continue to fascinate me until the end of my life is its grammar, the thinking that gave shape to all its many rules and exceptions.

You also have a passion for literary translation. What fascinates you about translation?

I have been called a compulsive translator. When I translate a text and happen upon exactly the right words and rhythm, a kind of union occurs that brings great satisfaction and reveals the text in a specific light.

You have spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you motivated when things get tough?

Higher education is made complicated and challenging by unnecessary bureaucratisation and a dangerous erosion of the pursuit of knowledge, which should be its core function. This is unsettling and disheartening. I am motivated by students who are keen to learn and who are passionate about … anything!

What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

Although I enjoy research, it sometimes feels like a personal indulgence. I really enjoy teaching, particularly the tremendous growth one sees at the end of the first year's intensive French module.

Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.

I play the violin and the guitar. I am quite a skilled woodworker who admires Japanese joints. I have completed all eight graded examinations in Spanish Dance, received prizes for drama and theatre, and still perform on stage at literary festivals.

My favourite words in English are glean, irk, kith, chortle, serendipity, lackadaisical, lily-livered, dwindle, dun, kerfuffle and gobbledygook. My favourite words in French are écarteler, ronronner, péripatéticienne, prestidigitateur, crépuscule, onirique, clapotis, succulent, crépiter.

My favourite words in Afrikaans are gabbatjie, splyt, onuitgesproke versugtinge, iesegrimmig, pagoed, kasaterwater, vaartboggel and bliksem.

My favourite wine is Silex (Didier Dagueneau). I dislike having a summer birthday, hypocrisy, the lack of moral backbone, rudeness, bling, feeling naafi, bad bureaucracy and litterbugs.

I miss my father's voice, spring, drive-in theatres, feeling safe and climbing trees.

How do you spend your free time?

I love travelling, watching anime with my children, listening to clever people, looking for satellites at night, supervising passionate students, and being in archives surrounded by old documents.

  • Photo by Ignus Dreyer (Stellenbosch Centre for Photographic Services)