In many ways, Konstantin’s wide-ranging global imagination, a central part of his life and work, came from his culturally rich and diverse family. His paternal grandfather, Chrysostomos Sofianos, was a self-taught intellectual, poet and translator who could read and write in 8 languages, and who edited the political section of a major Greek newspaper in Kairo, Egypt, before and during the Second World War.
Konstantin’s father, Alkeos Sofianos, came from a family of academics – his cousin was the Minister of Education in Cyprus. Another cousin was a highly-decorated professor for Nuclear Physics at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Marina Sofianos, née Ramisch, Konstantin’s mother, was born in Potsdam, then in East Germany, and met Alkeos while they were both studying at the Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg, he on a scholarship to pursue chemical engineering, she to become an industrial pharmacist.
Marina and her family’s experience of living in East Germany, where her parents, who became refugees after the evacuation of Bohemia and East Prussia by the Germans in 1945, lived for the entirety of the existence of that country, made up an important part of Konstantin’s political and social consciousness. During intensive discussions with his maternal grandfather, he gained close knowledge of what socialism and the Cold War meant for many people living in the Eastern part of Germany.
Alkeos and Marina married in East Germany and lived in Halle (Saale) for several years, before moving to Cyprus in 1979, shortly after the birth of their first son, Markus. Their second son, Konstantin Sofianos, was born on 25 June 1983 in Limassol, Cyprus. Three years later, Alkeos was recruited by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to join the world-famous Catalysis research group, and in June 1986, against the advice of family and friends, the Sofianos family moved to Pretoria, South Africa.
Konstantin’s parents decided to give him a German education, and enrolled him in the Deutsche Schule Pretoria (DSP), where he spent his schooling life from the first grade to Matric.
Founded in 1899, the Deutsche Schule Pretoria is a German and English-medium co-educational school situated in park-like premises on the eastern boundary of Pretoria. In addition to the two official languages at the time, German was taught at the level of mother tongue and every year a number of new teachers came from Germany, many with new ideas and progressive ways of tutoring.
After Matric, Konstantin spent an additional year at DSP, in order to complete the German Abitur before entering university. As those who knew him well might have guessed, Konstantin was a brilliant, but also a headstrong and fiercely independent pupil. He entered Grade 1 already being able to read, write and do maths, and the school soon asked his parents to move him a year ahead, since he was growing bored with the material, and, according to his teachers, “his ability to finish tests within minutes discouraged his class mates”. Consequently, Konstantin was always a year younger than his school peers, but he didn’t let this stop him. He became captain of the soccer team, wrote for the class magazine, participated on behalf of the school at university debates, and in his last years at school he was the Schulsprecher, equivalent to Head Boy in English schools.
As might be expected, Konstantin was particularly good at the study of languages. Here, his rich multi-linguistic background was a great help: his mother learnt Greek while living in Cyprus, so Konstantin grew up in a house where German, Greek and English were spoken languages. His Cypriot grandmother lived with the family in Meyerspark until she died in 1996. At school Konstantin also learnt French and Afrikaans, a language with which he fell in love with as a teenager. Konstantin’s knowledge and deep understanding of Afrikaans literature and music was highly impressive. The young Konstantin spent all of his pocket money on books, and was greatly influenced by his older brother, Markus, with whom he was always very close, and who guided him carefully in his cultural education.
Konstantin soon decided that the humanities were, to him, the most important field of learning. Towards the end of his school career, the school director called him in to admonish him for neglecting his mathematical studies. Konstantin replied that “Maths is only an intellectual game; what counts is literature, history, and the use of language.” The director, who was himself a mathematics teacher, was not impressed by this statement, but once again Konstantin did not let himself be stopped: at the end of Matric he received the school medals for best scholar of German, English and Afrikaans, as well as various other awards for language studies.
As a German citizen, Konstantin had the option of studying at a German university upon completing school, following the example of his brother, who after Abitur left for Heidelberg, Germany. However, he had by now grown deeply attached to South Africa, and he decided to study law and humanities at UCT.
In the words of his father, Konstantin saw “the law as a profession which would allow him to help his fellow human beings of South Africa, not as a means to become rich”. During his undergraduate career, Konstantin performed brilliantly in his humanities subjects, winning the Thelma Tyfield prize for a prescient essay on the imagery of excrement in Ayi Kwei Armah’s novel The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born. However, Konstantin was becoming bored with some of his law subjects, and upon graduation he decided that South Africa did not need yet another civil rights attorney. With his usual facility for long-term planning, Konstantin decided that he would do an English Literature Honours so that he could qualify for a Rhodes Trust scholarship to study English at Oxford. His performance as an English Honours student was impressive, and his UCT lecturers remember him as an “outrageously brilliant”, sometimes intimidatingly advanced and erudite student. He was duly awarded a Rhodes scholarship, for a total of 3 years and left South Africa to study at the University of Oxford in 2006.
Wadham College, which Konstantin attended, is known for being the most politically progressive of the Oxford colleges. Konstantin’s research at Oxford was informed by a sophisticated understanding of the historical world system of capitalism and imperialism which determined his place and responsibilities as a South African literary scholar.
He completed his Master’s degree in Victorian Literature in 2007, once again with the highest marks in his class, and immediately began his doctoral studies under supervision of Dr Stefano Evangelista and Professor Elleke Boehmer. His DPhil dissertation, provisionally entitled The Novel In the Imperial World System, considered Victorian cultural production, particularly the novels of George Eliot, Olive Schreiner, and Joseph Conrad, as part of a British-centred global economic system, and considered the artistic challenges which these novelists faced in their attempts to “meaningfully engage the encompassing reality of an imperial world system.” His dissertation was duly defended and confirmed, in 2010, but his illness prevented the final submission. During his time at Oxford, Konstantin also participated in several conferences and seminars, and made many life-long friends, particularly amongst his group of peers who had also received the Rhodes scholarship.
Konstantin returned to South Africa in 2010 to take up a teaching position at the University of Cape Town’s English Department. The English Department had advertised five positions; however, Paula Ensor, then Dean of Humanities, was so impressed with Konstantin’s range and depth of knowledge, and with his professionalism during the interview, that she insisted that the department hire six lecturers instead of five to make space for Konstantin.
He was duly appointed as a Junior Research Fellow. He did not disappoint in his capacity as a teacher. On the contrary: according to the testimony of a number of his post graduate students, whom he supported all the way until they obtained scholarships for Oxford and Cambridge and beyond, he was a brilliant lecturer, an excellent supervisor and an intellectual friend and supporter.
During his years as a staff member at UCT, he lectured and taught seminars on a wide variety of subjects, from Victorian novels to modernist aesthetic experimentation to contemporary African-American culture.
At UCT Konstantin met his partner Christine Emmett in 2012. She was tutoring one of the novels Konstantin was teaching (Adam Bede, by George Eliot). Many common interests besides English Literature saw them spending more and more time together.
During this time of teaching at UCT he also published widely in the South African media, particularly in Chimurenga and the Sunday Independent, for which he wrote both glowing reviews of novels and scathing indictments of the weaker aspects of the local literary landscape. However, his self-defined work as a “literary civil servant” was not confined to his teaching and writing; his gift for fascinating conversation, his thoroughgoing knowledge of philosophy, contemporary politics and literature, and his deep commitment to teaching was a great inspiration to all of his students and colleagues.
In keeping with the rest of his rich and itinerant life, Konstantin’s last major scholarly talk was delivered in Johannesburg in October 2013, at a commemorative event organised by the Greek Embassy to mark the 150 year anniversary of the birth of the great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. Konstantin delivered the main speech of the event, alongside advocate George Bizos, the poet Achmat Dangor and the great South African actor and director John Kani – a fitting return to his roots, speaking amongst other great thinkers from Africa, Greece, and further abroad.
Shortly thereafter, Konstantin was diagnosed with testicular cancer (late 2013). Despite undergoing a succession of treatments in South Africa, lasting for nearly a year, there was aggressive progression of the disease. After the South African treating doctors informed him that he cannot be treated in South Africa any more, he left for Germany, where, after an unsuccessful operation at Heidelberg, he stayed with his brother’s family in Stuttgart from September 2014, where his treatment was continued. Due to a constant progression of the cancer despite some partly successful treatments, he moved to a specialist clinic in Hamburg, where he passed away on the 17th of April 2015 in Hamburg. His family and Christine were present right until the end. It was his express wish to be buried in South Africa, because South Africa was his home, the place he was most intellectually, emotionally and socially invested in, and finally the place where he felt he belonged. He was buried in Zandfontein Cemetery in Pretoria, close to his grandmother.