Article abstract: Through her writings, Gordimer has illuminated the troubled history of South Africa with unparalleled clarity, sensitivity, honesty, and art.
Nadine Gordimer’s father was an impoverished watchmaker who emigrated from Lithuania to Springs, a small mining town on the East Rand about thirty miles from Johannesburg, South Africa, shortly before the Boer War. Her mother was born and grew up in London. Although both parents were Jewish, Gordimer and her only sibling, an elder sister, were sent to a local convent school run by Dominican nuns; the family had little involvement with the local Jewish community. Her father benefited from the increasing prosperity of the town and became proprietor of a jewelry store, thus securing a middle-class living for his family. Gordimer’s father had no interest in civic affairs, but her mother took an active role in the community, particularly associating with the Scots Presbyterians. In an essay recalling her childhood, Gordimer describes the strange landscape of the East Rand, the richest gold-mining region in the world. It is a bleak and eerie scene with its man-made mountains of waste material, cyanide sand hills, and smoldering coal dust dumps. The town was equally barren, causing Gordimer to observe: “We children simply took it for granted that beauty—hills, trees, buildings of elegance—was not a thing to be expected of ordinary, everyday life.”
Not only was Gordimer’s environment strange but also her childhood was unusual. Between ages eleven and sixteen she was kept out of school and from participation in normal activities by her mother, who became convinced that Gordimer had a serious heart condition, a condition that Gordimer subsequently learned was a very minor ailment. Although she was sent to a tutor for three hours a day, her contacts with others her own age were severed. Her sister went away to the university which left Gordimer as constant companion of her parents, particularly of her mother, who took Gordimer with her everywhere. Socializing only with adults in a world of tea parties and trivia, Gordimer became, as she said, “a little old woman.” In her isolation and loneliness, she retreated into herself, read voraciously, and thereby discovered an alternative world more to her liking—the world of ideas.
Although Gordimer attended the university for one year at age twenty-one, she largely educated herself. Through her early and as she acknowledges indiscriminate reading (devouring children’s books and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621, with equal enjoyment), she prepared herself to be a writer. Perhaps Gordimer would have become a writer even without her unusual childhood; her interest in reading and writing predated her illness; in fact, she wrote her first poem at age nine. There is little doubt, however, that her enforced isolation accelerated the process. At age thirteen, she began writing for the children’s page of the Johannesburg Sunday Express. At fifteen, she published her first short story in The Forum, a South African journal. In 1949, her first volume of short stories, Face to Face, was published in South Africa. The following year, she began publishing stories in The New Yorker, and soon thereafter her writing began appearing in other American journals, such as Virginia Quarterly Review and the Yale Review. Her first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. By that time, she had married, was divorced, and had an eighteen-month-old baby to support.
Her early short stories, those written before 1953, focus on the daily lives of the poor white class and show little political consciousness. In fact, Gordimer acknowledges that her full awareness of black Africans and their paradoxical position in their own country (particularly after the Afrikaner Nationalist government assumed power in 1948 and instituted its repressive apartheid laws) developed with incredible slowness. Perhaps this is unsurprising considering the life she led among white middle-class colonials, whose very existence depended on the pretense that blacks do not exist, except as a permanent underclass of servants and laborers. Yet, the politics of South Africa, particularly its apartheid and censorship laws, became the central concern of her writing and of her life. Her writing constitutes a merciless scrutiny of that society and of her own developing consciousness and role within that society.
During her year at the University of Witwatersrand, Gordimer met for the first time white people (writers, painters, and actors) who defied the color bar and associated with blacks. This was the beginning of her political education, although she was still not interested in politics. Her attitude at this time was humanistic, individualistic,...
(The entire section is 2010 words.)