Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Twentieth Century)
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, and...
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Gordimer was born in Springs, an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg in the Transvaal region of South Africa, in 1923. Springs served as the setting of her first novel. The Lying Days (1953). Her father was a jeweler from Latvia and her mother was of British descent. Growing up, Gordimer was often sequestered indoors because her mother feared she had a weak heart. She spent some time in convent school where, she admits in an autobiographical essay "A Bolter and the Invincible Summer" (1963), she was a habitual truant.
In response to her confinement, Gordimer began writing at the age of nine. Her first published story was "The Quest for Seen Gold," which appeared in June of 1937 in the Johannesburg Sunday Express, Fortunately, she maintains, the publication of her work did not lead to the smothering that one sees with those considered "gifted." Instead she was left to her own devices and, thus, began a long career of writing about life in South Africa.
Her short stories were continually published in magazines until her first book came out in 1952. It was a collection of short stories titled The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952). Already, her technique was evident. Her writing had clarity, little emotion, and great control.
Gordimer lived through the system of Apartheid and fought to bring about its end. She was a member of the African National Congress (which was an illegal party until the 1980s), and she chose to stay in South Africa when many other writers and political dissidents left for school or safety in Europe and America. However, she was not a prominent dissident—like Ruth First—but she was a voice of protest. "I remain," she said, "a writer, not a public speaker: nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction." Still, many of her books were banned in South Africa from 1958 until 1991.
A prolific writer, Gordimer has written many essays on politics, censorship, writing, and other writers. Much of this work parallels her fictional work and taken together she has painted a damning picture of apartheid. She was a founding member of the Congress of South African Writers. She has won numerous awards for her writing, including the Booker prize, the Modern Literature Association Award, and the Bennett Award. Many universities have honored her with degrees and the French government gave her the decoration of Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. In 1991, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Currently, she lives in South Africa, is the Vice President of PEN (a worldwide organization of writers), a member of the Congress of South African Writers, and she continues to write.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Nadine Gordimer grew up a rebel. Both parents were immigrants to South Africa; her mother was English, her father an Eastern European Jew. In Springs, the gold-mining town near Johannesburg where she spent her early years, Gordimer frequently played hooky from her convent school. When she did attend, she would sometimes walk out. She found it difficult to tolerate all the pressures for conformity.
In the middle-class environment in which Gordimer grew up, a girl could aspire only to marry and rear a family. After leaving school and then working at a clerical job for a few years, she would be singled out as a prospective wife by a young man who had come from a family very much like her own, and from there, within months she would actualize the greatest dreams of young womanhood: She would have her engagement party, her linen shower, and her wedding ceremony, and she would bear her first child. None of these dreams would be served by a girl’s education; books, in perhaps leading her mind astray, would interfere with the years of her preparation for the mold.
At an early age, however, Gordimer did not fit the mold—she was an avid reader. By nine, she was already writing, and at fourteen she won a writing prize. Her favorite authors were Anton Chekhov, W. Somerset Maugham, Guy de Maupassant, D. H. Lawrence, and the Americans Katherine Anne Porter, O. Henry, and Eudora Welty. As she became a young woman, she became increasingly interested in politics and the plight of...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Nadine Gordimer spent her childhood in a gold-mining town near Johannesburg, South Africa. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, was a watchmaker, a Jew who had immigrated from a Baltic town to Africa when he was thirteen; her mother was born in England. In writing about her childhood, Gordimer has referred to herself as a “bolter.” She did not care for the convent school to which she was sent as a day student, and she frequently played hooky. When she did attend, she would sometimes walk out. The pressures of uniformity produced revulsion and rebellion in young Nadine. At eleven, Gordimer was kept home from school by her mother on the pretense of a heart ailment, and she received no formal schooling for about a year; for the next...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Nadine Gordimer (GAWR-duh-mur) was born in Springs, a small gold mining town in South Africa, on November 20, 1923. Her maternal grandfather emigrated from Europe to South Africa in the 1890’s in order to prospect for diamonds. Her Lithuanian-born Jewish father, who was also a part of the white colonial expansion in the early 1900’s, started out as a watch repairer for mine workers and eventually owned a jeweler’s shop. The circumstances of Gordimer’s white middle-class upbringing provoked her understanding of the racial stratification in South African society.
One of two daughters, Gordimer had little formal...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
In illuminating the horror and devastation of South African politics, Nadine Gordimer’s writings are brilliant expositions of the way that human lives endure in the face of adversity. Her writing about post-apartheid South Africa continues to deal with both the personal and the political as she treats topics relevant to a country struggling to make itself anew. As Stephen Clingman writes in his introduction to a collection of her essays, Gordimer is the interpreter par excellence of her country. Significantly, Gordimer has lived in South Africa all of her life and has accumulated a lifetime of observations and experiences that help her literature present life under apartheid and after it has been replaced with majority rule. For...
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IntroductionWhat does Nadine Gordimer have in common with James Frey? They have both been accused of fabricating parts of their life in order to sell books. Gordimer’s biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, claims that Gordimer’s essay “A South African Childhood” was not entirely autobiographical as it claimed to be. Nonetheless, Gordimer is renowned as an author and a major contributor to the anti-apartheid movement. Gordimer did grow up in South Africa and had many experiences that led to her eventual move to Johannesburg to write and work against apartheid. Many of her books were banned in South Africa, including The Late Bourgeois World, which is about her own experiences with government censorship. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 and continues to write and involve herself in political causes.
- Nadine Gordimer’s best friend, Bettie du Toit, was arrested in 1960. This was the catalyst for Gordimer to become so involved in anti-apartheid.
- Gordimer had a falling out with her biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, because of his depiction of her husband’s illness and death as well as his criticism of some of her political views.
- Gordimer began writing as a child because her mother often kept her home due to “strange reasons of her own.”
- She became close friends with Nelson Mandela and was one of the people he asked to see shortly after his 1990 release from prison.
- Gordimer testified at the 1986 Delmas treason trial and calls it the proudest day of her life.
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Nadine Gordimer (GAWR-duh-mur) established herself early in her career as a talented author of both short stories and novels that sensitively and subtly portray the complexities of life for blacks and whites in South Africa. Born to Isidore Gordimer, a jeweler, and Nan Myers Gordimer, Nadine had a comfortable childhood. She was educated in private schools, and she attended the University of Witwatersrand for one year. She married Gerald Gavron in 1949 and gave birth to a daughter, Oriane; the couple divorced in 1952. In 1954, Gordimer married Reinhold Cassirer, and together they had a son, Hugo.
Although Gordimer was...
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