Nadine Gordimer Essay - Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 7)

Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 7)

Gordimer, Nadine 1923–

Ms Gordimer is a South African novelist and short story writer. Her fiction inevitably touches on the political changes in her homeland. (See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and volumes 5, 10, 17, 18, 80 and 123.)

Nadine Gordimer has, among her many delicate strengths, three that [in discussing The Conservationist] prove especially apt: her sense of the language of others and of other languages; her sense of her own creative language; and her sense of her own and of others' sexuality. For the first, I'd cite the subtle and various comprehensions which she has of the relationships between English, Afrikaans, and the native languages of the Africans and the Indians—relationships that are sometimes political, sometimes merely politic, and sometimes constitute the irremovable relationships, family ones: "He and the people there greeted each other with 'brother,' 'sister,' 'mother,' 'uncle,' a grammar of intimacy that went with their language." The book is never unaware that it is written in one, only one, of the tongues which belong to its various people; yet it is never disablingly self-conscious about this, or afraid of paternalism or maternalism, since in mothering (and husbanding and lovering) its mother tongue it conveys a warm respect for the other mother tongues. (p. 14)

Christopher Ricks, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), June 26, 1975.

Nadine Gordimer's main character [in The Conservationist], Mehring, is no more in control of his environment than Slocum [of Joseph Heller's Something Happened], although he may appear in his own eyes to be so. However, he is very much in the control of his author whose response, as a novelist, to the tensions, to the perhaps impending chaos of South African society, results in an extremely structured novel. One can sympathise with both writers' response to the ever-increasing problems of technological societies which seem to be increasingly stratified and ever nearer disintegration, but Miss Gordimer's creation of a structure which takes into account the tensions of a society and its possible disintegration seems to me to produce a better work of art than does Mr. Heller's method…. Of course, one might then consider whether Miss Gordimer's novel, with its aesthetically satisfying patterns, alleviates the tensions which might have provoked a person to act, whether individually or collectively, to alter the conditions which are, both morally and practically, reprehensible. (p. 68)

If Mehring treats women like objects, he calculates his behaviour with everyone, classifying and labelling. His mistress is one of a "set," one of a "kind," her "kind" being the intellectuals who held radical or at least liberal ideas, particularly about the exploitation of the black South African. The murdered man found on Mehring's farm at the beginning of the novel is "One of them." In this case, "them" are the blacks. His neighbours, the full-time farmers, he thinks of as "the locals," "these Boers." "Palm-greasers" is his epithet for the Indian shop keepers with their "coolie money." Mehring uses the labels and assists in their conservation but everyone in his society knows of their existence and, in the novel, though there is grumbling, there is no active resistance to the act of classification or to having been classified. The Conservationist is a carefully contrived novel, and the word "contrived" is not meant here to be pejorative, although one might resent. Mehring's (violent) death having been plotted from the beginning rather than appearing to grow organically from the structure of the work. Patterns of imagery, laden with significance and dread, recur continually. Thus we frequently come upon dirt or earth, the mouth, pits or holes. At my school we would have been taught to call [such] writing … "symbolic" or, at the least, an example of "foreshadowing"…. (p. 69)

Indeed, one might say that [Nadine Gordimer's] reaction to chaos lies in the act of strict patterning—so strict that her characters do not appear able to choose. To adopt such a form is to resist disorder and The Conservationist is a complete, carefully thought out and well executed book. I did feel, however, deprived of a sense of process. (p. 70)

Elaine Glover, in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 16, No. 3, 1975.

Nadine Gordimer … makes [the protagonist of The Conservationist] a human and nuanced advocate of the very thing her ten previous books opposed: the white-supremacist policy of apartheid.

Mehring purchases his farm as a tax write-off, but it gradually grows on him—and on the reader. Soon the African earth and its plowman conspire to give the novel its center and its soul. The lyricism cannot last. Mehring cracks up principally because the author must punish the undertow of racism that tugs at all his small virtues. To bring about the denouement, Gordimer resorts to a trick best relegated to gothic potboilers: the corpse that will not stay put. The body of a black man, apparently murdered, appears on Mehring's land. He has it buried. A flood brings it up again. The constant resurrection shatters the farmer. As the book ends, Mehring comes to understand that he can never possess the property that the blacks truly own and he can only occupy.

If this resolution rings false, its tone is almost drowned out by the intricate music of Gordimer's prose. Neither separatists nor liberal South African whites are likely to thank her for The Conservationist and its wholly believable "hero." Yet the cursed enchanted land she describes will probably never receive attention more skilled or loving. (p. 61)

Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), July 7, 1975.

Nadine Gordimer chose two epigraphs for her third novel, Occasion for Loving. The first was by Boris Pasternak and gave the work its title: "We have all become people according to the measure in which we have loved people and have had occasion for loving." The second was by Thomas Mann: "In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms." The quotations were well suited to the novel that followed, a work set in Gordimer's South African homeland and concerned with matters of choice—from the most routine domestic problems to the more complex demands of public morality and conscience. But the Pasternak and Mann quotes could well preface any of Gordimer's novels.

Her fourth, novella-length work, The Late Bourgeois World, was about misplaced love, the failure of a marriage and the sour taste left of spoiled youthful idealism…. The novel works by Gordimer's basic technique: a private life, the pull of memory and politics overlap….

For her next novel, A Guest of Honor (a truly major work that would have been acclaimed as such if more widely reviewed), Gordimer focused upon not a failed idealist but an honest man who is misled…. Here Gordimer reexamined the potent theme of the land. The epigraph from Turgenev ("An honourable man will end up by not knowing where to live") underscores this point, as does the novel's title that, like Frank O'Connor's "Guests of the Nation," is used ironically. James Bray [the protagonist] must make a choice; he must decide not only where his priorities lie but what those priorities might be.

The title of … The Conservationist is also used ironically. Mehring is different from other Gordimer "protagonists" in that all his choices have been made long before we meet him. And he is by no means an idealist; if a tag is needed, he is a sensualist, out to conserve a life style based on easy conquest in business and sex….

Gordimer neatly ties the image of the land to her sensual and political themes, for Mehring is defined by how he has "loved" people—and things. They are indistinguishable in his mind. (p. 29)

The South Africa of The Conservationist is an hallucinatory landscape. Gordimer's technique distorts the truth only slightly—like the photo on the dust jacket. This brief bit of African terrain seems to have been shot through a fish eye lense; thus the flat-topped tree at the center appears distorted, but only slightly. It is now both ominous and elegant; in fact, from a distance it looks like a small mushroom cloud. Gordimer, by paring down the landscape to the bare essentials (as if creating a stage set for a modern morality play), has made the land the most compelling character in the novel, the true hero. It lives on, denying Mehring, the sexual colonist, his last six feet of the country. (p. 30)

Robert Leiter, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), September 13, 1975.

For over 30 years [Nadine Gordimer's] novels and short stories have flowed steadily from the darkest tip of the dark continent, apparently fearless, her attitude a unique blend of irony, compassion and disgust. The stories in ["Selected Stories"] were written between the ages of 20 and 50, and have been selected by Gordimer herself to show her development as a writer; but that is not all they show. A society, too, can age and sharpen and grow less amenable over 30 years….

The 31 stories in the collection are taken from five books, and my own favorites are those that show Gordimer at her most receptive, wry and sunny, with a trained eye for the natural beauty of land, and water and an impartial ear for complaint, wherever it comes from—stories from the active, mature years, perhaps, in the middle of that 30-year marathon. During this time even her impatience with "dogooders," white liberal benefactors, is tempered with affection….

"Which New Era Would That Be?"… seems to me the most successful of them all…. In relatively few pages this story crystalizes a vast, seemingly unmanageable conflict, reducing it in size, if not in stature, to the insoluble problem of human inability to communicate. Because it seems insoluble, it still seems hopeless; but Gordimer's sympathies here are so alive, her reactions so sharp, her aim so accurate on every target, that one feels exhilarated by new and significant knowledge….

Not a didactic writer, like Solzhenitsyn or Doris Lessing, Gordimer stays at home and writes about what she sees and hears and feels. The middle-class suburbs, the seaside resorts and vacations in the country, the teen-age mores, the conflicts of sex and background would be much the same as in any other WASP community if it weren't for the one thing that makes Gordimer stand out above her contemporaries—South Africa, her context and her content. Without this, she would probably belong in the ranks of those sensitive, perceptive writers of limited experience and no more than adequate talent. There is no point in trying to disassociate her work from the sorrow and the pity, the pain and the bitterness, that is her bonus for the life she has chosen to live and write about; there is no disguising the fact that one's admiration is greater for the act of writing than it is for the writing itself. Nevertheless, the plain, informative style—only very rarely touching the sublime, but only occasionally lapsing into the ridiculous—serves her material well. A more poetic or stylistically perfect prose might, against the enormity of her subject, seem almost indecent. (p. 7)

Penelope Mortimer, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 18, 1976.

["Selected Stories" is] marked by the courage of moral vision and the beauty of artistic complexity. Gordimer examines, with passionate precision, the intricacies both of individual lives and of the wide-ranging political and historical forces that contain them. She can move from a melancholy portrait of a stolid hotel owner's guilty discovery of sexual pleasures in the wake of her husband's gruesome death, to an incisive study of the layers of unwitting hypocrisy and self-deception that taint the best attempts by whites and blacks to thwart apartheid. And while her eye and ear for the conversations and conventions of social intercourse are first rate, she is deeply aware of—and can evoke in startling, sinewy language—the silent, natural world of animals and landscape, whose unmeasured time and space can reduce human beings to insignificance.

The stories are arranged in a chronological order that reveals both her personal and artistic development. The effect is like watching, over 30 years, the completion of a painting: first the sharp, compelling outlines, then the addition of depth, texture and chiaroscuro and, finally, the emergence of the whole. (p. 91)

Margo Jefferson, in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), April 19, 1976.

[Nadine Gordimer has never] been experimental in the current sense of that term. [Her] surroundings are exotic enough without that. At this stage a radically experimental book … would seem as surprising as coming upon a high rise along a river bank in the old Africa or India. But the landscapes have changed, the independence movements have gone forward, and the novel and short story have remained flexible enough to record these changes even when [she has] chosen not to explore fiction's conventions any further.

The solitariness of [her] situation, caught between cultures, old and new, native and imported, could easily be a stressful situation, but [she has] mustered the wit not to be done in. In her introduction [to Selected Stories] Gordimer talks with no special intensity about her childhood isolation as part of a minority group in a mining town and later as a woman-intellectual and writer. For her cultural isolation is possibly no more than another version of an inevitable predicament….

The tradition of a writer's solitariness has served Gordimer well in dealing with the other given of her scene, the continuing problems of colonial rule and racial injustice in South Africa. Only in a few stories does she seem too explicit in her themes. She has not herself become what she once called in a lecture a "testifier," someone with writing ambitions whose awareness of injustice is his only talent. Analyzing her work she seems especially sharp on the virtues and ambiguity of detachment: "Powers of observation heightened beyond the normal imply extraordinary disinvolvement; or rather the double process, excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others, and at the same time a monstrous detachment." Now we can see what those formulas for creating lifelike characters amount to: as good a projection into the feelings of others as we are likely to get, proven here under very difficult conditions. It is with the ironies of fiction that Gordimer deals with racial attitudes…. Colonialism would appear to have brought to African fiction the sense of irony necessary to reveal itself….

Gordimer has been much praised for the excellence of her visual detail and rightly so. She considers herself an African writer and complains about the difficulty of modeling one's fiction after English literature where Christmas is not even in the same season. So she brings us the new imagery of an African sunset when the "lid of the horizon closed on the bloody eye of the sun," but in another way we have all been instructed by that other fiction so that one woman is seen as wearing a "downy sweater like a newly-hatched chick" and a fat woman is described with Dickensian extravagance as looking "like a pudding that had risen too high and run down the sides of the dish." (p. 149)

Fiction as a vehicle for social comedy is sometimes used to show off cocktail parties and other gatherings where blacks and liberal whites meet but do not understand. In other stories, it is the private sorrows that are most insisted upon…. The pieces that might well seem most impressive to outsiders from another climate are those where the single lives are set against the jungle landscape. The best example and certainly an exceptional story is "Livingstone's Companions." A reporter is assigned to retrace the steps of the famous expedition. He gets lost and finds himself at a lakeside resort. He has a copy of Livingstone's diary with him, and it is this most typical of English assumptions, the bringing of literature into the tropics and the belief in the written interpretation of experience, that gives the story its resonance. (pp. 149-50)

Eugene Chesnick, in The Nation (copyright 1976 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), August 28, 1976.