Nadine Gordimer Essay - Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 5)

Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 5)

Gordimer, Nadine 1923–

Ms Gordimer, a South African novelist and short story writer, works at the center of the emerging South African literary tradition. She has said that, in South Africa, "society is the political situation"; hence, her fiction continues to explore the immorality of apartheid and other, often political, aspects of contemporary life in an uneasy multi-racial society. (See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and volumes 7, 10, 17, 18, 80 and 123.)

Far and away the best thing in A Guest of Honour is the description of Africa. It is a wonderfully rich description, drawing on a fine feeling both for nature and history, and an exceptional knowledge of individual African character…. [The] note of authentic observation runs everywhere through the book.

Yet this is not a novel like, say, Conrad's Nostromo, passing on to us the personal experiences of a representative group of inhabitants of an unstable country, and allowing us to draw our own conclusions about them, and their nation's plight. It is not even the account of one man's private experience of Africa. Bray, without actually telling the story in the first person, is a kind of attendant mind throughout the book until he dies. But Bray's train of thought is frequently commandeered by a sort of pirate voice. As a responsive person in a specific setting, at those times he fades away, and we get pages of informative and argumentative summary of the historical and political situation. They are supposed to be Bray's reflections, but they carry little fictive conviction. What it amounts to is that deeply enmeshed in the book is a long, straight article by Miss Gordimer herself about African affairs. It has a case to make—the case, in brief, for African socialism—but it has little in common with the oblique and uninsistent processes of fiction. And it needs to be tested by reference to the facts about real African countries, and exposed to debate in terms of political principle and economic theory, in a way it is sheltered from in this guise.

The novel, as a novel, is gravely limited by this fact. And Bray, as a character, suffers particularly badly from his liability to disappear from the scene like this. But it is not his only difficulty. In so far as he does in fact draw conclusions and make decisions he is accorded a respect, even a kind of reverence, by Miss Gordimer that makes it equally hard to see him clearly as a person. (pp. 66-7)

Derwent May, in Encounter (© 1971 by Encounter Ltd.), August, 1971.

The Conservationist is a tremendous imaginative stock-taking of Mehring [the protagonist] and his estate; and to write the book Miss Gordimer has had to reconstruct, piece by piece, a sensibility, even a historical consciousness, quite alien from her own. She has taken on Mehring's contemptuous, powerful sexuality and has felt the world through the stirrings of his genitals as well as simply watched it through his eyes. On this level alone, there has been no novel with which to compare it since Angus Wilson's The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot. She writes about being a man with more curiosity, passion and intelligence than any man could bring to the subject. But this sexual transposition is only the springboard for an amazing and dangerous dive into the mirrorlike otherness of Africa. As a liberal herself (it wasn't by accident that the title of that brilliant short novel, The Late Bourgeois World, came from Ernst Fischer's The Necessity of Art) she has entered imaginatively into the state of mind which takes apartheid for granted as a moral good. As a white, she has adopted the resigned, bovine perspectives of Mehring's "boys," their wives and children—people who are as much part of Mehring himself as his other goods and chattels. As a writer, she has created a rich prose—not a satiric idiom—for a mind accustomed to thinking of any kind of art or extended introspection as being a poor substitute for the material blessings of life.

This prose is her triumph; but it comes close to being her undoing too. The main drive of the writing through the book is its acquisitiveness; it sucks in details like a Hoover. A field, a farmyard, a room, a desert, a continent … everything is appropriated as soon as looked at. Nor is it the style of an inventory. It is a luscious, crowded prose, rhythmical and rich in metaphor. (p. 81)

The extraordinary thing is that Mehring is so complete and powerful a fictional character that he survives all of Miss Gordimer's efforts to trip him up. He only stops his prose when his brains are blown out. And he, not Miss Gordimer, finally dominates the novel. We are supposed to respond to the tragicomedy of his arrogant attempt to own Africa; as it is, we just watch him owning it as confidently as any 18th-century squire. His affairs turn into tolerable peccadillos; his racial attitudes are easily ascribable to customs of the country. When I came to the end of the book, at once puzzled and wholly persuaded, I wondered if Miss Gordimer felt like Frankenstein. (p. 82)

Jonathan Raban, in Encounter (© 1975 by Encounter Ltd.), February, 1975.

More than Doris Lessing, a fellow South African who is a bit too much of an English yenta for my taste, and even more than Alan Paton, who has been rather quiescent of late, Nadine Gordimer has become, in the whole solid body of her work, the literary voice and conscience of her society—and how I wish I could say this about any contemporary American novelist. In the sense of being a completely South African writer and insisting on remaining there, Ms. Gordimer is a "regionalist." But her region is really the whole Third World, to which she has increasingly dedicated her literary work….

As in all of Ms. Gordimer's works, the farm's blacks [in The Conservationist] are described beautifully. She has a fine grasp of the language they speak—both among themselves and to their masters. She knows their customs, habits, superstitions, holiday ceremonials, and tribal rituals. And she sees right through the deceptive masks they wear for their dealings with the whites and even with the Indian settlers in South Africa: All this is no mean achievement for the sheltered South African English girl of good family that Nadine Gordimer was at the outset of her career…. Beside the blacks' tribal and communal richness, which is never sentimentalized or patronized in Gordimer's work, the whites of the chronicle emerge as very pale and alienated individuals indeed. (p. 24)

I am not suggesting that any white South African writer can really penetrate the black African consciousness. For that we may have to await the native black artists of that continent, who are historically about to emerge and tell their story. But what Nadine Gordimer brilliantly here describes once again is a terrified white consciousness in the midst of a mysterious and ominous sea of black humanity….

As things stand, Nadine Gordimer is one of the very few links between white and black in South Africa. She is a bearer of culture in a barbaric society. And she is a luminous symbol of at least one white person's understanding of the black man's burden. (p. 25)

Maxwell Geismar, "Black Man's Burden," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 8, 1975, pp. 24-5.

It seems a naïve kind of compliment: to say of a novel that nothing in it is wasted, that its episodes, images and phrases reverberate throughout the length of its narrative and by repetition gain significance. Is this not the condition to which all novels should aspire? And yet most of them, even the best, are ragged things. Many novelists distrust perfection of craftsmanship, as if it in some way inhibits vitality and inspiration. "The Conservationist" is above all taut and careful; complex and thickly textured, it is the kind of novel that delights critics and English professors (failed white hunters, all), who will chase with excited yelps its spoor of themes and symbols. (p. 74)

With economy and skill, Nadine Gordimer develops her story's physical and moral landscapes simultaneously. Her narrative advances by means of interior monologues interrupted by dialogue, by remembered conversations poking through present perceptions, by imagined scenes and confrontations. Symbols germinate and multiply….

This is an excellent novel that forces its own slow pace upon the reader; it rewards—indeed, to appreciate all that it offers, it requires—a second reading. (p. 75)

Peter S. Prescott, "Down in the Dirt," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 10, 1975, pp. 74-5.

Nothing in Nadine Gordimer's earlier work—five admirable novels and five volumes of short stories dealing mainly with her native South Africa—prepared me for the incredible power, the intellectual and poetic authority of The Conservationist…. To be sure, she has always written with genuinely unhortatory intelligence about the harsh dislocations and indignities of apartheid, which taints every South African with its moral squalor. Yet The Conservationist is not simply Miss Gordimer's finest novel by far, it is a book intricately different in kind from what she has done before; the realities of power and oppression emerge in a new way, no longer dependent on the reassuring simplicities of condemnation.

Rarely is a writer in mid-career … invaded by a character who asserts so audacious a force of discovery it is as if a key has been turned in a door the novelist didn't know was there. All the prudent habits of imagination, judgment and language are swept away before this indomitable wave of energy, and the novelist, willing or not, is obliged to accept the challenge of transcendence.

Such a character is Mehring, the conservationist of Miss Gordimer's ambiguously ironic title, and he is so absolute and commanding a presence—is there any other woman who can write with this shrewdly intuitive sympathy about the inner life of a man?—that he threatens to take up all the space there is. It is no small part of the novel's achievement that we can see Mehring in proper perspective, though much of the time we are trapped inside his head, eavesdropping on a clamor of memory, fantasy and sexual greed. (p. 17)

The conservationist wants South African society to remain unchanged, and he protectively assures that the birds and reeds and grassland on his farm—initially bought on impulse, as a tax-loss deduction—are tended, nurtured, made to yield fodder, natural beauty and order, "the simple things of life that poorer men can no longer afford." To conserve is to possess; ownership is power. Striding confidently around his land Mehring declares, "My possessions are enough for me."

But he is forced to learn, finally paying for the lesson with his life, that he cannot attain absolute dominion over the South African veld, expropriated by white men yet cared for by the blacks who belong to it, just as he cannot control his coldly reckless sexuality. (pp. 17-18)

These bare bones … only dimly convey the stunning richness and teeming density of Miss Gordimer's prose, which one can scarcely credit to the same hand that wrought the cautiously subdued style of her earlier books. The predatory Mehring has liberated his creator from the inhibiting reticence of the well-formed story, and given her the courage of a driving extravagance that, remarkably, is never excessive. With unerring control, she builds a deceptively erratic structure of minutely observed natural detail, hypnotic rumination, and deftly interpolated glimpses into the black compound on the farm. The threads of heightened metaphor and carefully manipulated symbol, shuttling back and forth between the veld and the irascible introspective landscape of Mehring's solitude, pull him, urgently, resonantly, toward his doom. With The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer has triumphantly left the timid league of minor novelists behind. (p. 18)

Pearl K. Bell, "Confronting Hateful Legacies," in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), March 31, 1975, pp. 17-18.

[The Conservationist] is a magnificent novel about an African farm and about its owner, Mehring, a rich industrialist who is its conserver and its victim, enacting a timeless rivalry between man and land wherein land inevitably triumphs….

Though The Conservationist has been greatly praised in England, I would expect it to be even more widely admired here, where stories about man and the land—the one transient, the other abiding—recur and eternally fascinate; it is a theme which has preoccupied American writers from Cooper to Hemingway (but seems not to occur much in the English novel, except perhaps in Hardy). The "conservationist" must impose himself on a landscape that is peculiarly African, but is universal and timeless, too, a rare mixture of particularity and generality that characterizes this distinguished book….

Gordimer has the range and concerns of a mature and brilliant artist. Her writing has the tough precision of poetry and the closely observed naturalness of everyday life. It has all the power of romantic writing about nature but none of the defects, of overwriting and metaphysical pretentiousness, that sometimes mar this mode. The Conservationist is intensely impressive.

Diane Johnson, "Out of Africa," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 6, 1975, p. 3.

Miss Gordimer's vision of Africa is the most complete one we have, and in time to come, when we want to know everything there is to know about a newly independent black African country, it is to this white South African woman and "Guest of Honor" (1970) that we will turn.

If we want an overview of bewildered whites, well-intentioned liberals, foundation men, lost Africans and burnt-out firebrands, her collection of stories, "Livingstone's Companions" (1971) is an invaluable guide. Now that the black South African writers have chosen silence, exile or cunning, only Miss Gordimer remains to record the complex fate of a continent that had a mere decade of notoriety before lapsing into tropical senescence. (p. 4)

Paul Theroux, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 13, 1975.

The power of The Conservationist is in its rendering of South African life—farm, city, veld, shanty town—and in the questions it poses about the nature of civilization: how much of it is worth conserving?… This bare, beautiful novel resists sentimentality. Troubling, spare, and often lyrical, it takes shape from Gordimer's sense of the eternal verities. (p. 12)

Frances Taliaferro, in Bookletter (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the April 28, 1975 issue by special permission), April 28, 1975.

Blacks outnumber whites in South Africa: how many of THEM are there? It used to be thirteen million. These days the figure has climbed, in one ambitious instance, to twenty-two million … of THEM. But then WE have grown in numbers too…. We English-speaking whites, together with the Afrikaners (we counted them with us in this one instance only) were a small white island in a vast black sea which would sweep us all to oblivion sooner or later. (p. 49)

Nadine Gordimer is one of the few South African writers (themselves few in number) who set out early on to chart our diminution. She has examined the nature of the predicament of the whites in Southern Africa, alternately cossetting and sublimating our sense of guilt which, however we may try to bury it, springs to life again from the grey ashes of our lives, a terrible phoenix. Much of her best work is written in the knowledge, both exhilarating and finally saddening, that there is no other theme for the artist in South Africa. Miss Gordimer can write about other things, and has often done so in her short stories. But these, for all their craft, cannot rank except in exceptional instances beside the novels in which her attention is focused with all the limitations inherent in the situation on the dangerous and dull banalities that constitute life in Southern Africa. (pp. 49-50)

It is a strange thing that those creations of Miss Gordimer's which most expand in the mind are not those of the living, made by the most painstaking attention to psychological detail, but rather, her dead. In that thin and disappointing novel, The Late Bourgeois World, the image of Max, the one-time political revolutionary who drowns himself by driving his car into Cape Town harbour and has betrayed his cause and his friends, swims most powerfully in the consciousness. It is difficult to say why this should be so, why the dead should have more substance than the living.

South Africa is palpably there in all Miss Gordimer's novels: the Greek corner cafés, the bleak little mining towns of the Transvaal, the great mining camp itself, Johannesburg, with its black townships squatting at its feet like unwanted children, and the extravagant idiocies of the well-heeled white madams and masters in their green and sanitized suburbs…. One might say that she perceives how deadly dull so much of it is, and she can sometimes be boring with it. At best there is her admirable fidelity to the landscapes she describes, at worst she drives home her points, tediously and sententiously, leaving nothing to the imagination.

Perhaps this is why one grasped so eagerly the new perspective on Africa which she offered in A Guest Of Honour. Here was Africa again, but it was an Africa with which few of her white South African readers would have been familiar. How could they be? The Africa to which James Bray returns from England as an honoured guest and then to a post in the department of education at the invitation of the President, Mweta, is very different to their home ground. It is out there, beyond the Zambesi. Yet, as one read through A Guest Of Honour, one realized with growing amazement that the black state and its people about which she wrote, though they were most certainly black, seemed for all the world like US. Now nothing could be more shocking to the white sensibility than that. It undermines the central pivot on which our entire existence in Africa is based: that we are, well, different, and though of course we are all equal, we are, you know, separate, and we'd rather like to keep it that way—not through choice, you understand, but because we realize that there are those essential, God-given differences. Such a radical challenge to our cherished beliefs in our uniqueness, separateness, whiteness, is the astonishing achievement of A Guest Of Honour. It offers no parallels, draws no comparisons, makes no concessions to our pet phobias. We are put in our places not out of mind, perhaps, but out of the picture. (pp. 52-3)

[The] brooding presence of the dead who will not lie down, this powerful influence in so much of Miss Gordimer's writing, has become in The Conservationist the major theme. (p. 54)

In this, at once the most dour and desolate of her novels, Nadine Gordimer has come closest to revealing the manner in which we will lose what we have set out most fiercely to conserve. (p. 55)

Christopher Hope, "Out of the Picture: The Novels of Nadine Gordimer," in London Magazine (© London Magazine, 1975), April/May, 1975, pp. 49-55.

With a swirling intensity that often leaves names and identities implicit or incomplete, Miss Gordimer summons up [in "The Conservationist"] the well-to-do, deceptively secure world of a South African industrialist referred to simply as Mehring…. The title is ironic: while Mehring is aware of every threat to the natural harmony of his farm, he is blind to the consequences of his smug, instinctive aggressions. Through Miss Gordimer's eyes, he sees his land with the lucidity of a true lover, yet his whole life is based on use and exploitation. His character, like those of the other people in this novel, suggests something of the factitious quality of South African society, yet the book is not a tract. Mehring matters to us as if he were someone we knew, and his habits of thoughtlessness can be found anywhere. (pp. 141-42)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), May 12, 1975.

The way Nadine Gordimer's fiction connects to her political views and activities makes a complex picture that our own writers tend to begrudge us. It is a picture of what the literary critic Leslie Fiedler has called "the relationship between the truth of art, the truth of conscience, and the truth of facts."

Gordimer's books are very far from the purposeful political "novel" that dresses a cross section of a society in ideological sandwich boards. In [The Conservationist] for instance, characters think about and bait each other with politics the way people do in ordinary life. (p. 39)

[The] land is the dominant "character" in The Conservationist. Its presence courses through the book like the river in Huckleberry Finn: destructive and the source of life, receiving and uncovering everything, in time. (p. 40)

Veronica Geng, "Disputed Territory," in Ms. (© 1975 Ms. Magazine Corp.), July, 1975, pp. 39-41.