Nadine Gordimer Essay - Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 17)

Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 17)


Gordimer, Nadine 1923-

See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and CLC volumes 5, 7, 10, 18, 80 and 123.

South African short story writer, novelist, critic, essayist, and editor.

Gordimer has earned international acclaim as a writer who explores the effects of South Africa's apartheid system on both whites and blacks. Although the political conditions in her country are essential to the themes of her work, Gordimer focuses primarily on the complex human tensions generated by apartheid. Lauded for her authentic portrayals of black African culture, she is also praised for using precise detail to evoke both the physical landscape of South Africa and the human predicaments of a racially polarized society.

Biographical Information

Born in South Africa to Jewish immigrants from London, Gordimer published her first story at the age of fifteen. Her short fiction soon appeared in periodicals such as Harper's and the New Yorker. Except for several brief stays in England and the United States, she has remained in South Africa. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Gordimer's first stories were published in various notable American periodicals and were subsequently collected in her first major volume, The Soft Voice of the Serpent. From her initial collection to her most recent, Jump, and Other Stories, Gordimer's short stories often portray individuals who struggle to avoid, confront, or change the conditions under which they live, in particular the repressive South African political system of apartheid. The short fiction included in A Soldier's Embrace, for example, offers an ironic historical overview of South African society. In Something Out There Gordimer examines the temperament of individuals who unwittingly support the mechanisms of racial separation. Jump, and Other Stories continues her exploration of how apartheid insulates the daily lives of blacks and whites in South Africa.

Critical Reception

Many critics have noted a connection between the tone of Gordimer's fiction and the deterioration of race relations and escalation of violence in her country during the late 1960s. Her work is viewed by many commentators as a social history of South Africa and its changing conditions; she is often praised for her delicate and insightful treatment of controversial issues. While some critics claim that her detached narrative voice lacks emotional immediacy, many regard her fiction as compelling and powerful and commend her prose for its clarity and poetic elegance. Merle Rubin has summarized Gordimer's literary achievements as "a precise ear for spoken language that lent great authenticity to her dialogue; a sensitivity to the rhythms and texture of the written word that gave her prose the power of poetry; a keen eye that made her a tireless observer; an even keener sense of social satire based upon her ability to see through appearances to the heart of the matter, and a strong feeling of moral purpose, composed in equal parts of her indignation at the sheer injustice of South Africa's entrenched racial oppression and of her commitment to speak the truth as she saw it."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Face to Face 1949 The Soft Voice of the Serpent, and Other Stories 1952 Six Feet of the Country 1956

Friday's Footprint, and Other Stories 1960

Not for Publication, and Other Stories 1965

Livingstone's Companions 1971

Selected Stories 1975

A Soldier's Embrace 1980

Town and Country Lovers 1980

Six Feet of the Country [new edition] 1982

Something Out There 1984

Jump, and Other Stories 1991

Other Major Works

The Lying Days (novel) 1953

A World of Strangers (novel) 1958

Occasion for Loving (novel) 1963

The Late Bourgeois World (novel) 1966

A Guest of Honour (novel) 1970

African Literature: The Lectures Given on This Theme at the University of Cape Town's Public Summer School (lectures) 1972

The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing (criticism) 1973

On the Mines (nonfiction) 1973

The Conservationist (novel) 1974

Burger's Daughter (novel) 1979

What Happened to Burger's Daughter; or, How South African Censorship Works [with others] (nonfiction) 1980

July's People (novel) 1981

Lifetimes under Apartheid (nonfiction) 1986

A Sport of Nature (novel) 1987

The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places (essays) 1988

My Son's Story (novel) 1990

None to Accompany Me (novel) 1994


John Barkham (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "African Smiles," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XXXV, No. 21, May 24, 1952, p. 22.

[In the following review of The Soft Voice of the Serpent, Barkham praises the subtlety and sensitivity of Gordimer's narrative voice.]

To the chorus of eloquent voices emerging from South Africa, add a new one, that of Nadine Gordimer. It is a fast growing chorus. Paton, Lessing, Rooke, Van der Post, and now Gordimer—until a few years ago none of these names was known here; but they have begun to speak and their voice is heard in the land. They will be heard from again, especially Nadine Gordimer.

This flowering of talent in a remote outpost of civilization is, of course, no accident. South African literature, both English and Afrikaans, is reacting impressively to two tremendous stimuli. Afrikaans writing (unknown outside South Africa) proudly and poetically reflects the Afrikaner's reconquest of his native land. And the English writers mirror their helpless compassion for the oppressed and their anxiety over the strife which rends their beloved country. To this latter group belongs Miss Gordimer.

Readers who seek in these score or so tales [in The Soft Voice of the Serpent] any direct reflection of the headlines will not find them there. Miss Gordimer is a subtle writer who makes her points delicately and obliquely. A beach interlude with an Indian...

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William Peden (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Stories from Africa," in The New York Times Book Review, June 15, 1952, p. 17.

[ William Peden is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on the American short story and on American historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. In the following review, he applauds Gordimer's debut volume of short fiction, The Soft Voice of the Serpent.]

A native of South Africa, where she still Uves, Nadine Gordimer has published several of her stories in American magazines (The New Yorker, Harper's, The Virginia Quarterly). [The Soft Voice of the Serpent] is her first published volume, and her debut is an exciting one. Miss Gordimer is very young—in her early twenties, according to her publishers—and very talented.

All of these stories have South Africa as their setting. Miss Gordimer possesses a keen eye, a sharp ear and a devastating sense of smell. Place is an important element in her fiction; she is, however, no limited local colorist. Her primary concern is with specific individuals—an Indian fisherman, Johannesburg medical student, expatriated concession shopkeeper—who embody universal traits.

Most of Miss Gordimer's characters are faced with the problem of making dubious compromises between their rights as individuals and their responsibilities as members of society. The author sees life as a battle-ground...

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James Stern (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Troubled Souls," in The New York Times Book Review, October 7, 1956, pp. 7, 34.

[Stern is an Irish novelist, short story writer, translator, and critic. In the following review, he offers a positive assessment of Gordimer's Six Feet of the Country.]

In this her second collection of stories [Six Feet of the Country] (eight of the fifteen have appeared in The New Yorker) Nadine Gordimer's range is far wider, the observation even keener, than that shown in her volume The Soft Voice of the Serpent. The quality of the prose, the authority and intelligence behind it, are surely unsurpassed by any other writer in South Africa today. What Miss...

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Sylvia Stallings (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Stories of Love and Irony," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, October 21, 1956, p. 3.

[In the following review, Stallings provides a thematic analysis of the stories comprising Six Feet of the Country.]

With each new book, Nadine Gordimer augments her status as a writer. Six Feet of the Country, a collection of short stories which have, with only two exceptions, already appeared in American magazines, establishes beyond any doubt that she is not merely a gifted regionalist but a writer of great sophistication who is aware of all the subtle innuendoes of human relationships. Her perception is intensely feminine, but she expresses herself with a...

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Mary Ellen Chase (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Miss Gordimer's Fine, True Art in Another Brilliant Collection," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, January 10, 1960, p. 1.

[Chase is an American novelist, children's author, educator, and critic. In the following review, she examines the style and scope of Friday's Footprint.]

Whenever a careful reader makes the rare discovery that what is purposely not said on the pages before him is clearly far more important and filled with meaning than what is said, he reads yet again and with sharpened perception. Nadine Gordimer in these twelve short stories [in Friday's Footprint] and a longer one which she calls a novella often obscures or...

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Mary Doyle Curran (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Many Views from the Veld," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLIII, No. 3, January 16, 1960, p. 64.

[Curran is an American novelist. In the following negative review of Friday's Footprint, she notes the uneven prose style and lack of psychological complexity in Gordimer's stories. ]

Nadine Gordimer's new collection of short stories (and a novella) is not the work of a novice. She has two other short story collections as well as two novels to her credit. Unfortunately, Friday's Footprint, the latest addition to her South African saga, betrays the enervation of the contemporary short story. The major flaw can be summed up in a quotation from...

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Edward Hickman Brown (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "A Sudden Shaft of Light," in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. XLVIII, No. 19, May 8, 1965, p. 33.

[Brown is a South African critic. In the following review, he praises the maturity and emotional intensity of the stories of Not for Publication.]

This superb collection of stories [Not for Publication, and Other Stories] most decidedly is for publication. And I believe it represents a giant step forward for Nadine Gordimer.

What has always puzzled me profoundly about her writing in the past was why so small a proportion of her deftly executed, perspicacious stories made a really deep impression upon me. Hers was clearly more...

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Honor Tracy (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "A Bouquet from Nadine Gordimer," in The New Republic, Vol. 152, No. 2633, May 8, 1965, pp. 25-6.

[Tracy is a English novelist and travel writer. In the following essay, she provides a mixed review of Not for Publication.]

There is no living writer of short stories more interesting, varied and fertile than Miss Gordimer at her best. In this new collection, however, she does not always come up to her standard. The lyrical freshness is dulled, as so often in the works of maturity: now and again, humanity degenerates into motherliness; and several pieces are too long for their weight. This may be due to their being written in the first place for American...

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Pearl K. Bell (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "Presuming in Africa," in The Christian Science Monitor, November 4, 1971, p. 11.

[In the following mixed review, Bell examines Gordimefs treatment of South Africa's repressive political and social conditions in Livingstone's Companions.]

In a recent review of a new novel by V. S. Naipaul, the Indian-Trinidadian writer, Nadine Gordimer remarked: "I have always believed that a writer writes one book all his life: whether consciously so or not, his work is of a piece."

In her own case this inescapable unity—more evident in some writers than in others, of course—has unfolded through a prolific career, now numbering five novels and five...

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Thomas A. Gullason (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: A review of Livingstone's Companions, in The Saturday Review, New York, Vol. LIV, No. 49, December 4, 1971, pp. 50, 52.

[Gullason is an American editor and critic. In the following essay, he offers a laudatory review of Livingstone's Companions.]

One of the most stirring voices out of South Africa is the distinguished novelist, short-story writer, and essayist Nadine Gordimer. Along with Alan Paton, Dan Jacobson, and others, she has helped to expose the tragic oppression in her native land.

Livingstone's Companions is Miss Gordimer's fifth short-story collection. It continues her history of commitment to the human condition, which began...

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Nadine Gordimer (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: An introduction to Selected Stories, 1975. Reprint by The Viking Press, 1976, pp. 9-14.

[In the following essay, Gordimer outlines her philosophy of short story writing.]

After I had selected and arranged these stories, the present publisher asked me to provide some kind of introduction to them. If they were now making their first appearance I might have recoiled from this invitation, but they have all been printed and some reprinted, and have therefore been through a period of probation. Whatever I may say about them now cannot alter what has been said by others, and can hardly increase or lessen the likelihood of their being read—that...

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Penelope Mortimer (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Truth Teller in South Africa," in The New York Times Book Review, April 18, 1976, p. 7.

[Mortimer is a Welsh novelist, short story writer, and critic. In the following review, she terms Selected Stories a social history of South Africa and praises Gordimer's use of the milieu in her stories. ]

South Africa, in the latter half of the 20th century, is an anomaly that incites more frustrated, personal indignation than any other political society.

There, on the tail of the vast black continent of Africa, sits the Union, authoritarian, racist, wealthy, implacably thickheaded, smugly disregarding every liberal principle and every concern for...

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Eric Redman (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Magician at Work," in Book World—The Washington Post, May 16, 1976, p. L1.

[Redman is an American critic. In the following review, he lauds the scope of the stories included in Selected Stories.]

Nadine Gordimer is a South African who writes critically about South Africa. This causes her trouble at home, of course, since the South African authorities tend to ban the works of dissidents. Yet Gordimer must consider foreign reviewers almost as irksome as Afrikaner censors. Like Solzhenitsyn, she too often finds herself hailed in England and America as a political rather than a literary figure—a form of praise, however laudatory, that inevitably demeans her...

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A. G. Mojtabai (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Her Region Is Ours," in The New York Times Book Review, August 24, 1980, pp. 7, 18.

[Mojtabai is an American novelist and critic. In the following review, she overviews the themes and plots of A Soldier's Embrace.]

We paid attention when Nadine Gordimer's most recent novel, Burger's Daughter, was banned in her native South Africa. At once, this distinguished author of seven novels and eight volumes of short stories, whose work has sometimes been patronized as cool, quiet, regional, had a wide and receptive audience. Now that the ban and the attendant publicity have been lifted and Miss Gordimer resumes her work of scrupulously sifting the life around...

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Vivian Gornick (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Gordimer Confined," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 38, September 17-23, 1980, p. 40.

[Gornick is an American nonfiction writer, editor, and critic. Below, she offers a negative assessment of A Soldier's Embrace, describing the stories as "fragmentary" and the collection "unsatisfying" ]

Nadine Gordimer's work—like that of a good doctor trying to find out where it hurts—applies steady pressure to external circumstance until the live places beneath the surface stir with surprised feeling. Gordimer has written seven novels and as many volumes of short stories, all set in her native South Africa, mainly in and around middle-class Johannesburg. Her...

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Ethel W. Githii (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Nadine Gordimer's Selected Stories," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XXII, No. 3, 1981, pp. 45-54.

[In the following essay, Githii compares several of Gordimer's earlier and later stories in order to trace her thematic and stylistic maturation.]

Nadine Gordimer's Selected Stories (1975) is a collection of short stories from an author whose eight novels and numerous articles and critical reviews form an impressive body of work extending over thirty years. Her precise observations and impressions of life in South Africa recorded in the stories have won for her a reputation that has grown through the years, while many of the stories...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: A review of Something Out There, in The New York Times, July 9, 1984, p. C17.

[Lehmann-Haupt is a Scottish-born American critic. In the following favorable review, he explores the varying narrative techniques employed in Something Out There.]

Betrayal, crimes of conscience, the anguish of apartheid—the themes are familiar in this fine new collection of nine stories and a novella by Nadine Gordimer, most of them set in her native South Africa. What is surprising is the behavior of her characters. In one, a black woman you believe to be falling in love with a terrorist, whom she and her husband are hiding in their home, ends up going to the police and...

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Salman Rushdie (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "No One Is Ever Safe," in The New York Times Book Review, July 29, 1984, pp. 7-8.

[An Indian novelist, nonfiction writer, and critic, Rushdie is best known for his controversial treatment of Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses (1988). In the review below, he provides a thematic treatment of Something Out There, focusing on Gordimer's theme of betrayal ]

Great white sharks, killer bees, werewolves, devils, alien horrors bursting from the chests of movie spacemen: The popular culture of our fearful times has provided us with so many variations on the ancient myth of the Beast, the "something" lurking out there that hunts us and is hunted by us, as...

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Melvyn Hill (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Good Intentions," in VLS, No. 28, September, 1984, pp. 6-8.

[In the following essay, Hill discusses defining characteristics of Gordimer's fiction, in particular the impact of South Africa's political and social landscape on her work.]

[Gordimer is] someone trapped in a world she cannot change. Her hope resides in a revolution others will have to bring about; her dream revolves in circles of betrayal, trust, and distrust. Gordimer is a master of the short story because she's compelled to be such a consummate ironist. Although she's best known for her novels, some of her finest writing and thinking occurs in the eight volumes of short stories...

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Leon Wieseltier (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Afterword," in Salmagundi, No. 62, Winter, 1984, pp. 193-96.

[Below, Wieseltier discusses the effects of apartheid on Gordimer's black and white characters in "Something Out There."]

"Each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited children, / to whom no longer what's been, and not yet what's coming, belongs," Rilke wrote in 1922, in a castle. In 1930, in a prison, a similar inspiration about the inconclusiveness of the modern age came to Gramsci. "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born," he wrote; and went on to add, in the manner of an intellectual, "in this interregnum a great variety of morbid...

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John Edgar Wideman (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "So Much Is Always at Stake," in The New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1991, p. 7.

[In the following favorable review of Jump, and Other Stories, Wideman commends Gordimer's eloquent, realistic portrayals of interpersonal relationships amidst the turbulent socio-political conditions in South Africa.]

Nadine Gordimer's best writing keeps us aware it is being written, even when it fades to a kind of pulse or background music in the imagined world that absorbs us. What is described becomes real, but also more—and less—than real.

Four shapes come forward along the beams; and stop. He stops. Motes of dust,...

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John Banville (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Winners," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 19, November 21, 1991, pp. 27-9.

[Banville is an Irish novelist and short story writer. In the following negative assessment of Jump, and Other Stories, he derides Gordimer's reportorial voice and contends that the short story medium is unsuited for her style of writing.]

In the 1970s I had lunch one memorable day with the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute. It was a year or two after Samuel Beckett had been awarded the Nobel Prize. I knew that Mme. Sarraute had known Beckett since before the war, and I brought up his name in the not very honorable hope of hearing some gossip about the great...

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Karen Lazar (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Jump and Other Stories: Gordimer's Leap into the 1990s: Gender and Politics in Her Latest Short Fiction," in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, December, 1992, pp. 783-802.

[In the following essay, Lazar examines Gordimer's attitude toward Feminism as evidenced in her short fiction collection.]

There is something of a critical lacuna in relation to Nadine Gordimer's short fiction when compared with the extensive and scholarly criticism available on her novels. My aim is to go some way towards filling this gap, focusing on the anthology which came out more or less simultaneously with Gordimer's winning of the Nobel Prize and which has...

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Jeanne Colleran (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Archive of Apartheid: Nadine Gordimer's Short Fiction at the End of the Interregnum," in The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 237-45.

[In the following essay, Colleran discusses the ways in which socio-political conditions in South Africa inform Gordimer's work.]

It is obvious that the archive of a society . . . cannot be described exhaustively . . . on the other hand it is not possible for us to describe our own archive, since it is from these rules that we speak . . . it emerges in fragments.

Michel Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge


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Alan R. Lomberg (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Once More into the Burrows: Nadine Gordimer's Later Short Fiction," in The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 228-36.

[In the essay below, Lomberg traces Gordimer's changing attitudes towards life and love in her short fiction.]

In the introduction to her Selected Stories, Nadine Gordimer suggests that the process of composition is, for her, like burrowing into a warren 'where many burrows lead off into the same darkness but this one may debouch far distant from that'. An instance of that is provided by the development of two stories in A Soldier's Embrace into the novella which is the...

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Further Reading


Beauman, Sally. Review of Livingstone's Companions, by Nadine Gordimer. The New York Times Book Review (31 October 1971): 6, 22.

Favorable review.

Broyard, Anatole. "The New African Landscape." The New York Times (1 November 1971): 39.

Stylistic and thematic analysis of Livingstone's Companions.

Enright, D. J. "Which New Era?" The Times Literary Supplement (30 March 1984): 328.

Positive review of Something Out There. Enright comments: "Nadine Gordimer survives as a writer of distinction by virtue less of her themes than of her distinction as a writer."...

(The entire section is 695 words.)