Nadine Gordimer, born in 1923 near Johannesburg, South Africa’s “golden city,” has for thirty years been identified as a South African writer. Recognition in the United States of Gordimer’s work began in 1952, when her first collection of short stories, The Soft Voice of the Serpent, was published in New York. Since that time, she has published eight novels and eight collections of short stories.
A Soldier’s Embrace, thirteen short stories, consistently continues to develop the themes, style, and characterizations of the previous collections, but Gordimer’s imaginative range, embracing a variety of situations and emotions, keeps the stories from seeming repetitious. Gustave Flaubert said, “One never tires of anything that is well written.” Like many writers, Gordimer confesses to being an “unconscious eavesdropper,” and fragments of realistic conversations combine with highly imaginative elements to form many of her stories. It is difficult to say whether any of the stories are autobiographical; Gordimer maintains a private personal life. If, however, she writes from a personal experience and she claims to absorb and use what she experiences, that experience may be years in the formative stage, gathering characters to it, suggesting a theme, eventually relating perhaps to a non-personal event that took place another time, another place. All these elements then emerge as a cohesive story.
Gordimer never left South Africa for short visits elsewhere until she was thirty. She lives there now, uses the political and social systems of that country as a basis for the structure of her stories and novels, and forms many of her characters out of the complex relations and situations of blacks and whites. Gordimer is South African, was educated partially in a convent, and her father was a well-to-do businessman. She is fully aware of the position of the white liberal in South Africa. She has a firm knowledge of the language, customs, habits, superstitions, ceremonies, and tribal rituals of the blacks. It is not necessary that the reader have Gordimer’s knowledge of the country and its inhabitants. She gives the reader a sense of the landscape and the wasted beauty of the land, different parts of the cities and their various dwelling places and shops by descriptive passages that never impede the progression of the story; the reader almost subconsciously absorbs them.
The sequence of the stories in this collection is conducive to the reader’s awareness of the political, social order of which Gordimer says, “society is the political situation.” The first story, “A Soldier’s Embrace,” exhibits the changing political situation after the confrontation between the Colonial government and the black regime that comes to power in an unnamed African country. The central characters, a well-known white lawyer who has been sympathetic to the black cause and his wife, move through phases of comfortable coexistence to an uneasy separate existence and fear, and finally leave the country. The last story, “Oral History,” reflects the changing political scene, the emphasis now on the effect upon a black tribe and its Judas-like chief.
Gordimer says that when she read Eudora Welty’s stories of rural Mississippi, she realized that “no place looked at properly need be considered at the end of the world.” South Africa may seem to be at the end of the world because of its isolated geographical, political, and social conditions, but by contrasting the isolation of the country and the isolation of character situation, Gordimer places a double emphasis on this dominant theme. Most of her stories are set in Johannesburg, a city of contrast, where rich and poor, black and white, sophisticated Europeans and tribal Africans live, work, and come into daily contact with one another. With a microscopically observant critical eye, Gordimer creates characters who are uneasy, conscience-stricken, sometimes politically conscious, cultivated men and women, sometimes from the poorer, uneducated class, but all searching, usually unsuccessfully, for a comfortable life in their particular situation. They attempt to transcend the politically controlled social situations, to come to terms with the ambiguities of a South African society, fundamentally out of joint, to shape individual identities and find relationships in which class and color are of little importance.
The failure of this endeavor is evident in the last line of “Town and Country, Part One”: “The girl’s mother was quoted, with photograph, in the Sunday papers: ’I won’t let my daughter work as a servant for a white man again.’” Also in the last line of “Town and Country Lovers, Part Two”: “Interviewed by the Sunday papers, who spelled her name in a variety of ways, the black girl, speaking in her own language, was quoted beneath her photograph: ’It was a thing of our childhood, we don’t see each other any more.’”
Even though she is a major figure in the advancement of literature coming out of South Africa, Gordimer should not be classed as a regionalist. The ever-changing political climate of South Africa imposes a limit upon her writing, on the development of her characters, but if she were geographically located elsewhere, another limiting influence would have taken the place of politics and social interaction, for every writer is limited by something. Unlike Chinua Achebé, who is concerned with universal human communication across racial and cultural boundaries and who imposes his authorial views on his...