Judith Newman Special Commissioned Essay on The Lying Days by Nadine Gordimer Essay: Introduction

Essay: Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Judith Newman (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Newman, Judith. “An Analysis of The Lying Days, by Nadine Gordimer.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 160, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following essay, Newman examines The Lying Days on a number of levels, assessing the plot, characters, evolution of the work, the novel's historical significance, and how the book has been studied since its publication.]


The Lying Days takes its title from a quatrain in a poem by William Butler Yeats, “The Coming of Wisdom with Time” (1910):

Though leaves are many, the root is one
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun
Now I may wither into the truth.

The quotation draws attention to the process by which Helen Shaw's life takes many branching paths and yet remains tied to one root, her native land of South Africa, even as disillusionment replaces her young dreams. The novel is not tightly plotted but digresses and avoids regularity of pattern and form in order to depict the discontinuous evolution of the young heroine.

The Lying Days is divided into three books: “The Mine,” “The Sea,” and “The City.” “The Mine” is a short section concerning Helen's childhood. “The Sea” covers the events of her adolescence away from her family, including her experience of first love and the beginnings of an independent intellectual life. “The City” is a longer section about the university, radical bohemians in Johannesburg, Helen's first sexual experiences, and urban and racial questions.

As “The Mine” opens, Helen Shaw refuses to accompany her parents to the white recreation club in the small South African mining town of Atherton and instead walks by herself to the neighboring concession stores. The mining company has granted concessions to storekeepers—often recent immigrants—to run stores on company land in order to provide a shopping area for the black miners, who come from all over Southern Africa, speak different languages, and are unused to an urban environment. A detailed description of this black world follows, with its smeary shop windows, chickens underfoot, rotting oranges, flies, disorder, and vitality. Helen is surprised to see a white boy who appears to be at home there. (Later the reader learns that he is Joel Aaron.) She is drawn to the life and energy of the stores but retreats back to her parents' world when she sees a mineworker urinating in the open.

Back at the club, Helen arrives just in time for tea in the sterile world of the colonial enclave. The men and women operate in different social spheres, the women's tea parties always ending abruptly when the father comes home. Helen spends her time with her mother, dressmaking, shopping, and coveting various objects in the stores of Atherton. The family lives in a company town, with life organized around the mine whistle. When the whistle blows on this day, a Sunday, it signals an event outside the normal routine: a strike by the black workers over their diet. A large crowd of mine workers invades the lawns of the manager's garden but is swiftly dispersed. The whites enjoy more tea and scones, and Helen skips home to a lavish cooked breakfast. The unthinking life of adolescence—the first dance, the first corsage, and, as World War II impinges, boys in uniform at dances—unrolls before her.

“The Sea” transports the seventeen-year-old Helen to the farm of Alice Koch and her son Ludi on the Natal coast, where she is visiting her mother's old friend for a holiday. On one side is the lush, green jungle, on the other the pounding waves. In this paradisal, natural environment Helen finds an alternative mother in Mrs. Koch, who is similarly white and middle class but demonstrative and sentimental where Helen's own mother is cool and reserved. The sense of a release of natural feelings is enhanced by the depiction of the sea as beauty, freedom, and fecundity, and by an emphasis on the steamy warmth of the climate. When Helen visits the local store this time, it is to have tea with the shopkeeper and his wife, who are friends of Mrs. Koch.

Friendship swiftly develops between Helen and Ludi, a Thoreauvian character scornful of the narrow life of small-town South Africa and resentful over his enforced military service. His leave over, Ludi prepares to return to the army, only to find that a bridge has collapsed because of heavy rains, and he cannot catch his train. He gains a short extension of leave, almost courtesy of nature itself, and enjoys an erotic (though unconsummated) idyll with Helen. Somewhat awkward on the first kiss, Helen blossoms in the warmth of Ludi's affection, and Gordimer evokes the full enchantment of first love. Disillusionment is not far off, however. Ludi has described sleeping with another woman, and Helen intuits that it is Maud, a neighbor who is unhappily married to a much older man. For all his grand dreams of sidestepping small-town society, Ludi later ends up running a small store.

Ludi's first letter, read and reread by Helen back at home, is something of a disappointment, though she goes on for some time in a dream, imaginatively immersed in a secret world with him. Helen had previously decided not to attend college, but halfway through the academic year, with Ludi now fighting on the Italian front, she changes her mind and registers for a course in arts at the university. She goes on living at home, traveling each day by train to nearby Johannesburg along with the other commuters. One of these, Joel Aaron, becomes a close friend. A Jewish student who is training to be an architect, Joel opens Helen's eyes to painting and art, takes her to exhibitions and concerts, and is as hungry for access to culture as she is. Whereas Helen is estranged from her parents, whose casual anti-Semitism appalls her, Joel accepts them as they are, just as he accepts his own immigrant parents, with all their shortcomings. Helen and Joel fall out, however, over race relations, specifically the condescension Helen's mother shows to the family's black gardener, Paul, and servant, Anna. Joel maintains that her mother's attitude—chatting about minor domestic matters, children, and family to servants she has known for fifteen years—is more natural than Helen's abstract love of humanity. The possibility of something more than friendship between Joel and Helen hovers but never materializes. When she becomes friendly with Mary Seswayo, a black student, Joel accuses her of tokenism, of having a black friend on principle as a kind of liberal trophy. Helen's attempt to bring Mary home to her parents' house to give her a comfortable place to study undisturbed provokes a furious argument with her mother and propels Helen out of the family home.

As “The City” opens, Helen is sharing an apartment with John and Jenny Marcus, a young, intellectual couple with a small baby. He is Jewish and she is Christian, yet they appear to have overcome prejudice, receive visits from nonwhite friends, and live a careless bohemian life centering on the arts. At John and Jenny Marcus's apartment Helen meets Paul Clark, who has been brought up on a farm in Natal, is fluent in Sesutu and Zulu, and is now working for the Native Affairs Department. Paul has been in Rhodesia on a research trip, getting material for his doctorate in anthropology, and now works as a welfare officer in native locations. Helen is attracted to him both physically and intellectually. After an evening at Marcel's Cellar, a self-consciously bohemian café modeled on European originals, she begins a prolonged affair with him, moving into his apartment while allowing her parents to believe that she is staying at her sister's home. Paul's attractiveness for Helen is at least in part based on his apparent engagement with social problems. The National Party is now in power, mixed race couples are being arrested in their beds, and the whole panoply of apartheid legislation is slowly unrolling. Helen's colonialist parents, newly returned from Europe and displaying their cheap souvenirs, appear unreal to her, and she proudly reveals that she is living with Paul, with the predictable consequences of an ugly row and familial estrangement.

The difficulties of maintaining an intimate sexual relationship in a patriarchal culture are not to be underestimated, however. Helen is trying to break away from the racial and sexual stereotypes of her background, to get closer to black Africa, but she cannot get any closer than living with an anthropologist and do-gooder. Slowly she declines into the role of a wife, typing for Paul and cooking his meals. The relationship begins to founder, partly as a result of the climate of sexual and racial repression created by the apartheid state, which slowly corrupts even the most private of relationships, and partly because Paul's political position becomes quite untenable. Sipho, a black friend, does not rejoice when Paul secures a sports field for the people of a black township. A separatist, Sipho organizes a boycott instead, on the grounds that blacks want freedom and equality, not patronizing kindness. Paul is also swamped by the housing crisis: there are twenty times more people than homes on the location. He and Helen begin to go out more often with friends, to make love only for physical gratification, and to quarrel. Helen leaves her job at the welfare agency, which she had taken to be near Paul, and they recognize that they will never marry.

When she is contacted by her father, Helen returns home for a visit, and an uneasy peace is struck with her parents. At the mine, mention is made of a forthcoming strike, although the white world seems unperturbed and fundamentally unchanged. On May Day, however, violence breaks out all over South Africa. Helen goes looking for Paul, and eventually she and her friend Laurie find themselves involved in a riot in the African township, where, from the safety of their car, they witness the death of a black man who is shot by white police. Eighteen people die, one of them Sipho. Shocked, Helen retreats into apathy for a period and then suddenly realizes that she must leave South Africa for Europe. As she waits for her boat to depart, she bumps into Joel, who is bound for a new life in Israel, and they spend two days together, shopping, visiting the beach, and dancing. Joel declares his love, but Helen knows that they have missed their chance to get to know each other, hindered by the barriers of class and ethnic origins. In a sense, in saying goodbye to him, she parts from her earlier self, with all her former idealism and optimism. Helen welcomes disillusionment as a form of new beginning, and the novel closes, ambiguously, as she listens to the songs of black street-singers. Though she has lost the first bloom of her youth and simplicity, she knows that her departure is only temporary and that she will return to her roots in South Africa.


Gordimer was born on 20 November 1923 in Springs, a small town of about twenty thousand people in Johannesburg's East Rand, an area known for its gold mines. She is the daughter of Isidore Gordimer, a Latvian Jew and a jeweler, and Nan Myers Gordimer, who came from an Anglo-Jewish family and was born in England. Gordimer has described her father as lacking a strong personality, almost as if burnt out by the experience of persecution and the effort involved in bringing his nine sisters out from Europe to safety. After his death she found his copies of her books with bookmarks in them, usually only ten pages into each volume. For Gordimer there was something timid and psychologically arrested about her father. In many respects his life is still something of a mystery to her. She had believed for many years that he was Lithuanian (as are the majority of South African Jewish immigrants) and discovered only later in life that he was Latvian.

In fact, Isidore Gordimer came from an area near Riga, Latvia, where the Jewish communities were later to be liquidated by the Nazis. One of a family of twelve, he was raised in the country by elderly relatives while his parents worked in Riga. With secondary education not available to Jews, he boarded a ship at the age of thirteen and joined his elder brother Marcus to become an itinerant watchmaker in South Africa; later, he became a small shopkeeper, selling such items as commemorative sets of knives and forks for retiring miners. Isidore arrived with only his bag of watchmaking tools and traveled around the mines on a bicycle mending watches. As a Jew, he was largely unobservant, though Gordimer remembers sitting in the car in shorts outside the synagogue and waiting for him on Yom Kippur. Although her parents married in the Great Synagogue in Johannesburg, that was the last time her mother set foot in it or in any other place of worship. Nan Gordimer was scornful of all organized religion, and when she sent Nadine and her older sister, Betty, to a Catholic convent in Springs, they were excused from all religious instruction.

Although Gordimer's parents were Jewish, she has discounted Judaism as an influence. The Jewish population in South Africa grew rapidly in the 1930s with accelerated immigration from Germany, Austria, and Eastern Europe, but in 1938 the South African government closed the country to these Jewish immigrants. John Cooke has argued that there was a scenario of repressed conflict in the Gordimer household, between a socially ambitious, assimilationist mother who wanted to integrate into the gentile, English-speaking society of the town and a father whose mother tongue was Yiddish and who spoke English with an accent. Several of Gordimer's early stories present Jewish identity as problematic. In “The Defeated” (1952) a Jewish daughter marries “up” and disowns her parents, whose otherness is a difficulty for her. The parents own a mine-compound concession store, just like that owned by the Aaron family in The Lying Days, one of many such stores leased out to Eastern European immigrants for the patronage of black gold miners. In a South African mining town Jewish storekeepers were at the bottom of the social scale, as they dealt regularly with blacks without having authority over them. Gordimer's occasional visits to Jewish relatives exposed her to Jewish ethnicity but not to a cultured milieu. She was later surprised to discover the richness of Jewish culture when she read the fiction of Isaac Bashevis Singer. At a literary conference in Budapest in 1989 Gordimer staked a claim to her Jewish ancestry and berated Israeli writers for their lack of involvement in political protest (to Israeli indignation). South African Jews such as Helen Suzman, Ruth First, and Joe Slovo were very active in the anti-apartheid movement.

Gordimer's mother, Nan, had immigrated at the age of six with her family to South Africa, leaving behind a more secure life in England. Nan's father went prospecting for diamonds and then became what was known as a “tickey-snatcher” on the stock exchange, a small-time dealer in stocks and shares. Nan's mother, Phoebe, had been a feather-curler and cleaner at Queen Victoria's court, setting off for Buckingham Palace every day to keep boas and ostrich plumes in trim. In fact, the society in which Nadine Gordimer grew up was conventionally colonial and English-oriented, with limited opportunities for its daughters. She remembers celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ascension to the throne of King George V, decorating the house with bunches of leaves, and feeling very patriotic. The family laid claim to England as “home,” and the local society related to British traditions, even though the province of Gauteng, in which Springs was located, had originally been a Boer republic. Most girls left school at fifteen or even before, did a short commercial course at a local college, and worked as secretaries or clerks until marriage. The mine manager was rather like a local squire; his annual garden party had considerable social importance. The environment was that of a company mining town on a great windy plateau, a man-made landscape of mountains of white sand dug from underground, lakes of waste mine water, and plantations of eucalyptus trees (used as pit props).

Gordimer's cultural background was thin. People in Springs read Reader's Digest and books chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club, though Gordimer herself haunted the local library. Her mother, however, broke with convention to some extent, sending her daughters to the local Catholic convent for a good education, in defiance of both the family background and the general anti-Catholic prejudice of the town. Gordimer has described her mother as humanistic and well-meaning toward blacks. She was apolitical but prepared to carry out typical acts of individualistic charity, in contrast to her husband's frankly prejudiced attitude. She set up a nursery and clinic for black children in the area. Gordimer's black nanny remained with her mother for years after the two girls had grown up—a close friend in some respects but a servant nonetheless, very much a character like Anna in The Lying Days. Gordimer herself visited a black township for the first time only as a young adult, as a member of an amateur dramatic troupe putting on a performance of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Playing Gwendolen Fairfax in a bustle and false bosom, she was horrified by the filth and poverty of the township, and she recognized in consternation that she was displaying European culture to an audience of whose own culture she knew nothing at all. (Her 1952 story “The Amateurs” is based on this experience.) Gordimer was also educated by her reading and considers herself to have been decisively influenced by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906). She realized that black South African mine workers lived similar lives to Sinclair's exploited meat packers in Chicago. She had always thought these men, who often wore native dress, were exotic, and it was a shock to realize that she, in fact, was the exotic outsider in Africa.

In contrast to her father's shadowy presence, Gordimer's mother's influence was a dominating one, in one vital respect at least. At the age of ten, a sudden faint on Gordimer's part led to the diagnosis of heart trouble, a ban on all physical activity, removal from school, and an adolescence passed in isolation, writing and reading. She was prevented from dancing, which she passionately enjoyed. (Her whole ambition had been to become a dancer.) Dancing is often a marker of freedom for the heroines of her novels. Gordimer spent time with those of her mother's generation at tea parties and social events, becoming a jester for the grown-ups and an accomplished mimic. Her sister, Betty, who was four years older, was already away at college. Later, Gordimer discovered that the “heart problem” was a fiction, fostered by her unhappily married mother for obscure emotional reasons. As a result of having a “delicate” daughter, Nan gained a constant companion and sustained a friendly relationship with the local doctor, who became a regular visitor. Gordimer has described her mother's action as decisive in shaping her life. “I retreated into myself. I became very introspective. She changed my whole character. … It was such incredible loneliness—it's a terrible thing to do to a child.” Her mother arranged for private tutoring, but Gordimer had absolutely no contact with other children and became, in her own description, “a little old woman.”1 Before her mother's death in 1976, she suppressed these facts from early autobiographical writings, portraying herself as an independent truant, voluntarily absenting herself from formal education. Interviewed in 1983, she commented, “It's only in the last decade of my life that I've been able to face all this.”2

Critics have seized upon this personal story to suggest that Gordimer went on to endow her private history with public associations and that her enforced dependency on her protective-oppressive mother gave her sharp insight into the psychology of colonial dependencies, both of race and of gender. As Gordimer has noted, “First, you know, you leave your mother's house. Later you leave the house of the white race.”3 But psychological analysis is as much Gordimer's own subject as a process to which she might be naively subjected. Her work demonstrates that she is well read in the literature of psychoanalysis, particularly in the work of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, and her own fictional treatment of the heart problem (in Occasion for Loving, 1963) challenges the Freudian paradigm directly, as an ahistorical explanation of the individual. The suspicion lingers, nevertheless, that it was her unusual upbringing that made Gordimer into a writer. The years spent in solitude, reading and writing, gave additional impetus to a writing career initiated at the age of nine, somewhat improbably, with a poem, written as a school exercise, eulogizing the Transvaal president Paul Kruger, an Afrikaner Nationalist symbol.

As a child Gordimer read anything and everything. She describes looking back at one of her childhood notebooks and finding little book reviews of works that she had read at the age of twelve. Her review of Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936) was followed by that of Samuel Pepys's diary, with no indication that there was any particular difference between the two works, and she was still reading children's books as well. By age ten Gordimer was drafting whole newspapers modeled on the Johannesburg paper The Star, with book reviews and invented weddings, funerals, and advertisements. Real publications were to follow swiftly, first in 1937 with children's stories in the Sunday supplement of the Johannesburg Sunday Express. Many letters followed, and Gordimer corresponded with some of the children for a long time. The following year, when she was fifteen, she published her first adult short story, “Come Again Tomorrow,” in The Forum, a Liberal periodical founded by the politician J. H. Hofmeyer. Gordimer published it anonymously in order to conceal her age. From then on she became a regular contributor to South African journals and magazines such as Trek, Common Sense, Vandag, Jewish Affairs, and South African Opinion, most of which were not primarily literary so much as they were political or cultural journals largely founded in an attempt to influence opinion away from the rising tide of Afrikaner nationalism. Gordimer's childhood, at least as a writer, was effectively over.

Given the facts of Gordimer's early publishing career, it was not difficult for her to get started as an adult author. The Afrikaans poet Uys Krige suggested that one of her stories be included in an anthology. Silver Leaf, a small, new publishing house in Johannesburg, brought out the first collection of Gordimer's stories, Face to Face, in 1949. When Krige suggested that she submit her work overseas and found her an agent, her stories began to appear in American magazines, first in The Yale Review in 1950 and in The Virginia Quarterly Review and Harper's shortly afterward. In 1950 The New Yorker bought “A Watcher of the Dead”; Gordimer was thrilled to receive proofs with the famous editor Harold Ross's comments on them. After Ross's death her editor at the magazine was Katherine White, the wife of E. B. White, with both of whom Gordimer became a close friend. The New Yorker offered her a contract under which the magazine would have first refusal of any short story she wrote.

Gordimer has paid tribute to her agent, Sidney Satenstein, who looked out for her in her early career. The childless Satenstein, a colorful figure who enjoyed gambling, golf, and cigars, had a fatherly regard for Gordimer, who, by age twenty-nine, was a divorced mother with a small child. Satenstein enjoyed sending her French perfume and throwing large parties for her. When Gordimer's story collection The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories (1952) was accepted for publication in the United States by Simon and Schuster, it was with the understanding that she would also write a novel. The publishing firm commissioned her first novel, The Lying Days, but it was Satenstein who provided her with enough money to live on while she wrote it. Beginning a writing career at such an early age had both its advantages and its drawbacks, as Gordimer herself has noted:

When you begin writing very young as I did, you are really seeing everything in the world for the first time, so you tend to rely on sense impressions. There's a glittering sensuous surface to your writing, it's full of suggestion, impressionistic; but you are not preoccupied with complex ideas. The intellectual possibilities of a short story are not fully developed because you are still so fascinated with the breathing and living surface of life. So that's how you begin. Then your experience becomes more complex, and your desire to delve into human motivation becomes more complex, and this needs more room for development. Bigger themes take hold of you and they belong in a broader form—in the novel.4

If the false heart condition offers one way of defining Gordimer, her involvement in South African history provides another. For some critics the problem was not so much the mother as the mother country. Stephen Clingman reads Gordimer's work largely in terms of the conditioning force of social and ideological codes, as if she had been created by South Africa itself and deprived of any individual agency. But history can be as much of an overarching master narrative as psychology, and Gordimer herself has always argued that she would have been a writer even if she had not been a South African. She nonetheless recognized in 1965 that apartheid had been the crucial experience of her life. In this connection two comments speak for themselves. In a 1963 interview with Studs Terkel, Gordimer said, “People like myself have two births, and the second one comes when you break out of the colour bar.”5 In 1981 she observed, “If you write honestly about life in South Africa, apartheid damns itself.”6

Gordimer's own second birth appears to have taken place in the 1950s. She studied for only a year at the University of the Witwatersrand because she had no high-school diploma and thus could not undertake a degree program. But she began to move in Johannesburg's artistic circles and to meet blacks socially. In the 1950s Gordimer's involvement with Drum magazine brought her into contact with a large group of black writers and artists during the brief golden age of multiracialism fostered by the Congress Alliance of the 1950s and associated with Sophiatown, a culturally and racially mixed area of Johannesburg. Es'kia Mphahlele was her first black friend; both were struggling young writers. Mphahlele was a regular contributor to Fighting Talk and was highly politicized. Gordimer worked on Nat Nkasa's magazine, The Classic. Black musicians were leading the cultural drive of the 1950s; it was a time of memorable parties, with people dancing all night, visiting shebeens (illicit drinking dens), and going on pub crawls. (Gordimer found the shebeens, with their emphasis on solid, dogged drinking, rather boring.) In the 1950s Gordimer also formed a close friendship with Bettie du Toit, a trade unionist and political activist who eventually had to leave South Africa for exile in Ghana. Gordimer has said that “[s]he remains unique in my affection and admiration because she has transcended the ties of blood and friendship to which most of us limit our active concern for the simple reason that we cannot feel anything beyond this orbit of relationship.”7

In the 1960s the massacre of peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville, the arrest and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, and political show trials that were designed to quash opposition led to unprecedented repression of both Liberal and radical protest. Gordimer has described the Treason Trial of 1956-1960 as of major importance in her life. One of the accused, African National Congress (ANC) president Albert Luthuli, was staying in her house at the time, and she later wrote a biographical sketch of him. When Mandela was sentence to life in prison in 1964 for sabotage, Gordimer did not recoil from the ANC, as many white Liberals did, and she became a close friend of Mandela's lawyer George Bizos. (There was at one time a plan for her to write Mandela's memoirs.) The events at Sharpeville had had momentous effects on her group of friends: “an incredible time when … almost everyone I knew was in jail or fleeing.”8 Sophiatown had been bulldozed and replaced by a white suburb, unashamedly named Triomf (Triumph). By the mid 1960s several of Gordimer's friends from the previous decade—Mphahlele, Nkasa, Lewis Nkosi, and Can Themba—had all left South Africa.

In reaction to the silencing of an entire generation of black artists, Gordimer began a concerted campaign against censorship, linking political and cultural repression in a battery of essays and speeches. The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing (1973), a study of indigenous African writing, was a product of her championing of black writers. Gordimer's interest in the African continent had begun in the 1950s, when she traveled for the first time to Rhodesia, Zambia, and Botswana. She went to Egypt in 1954 (in the week that Gamal Abdel Nasser took power) and again in 1958, and she traveled up the Congo River into East Africa just before the Belgian Congo gained its independence. In 1969 Gordimer visited Madagascar, and at one point in the 1960s she even considered emigrating to Zambia. Her travel writing, republished in The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places (1988), provides a vivid record of her experiences, which spanned the great period of African independence movements.

As a vice president of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists (PEN) and a patron and regional representative of the largely black Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), Gordimer has also been tireless in the struggle against censorship worldwide. (Three of her own novels were banned in South Africa.) She was heavily involved in the Anti-Censorship Action Group (ACAG). A vociferous opponent of apartheid, Gordimer grew increasingly radical in the 1970s and now describes herself as a socialist. The 1970s were a painful period for white writers, as the growth of South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement tended to silence and marginalize them and black activists increasingly perceived them as irrelevant. The multiracial writers' association to which Gordimer belonged was dissolved, and black writers formed their own group. She became increasingly interested in the black trade-union movement as one of the few areas in which whites could work with, rather than patronizingly for, blacks.

Although Gordimer had had ties to the ANC while it was an underground organization, it was only with the foundation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983 that she found an alliance of anti-apartheid forces with which she could identify. She also became active in COSAW and more involved in the cultural wing of the ANC, having frequent contacts with Mongane Wally Serote, then manning the ANC cultural desk in London. Gordimer was among those who attended the 1982 Culture and Resistance Festival in Botswana. COSAW essentially replaced the local chapter of PEN, a move that brought some criticism from abroad. Gordimer explained that under the PEN charter, which allows members to join irrespective of their political affiliation, her group would not have been able to refuse membership to those who served the South African government's censorship board and banned other people's books.

Gordimer has acknowledged that her participation in the Delmas Treason Trial (1985–1988) was a watershed for her. The main charge against the twenty-two UDF activists on trial was that their political activities constituted a conspiracy with the banned ANC to overthrow the state. The legal defense team attempted to contest the idea of conspiracy by arguing that the political activities cited arose out of the specific conditions of township life and not from illegal or external prompting. Gordimer's role was to testify to the “good faith” and character of those among the accused whom she knew well, particularly Popo Molefe and Patrick “Terror” Lekota. Lekota, a prominent UDF leader, later became the premier of the Free State (formerly Orange Free State) province, while Molefe became premier of the North-West province, both under the ANC banner, after the 1994 elections. Gordimer was often in court, despite the journey of 120 kilometers from her home to Delmas in the Transvaal, where the accused were being held. In providing evidence in favor of Lekota, she also defended others who were not then in court but were also accused of participating in a conspiracy, including Allan Boesak, Oliver Tambo, and Mandela. Under cross-examination, Gordimer agreed that she supported Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the ANC:

—As I say, I myself am against violence, but I can see that in the circumstances that have been brought about in South Africa (namely the intransigence of the white establishment towards black aspirations), a time had to come when there would be a military wing in a mass movement like the African National Congress.

—Do you support Umkhonto we Sizwe, is that what you are saying?

—I support the African National Congress.

—Please answer the question, Miss Gordimer. Do you support Umkhonto we Sizwe?

—Yes, as part of the ANC.9

One reason that Gordimer became involved in the trial was literary. Lekota, under detention, was writing a book in the form of letters to his daughter, and she was smuggling it out with the help of his lawyers.

Gordimer became a member of the ANC the moment it was legal to do so, in February 1990. Joining before this time had not been like signing up for membership in a club and receiving a card, since it was a banned organization. Gordimer remains committed to the Left, stressing the need “to love truth enough, to pick up the blood-dirtied, shamed cause of the left, and attempt to recreate it in terms of what it was meant to be, not what sixty-five years of human power-perversion have made of it.”10

In October 1991 Gordimer received the Nobel Prize in literature. When her name was announced as the winner, there were cries of “Finally” from the Swedish journalists present. She was only the second African to win the literature prize (after Wole Soyinka in 1986) and the first woman since Nelly Sachs in 1966. Gordimer refused to be introduced for the acceptance of the award by any representative of the South African government but was accompanied by friends from the ANC. Her return to South Africa after the ceremony drew a crowd of younger black writers, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who greeted her exultantly at the airport. In the judgment of the Swedish Academy of Letters, Gordimer won the prize for her epic writings centered on the effects of race relations in South Africa. Although Sture Ahlen, the permanent secretary of the academy that selects the winners, said that the prize had nothing to do with political relations in Africa, the citation applauded Gordimer's continual involvement on behalf of literature and free speech in a police state marked by censorship and the persecution of both books and people. Gordimer welcomed the prize as an opportunity to focus international attention on South Africa.

In 1993, under the wing of the ANC's Department of Arts and Culture, Gordimer was elected to a board of trustees responsible for overseeing a proposed Foundation for Arts and Culture, concerned with the process of transformation and cultural reconstruction in South Africa. In 1996 she became a trustee of the Arts and Culture Trust of the South African president and in 1998 was appointed a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in the campaign to eradicate poverty. Twice married, to Gerald Gavronsky (1949; divorced, 1952) and then to Reinhard Cassirer (1954), with a daughter from her first marriage, a son from her second, and four grandchildren, Gordimer remains a resident of South Africa.


Helen Shaw: Helen is the central character and the first-person narrator of The Lying Days. In some senses the plot of the novel focuses as much on her internal development as upon external events. A redheaded child of Scottish ancestry, Helen evolves in the course of the narrative from a young girl in a yellow tartan kilt, replete with kilt pin and white handbag, to an independent twenty-four-year-old about to depart from South Africa for...

(The entire section is 15417 words.)