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

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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...

(This entire section contains 15417 words.)

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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 Europe. Along the way, she sheds most of her conventional social assumptions and begins to question the definition of reality offered by her country. Although Helen merely experiences many of the ordinary events of adolescence (first love, first sexual experiences, friendships, a break and then reconciliation with parents, education), internally she embarks on a quest for a life based on the integrity of her own choices. She comes to accept that she is a product of South African society and that she cannot leave that society completely behind her, but in the end she no longer accepts the premises on which her parents' lives were founded. At the close, Helen refers to herself as writing the novel, which has allowed her to take imaginative hold of her South African childhood without sacrificing her objective, mature assessment of it. There are thus two Helens: the young one who experiences the events of the narrative, and the adult who depicts her former self with hindsight and often with irony.

Joel Aaron: The reader first encounters Joel (although he is not identified at this point) as a small white boy at the concession stores, holding a toy pistol in one hand and a bicycle bell in the other as he makes his confident way into his home. Helen sees him again, without recognizing him as the boy at the stores, on her way home from school on the local bus. Joel is riding a bicycle and holding a live hen under each arm as he heads toward town from the stores. Of the bus passengers, insulated from the outside world, only Helen notices him, and she gazes at him through the window. Much later, on the commuter train to the university, she meets Joel again. He remembers her as a child, though she has no idea who he is. They have been living less than a mile from each other, but because Joel is Jewish and Helen is the daughter of a mine official, because the concession stores cater to black customers and are considered dangerous and unhealthy by her mother, they have been living in separate social worlds. Joel also remembers that Helen glared at him from the bus as he took the hens to town to be killed. The errand, presumably to ensure that the hens were properly slaughtered in accordance with Jewish dietary law, marked Joel as “Other” to Helen, and created a link between him and the black world.

At the university Helen and Joel become firm friends. Joel has been discharged from the army with a mastoid problem and is training to be an architect, although at other times he has considered citrus farming, and eventually immigrates to Israel. He is both Helen's best friend and her sharpest critic, in love with her and at the same time aware that they do not have a future as a couple, partly because of their different backgrounds, partly because Helen is not physically attracted to him. Attending a dance with Joel is not a success. She cannot flirt with him, and their friendship remains essentially intellectual and Platonic. Although Joel finds Helen a place to live in Johannesburg, he loses touch with her as she is absorbed into a group of armchair radicals and artists centered around the Marcuses. On one level, Joel functions as an alter ego to Helen; the story of his development shadows hers. On another level, he reveals to the reader her narcissism and her subconscious processes. Helen “forgets” to attend his graduation, just as she never remembers having seen him as a child. Her self-centeredness is both a failure of attention to others and a survival device. In the end she follows her instincts without external prompting.

Joel reappears at the end of the novel as he and Helen spend two days together in Durban before embarking on their separate ships. She recognizes that he is one of the few people who can accept her as she really is, with both her idealism and her “Atherton self,” which still responds to the internalized repressions and prohibitions of her childhood.

Mary Seswayo: Helen first meets Mary Seswayo, a black student, in the cloakroom at the university. Mary looks at first as if she expects Helen to challenge her right to be there but then relaxes. The university is one of the few places in Johannesburg where white and black women share toilet facilities. Helen, similarly uncertain of her right to be there and not part of the group of conventional girls powdering their noses and doing their hair in front of the mirror, sees Mary as a double: “what I saw on her face now was what was on my own.”11 Yet, she allows Mary to stand back so that she, Helen, can go through the door ahead of her. Helen is quite unconscious of her own racism. She describes the process of their friendship in terms that dehumanize Mary: “Getting to know Mary Seswayo was like gently coaxing a little shy animal to edge forward to your hand” (127). Later, she remarks that Mary is “like a stray dog” (184) setting off explosions in a minefield when she is the occasion of a rift between Helen and her parents. Mary is in the same tutorial group as Helen, though she almost never participates in the discussion and quite unselectively writes down everything anybody says. She may have a mission-school background at best and lacks the cultural context to make sense of much of the literature the group is studying. (Joel and Helen speculate about her background, but the facts are never certain. Gordimer's point is to emphasize how little her white characters know of a black person's life.)

Mary lives in Mariastad, some seven miles from the university. Helen and Charles Bessemer, a Johannesburg doctor, give her a lift home on one occasion, and Helen is horrified when she realizes that Mary has to get her water from a common tap, shares a tiny shack with several people, and contends with cramped space and constant noise when studying. The reader is never shown the inside of the house, and Mary says very little in the car. It is only after the failure of Helen's well-meaning attempt to shelter her friend while they study for their exams that Mary speaks for herself. To Helen's surprise, Mary is infuriated by her action: “She was not humiliated; in fact I had never seen her so confident, so forgetful of herself” (202). Mary explains the assumptions inherent in Helen's angry reaction to her mother's refusal to have Mary as a guest: “The fact that I'm good enough doesn't mean that she's got to want me. If I were a white girl she could say no, if she felt like it. But because I'm black she's got to say yes. Don't you see, if I am good enough, I'm good enough not to go where I'm not wanted” (203). Helen recognizes that Mary is right and also that she herself does not respect Mary enough to be able to quarrel with her, to treat her as an equal. Mary emerges as very much Helen's superior in understanding and maturity, able to reassure her and even to shape the event in literary terms: “You want to give a nice plump person to practicing cannibals and tell them they mustn't eat him because it's like eating themselves. But they're used to eating people. They haven't had their ideas of diet changed yet, like you have” (203). The analogy reveals Mary's subtlety and cultural sophistication, reversing the usual stereotype in order to characterize the whites as the cannibals who have yet to evolve toward humane culture. Helen, who thinks herself superior in terms of European culture, fails to see the point and describes the analogy as drawn from “some Bantu folktale” (203). Later, the reader learns that Mary has become a teacher, and that Helen has lost contact with her.

Anna: Mrs. Shaw has had the same black servant for fifteen years and shares confidences with her, to Helen's annoyance. Like all black domestic servants, Anna lives in a room in a detached building, does not use the family cutlery, crockery, or bath, and is treated either as a source of irritation (complaining when Helen goes out with Joel) or as a figure of fun. Mrs. Shaw calls Helen to laugh at Anna when she gets dressed up to go out (162). The reader never learns anything more of Anna's life, not even her full name. She is glimpsed drinking tea out of an old jam jar or, on her day off, as “a bossy figure in the dirty jersey and overalls worn colourless across the behind and frayed over the breasts” (139) in which she would never have dared to appear in front of Helen's mother. (Mrs. Shaw also insists that Anna have proper false teeth, for the sake of appearances.)

Paul: Because Helen's father has an administrative job at the mine and rarely goes underground into the mine works, he does not have access to the black miners, who can be ordered to work in the gardens of the white workers and beaten if they resist. Instead, he uses Paul, who started work as a messenger in the office when Mr. Shaw was a young clerk and is still a messenger. Because of African underdevelopment, Paul will always be a messenger; unlike Helen, he could not feature in a bildungsroman. He comes two Saturdays a month to work in the Shaws' garden. Mrs. Shaw characterizes him as “one of the old kind” (33) and brings him a big dish of tea and some meat between thick bread, to be eaten outside, while she discusses the problems of bringing up children. In her preface to On the Mines (1973), an album of photographs by David Goldblatt, Gordimer relates a childhood memory of going along with a small friend who had been detailed to take one of these gardeners a mug of tea. The black man could only smile at the children and the man who employed him; he and his employer had no common language. Paul's sons are at school in the Northern Transvaal, where he believes they will get a better education and avoid contact with the urban crime of the place where he lives with their mother, who repeatedly begs to have her children with her while they are still young. Helen passes on her outgrown toys to the children. She is fond of Paul, who fixes toys for her, even though she finds it demeaning for her mother to chat with the gardener rather than merely give him orders. For Helen, he is always an “old boy” (33), permanently humiliated and infantilized by South African racism, unable to be a father to his own children, and the object of a white child's condescension. Neither she nor her mother sees the irony of attempting to discuss family life with a man whose family has been driven apart by white society.

Mrs. Shaw: Helen's mother's first name is Jess (180), though the reader does not discover this until more than halfway through the novel, when Helen is about to leave home. Mrs. Shaw is seen so much through Helen's eyes that she has almost no separate identity beyond the role of powerful mother. Helen comments that in her adolescence “my life was so much my mother's that it seemed that the only difference between us was the significance of age” (39). Mrs. Shaw sees her marriage as a social rather than a personal relationship, assuring her a place in the hierarchy of Atherton. She spends her time involved in domestic affairs, charity work, and the local recreation club. She brings Helen books, sews her dance dresses, and takes her about with her to a succession of ladies' tea parties. Ostensibly respecting her husband as the master of the household, Mrs. Shaw is in reality all-powerful. Helen's first attempts to challenge her, to defend her university friends and interests against the materialism and lack of culture of the mining community, provoke her mother's immediate hostility.

Although Mrs. Shaw apparently does nothing that would characterize her as an unkind mother, Gordimer's depiction of her reveals the monster beneath the social surface, the all-controlling mother who swamps her daughter completely. She is repeatedly associated with insects. When her mother writes to her at the Kochs' house, Helen leaves the letter unanswered as an ugly creepy-crawly runs across the pages (54). When she argues with Joel about her mother, she crushes a beetle underfoot (125). Helen sees her mother as manipulative and evasive, operating from behind a facade of conformity and female acquiescence to the male, subtly tripping up her daughter at every point, and always presenting a facade to the outside world of maternal martyrdom. In many respects, the character of Helen's mother pervades all the others, for Helen sees the others only with regard to their likeness to or difference from her mother and her mother's views. Identified with the colonial “motherland,” Mrs. Shaw also has a symbolic role. Separation from her mother marks for Helen a distancing of herself from European, colonial views and a movement into South African society.

Mr. Shaw: Helen's father, G. P. Shaw, is assistant secretary of the Atherton mine at the beginning of the novel and later becomes the secretary. In many respects his identity is entirely bound up in and subsumed by his official role in the mining town. Although Helen describes how she liked to read his name aloud from the list of tennis fixtures, she never speaks it. (He is named as George only twice in the course of the novel.) As an office worker, Mr. Shaw rarely plumbs the depths of the mine; his own life is superficial, limited to surface concerns. Self-educated from volumes in the Home University Library series, The British Encyclopaedia, and similar self-help books, he is quite unworried when Helen at first refuses to go to college and equally unworried when she changes her mind, convincing himself that she will have the advantage of a more mature beginning. When Joel visits the house, Mr. Shaw treats him as a foreigner, talking about “the customs of your people” (120) and behaving toward him with implicitly anti-Semitic patronage. Mr. Shaw goes in for dietary fads until he is diagnosed as anemic; he then switches his interest in his own body to the psyche and embraces the theory that all illness is in the mind. (His initials, G. P., suggest his fascination with medicine.) He recommends to Helen a popular psychiatric study, The Subconscious You, which falls open at a chapter headed “How you think with your blood: The problem of prejudice.” (190). When the family begins to argue over the dinner table about Helen's friendship with Mary, Mr. Shaw's only concern is that they should not argue at the table because emotion is bad for the digestion. Almost entirely peripheral to the struggles between mother and daughter, Mr. Shaw is a comic figure, blind to his own prejudices and those of his society, unaware of the unconscious lives of his wife and daughter, and essentially concerned only with having an easy, smooth-running life.

The Aarons: Joel's parents offer the first of several alternative family models to Helen. Mrs. Aaron is described as a typical East European Jew. Helen notes the way she holds her hands in front of her as if waiting for instructions, her “swollen doll's body” (115), and cheap silk dress with the remains of an elaborate lace collar. Used to hard work, Mrs. Aaron 's movements are slow, “like a horse who keeps up the plod of pulling a load even when he is set free in the field” (116). When she offers sticky sweetmeats, Helen nonetheless notes the “grace of behaviour” (116) that is supported by a centuries-old tradition. The Aaron household is untouched by the outside world, the air redolent of “ten years' pots of favourite foods, burned with the candles of ten years' Friday nights” (112), unchanging in the permanence of rituals and old-fashioned, shabby furniture.

When Helen eats Sunday supper at the Aarons and meets Joel's father, his aunt, his sister Colley (with her husband and daughter), and a very old man whose identity is never clarified, her own prejudices surface. She thinks longingly of the simple ham and tomato sandwiches that her parents used to eat on a Sunday evening, although at this moment they are actually attending a braaivleis, an outdoor barbecue featuring large chunks of charred meat. Helen looks unfavorably on the Aarons' delicatessen foods: a mass of gray wet fish on a roll (marinated herring), sardines on a plate that retain the shape of their tin, horseradish sauce, and beetroot. She refused to attend thebraaivleis because of the way the polite English gentility converted the outdoor roasting of meat into a garden party, an index of the general tendency of the colonial culture to enfeeble real appetites and events. Yet, her own longing for ham in a Jewish household reveals an unconscious rejection of other cultures. The ready-made delicatessen foods, symbols of a culture with a long tradition of complicated dietary practices, are at the other end of the spectrum from the pretended primitiveness and naturalness of the barbecue. Implicitly, Helen recognizes that neither her parents nor the Aarons can now feed her or nurture her emotionally. The Aarons' conversation concentrates entirely on the younger generation of Jews who are “getting on” financially, building new houses in the suburbs, and progressing in their careers. They dismiss any suggestion of hostility from the Nationalist government to Jews on the grounds that the economy would collapse without their contributions, a blindness and complacency even more shocking since the supper takes place in the late 1940s. At the close of the novel, Helen admits her distaste for the family to Joel: “Money's their civilisation” (352). For all their long traditions, the Aarons have bought into South African society and cannot afford to challenge its racism.

Basil Tatchett: From Atherton, Basil attends the university at the same time as Helen and is characterized as a philistine. When he sees Helen reading George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), he asks “Who's he?” and does not even wait for a reply (106). Basil, described by Helen as having his mother's “spade-shaped jaw” (98), is always part of a crowd of similar young men from Atherton whom she avoids on her daily journeys to and from Johannesburg. Mrs. Tatchett later complains to Mrs. Shaw that Helen thinks herself too good for Basil because she has refused to accompany him to a Halloween dance and does not go to the cocktail party in honor of his graduation. As Helen's contemporary, Basil is a symbol of mindless conformity to the norms and assumptions of his mother's world. Helen always notes resemblances and connections between young men and their mothers, indicating to the reader that her own primary relationship is still with her own mother, whom she challenges or resists through her heterosexual relationships.

Ian Petrie: Helen meets Ian Petrie on the train to the university. A pleasant, bulldog-faced man smoking a pipe and immersed in a novel by Anthony Trollope, he reveals that he is a former serviceman, a Londoner, who had emigrated, fought with the South Africans in Abyssinia and Egypt, and married Lindsay Theunissen, an Atherton girl. Ian appears to subscribe to a rejection of intellectuality in human relationships (what D. H. Lawrence called “sex in the head”) in favor of animal physicality. He enjoys being married to Lindsay because she has a “physical intelligence” (106), is extremely good at every form of sport, and offers enjoyable sexual activity. Ian sees no need for intellectual companionship with his wife: “I can talk to other people, I can read on my own” (107). Joel describes him as a man who makes everyone around him feel comfortable. Helen listens to Ian, aware that he sets her at ease “as if a tight button had popped” (107). To Mrs. Shaw, however, he is a pariah, “That awful man Petrie who was Belle Theunissen's fancy man that she married off to her daughter” (107). In his cameo role, Petrie indicates the repressions of the mine community and the sense in which Joel and Helen are moving away from those repressions.

Lindsay Theunissen: The daughter of Belle Theunissen and the wife of Ian Petrie, Lindsay is remembered by Helen as mentally damaged, backward, and too hyperactive to learn. The rumor is that the damage is the fault of the mother, who had attempted unsuccessfully to terminate the pregnancy, leaving Lindsay with minor brain damage. Later, Mrs. Theunissen married her off to her own lover, Petrie. A perennial child who has never grown up and spends her time playing games, Lindsay offers an ambiguous image of complete physical freedom, achieved at the expense of total intellectual and moral domination by her mother. She is happy because she remains forever a damaged child. As such, she casts Ian's defense of the physical in an ironic light and suggests a hidden story of mother-daughter relationships beneath the story he tells of heterosexual love. Lindsay may be read as the opposite of Gordimer, whose childhood was intellectual but lacked all physical exercise.

Mr. Thabo: Thabo is the sole black male student in one of Helen's classes at the university. He is described as “a fat, pompous, teacher-priest” (128). He is voluble in class, using the manner of a preacher addressing laymen for the unfamiliar relationship of a black speaking to whites. While apparently amusing his white audience and performing for their approval, he may be deliberately clowning, using the mask of the unctuous black to tease his audience surreptitiously. Helen describes him as sitting at the tutor's feet “like a seal waiting for the keeper's fish to land in his mouth” (128). A sample of Thabo's literary comment is derisive: he finds fault with William Makepeace Thackeray's discursiveness, which makes it hard to follow the plot in his novels. Given the discursive and digressive quality of Gordimer's plot, Thabo is something of a “plant” or stooge for the author. The reader is checked from voicing similar criticism by the unattractively earnest and unintelligent characterization of Thabo.

Ludi Koch: Ludicrously phallic in name, Ludi is the son of Alice Koch, an old friend of Mrs. Shaw at whose home Helen enjoys a holiday on the south coast of Natal. Impatient with the restrictions and conventions of his society, Ludi is on three-week leave from the army and spends his time fishing, swimming, and making minor repairs to his mother's chicken coops. The chicken farm has not prospered, and most of the chickens appear to have died, but he enjoys do-it-yourself work of this type and is frequently seen mending domestic things, tinkering with machinery, or giving advice to neighbors who are less mechanically minded than he is. Ludi extols the joys of nature, particularly Pondoland, where he often spends a week fishing, sleeping on the beach, and diving on the coral reefs; yet, he is at one with machinery in a way that others are not. Helen's view of Ludi is starry-eyed and adoring, but the reader sees the contradictions in his character and is less able to perceive him as an ideal. He is so concerned with the essentials of life, the inner self, rather than with the social exterior, that at one point he is hardly able to describe a neighbor's appearance to Helen (56). The reader wonders whether he actually sees anyone else at all.

Apart from his relationship with his mother, Ludi's intimate relationships are with objects and places. Typically, when Helen allows him to touch her breasts, he is most enchanted by the shells and pebbles that have been caught there by the halter of her bathing costume. He is characterized as a diver into the depths, beneath the surface of the superficial social existence of Helen's parents, yet he describes sex as a meaningless and perfunctory act that leaves him disgusted with the woman involved. Although Helen suspects that he has previously slept with Maud Harmel, the young wife of Oscar, an older neighbor, Ludi does not visit Maud. When he finds her sweater, he immediately discusses the insecticide he used to mothproof the place where it was stored. Later on, he loses Helen's address and writes to her in care of her father at the mine. Although Helen's first erotic experiences are with Ludi, their affair remains unconsummated; after the exchange of a few letters, the relationship peters out. Helen never discusses her reading in her letters to him. It is later revealed that he has returned home to run a small store and is still living with his mother. Although Ludi is a means to sensual liberation for Helen, Gordimer is swift to check any easy primitivism and underlines the deficiencies of his apparent withdrawal from society, the machinery of which he nonetheless keeps repairing. His is a separate peace with South Africa, apolitical and fundamentally untenable.

Alice Koch: Ludi's mother offers an alternative maternal image to Helen, sentimental and emotionally open in ways that Mrs. Shaw is not. Mrs. Koch enjoys a close relationship with her son, whose first letter to the besotted Helen tactlessly informs her that he has already exchanged two letters and a telegram with his mother, who is “an extraordinary person, so absolutely right to live with” (93). Mrs. Koch's husband left her many years ago. She bears a strong resemblance to Mrs. Morel in D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913), though without the possessiveness displayed by Mrs. Morel in her Oedipal relationship with her son Paul. Ludi is described as “seeing in his mother the heart of the young woman which had stayed, like a plant taken from the climate of its growth, static” (55) ever since her husband left. For all the idealization of Mrs. Koch and her surrounding wonderland of sea and jungle, she remains another example of the powerful mothers who are a feature of Gordimer's fiction.

John and Jenny Marcus: When Helen goes to stay with the Marcuses, she enters yet another alternative family. John is a structural engineer and Jewish; Jenny is Protestant. Formerly a theatrical set designer in London, she is now a mother and is first seen in the novel nursing her child. Helen is unashamedly fascinated by the look of Jenny's breasts, their shiny skin and veins, and by the apparently unrepressed ease of the household. Helen stays in the baby's room and assumes a childlike role in the household, enjoying the bohemian, artistic freedom and the apparent rejection of materialist standards. But the idyll has its underside. The reader learns that each member of the couple has begun to impinge on the freedom of the other. John had planned an archaeological expedition, but Jenny, pregnant and unable to accompany him, had vetoed it. One day Helen finds Jenny trying on Helen's new velvet hat in front of the mirror. She would love to buy one, but John will not allow it because “only bourgeois women wear hats” (214). A moment later John appears clutching eggs and bananas and looking like “a triumphant looter” (214). Unsurprisingly, the Marcuses eventually move to a house in the bourgeois suburbs, which they previously scorned. Jenny becomes absorbed in the role of matron, irritated with women who do not have children, and mindlessly mouthing John's opinions. She is last seen with her second child, whom she is rearing quite differently from the first child on the principle of “the natural young animal” (336), rather than adhering to strict timetables and a set of rules. Jenny's theories of child development have changed and become more radical as she herself has become more conventional. Helen, the surrogate child, has developed beyond the pretensions of the Marcuses.

Charles Bessemer: Helen has a physical relationship with Charles Bessemer that stops short only at penetrative sex. The relationship begins as a result of Helen's guilt when she and Charles give Mary a lift to Mariastad. In reaction to the poverty of Mary's life, Helen falls upon lobster and turkey and indulges herself with Charles. Charles is a doctor at the tuberculosis hospital in Johannesburg, and Helen's parents see him as a good prospect for a son-in-law, imagining him as a rising suburban general practitioner. In reality, he is so concerned with his personal freedom that he moves from job to job rather than being promoted upward into a conventional social position. The relationship ends because Helen cannot bring herself to go any further sexually with Charles. When she meets him later on, he cuts through all her evasions with “that narrow diagnostic look” (299), which she has previously found difficult to avoid. Although a minor character, Charles has an important role in the novel in connection with the imagery of the body and the metaphors of illness and contagion. Always smelling of ether, he is involved in curing the ills of society, and he provides a first step for Helen on the way to emerging from her own enfeebled background.

Paul Clark: Helen's lover, Paul, has been brought up on the farm in Natal that has been in his family since the nineteenth century. He speaks Zulu and Sesutu fluently, acquired from the black boys with whom he played as a child, but he has abandoned the feudal atmosphere of the farm, first in favor of a degree in law, then in social science. He has taken a position with the Native Affairs department as a social worker, at first concerned with “poor relief,” then with housing. Apparently having undergone a “revulsion against a capitalist-imperialist outlook” (216), Paul attracts Helen both physically and morally. He appears to have entered into the lives of Africans, to be at the heart of social change. Her parents are equally attracted by Paul's pure English blood and wealthy, well-respected family. When he has a bad throat infection and a tonsillectomy, Helen moves in with him to nurse him. Significantly, it is as an invalid that Paul is given his fullest presentation as a character. He is implicitly part of a sick society. Despite the real personal intimacy of the couple's relationship, the tensions of that society eventually encroach upon them, and Helen begins to see that Paul is caught between contradictory social and political imperatives. When Mrs. Shaw condemns her daughter for immoral behavior, Paul can only laugh, assuming that these strictures are of no real concern to Helen. But Helen realizes at once that the person she is when living with Paul is less real than the daughter of Mrs. Shaw. In a sense, the relationship with Paul fails not only because of external political pressures but also because it is finally never as important to Helen as her relationship with her mother.

Isa Welsh: Isa is married to Tom Welsh but has many lovers, including Paul Clark before he meets Helen. She collects people around her, especially those who will cast her in an artistic or unconventional light, such as a promising Italian pianist or an Indian couple who can be displayed over curry at her house. Sharp-tongued and forthright, Isa at first appears as an unsympathetic character who snaps at Helen. Though highly intelligent herself, she cannot bear other intelligent women around her. She warns Helen not to marry Paul, who will swallow her up. Later, Helen finds her antipathy for Isa mixed with liking, and she sympathizes with the problem Isa faces in the clash between her intelligence and her desire to be dominated and to look up to a man as a god. It is Isa who reunites Joel and Helen, casually informing her that he is sailing from Durban on the same weekend as she is. Isa later divorces Tom and becomes a well-known novelist, writing in exile from England.

Edna Schiller: Edna is an attractive, Jewish, Communist; she is well dressed and yet something of an abstraction. Helen finds it impossible to imagine Edna putting on makeup or choosing earrings. Edna mouths the ideological platitudes of orthodox Marxism—“African leaders will come from the people” (164)—and disapproves of any individual acts of friendship or concern for blacks as merely palliative. Edna dramatizes her own insignificant actions (such as selling copies of radical newspapers) as liable to expose her to state surveillance and telephone-tapping. When a bill for the suppression of Communism is passed and people are “named” and informed that they will be charged under the new act, Edna is offended not to be included on the list. Although Helen mocks Edna's fantasy of living dangerously, Paul counters that it takes some courage to undergo the risk of merely looking ridiculous. The passage of time alters the reader's reaction to Edna, since most Communists did take real risks and suffered severely at the hands of the South African government. Hindsight alters the reading of Edna's character, making Helen appear naive.

Sipho: Paul Clark's friend Sipho is an educated African nationalist who at first asks Paul to help arrange recitals and lectures in the townships. Then, as the movement of noncooperation with whites gains strength, Sipho opposes his friend and organizes a boycott of the sports field that Paul has found for them. Paul remains his friend, admiring his intelligence, integrity, and sense of compassion. Sipho is contrasted with Fanyana, a much less idealist and more politically astute figure. Sipho, a man of peace and a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, favors the methods of passive resistance, and he goes to the Alexandra township on the night of the May Day strike without fearing for his own safety. He is shot in the hip and dies later that night from the skull fracture he received when he fell. Fanyana, already under police surveillance as an activist and potential inciter of violence, takes care to stay at home and survives. For Paul, this outcome illustrates the fact that in the incipient revolutionary movement “the wrong people would die, the wrong people would be blamed” (329).


The major theme of The Lying Days is the resistance to repression, understood both personally, in the psychological sense, and politically, in the sense of opposition to a repressive regime. All the other themes of the novel flow from this central motif. In Helen Shaw, Gordimer created a character intent on escaping the narrow-mindedness of life in a South African mining town of stultifying dullness. Helen's way out is through her sexuality, introducing the theme of the body, which occupies much of the novel. Yet, by escaping to live in freedom with a lover in Johannesburg, Helen finds herself conforming in a different way to externally imposed sanctions and standards. When she is dressing for an outing with her mother in Atherton, Helen observes her mother's outfit with a wry smile. The green crepe dress, with a string of pearls and an artificial tea rose, is the outfit that, “with well-defined variations, would be worn by every other Mine woman there” (306), all of whom would also smell of lavender water. As a child Helen had only to smell lavender water to know that she was dealing with “a nice lady” (306). Helen is dressed quite differently, in a yellow shantung dress with a peasant-style skirt, along with a copper belt and heavy matching earrings. She is unrouged but heavily lipsticked. Yet, as she looks in the mirror, she realizes that she has conformed to an orthodoxy of opposition, that the outfit is exactly what any of her bohemian friends in Johannesburg would be wearing. She has not rebelled but merely joined a different crowd.

This realization has been foreshadowed earlier in the novel when Helen realizes that, for all their apparent freedom, the bohemians observe a language of clothes that is quite rigid in its grammar and forms of expression. Paul Clark is unusual in being tolerated while wearing expensive clothes. Jenny Marcus is not allowed by her husband to wear a hat since he considers it to be bourgeois. A woman in a taffeta dress and string of pearls marks herself out as uninteresting. The bohemian women have a tendency to dress in peasant outfits or native beadwork, claiming an allegiance to a class and an ethnic identity that is remote from their lives. Helen's sexual rebellion actually leaves her cooking a man's breakfast, giving up her university education, and taking any job that will keep her near him.

Gordimer also introduces the theme of struggle against conformity in political terms by highlighting the apparent futility of individual, personal rebellions in a context in which the African majority enjoys no freedom at all. This theme comes slowly to the foreground of the novel as Helen first clumsily condemns her mother's treatment of their black servant and then attempts an equally awkward friendship with Mary Seswayo. When she witnesses the shooting of an unarmed black man in a riot, Helen recognizes that personal rebellion cannot outweigh the forces of political repression. A major strength of The Lying Days is the slow development from the personal to the political. The reader empathizes with Helen's individual struggle against her parents, a theme that is common to most people, before seeing that in order to free herself fully, she must avoid being a party to the oppression of others.

Another theme that follows from the overarching concern with freedom is the relationship between mothers and daughters. Gordimer anticipates the feminist interest of the late twentieth century in this topic, particularly in the analysis of the nature of autonomy for a woman, who must seek identity not by rejecting the mother (as the son must do, in the classic Freudian paradigm) but by modeling herself on the mother. Although Helen's relationship with Mrs. Shaw is particularly intense, it is nonetheless representative of the problems of development for women who must both escape from and imitate the maternal role. Helen carries her mother with her everywhere as an internalized presence, and she measures other people by reference to this all-powerful figure.

Another major theme in The Lying Days concerns economic domination, first by the Anglophile and then by the Afrikaner whites, with the black population always underpaid and limited in their access to the material wealth of South Africa. Scenes in the concession stores (for Africans only), the town shops (for whites), the black townships, and the racially mixed streets of Johannesburg offer different images of the place of the different racial groups in the South African economy. Food is often a subtheme. Small details are telling, such as Helen's large cooked breakfast, which stands in contrast with the African miners' protest over their cornmeal rations and the crude meat sandwich given to a black worker at the whites' sumptuous evening party, or her appetite for lobster after seeing township dwellers cooking on open fires. Just as, in personal terms, Helen is nurtured by her mother physically while being starved of respect and freedom, South Africa reserves its plenty for only a select few.

Cultural sustenance is also a theme in The Lying Days. It is difficult for Helen to find any literature that represents South African reality as she knows it. The stories she reads as a child—of upper-middle-class children with their ponies, nannies, governesses, playrooms, and snow fights—are entirely exotic. She never needs to read fairy tales: “The sedate walk of two genteel infant Tories through an English park was other world enough for me” (21). Even when her mother offers her proletarian and socially conscious fiction, it has little relevance for Helen. As her taste matures, she embarks on the classics of European and American literature—Ernest Hemingway, Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, Tobias Smollett, and Anton Chekhov: “But in nothing that I read could I find anything that approximated to my own life; to our life on a gold mine in South Africa” (96). Only when Joel Aaron befriends her and takes her to concerts and exhibitions is Helen exposed to a broader culture. Even then, it is noteworthy that the artists she meets look away from Africa to Europe, whether they are “fiercely intellectual young Afrikaans poets” (158), dancers who end up performing in London or New York, or writers producing “intensely indigenous South African books from the self-imposed exile of England” (161). When Helen speaks of these artists as a group for whom all the barriers are down, she realizes that she has spoken “as if European society were all Africa” (161). The African experiences of her artist friends are repressed and ignored by the metropolitan colonial culture, which nonetheless feeds off them.

Most obviously, repression extends into the political sphere as Helen experiences the first years of the apartheid era, following the election in 1948 of the Nationalist government under Daniel F. Malan. Gordimer treats the topic obliquely at first, registering the different racialist measures introduced by the government and building up to a description of the May Day strike of 1950. The demonstrations by the striking workers are brutally repressed, and Helen recognizes that she must now leave South Africa.


The Lying Days is saturated in imagery, conveying a richly textured impression of the physical world surrounding Helen. For some critics, indeed, the profusion of imagery is wearisome; for others it is one of the major strengths of the novel. In the opening scene, in which Helen walks to the concession stores, she notes the world around her in a series of arresting images. The overarching image, despite the setting, on a dusty inland road, is of the sea. Later Helen expresses her sense of the disjunction between her parents' life and the deeper concerns of the individual in similar fashion: “I understood that almost all of my life at home, on the Mine, had been like that, conducted on a surface of polite triviality that was insensitive to the real flow of life that was being experienced, underneath, all the time, by everybody” (76). Such similes are part of a pattern of water imagery that Alan Lomberg has linked ideas of rhythm, music, and blood. In the course of her walk, Helen trails her fingers along the rippling corrugated tin fence; they rise and fall “in an arpeggio of movement. I thought of water” (16). Her mind moves to the sea, “which did something the same to your fingers, threading water through them … like the pages of a thick book falling away rapidly … back beneath your fingers to solidity” (16). The image of the book and of the life of the imagination is part of a complex of imagery. Helen contrasts a way of approaching life that responds to its true flow and mysterious depths with the way of approaching life in Atherton, where that flow is drained of its energy and freshness, channeled into domestic and social habit, and lived on the surface. Later she describes her first experience of serious reading as an exposure to “a wave of ideas” that threw her down, “gurgling in my ears, half-drowning and exhilarating” (104).

On the road, Helen pauses to remove a scab from her knee, revealing beneath it the new, pink, shiny skin, an unmarked surface. It is an image of the white world that is expanded in the description of the whites-only tennis club, where water merely mirrors back a superficial life: “Over at the water hole, the whole world was repeated, upside down. It all seemed simple. … The half-questions would never be asked, dark fins of feeling that could not be verified in the face of my father, my mother, the Mine officials, would not show through the surface that every minute of every day polished” (44).

When Helen meets Ludi, water becomes associated with sensuality. Leaving behind the real world of the mine (actually a shining surface plastered over the wounds of industrialism), she enters a world of real feeling, where her inland, restricted experience opens up to a broader horizon. The sea is a natural force to which Helen responds involuntarily, instinctually. Her holiday is more real than her day-to-day existence. Ludi and Helen seem to spend less time on dry land than in the sea, plunging repeatedly into the waves and emerging encrusted with shells. Later, Helen describes her pride in her own sexuality during her physical relationship with Paul Clark in similar terms: “It gave me a kind of simple sensual pride to understand out of experience the flow of this current. To wait till it should take me up again; till I should lay myself down Ophelia-like, and be carried by it” (220). The reference to Ophelia suggests a linkage between water, sex, and death, suggesting the existence of an elemental force, as strong and inevitable as death, driving Helen on. In his 1989 study Chronicles of Darkness, David Ward connects this image to the social dynamics of Helen's society, which expects adulthood to involve a girl's submission to male power. In the water with Ludi, Helen treats the sea as if it were a sexual partner, its “cool tongue” (67) passing over her head, “the great cold hands of the sea thrust in beneath my hair” (68). The sand leaves marks as of “rough bedclothes” (55) on her body. After this experience, however, the artificial world closes in until the end of the novel, when Helen witnesses the May Day demonstration in the township. The crowd, “solid and writhing as a bank of fish in a net” (324), smashes a telephone booth, its glass panes describing “a watery zigzag” (325) in the air. The police appear “like a tidal wave churning through the crowd” (326) as the crowd “boiled” (326) back against them.

After this experience, escape from South Africa once again brings Helen to the sea. Her sense of release is expressed as she leaves behind the dust and cold of July in Johannesburg for the summer warmth of Durban as “the green seems to melt and dissolve in a mist and then suddenly it is the sea, there below. It is the sea, greenish, like the grasslands, moving, like the grass beneath the wind” (337). As Helen watches her ship come in, the novel exploits the traditional feminization of ships to contrast the vessel with the shore. The water of the port is “domesticated,” dwarfed by the ship, with “the sweep of her, up, up” (341). Helen's voyage will take her beyond the petty restrictions of conventional femininity and out onto the boundless ocean. As she bids farewell to Joel, she feels as if her “whole consciousness, resting, since I was born, on one side, had suddenly turned over, like a great stone on the bed of the sea, and shown an unknown world, a shining unseen surface, different, different utterly, alive with waving weeds and startled creatures pulsating on the coral” (364).

In a novel concerned with how to represent a world that has not previously figured in fiction, images of vision and especially of mirrors are also significant. Mrs. Shaw frequently makes authoritative pronouncements while checking her appearance in the mirror. Helen's eyes meet those of Mary Seswayo in a cloakroom mirror, their two reflections gazing at each other, neither quite sure of the real character of the other. Jenny Marcus is caught trying on Helen's hat in “the liquid flash” (213) of a mirror before she guiltily removes the forbidden bourgeois object from her head. Mrs. Shaw, as her name implies, is sure of her convictions, whereas Jenny is much less certain about the image she should present to the world.

Glass is also a means of ensuring that a vision of the world remains unthreatened, particularly in the colonial society of Atherton, where the citizens are essentially narcissistic, in love with themselves and British ways, not with Africa. Confined within a restricting self-image, they are always remote from any contact with African reality, as much behind glass as the wedding gifts in glass showcases at the Atherton grocery or the crystal vases and china teacups displayed in the glass-fronted china cabinets of every sitting room. When Helen and Laurie witness the killing in the township, it is only through the shut windows of their car, safe behind a barrier of glass.

On the other hand, when Helen draws close to the glass of the concession-store window, she is astonished to see another eye looking back, a chameleon with one eye on her and one looking back into the store. Who is on display here? The barrier dissolves as Helen's finger scrabbles at the glass and follows the creature, as if she wished that she could pass through into the wonderland beyond, replete with snakes' skins, lions' tails, potions, and roots, and enter the African world. Synesthesia (the mingling of different senses in one image) conveys a sense of rich life in the store. By the door of the eating house “a crescendo of heavy sweet nauseating blood-smell, the clamour of entrails stewing richly” (19), assaults her nose. Whereas the English survey themselves in order to be sure that nothing has changed, that they have not become any different from their fellows back in Britain, Helen's journey takes her into the realm of transformation, where, like the chameleon, she adapts to different environments. Whereas the white shop is a realm of conspicuous consumption and heavy materialism, dominated by the grocer's endless discussions of his ill health, the black stores are a magic area, selling strange roots, herbs, animal teeth, and skins; inhabited by chickens, flies, and dogs; noisy with gramophone music and loud gossip. The chameleon is in the window, but it is not for sale; it goes where it pleases, an independent presence. The chameleon can change color, adapting to its surroundings, whereas Helen is as caught in the white world, just as the black workers are restricted in theirs.


Helen's narration is double-voiced, both that of a young girl with all the inherent prejudices of her background and that of the older, wiser, young woman who has educated herself. At the beginning of the novel the metaphors Helen uses for black mine workers reveal that she unthinkingly equates them with animals or with nature, rather than seeing them as fellow members of human society. The striking workers are seen “squatting like frogs” (36) on the manager's lawn. One is trying to catch a fly that keeps alighting on his mouth. Mary is described as resembling “a little shy animal” (127) and, later, as setting off domestic explosions like a stray dog in a minefield. The “natives” (the term used by Helen and most white South Africans) rush off the train, bumping into the whites “as if they stepped through the bodies of pale ghosts” (101). Helen compares them to “slow beasts in the darkness, beasts who are dreaming or preparing to charge, one cannot tell” (101). Even native bus queues are “like greyish caterpillars” (172), and their braziers “the crooked eyes of beasts showing” (177). Only much later does Helen realize that she is beginning to think of the blacks as individually human. Before this, “they had passed before me almost as remote if not as interesting as animals in a zoo” (161).

It is worth noting that the animal metaphors extend also to the local white boys with whom Helen dances: “Their black evening suits and the crackle of shirt front encased nothingness, like the thin glossy shells, the fine glass wings of beetles” (42). Helen observes how the parents in Atherton take their daughters' boyfriends everywhere with them in order to instill the same values in the young men, so that the new couples will go “trooping off as ants go to set up another ant heap exactly like the one they have left” (181). White characters are repeatedly compared to insects; even the Marcuses are described as entomologists studying the mating habits of their friends as if they were beetles. The comparisons say as much, perhaps, about the analytical and ironic detachment of the narrator as about racist attitudes.

The older Helen emerges at first through metaphors that draw upon European culture rather than African nature. After receiving a letter form Ludi, now fighting on the Italian front in World War II, Helen sees South Africa through a haze of unreality, as a painting: “The quiet, steeped autumn days passed, as if the sun turned the earth lovingly as a glass of fine wine, bringing out the depth of glow, the fine gleam” (95). The local wildflowers suggest “the cream and pink and gilt of an early Florentine painting”; Helen spends hours constructing elaborate hairstyles, “formal as a Gothic cornice” (95). At this point the young Helen has yet to learn anything of fine wine or European art and architecture, and the comparisons betray the presence of the older narrator looking back. At the same time, they suggest the difficulties of describing Africa without resorting to a Eurocentric viewpoint. Helen makes the point repeatedly that the Africa she knows does not feature in her reading and that the Africa she inhabits is a colonial mimic world, “Europe-in-Africa.” Social events in Atherton, for example, could occur in any English village, as the women discuss their favorite British magazines, pass around delicate cakes and sandwiches, and remain segregated form their menfolk, who discuss tennis and golf. Later in the novel, when Helen describes Macdonald's Kloof, a local ravine, she underlines the fact that it is not a beauty spot. The rusty boulders and straggling foliage smell of eucalyptus. There are no flowers, but there is a lizard, and “the broken planes and rather tame wildness” (141) are a relief to Helen and Joel, so used to the level, treeless ground of Atherton. Helen's understated description establishes the ravine as a place on its own terms, attractive in the context of the surrounding flatness of South Africa, rather than attempting to relate it to a European model. Helen's progress toward a clear and truthful vision of her society is measured as much by the absence of naturalizing metaphors and European allusions as by their presence.


The Lying Days is unusual in that it was written to ensure the publication of another work. When Gordimer's story collection The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories was accepted for publication in the United States, it was on the understanding that she would also write a novel. Simon and Schuster gave her an allowance to live on for a year so that she could write The Lying Days. Gordimer has described the process: “It took me a year. When I faced the job it was like climbing a high mountain and the going was tough. There were times when I thought I would never finish it. And when it was over I felt that it had all been worthwhile. But I didn't know whether it was a good novel. My New York agent liked it, predicted that it would be a success. He was right.”12 Gordimer revises very little. She often writes a single original draft with minor changes only, none of them structural. The evolution of a novel takes place in her own mind. After The Lying Days was published, she noted, “I could see places where I might have tightened it up,”13 though the novel was an immediate success. By the beginning of 1954 it had already gone into a fourth printing in England and a second printing in the United States.


  1. Nadine Gordimer, quoted in Jannika Hurwitt, “The Art of Fiction LXXVII: Nadine Gordimer,” Paris Review, 88 (Summer 1983): 90.

  2. Ibid., p. 89.

  3. Gordimer, quoted in John Barkham, “South Africa: Perplexities, Brutalities, Absurdities: The Author,” Saturday Review (21 January 1963): 63.

  4. Gordimer, quoted in “Nadine the Prophet,” Sunday Times Magazine, 30 August 1981, p. 43.

  5. Studs Terkel, “Nadine Gordimer,” Perspective: On Ideas and the Arts, 12 (1963): 44.

  6. Pat Schwartz, “Pat Schwartz Talks to Nadine Gordimer,” in New South African Writing (Johannesburg: Lorton, 1977), p. 81.

  7. Gordimer, foreword to Bettie du Toit, Ukubamba Amadolo: Workers' Struggles in the South African Textile Industry (London: Onyx, 1978), p. 3.

  8. Gordimer, quoted in Stephen R. Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (London: Allen & Unwin, 1986), p. 75.

  9. Delmas records, doc. M1: 28 805 (Historical Papers Library, University of the Witwatersrand).

  10. Gordimer, The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, edited by Clingman (London: Cape, 1988), p. 283.

  11. Gordimer, The Lying Days (London: Cape, 1978), p. 105. Subsequent parenthetical references in the text are to this edition.

  12. Tom MacDonald, “Miss Gordimer Was Excited,” Spotlight, nos. 24-25 (January 1954): 25.

  13. Ibid.




Themes In The Lying Days