Nadine Gordimer Biography
Nadine Gordimer has been accused of fabricating parts of her life in order to sell books. Gordimer’s biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, claims that Gordimer’s essay “A South African Childhood” was not entirely autobiographical, as it claimed to be. Nonetheless, Gordimer is renowned as an author and a major contributor to the anti-apartheid movement. Gordimer did grow up in South Africa and had many experiences that led to her eventual move to Johannesburg to write and work against apartheid. Many of her books were banned in South Africa, including The Late Bourgeois World, which is about her own experiences with government censorship. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 and continues to write and involve herself in political causes.
Facts and Trivia
- Gordimer was born in a mining town outside of Johannesburg. Her father was a Jewish watchmaker who had immigrated from what is now Lithuania. Her mother was English.
- Nadine Gordimer’s best friend, Bettie du Toit, was arrested in 1960. This was the catalyst for Gordimer to become so involved in anti-apartheid.
- Gordimer wrote for the New Yorker for many years.
- Gordimer had a falling out with her biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, because of his depiction of her husband’s illness and death as well as his criticism of some of her political views.
- Gordimer began writing as a child because her mother often kept her home due to “strange reasons of her own.”
- She became close friends with Nelson Mandela and was one of the people he asked to see shortly after his 1990 release from prison.
- Gordimer testified at the 1986 Delmas treason trial and calls it the proudest day of her life.
Article abstract: Through her writings, Gordimer has illuminated the troubled history of South Africa with unparalleled clarity, sensitivity, honesty, and art.
Nadine Gordimer’s father was an impoverished watchmaker who emigrated from Lithuania to Springs, a small mining town on the East Rand about thirty miles from Johannesburg, South Africa, shortly before the Boer War. Her mother was born and grew up in London. Although both parents were Jewish, Gordimer and her only sibling, an elder sister, were sent to a local convent school run by Dominican nuns; the family had little involvement with the local Jewish community. Her father benefited from the increasing prosperity of the town and became proprietor of a jewelry store, thus securing a middle-class living for his family. Gordimer’s father had no interest in civic affairs, but her mother took an active role in the community, particularly associating with the Scots Presbyterians. In an essay recalling her childhood, Gordimer describes the strange landscape of the East Rand, the richest gold-mining region in the world. It is a bleak and eerie scene with its man-made mountains of waste material, cyanide sand hills, and smoldering coal dust dumps. The town was equally barren, causing Gordimer to observe: “We children simply took it for granted that beauty—hills, trees, buildings of elegance—was not a thing to be expected of ordinary, everyday life.”
Not only was Gordimer’s environment strange but also her childhood was unusual. Between ages eleven and sixteen she was kept out of school and from participation in normal activities by her mother, who became convinced that Gordimer had a serious heart condition, a condition that Gordimer subsequently learned was a very minor ailment. Although she was sent to a tutor for three hours a day, her contacts with others her own age were severed. Her sister went away to the university which left Gordimer as constant companion of her parents, particularly of her mother, who took Gordimer with her everywhere. Socializing only with adults in a world of tea parties and trivia, Gordimer became, as she said, “a little old woman.” In her isolation and loneliness, she retreated into herself, read voraciously, and thereby discovered an alternative world more to her liking—the world of ideas.
Although Gordimer attended the university for one year at age twenty-one, she largely educated herself. Through her early and as she acknowledges indiscriminate reading (devouring children’s books and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621, with equal enjoyment), she prepared herself to be a writer. Perhaps Gordimer would have become a writer even without her unusual childhood; her interest in reading and writing predated her illness; in fact, she wrote her first poem at age nine. There is little doubt, however, that her enforced isolation accelerated the process. At age thirteen, she began writing for the children’s page of the Johannesburg Sunday Express. At fifteen, she published her first short story in The Forum, a South African journal. In 1949, her first volume of short stories, Face to Face, was published in South Africa. The following year, she began publishing stories in The New Yorker, and soon thereafter her writing began appearing in other American journals, such as Virginia Quarterly Review and the Yale Review. Her first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. By that time, she had married, was divorced, and had an eighteen-month-old baby to support.
Her early short stories, those written before 1953, focus on the daily lives of the poor white class and show little political consciousness. In fact, Gordimer acknowledges that her full awareness of black Africans and their...
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paradoxical position in their own country (particularly after the Afrikaner Nationalist government assumed power in 1948 and instituted its repressive apartheid laws) developed with incredible slowness. Perhaps this is unsurprising considering the life she led among white middle-class colonials, whose very existence depended on the pretense that blacks do not exist, except as a permanent underclass of servants and laborers. Yet, the politics of South Africa, particularly its apartheid and censorship laws, became the central concern of her writing and of her life. Her writing constitutes a merciless scrutiny of that society and of her own developing consciousness and role within that society.
During her year at the University of Witwatersrand, Gordimer met for the first time white people (writers, painters, and actors) who defied the color bar and associated with blacks. This was the beginning of her political education, although she was still not interested in politics. Her attitude at this time was humanistic, individualistic, and optimistic: “I felt all I needed, in my own behavior, was to ignore and defy the color bar. In other words my own attitude toward blacks seemed to be sufficient action.” It seemed to her that an “inevitable historical process” was taking place that eventually would demolish racial barriers, an attitude reflected in both of her novels of this period, The Lying Days and A World of Strangers (1958). The hope of ending apartheid by personal relationships across the color bar became much more difficult to sustain following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and the subsequent draconian measures against blacks initiated by the government: prohibition of all right to peaceful protest and banning of the best black writers. Gordimer’s next two novels, Occasion for Loving (1963) and The Late Bourgeois World (1966), reflect the paralysis and frustration that she undoubtedly felt. Her characters seem unable to act, unable to connect with people and situations, and unable to do more than observe and record.
A Guest of Honour (1970) and the novels that follow reveal Gordimer exploring alternatives to the failed Forsterian liberal humanism. Ultimately, she finds it necessary to give up her identification with white European culture in favor of an African-centered consciousness, a change in perspective which resulted in her new, unorthodox definition of African literature: work by those “of whatever skin color who share with Africans the experience of having been shaped, mentally and spiritually, by Africa rather than anywhere else in the world.” In apartheid-era South Africa, where literature and culture were regarded as the exclusive property of an educated, white, European-centered minority, such a definition had revolutionary implication.
The shift from Eurocentric to African culture seems to have been a liberating one for Gordimer. In her fiction, she developed greater freedom in form and style (for example, her use of multiperspective narration) and in content a broader, more diverse cast of characters, including many blacks and Indians. At the same time that she became interested in African culture, she also became convinced that “inspirational” literature is superior to the ironical or the satirical, and this seems to have made some difference in the tone of her writing. Although most critics had praised her scrupulous powers of observation and analysis, a frequent criticism of her fiction had been that it lacked warmth and feeling. Some critics had speculated that the cool detachment of her earlier fiction was a consequence of the political situation in South Africa itself, which “‘dehumanises’ even the artist.” Her novels Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1981) impressed even her sterner critics with their warmth, energy, and commitment.
The relationship between literature and politics is a subject to which Gordimer has necessarily given considerable thought, and her views are complex. She has stated unequivocally the two absolutes in her life:
[O]ne is that racism is evil . . . and no compromises, as well as sacrifices, should be too great in the fight against it. The other is that a writer is a being in whose sensibility is fused . . . the duality of inwardness and outside world, and he must never be asked to sunder this union.
On one hand, she believes that “art is on the side of the oppressed,” and she calls on the South African writer, whether black or white, to be a revolutionary as well as a prophet. On the other hand, she remains wary of the writer as proselytizer and the ways that art can deteriorate into propaganda. A writer has the freedom not to write propaganda, even for the “right” cause. She believes that a writer must confront the reader with a situation in such a way that he can no longer ignore it. Ultimately, her view of the writer’s responsibility is paradoxical: The writer must at the same time stand apart and also be fully involved. It is the tension that arises from this objective/subjective vision that makes a writer, according to Gordimer.
Gordimer regards herself as intensely loyal to South Africa, her home. She concedes that life in Europe would be more comfortable for her, but she remains in South Africa, where she courageously continues to attack the twin evils of racism and censorship. Gordimer is a much honored writer who has achieved world recognition. Among her many awards are the W. H. Smith award in 1961 for Friday’s Footprints; the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for A Guest of Honour in 1972; the Booker Prize for The Conservationist (1975) in 1975; the Grand Aigle d’Or in 1975; and an honorary D.Litt. degree from the University of Leuven in 1980. She is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Academy of Literature and Arts.
Gordimer’s fiction is above all an attempt to awaken people from the slumber of habit, to reveal the corruptions that racism brings, including the subtle corruptions of whites. To enlarge the reader’s apprehension of South Africa’s troubling history, to write of it with honesty and objectivity, succumbing neither to the self-pity of whites nor to the romanticizing of blacks, and yet to retain the necessary passion of commitment—these are the high and difficult aims of Gordimer’s art.
Clingman, Stephen. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside. London: Allen & Unwin, 1986. Correlates Gordimer’s fiction with events in South African history. Gordimer’s historical consciousness, the way in which she has responded to the history of her society, makes her a particularly valuable writer. Clingman regards South Africa as an unusually extreme and therefore clear case of the class, racial, and cultural struggles occurring in the world at large today.
Cooke, John. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. Traces Gordimer’s development as a writer. Identifies a private theme in her fiction (the rebellion of daughters against possessive mothers) which gradually assumes a more political character (liberation from oppressors). Contains a valuable bibliography.
Gordimer, Nadine. The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places. Edited by Stephen Clingman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. This collection of twenty-three essays written between the early 1950’s and 1985 allows a reader to trace Gordimer’s development as person and as writer.
Gordimer, Nadine. “A South African Childhood: Allusions in a Landscape.” The New Yorker 30 (October 16, 1954): 121-143. Descriptions and anecdotes of daily life, including vacations at Durban and excursions to Cape Town and Kruger National Park. Her early, learned, racist responses to African and Indian people reveal how pervasive such attitudes are.
Hurwitt, Jannika. “The Art of Fiction LXXVII: Nadine Gordimer.” Paris Review 88 (Summer, 1983): 83-127. The most comprehensive and revealing interview that the usually reticent Gordimer has granted. Of particular interest is the account of her early “illness,” her relationship with her mother, her beginnings as a writer, and her attitude toward feminism and toward masculine and feminine writing.
JanMohamed, Abdul R. Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983. In a chapter devoted to Gordimer entitled “The Degeneration of the Great South African Lie,” the author discusses the ways in which the contradictions of life for a white liberal writer in an apartheid society are reflected in her major fiction.
McEwan, Neil. Africa and the Novel. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1983. In this examination of “the best work of African novelists since 1950,” McEwan considers Gordimer an “outsider,” that is, one who writes about apartheid primarily for a world of readers outside South Africa. He selects Gordimer’s novel July’s People for extended analysis.