Nadine Gordimer Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 3) - Essay

Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gordimer, Nadine 1923–

Ms. Gordimer is a South African novelist and short story writer whose novel A Guest of Honour, in its scope and optimistic viewpoint, marks a departure from her earlier novelistic studies of troubled interrelationships and tension in modern South Africa. (See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and volumes 7, 10, 17, 18, 80 and 123.)

[A] writer employing the Jewish motif to advantage is Nadine Gordimer, who remains one of the few internationally known South African writers still living in the Republic of South Africa…. Her work bears the air of the compassionate observer rather than the passionate protestant, and it is filled with the themes of understanding, forgiveness, and adjustment. Miss Gordimer is probably the most skillful of the writers now recording the abortive attempts of middle-class whites and poor blacks to respect each other's values. She has set down in lyric tones the plight and frustration of Johannesburg people whose psychological problems outweigh their economic ones. Her work, however, bears the uneasy patina of too-easy regard for surface detail as symbolic of the emotional state. Much of her short fiction, which has appeared regularly in The New Yorker magazine, so astutely avoids comment that a seeming reportorial indifference is evoked.

Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967, p. 221.

Although she first became known (through the New Yorker) as a short-story writer, Nadine Gordimer has always seemed to belong in the spacious, solid, conscientious tradition of novelists we associate with the nineteenth century—a sterner discipline than the sort of fiction nowadays described as "documentary". Her cool camera eye observed details of white and black behaviour—Scenes from Johannesburg Life. Her first novel, tracing the upbringing of a middle-class white South African girl and the awakening of her liberal conscience, recorded experience with the sort of spontaneous honesty that inspires us all to think we too might be novelists—ignoring the imaginative transmutation and skill beneath the easy Yes-I-know-that-feeling manner. There have been other novels and collections of stories since then, sometimes appearing more passionately committed, occasionally too effortlessly fluent and clever, but gradually extending Miss Gordimer's reputation as a writer inescapably haunted by the South African situation and reinforcing an impression that, without overt didacticism or distortion, she was a profoundly moral and political writer no longer content merely to observe.

Now at last, with A Guest of Honour, Miss Gordimer has consolidated all her achievements in a long, weighty, and magnificent novel which not only reflects the mature political awareness that has always been implicit, but which also shows her special gift of patient and painstaking honesty as a writer to its fullest advantage. Its authenticity is so powerful that one might almost say this is "the novel as history"—not at all the same thing as an "historical novel"; moreover, its very setting and subject, the first days of a newly independent East African state, are a logical consequence of Miss Gordimer's South African experience—the liberal daydream confronting the Third World as it actually is; no longer an idealistic vision but a painful, problematical society which risks wrecking the very freedoms fought for. Her protagonist, though in no sense a crude symbol, is carefully chosen to represent the paradox of the white liberal situation in such a state….

One can't do justice to the scope of A Guest of Honour. Warned that there are many pages of Congress speeches reported in full, discussions of union problems, of how to reconcile independent socialism with the need for Western capital investment, the reader may balk at having to make the unaccustomed effort of political involvement. Yet because Miss Gordimer still retains her clear and witty eye and ear for detail, the images of African life provide a superbly entertaining background—almost a film documentary to lend force to the ideas discussed. She fixes certain scenes and smells indelibly even on a memory ignorant of her beloved continent—the Greek café with its "staple frontiersman diet" and synthetic juices churning brightly in containers….

It is part of Miss Gordimer's talent to have used as her camera, her symbolic hero-victim and spokesman, a man like Bray who has a private dignity and no personal axe to grind; because he is so obviously a good man, despite being white, liberal, vulnerable, and imperfect, we can accept his commitment to the ideal of Free Africa without questioning Miss Gordimer's imaginative integrity and this is perhaps, most of all, why her novel deserves to be read carefully and widely by those whom the problem concerns.

"Scenes from East African Life," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), May 14, 1971, p. 555.

Nadine Gordimer … makes a point well by not stating it directly. South Africa is her home, and is the setting for many of her stories, but even when she is making use of politics in a story she is never guilty of pushing her characters to the sideline in order to make an overt political point—a fact which, paradoxically, enables her to demonstrate South Africa's political oddities more exactly: the country lives through the characters' experience of it….

The subtlety which enables Miss Gordimer to produce a sense of her country's complexities through the lives of her characters extends to those stories [in Livingstone's Companions] in which the setting is less significant. She seldom, if ever, passes judgment or breaks into the narrative to make some observation that might have escaped the reader's notice; instead, she lets the characters work for her, implying but never stating, so that the progression of the story—its power and its chance of success—lies in her ability to manipulate and develop her characters rather than a tendency to back them with little informative statements about their motives or desires.

"Partitioned Off," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), May 26, 1972, p. 595.

Nadine Gordimer's books, her world, and the delicacy of her perceptions, are already well known. In this new book [Livingstone's Companions], the stories centre, almost claustrophobically, upon the trapped lives of those who inherit the southern part of the continent of Africa, and now sit uneasily within a closed society upon it….

This is an extraordinary book, going to the roots of a society in terms of the people within it, and never losing a sense of the lakes, and the landscape, and the terrible wasted beauty of the occupied land.

Elaine Feinstein, in London Magazine, August-September, 1972, pp. 159-60.