Introduction

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Gordimer, Nadine 1923–

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Gordimer is a South African novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Many of her works deal with the political and social ramifications of the apartheid system in South Africa, and with its recurrent problems of alienation and despair. (See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and volumes 5, 7, 17, 18, 80 and 123.)

Paul Bailey

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In several of her novels—A World of Strangers, The Late Bourgeois World, The Lying Days and The Conservationist—Nadine Gordimer implies that the insulted and injured make substantial ghosts, haunting a society whose survival depands on the maintenance of insult and injury. Indeed, "He's dead but he won't lie down" could serve as an appropriate epigraph to much of her fiction. The South Africa she describes in affectionate, glowing detail is a country in which an abandoned corpse is a common sight…. That body by the roadside, waiting to be disposed of by the "proper channels", has taken on a frightening symbolic vitality—for Miss Gordimer, he is an underground man in more sense than one; he has staked a claim on the earth he will soon inhabit.

Over the thirty odd years of her writing life, Nadine Gordimer's vision has become bleaker and her art more confident. The increases in quality in her work disproves the currently fashionable maxim that only mediocrities develop. The difference between an early book like A World of Strangers (1958) and, say, A Guest of Honour (1971) is immediately striking. In the latter the ideas are contained, given a satisfying aesthetic shape, expressed through character and incident, but in A World of Strangers the ideas displace the characters whose mouths they are put into, with the result that the reader occasionally feels as if he's being lectured. It's a lecture worth paying attention to, of course—her comments on the easiness of liberalism are especially salutary—but the best fiction demonstrates and insinuates rather than explains. The trouble with A World of Strangers is that the novelist uses the ignorance of her principal character, Toby Hood, a well-to-do young Englishman from a cause-espousing family, as a means of informing the ignorant about the precise nature of South African life in the 1950s. A great deal of information is undeniably conveyed, but not without effort: Toby's gradual accumulation of knowledge lacks that sense of messy actuality, of confusion, which so often hinders the progress of spiritual growth.

Conversely, there is far too much in this ambitious novel about the trivial people whose long weekend parties Toby honours with his ironic presence. They are recognizable types, certainly, but the shallowness of their conversation, faithfully recorded, eventually becomes exasperating…. Miss Gordimer doesn't quite sustain the necessary balance between the cocktails-on-the-veranda flippancy which she sets in contrast to the furtive trips to shebeens Tody makes with his black friend, Steben Sitole, where the atmosphere of surface gaiety conceals suspicion and desperation. And yet, with all these faults, A World of Strangers is a book of deep intelligence—an apprentice work by a novelist of real stature.

The Late Bourgeois World, written almost a decade later, is a shorter, more assured performance…. Less wide-ranging than A World of Strangers, it succeeds by concentrating fiercely on a few individuals, whose failures of communication have an everyday authenticity about them.

For the greater part of her career, it has been a critical commonplace to say that Nadine Gordimer is happier with the short story form than with the novel. In a superficial sense, it is an accurate judgement, as the selection Some Monday for Sure make clear: her quiet, unforced skill was evident from the start; and didactism has never affected her stories as it sometimes has her novels. Yet the fact remains that with A Guest of Honour and The Conservationist she has created works of fulfilled ambition. Miss Gordimer's development as a novelist has been a long and painful one, not unlike Conrad's. She has fought her way into the front rank of contemporary writers by taking risks, and the flaws in her early fiction were a necessary factor in that daunting development.

Paul Bailey, "Unquiet Graves," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 9, 1976, p. 841.

Frank Kermode

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[Selected Stories] is full of pondered, significant details, the symptoms of [the] dementia—the bureaucratic and social combinations that make everybody ill, white and black alike. The stories are not all about race relations and the stresses they place on people who suffer, enforce, try to mend, or even to live with them; some are about the restricted lives of the whites themselves, their self-imposed and paralyzing mental suburbanism. Gordimer splendidly observes the remnants of persons beneath the repulsive stereotypes, an imaginative effort paralleled by her view of Africa itself, its extraordinary beauty showing through the obscene mess that has been dumped on it. So here … is a fiction of protest; and here too the sense that the truer the protest the more certainly it will end in death….

Gordimer is always an artist, within but never of the society she writes about. After holding this difficult position for so long she is able, in her preface, to speak interestingly about it. It was as a woman, she says, that she most belonged to the culture into which she was born: "Rapunzel's hair is the right metaphor for this femininity: by means of it, I was able to let myself out and live in the body, with others, as well as—alone—in the mind." Thus, she claims, she was able to achieve solitude without "alienation," two conditions she wants to distinguish, while remaining aware of "the serious psychic rupture between the writer and his society that has occurred in the Soviet Union and South Africa, for example…."…

She is, I think, by nature a short story writer, and some of the best things in the novels are episodes "held" in the manner of the story; for example, the seven pages in The Conservationist describing a furtive sexual adventure in an airplane. The stories lack the heavy self-consciousness that occasionally oppresses the reader of the novels. But by and large Gordimer's work, never raucous, always subtly considered, gives one the sense of an educated imagination focusing on the exemplary issues her intelligence presents to it; it includes and transcends the world of constriction and distortion. (p. 43)

Frank Kermode, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), July 15, 1976.

Bruce King

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Gordimer has been developing into a major novelist, and The Conservationist is one of the best novels of recent years. While it lacks the flashiness and topicality that have made some commonwealth novels fashionable, its perfection and depth are bound to bring it recognition as one of the most accomplished works of our time. Thickly textured poetic prose, in which narration, memories, fantasy, and dialogue perform an elaborate dance, evokes a sense of character and place comparable to that found in nineteenth-century fiction. Gordimer's previous novels have often had at their center a sensitive liberal who is overwhelmed by the crude violence of modern Africa. In the South African police state, or in the chaos of modern independent Africa, good intentions are often naive, leading to despair. By focusing her narrative on the mind of a progressive successful businessman, Gordimer has avoided the literary traps common to the liberal novel since E. M. Forster. Ideas do not form part of the novel's texture, although they are implied through the son and mistress whom Mehring rejects. Perhaps the only fault of The Conservationist is that the ideas and character of Mehring's left-wing mistress are given a crudeness that seems inappropriate to his own sensibility. We could read the book in various ways—for instance as an illustration of Fanon's theories of the colonial mind on the eve of national liberation. But any such reading is an imposition on the rich, finely grained life portrayed.

In the introduction to her Selected Stories—an intelligent discussion of the artist's sense of reality and fiction—Gordimer speaks of the interplay between the writer's engagement and the society that is portrayed. She illustrates this through her use of the words native, African, then black, which reflect the changing social, moral, and political realities of modern Africa. Her claim is that a writer's subject is "the consciousness of his own era. How he deals with this is, to me, the fundament of commitment." This is different from the usual demand for political engagement, and it shows Gordimer's awareness that over the years she has been creating for her readers a sense of how Africa has changed. The selections from her five volumes of stories included in the present collection illustrate both her growth as an artist and a society in rapid transition…. Gordimer's fine intelligence, shaped by the Cape liberal tradition, attempts to express the sensitivities and fears of her characters, whether they are those with whom she has affinities or those whom we expect to be her enemies.

Most noticeable is the growth and deepening of her art. Many of the early stories treating of sexual initiation, adolescent alienation, and explorations of the frontiers that separate the races are pat and contrived, often ending on a note of irony. In their portraits of sensitivity wounded and in their tight reversals, they are too much illustrations of a fixed position. In the later stories Gordimer has learned to write monologues that feel natural and unforced. They, however, spread out to a wider range of situations and explore new areas of feeling which cannot be defined accurately within the length of a short tale. The stories from the last volume, Livingstone's Companions, although realistic and powerful, are disturbing in their lack of rational definable conclusions…. On the basis of The Conservationist and her recent stories it would seem that Gordimer has outgrown the short-story form and, by projecting her own feelings of alienation and solitude onto those unlike herself, has learned to avoid the weaknesses that have marred the conclusions of her previous novels. (pp. 127-28)

Bruce King, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Spring, 1977.

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