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Nadine Gordimer 1923–
South African novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Gordimer's career through 1996. See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and volumes 5, 7, 10, 17, 18 and 80.
Gordimer is a well-known and acclaimed writer who explores the social effects of South Africa's apartheid system and the consequences of its demise. Although political themes are central to her work, Gordimer focuses on the personal aspect of political turmoil. As a white in South Africa, Gordimer occupies a difficult position in relation to the country's racist institutions. Although opposed to racism, Gordimer benefitted from racist institutions with a privileged place in South African society. Many believe that this explains why Gordimer's storytelling talent was not acknowledged by the Nobel Committee until the dismantling of the apartheid system began.
Gordimer was born on November 20, 1923, in a mining town called Springs, South Africa. Her father was a Latvian Jew who emigrated to South Africa and had a jewelry shop in Springs. Her mother was born in London, but emigrated to South Africa with Gordimer's grandfather, who was a diamond miner. Gordimer's family was not well off, but they had a black servant from the time she was 2 until she was 30. Gordimer was warned to stay away from natives as a child, and she knew nothing about native life or culture. Her childhood was filled with solitude and extensive reading, and it was this exposure to literature that caused her to adjust her view of native people. Gordimer began writing at an early age. She published her first short story at the age of 15, and her stories appeared in such American publications as the New Yorker and Harper's. In 1946 Gordimer began studying at Witwatersrand University and, for the first time, had contact with blacks who were not servants. It was a turning point in her acceptance of blacks as human beings. Gordimer's political consciousness developed slowly, but she eventually became ardently and vocally opposed to apartheid. She left the University and returned home after a year to concentrate on her fiction. In 1949, Gordimer married Gerald Gavronsky. The two had a daughter and then were divorced in 1952. After the divorce Gordimer struggled to make ends meet. A friend sent her stories to a publisher in New York. Not only were her stories accepted for publication, but she signed a contract to write a novel, too. Gordimer was married again in 1954 to Reinhold Cassirer, with whom she had a son. Gordimer has continued to publish both short stories and novels, as well as lectures and essays. She has remained active in the fight against racist practices in South Africa, and in 1990 she joined the African National Congress. Gordimer thought about leaving her country; she even lived for a time in Zambia. However, she decided that she belonged in South Africa and would rather fight to change what she did not like. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
Gordimer's fiction chronicles the struggles and turmoil in South Africa surrounding apartheid and the aftermath of its dissolution. Gordimer's early work centers on the intrusion of external reality into the comfortable existence of middle-class white South Africans. Her first novel, The Lying Days (1953), is about an Afrikaner woman who gains political consciousness through her affair with a social worker. The stories in Not for Publication (1965) and Livingstone's Companions (1971) depict ordinary people defying apartheid in their daily lives. The Conservationist (1974) focuses on a wealthy white industrialist who struggles with his guilt and sense of displacement as his estate is overcome with poor black squatters. Burger's Daughter (1979) follows the struggle of the daughter of a slain leader of the South African Communist Party to find an apolitical existence. July's People (1981) is one of Gordimer's few novels that is not set in the present. It is set in the aftermath of a future revolution. The story revolves around a liberal white family who is forced to depend on a black man who was their former servant. The reversal of roles allows Gordimer to explore different aspects of racism and how it affects relationships. The stories in Something out There (1984) examine the temperament of individuals who unwittingly support the mechanisms of racism. Like July's People, A Sport of Nature (1987) focuses on the creation of a new black nation out of what once was South Africa. The protagonist Hillela is a white South African who inherits the cause of her slain black husband. At the end of the novel she becomes the First Lady of the newly created nation.
Gordimer is lauded for her authentic portrayals of black African culture. Dick Roraback comments on her ability to assume a universal voice, remarking "Gordimer is multilingual. She can speak male and female, young and old, black and white." Many reviewers praise her use of precise detail to evoke both the physical landscape of South Africa and the human predicaments of a racially polarized society. Sylvia Clayton notes that Gordimer "places her figures exactly in the landscape, and the contrast between their precarious lives and her own controlled poise yields a high imaginative tension." Many commentators feel that her best talent is in her chronicling of contemporary South Africa. Some argue that because Gordimer is part of the privileged white class of South Africa, she is automatically complicit with a racist society. Other reviewers point to her liberal views and her balanced portrayal of all aspects of South African society to disprove her association with racist institutions. Roraback calls her "the conscience of the white South African." Others claim that Gordimer's detached narrative voice lacks emotional immediacy, but many regard her fiction as compelling and powerful. Various critics have argued that Gordimer's talent is better suited to either the short story or the novel. Barbara J. Eckstein states, however, that "Evidence of success in both genres disproves any assertion that Gordimer's talent is better suited to one fictional form than to another." Critics also note thematic repetition in Gordimer's fiction, some accusing her of rehashing and others praising how she breathes life into persistent themes and situations.
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Face to Face (short stories) 1949
The Soft Voice of the Serpent, and Other Stories (short stories) 1952
The Lying Days (novel) 1953
Six Feet of the Country (short stories) 1956
A World of Strangers (novel) 1958
Friday's Footprint, and Other Stories (short stories) 1960
Occasion for Loving (novel) 1963
Not for Publication, and Other Stories (short stories) 1965
The Late Bourgeois World (novel) 1966
A Guest of Honour (novel) 1970
Livingstone's Companions (short stories) 1971
African Literature: The Lectures Given on This Theme at the University of Cape Town's Public Summer School (lectures) 1972
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing
The Conservationist (novel) 1974
∗Selected Stories (short stories) 1975
Some Monday for Sure (short stories) 1976
Burger's Daughter (novel) 1979
A Soldier's Embrace (short stories) 1980
What Happened to Burger's Daughter; or, How South African Censorship Works [with others] (nonfiction) 1980
Town and Country Lovers (short stories) 1982
July's People (novel) 1981
Something out There (short stories) 1984
Lifetimes under Apartheid (nonfiction) 1986
A Sport of Nature (novel) 1987
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places (essays) 1988
My Son's Story (novel) 1990
Jump, and Other Stories (short stories) 1991
Writing and Being (lectures) 1995
∗This work contains stories from previously published collections.
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SOURCE: "Her Field Is People: People Are the World," in The New York Times, Vol. CXIV, No. 39.186, May 8, 1965, p. 29.
[In the following review, Poore praises the stories in Not for Publication.]
The coolly controlled fury of Nadine Gordimer's storytelling stands out in this new collection [Not for Publication]. It is Miss Gordimer's best book.
Not many authors in her field accomplish what she sets out to do with so much force and grace. Her aim is nothing less than to advance the amenities of civilization. A tall order. But she goes about it with a kind of brilliantly deceptive casualness. You are caught up, first of all, in a story—the loves of men and women, the confrontations of growing up—the elemental business, in short, of life, liberty and the strenuous, faltering pursuit of happiness. Along the way, though. Miss Gordimer never fails to dramatize the dreams of glory, the petty subterfuges born of elemental insecurity, the odious side of power.
A number of these stories appeared first in The New Yorker, a magazine that, for all the recent tohubohu about it, can stand securely on the fact that it has never had a successful rival. Others were published in Harper's, The Saturday Evening Post, The Atlantic, Mademoiselle, The Kenyon Review, all stalwarts in the vital business of keeping the art of the short story alive. A bookkeeping doctrine in publishing is that short story collections don't sell lavishly. They should when they are written by the likes of Miss Gordimer.
There's no use trying to kraal her as a South African regional writer. True, she lives there. But her field is people and people are the world. Superficial proof lies in noticing that she sometimes sets her scene in England, on shipboard, or elsewhere. A deeper confirmation may be observed when you see her turning a Johannesburg suburb into an annex of Westchester or Grosse Pointe. She is quick to examine persons called troublemakers—and quicker to expose the mean disquiet of authoritarians who try by foul means to get rid of "troublemakers." The slave-driving instinct, she shows us, has an amazing variety of manifestations in our world.
One of her best stories is "The Worst Thing of All." In structural essentials, the tale may well rank high among the ten most shopworn themes in literature. It's about the reappearance of a man's troubling early love. The generic title should be: "The Old Flame Burns Again."
The old flame, here, is a wildly magnetic woman, Sarah, who was long ago the mistress of Denys, a reformed Johannesburg playboy happily married to Simone and a tobacco fortune. Once upon a time Denys helped Sarah put on daring plays in a disheveled little theater: once upon a time they fought with deeds, not hypocritically safe words, to lower the racist color bar.
Now, fresh from heady theatrical triumphs. Sarah is a talk-of-the-town visitor from Europe, where she went after ditching Denys. Will he be drawn back into her beguiling orbit? Simone, and the town, wonder.
The ending will surprise you. The mis-en-scène is acutely sketched. The local worldlings see how gauche they really are: "They were the ones who used the language of the avant-garde, learned from the appropriate reviews" … while Sarah spoke "in everyday words that, among them, would have been taken as signs of naïveté and ignorance…."
Time and again Miss Gordimer decides in these stories at the last moment, as it were, that T. S. Eliot was right in favoring music with a dying fall. The burst-of-fireworks-at-the-end school holds for her little appeal.
In "Not For Publication," the promising African boy who will one day help lead his territory to freedom from colonial rule disappears from the mission school that is determined to prepare him for Cambridge. The desperately lost stateless man in "Son-in-Law" achieves, through human attrition, a bleak security. "The Pet" presents a parallel between the fate of a servant and the fate of a household dog that is rather in the Katherine Mansfield tradition.
Have you ever noticed that when grown-ups offer children ice cream they seldom fail to take a good helping of it for themselves? Some such manifestation of the mutual benefit drive animates Miss Gordimer's observation of the ways of the old with the young.
In "A Company of Laughing Faces," a terribly devoted mother decides to take her 17-year-old daughter, Kathy, to an African affluent-society beach so that Kathy can have fun with people of her own age. Incidentally, of course, the mother loves life there. A shocking experience or two makes Kathy want to go home before the holiday is due to end. Her mother objects—briskly.
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SOURCE: "Pervaded by the Strangeness of Africa," in The New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1965, pp. 5, 47.
[In the following excerpt, Mitchell focuses on Gordimer's narrative technique in Not for Publication.]
It would be futile to look for a flowering of experimental writing among the fiction published about Africa today. The continent is dominated by race war and the state of the Republic of South Africa is such that it dictates a mood—and even a style—to those who try to write of it. Almost every public action in that country, and many private actions, too, add impetus to a revolution which seems as inevitable as anything in history.
Everyone who writes about Africa is affected by this shadow. In such a situation a novel is hard to make. A novel takes too much time to write, a novel takes too much time in which to unfold. Perhaps this is the reason why so much of the best writing about Africa, much of it conceived in exile, is poured into the short-story mold. With foreknowledge of the holocaust, these writers are like photographers whose city is doomed, urgently recording their last pictures of people and scenes which will be gone or transformed tomorrow.
There are masterly performers among them, with wildly dissimilar styles. Among the best is Nadine Gordimer, a writer with an enviable range of techniques. One of her most arresting methods is this: to concentrate the reader's attention on one particular moment, one gesture.
In her new and exhilarating collection of 16 stories [Not for Publication] this method can be seen at its best in "The African Magician." An apparently incompetent conjurer has been trying to entertain the white passengers on a liner. They demand that he demonstrate his hypnotic powers. Suddenly a girl, who is on her honeymoon, rises from her place and walks calmly to him:
She stood directly before him, quite still, her tall rounded shoulders drooping naturally and thrusting forward a little her head, that was raised to him, almost on a level with his own. He did not move; he did not gaze; his eyes blinked quietly. She put up her long arms and, standing just their length from him, brought her hands to rest on his shoulders. Her cropped head dropped before him to her chest.
This quarter-paragraph is far from typical of Miss Gordimer's style. But, placed at the pivot-point of the story, it is completely effective. There is an alien, translated quality about the sentences and a near-biblical, magical rhythm to the words. From this stylized description the author moves immediately to a description of the gesture in social, sexual, esthetic, religious and political terms. It is this passion to explore the hidden significance of a particular moment and this discovery of historical meaning in the movements of one girl which make Miss Gordimer's work so exciting.
In "Something for the Time Being" the central gesture—the decision by a newly-released political prisoner to wear his African National Congress badge—is more obvious, but the author's examination is just as subtle. In "The Pet" she ends her story of a man who feels kinship with no human being with the only action left to him—he throws a piece of bread to an unpleasant and hated dog. But although these stories have in common a welcome care for language, a controlled wit, a sense of the strangeness of Africa and a driving concern for its future, there is a healthy variety of tales. "Message in a Bottle," for instance, has no conventional plot. The outline of a thoroughly bad day, it works less like a story than like an Alexander Calder mobile, a pattern of isolated events revolving. But it works….
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SOURCE: "Alone, Obsessed, Outsmarted," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3308, July 22, 1965, p. 609.
[In the following excerpt, the critic highlights the theme of lonliness in Not for Publication.]
Although Miss Nadine Gordimer's scene in her short stories is often South Africa, and her themes therefore often have to do with the colour bar, she is not an explicitly "liberal" writer: she nearly always writes of the best, the most humane side of her characters—even the thick-headed policemen who arrest the gallant Mrs. Bamjee for her anti-racialist activities in "A Chip of Glass Ruby" are decently abashed and sorry (as far as their natures will allow them) for what they have to do. Miss Gordimer's real theme is loneliness—the loneliness of all kinds of exile (of, for example, "free" South African Nationalists who are being trained in sabotage in a free republic, or of a German au pair girl in a sympathetic London family), including the kind of exile that comes simply from possessing one's own identity in a world composed of others similarly endowed. This latter theme is finely explored in "Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants", which describes the impact of a shady, faintly sinister young man on the life of an aging female garage worker. In this story the woman overtly shares the vulgar and humanly degrading prejudices of most of her white compatriots about "colour", yet Miss Gordimer demonstrates, with an irony that is restrained to exactly the right degree, and which totally avoids any propagandist overtones, just how strongly her essential self remains unprejudiced: it is a Negro fellow-worker who saves her from the consequences of her own helplessness in the hands of the heartless young white man.
And Miss Gordimer is versatile: at the end of "A Company of Laughing Faces" she achieves a moment of genuine horror when she describes, in a memorable image, the consequences of a seemingly innocent gregariousness on the part of a foolish mother, who is determined that her shy daughter should enjoy a holiday, and of a not particularly vicious sexual advance on the part of a brash boy who crudely misinterprets the girl's willingness to be with him alone. Not for Publication is unsentimental and scrupulously observant….
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SOURCE: A review of Not for Publication, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1965, pp. 444-45.
[In the following excerpt, Cruttwell contrasts the mood of Gordimer's fiction with Flannery O'Connor's.]
… It is mainly in male authors that the posturing seems obligatory (though I'm not so sure of that, now I've written it; I can think of some female ones, but I'd better not name them); and so it may not be coincidence that a quite unfair proportion of the interesting, the distinguished, the literate writing among the fiction I have received is the work of women. Three in particular: two volumes of short stories by Flannery O'Connor and Nadine Gordimer [Everything that Rises Must Converge and Not for Publication], and one novel so short as to be almost a short story, by Elizabeth Spencer. These are what I call literature. They are, that is, works of art, in which very distinctive personalities and clear, strongly held viewpoints on life are presented in such a way that they are absorbed into the imagined world of the fiction: there is no need, no temptation, to look outside that world for explanation or completion. Both the volumes of short stories are set in societies tortured and obsessed by the problems of race and colour: Nadine Gordimer's in South Africa, Flannery O'Connor's in the American South. But they make a remarkable contrast in this with the work of some other writers on race, more heavily publicized: James Baldwin, for instance. In him, the agony is being exploited—used as a screen on which to project a vast magnification of some personal disorder; in these stories, it has its place, neither played down nor softened, but viewed and felt as it has to be by real and ordinary people who must go on living in such a society.
Flannery O'Connor's stories are fiercer, more fanatical than Nadine Gordimer's, and in some of them hysteria is not far away; she is capable of greater intensity, but pays for it by a lack of pure serenity at the centre of tragedy, such as Gordimer achieves superbly in a story called "A Company of Laughing Faces," which describes a young girl on a seaside holiday in which nothing "real" seems to happen to her in spite of her desperate efforts to persuade herself she is enjoying it all—until, right at the end, she has a glimpsed vision of a boy drowned in a pool. That is a moment of pure lyrical poetry; O'Connor's poetry is grotesque and neurotic, but it might be said to hit harder: and if it does, this is because her writing is clearly the work of an authentically religious writer, Catholic but not obtrusively or aggressively so (in which respect I found the introduction by Robert Fitzgerald, which is obtrusively Catholic, unfortunate and misleading). Now and then, the fierce contempt for liberal humanist do-gooders on the one hand and hellfire Biblical sectarians on the other seemed to me to twist and bias her vision—as it does in "The Lame Shall Enter First," a story of enormous power, but power warped and cruel; pity, for once, is lost in anger and scorn. It is certainly a strange world her stories live in: I never cease to wonder (speaking as an alien) at the American South as its writers portray it. Is it "really like that"? I wonder naïvely—or is it as much the invention of untypical geniuses as the wind-tortured moorlands, peopled by demons in human shape, of Wuthering Heights? Something that O'Connor herself said (quoted in Fitzgerald's introduction) seems to suggest that this is the case. "I doubt," she said, "if the texture of Southern life is any more grotesque than that of the rest of the nation, but it does seem evident that the Southern writer is particularly adept at recognizing the grotesque; and to recognize the grotesque you have to have some notion of what is not grotesque, and why."
Gordimer's stories keep much closer to what one had thought the real world was like: she is capable, therefore, of an accurate, undistorted social satire which is not in O'Connor's range—see, for instance, "The Worst Thing of All," the story of the return to South Africa of a woman theatrical genius become world-famous and her impact on the associates of her early obscurity. Gordimer is cooler, less fevered; one might almost have guessed, if one didn't know, that Flannery O'Connor died young of a terrible disease, for there is something in her prose which seemed to me very close to the poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath—the poetry of exposed and tortured nerve-ends….
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SOURCE: "Out of Africa and India," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 252, No. 1511, April, 1976, pp. 101-02.
[In the following excerpt, Godwin discusses the changing African dimension of the characters in Selected Stories.]
Reading a collection of stories by a good writer affords a pleasure quite distinct from reading a novel by the same writer. The pleasure comes from the activeness demanded from the reader, from the quick leaps of synthesis he must make as he skips around in the book, pouncing on the stories that promise to attract him most, surprising the author in a variety of themes, moods, and stances as the author moves through his own time: the writing-time of the stories. Reading a collection of stories written out of a high-quality perceptiveness is like stalking the master stalker: you can sneak up on him at any angle and watch him pursue the prey. There are no long securities staked out for you at the beginning, as in a novel. Each story is a brand-new beginning, a new hunt. But as you read on, you form a composite picture of his territory. You get to know his allurements, his hunting habits, the terrain of his mind as well.
When I finished Nadine Gordimer's collection [Selected Stories] (composed of stories she chose from the many she wrote between the ages of twenty and fifty), I felt I knew her territory ("My time and place," she states, "have been twentieth-century Africa") in a way history and geography could not purvey it. (How purvey mutability when it happens inside the minds of people who live decade after decade in the same landscape except through cumulative fictions?) And I had become related to the writer through following her consciousness through its own mutability and growth, as well. Her "territory," of course, exists nowhere in its entirety except in this marvelous collection, which she has had the good sense to arrange chronologically; the Africa of her first page, on which the white girl's relationship with a black man is that of victim and attacker, is no longer the Africa of the girl in "The Smell of Death and Flowers," with her passionate involvement in the black cause; and she, in turn, inhabits another world from the rather cynical and weary liberal in the last story, "Africa Emergent," whose long, intense work with the blacks has led him into a self-righteous bind, making him suspicious of any black who hasn't proved himself by going to jail for the cause.
Though many of the stories reflect the author's political conscience, and her awareness of the complex tangles in which single-minded devotees of good causes can trap themselves, her subject at large, her Big Game, is Africa in the sense that the great fiction writers have always stalked it: a beautiful and dangerous land of opposites, both a test and a mirror of the psyche, where Kurtz went mad and Isak Dinesen fell in love with everything, and Jung, while dancing with natives, came perilously close to being swallowed by his id. Africa, some particular aspect of African life, is often used to reveal a character's inner life. For the romantic young city woman in "The Gentle Art" (my favorite story), a crocodile hunt starts out as a deliberate form of symbolic adultery in the presence of her husband. The crocodile hunter, who has invited them to come along in his boat, is everything she fantasizes a real man should be, while her husband, whom she calls "Poor Ricks," is "shut up in a blue suit in town." But when she finds herself gazing into the eyes of a live baby crocodile, which the hunter has pulled out of the river just for her amusement, she has something much closer to a religious experience.
In "Livingstone's Companions," a foreign correspondent from London, who has been robbed, by his own "wry, understated" way with words, of his capacity for living and his sensual wonder, is revived through getting lost in a strange, out-of-the-way resort during an assignment which would have required him to retrace Livingstone's last journey. The most compelling stories in the volume are the ones of this nature, in which the sheer terror or beauty of being somewhere bigger than one's petty concerns imposes itself on a character.
But there are unforgettable moments in the "provincial" stories as well. I don't mean Nadine Gordimer is provincial. I mean her characters in these stories never realize that they are not seeing beyond the tips of their noses—or their suburban kopjes. Their plights are no less poignant, however, because of Gordimer's true artistic self-effacement. The epiphany of every character, however small, is realized with absolute fidelity, from the stale fantasy summoned by a guilty suburban housewife (in "The Life of the Imagination") whose lover has left and forgotten to lock the door (she imagines a native coming in to kill her) to the old aristocratic lady in "Enemies" who meets her aging, complaining self—the self she has never acknowledged—on a train from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and snubs her. (Her alter ego dies during the night; the survivor sends a triumphant telegram to her chauffeur the next morning: "It was not me.")
Of interest to writers as well as readers is Miss Gordimer's introduction to her story collection. It contains more wisdom about the writing process in a few pages than many entire semesters of creative-writing classes. She has answers for the feminists ("My femininity has never constituted any special kind of solitude for me…. All writers are androgynous beings"); she has answers for the accusation that a writer "uses" people ("A writer sees in your life what you do not…. Fiction is a way of exploring possibilities present but undreamt of in the living of a single life"); and she knows what a short story is, and why she writes one rather than a novel ("A short story is a concept that the writer can 'hold,' fully realized, in his imagination, at one time. A novel is, by comparison, staked out, and must be taken possession of stage by stage…. A short story occurs, in the imaginative sense. To write one is to express from a situation in the exterior or interior world the life-giving drop—sweat, tear, semen, saliva—that will spread an intensity on the page; burn a hole in it")….
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SOURCE: A review of Something Out There, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1984–85, pp. 619-21.
[In the following excerpt, Kearns discusses the politics of Gordimer's fiction in Something Out There.]
… Nadine Gordimer's Something Out There is a collection of nine short stories and the title piece, a long novella that might have had greater impact if published separately. Gordimer is a writer of political fiction whose assurance has become finer with time. Her South Africa is a country torn apart not by "racial problems" or "terrorism," but by what she wants us to know is nothing less than civil war. Lush patches of safety in this battlefield are supported by a "grand illusion," and are under attack from enemies within and without. It is a country from which so many have "skipped"—a word with reverberations: "This one or that has skipped; the laconic phrase contains, for all this generation of South Africans in the know, dumped by their elders with the deadly task of defending a life they haven't chosen for themselves, the singular heritage of their whiteness." This writer is unconcerned with distancing her views by ascribing them, even nominally, to some stand-in or narrator. Nor do drama and conflict have to be devised: they are inherent in a place where everything is visibly dramatic and political, at least to Gordimer's fine eye for detail—every nuance of speech, every choice of dress is necessarily charged with irony. In the title story, for example, Joy, a white revolutionary, is caught in a delicate crisis when she must deal with a black visitor who is capable of blowing the cover she's providing for two black terrorists:
Joy slept in an outsize T-shirt; she put her Indian skirt over it and went out into the yard with the right amount of white madam manner, not enough to be too repugnant to her, not too little to seem normal to the former Kleynhans laborer.
—Yes? Do you want something?—
Mild as her presence was, it clamped him by the leg; caught there, he took of his hat and greeted her in Afrikaans.—More missus, more missus.—
She changed to Afrikaans, too.—What is it you want here?… They knew exactly how to lie to each other.
Gordimer supplies some views of the lives and thoughts of her conservative/reactionary fellow citizens, and of the merely bewildered, but the characters she's most interested in, clearly, are those whites who fall within a range closer to her own polities, and the blacks and coloreds whose lives provide not even an illusion of refuge from politics. She is writing for her countrymen today, and for the world today; she is also preserving, in a society where truth is more than ordinarily manufactured and suppressed, a record for the future of what it felt like to be a South African now, of what people said, of how they behaved. It's that part of the record only art can preserve. Gordimer is aware of every problem writing political fiction poses, as she showed in her supportive, but tortured and tortuous recent review of the South African J. M. Coetzee's The Life and Times of Michael K. Her own decisions as a writer are clear and, in what she writes, brave. She's willing to sacrifice transcendence….
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SOURCE: "Saboteurs," in London Review of Books, April 15-18, 1984, p. 23.
[In the following excerpt, Clayton comments on Gordimer's writing style in Something out There.]
Nadine Gordimer continues to send sane, humane reports from the edge of darkness. In her finest stories she fixes authoritatively the experience of her South African characters, who exist in the shadow of a gun. They are menaced by repressive laws, unpredictable violence and a cruel historical process; their small domestic treacheries can carry a fatal undertow of danger. In this latest collection [Something Out There] her tone remains cool, diagnostic, her brilliant camera eye unfazed. Even in a few pages she produces not a tentative sketch but a finished drawing. She places her figures exactly in the landscape, and the contrast between their precarious lives and her own controlled poise yields a high imaginative tension.
The education of a middle-aged, liberal-minded divorcee, Pat Haberman, becomes, in her beautifully constructed story. 'A Correspondence Course', a taut, ironic drama. Pat has rejected her husband's money-grubbing, country-club life' for independence with her daughter Harriet, now a graduate student. 'Harriet has been brought up to realise that her life of choices and decent comfort is not shared by the people in whose blackness it is embedded … And since she has been adult she has had her place—even if silent—in the ritualistic discussion of what can be done about this by people who have no aptitude for politics but who won't live like Haberman.' An English journalist serving nine years in a maximum-security jail in Pretoria for political offences responds to an article by Harriet in an academic magazine. A regular, censored, monthly correspondence begins. Pat supports her daughter. She is proud of their shared compassionate attitude; she talks about the letters at parties; she is gleefully excited when he makes his escape with five years left to serve. But when she finds a bundle of clothes that Harriet has left out for the escaped prisoner, and when the man actually appears on the doorstep, she is overcome by terror.
The pressures of living in South Africa are revealed within this close mother-daughter relationship; the rhythm of the story unfolds them with increasing clarity. A mother's protective regard for her child is central to another brief, intense story of conflicting loyalties, 'A City of the Dead, a City of the Living'. Here everything happens inside the overcrowded little house of Moreke, a jobbing gardener. A stranger, a man with a gun, comes to lodge with Moreke, his wife and baby. Moreke feels in duty bound to give him shelter. For a week the wife watches him as she does her crochet. 'The tiny flash of her steel hook and the hair-thin gold in his ear signaled in candlelight.' Eventually, acting entirely on her own, the wife betrays him, one of her own people, to the police. The woman who keeps the shebeen spits in her face. The story leaves behind a faint doubt about the author's timing, especially about the moment she chooses to stop. Since the scene has been set and the tensions have been built up with such skill, it comes as a letdown to find no explanation of the mother's decision to turn informer and no hint as to her husband's reaction.
The stories seldom convey the sense of biting pain that charges Athol Fugard's plays about South Africa. Some vital information or necessary energy is missing. A novella, 'Something Out There', offers a panoramic view of Johannesburg, where an ape-like animal is at large in the suburbs. Young Stanley snaps it with his camera, a bar mitzvah present. The picture is printed in a newspaper; an elderly estate agent's wife welcomes the headlines as a distraction from worse horrors. Doctors at the golf club are convinced it is a baboon. It startles a couple who are having an illicit affair; it steals food from a policeman's kitchen. Meanwhile, in a run-down rented house four people, a white couple and two blacks, are planning to blow up a power station. The interlocking lives of the saboteurs as they wait, disguised as an unremarkable suburban household—two young married whites and two black servants—are watched by the author so intently that the peripheral business of an ape at large seems unnecessary packaging. She describes magisterially their movements, their irritations with each other within a conspiratorial intimacy, yet she contrives to keep a distance from their inner struggles. The young woman has decided that she will stay with her partner, even though their six-year relationship is over, because the mission has long been planned and is important. How she arrives at this decision and what cause she is supporting are not explained. All four are in deadly danger; their purpose is destruction: urbanity seems the wrong mode in which to write of their crisis.
This is a book in which Nadine Gordimer steps outside the South African territory she has made her own; her most adventurous excursion is into the past. 'Letter from his Father' is supposed to be written in self-defence by Hermann Kafka to his son, Franz. It is easy to feel that the relatives of a genius sometimes get a raw deal. There were friends of D. H. Lawrence's family who objected strongly to the portrait of his father in Sons and Lovers: they denied that he was a coarse, unfeeling husband, unworthy of his wife's long-suffering refinement. Friends of Kafka père agreed that he had much to put up with from his difficult son. It is one thing to question a character study from direct personal knowledge, quite another to impersonate the subject and pretend to be answering false accusations. Kafka wrote a letter to his father, which he never sent, perhaps never intended to, and which was published only in 1954 in a volume consisting mainly of posthumous fragments. Ms Gordimer's letter purports to be written from heaven, where Hermann, though not Franz, Kafka is to be found. Its style is stage-Jewish and the effect of its bluff reproaches is embarrassing. She is a wonderfully clear-sighted writer, innately courteous, like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala or E. M. Forster, to the creatures of her imagination. It is foolhardy of her, though, to take on Kafka, whose work remains a set text for any examination on the 20th century….
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7653
SOURCE: "Prospero's Complex: Race and Sex in Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XX, No. 1, 1985, pp. 81-99.
[In the following essay, Newman analyzes the psychological connections that Rosa makes between race and sexuality in Burger's Daughter in relation to prevailing cultural attitudes toward each.]
Nadine Gordimer has remarked that all South African novels, whatever their political intentions, involve the question of racism:
There is no country in the Western world where the creative imagination, whatever it seizes upon, finds the focus of even the most private event set in the social determination of racial laws.
There are those who have argued that the white South African novelist is automatically corrupted by a privileged position, that Gordimer's audience can only be other privileged whites, and that the products of her creative imagination are therefore intrinsically a part of a racist society. In The Conservationist Gordimer focused upon the disjunction between the internal, subjective reality of her white protagonist and the external reality of political consensus, employing as her principal strategy the translation of political problems into other languages, particularly into sexual terms. In the novel sexual fantasy functions as a surrogate for colonial lusts. The sexual body of woman, the body of a murdered black, combine to form one massive image of colonial guilt. As her use of the language of Zulu culture, and Zulu dreams, indicates here, Gordimer is clearly aware of the dangers of solipsistic art, an art which may articulate only the dominating power of the white imagination.
Rosa Burger begins her tale with the recognition that:
one is never talking to oneself, always one is addressed to someone … even dreams are performed before an audience.
In Burger's Daughter Gordimer focuses upon the fantasies of the white subconscious, in order to undermine their power. Once again, a body lies below the level of conscious articulation, here the body of a white woman. In the opening scene of the novel Rosa is presented as she appears to other observers, as seen by casual passers-by, as reported on by her headmistress, and as transformed by the rhetoric of the Left, which converts her into "Little Rosa Burger" "an example to us all." The later Rosa reflects on her invisibility as a person:
When they saw me outside the prison what did they see? I shall never know … I saw-see-that profile in a hand-held mirror directed towards another mirror.
As the daughter of a Communist hero, it is assumed by others that Rosa's views reflect her father's. Rosa is thus trapped in a hall of mirrors, an object in the eyes of others whose internal reality remains unknown. A figure in an ideological landscape, she is placed by observers only in relation to their own political position: an image of the struggle in the "bland heroics of badly written memoirs by the faithful," a suspicious object to State surveillance. This public rhetoric of South Africa contrasts with a bleeding body, invisible to all shades of South African opinion. For Rosa these external views are eclipsed by her awareness of the pains of puberty:
real awareness is all focused in the lower part of my pelvis … outside the prison the internal landscape of my mysterious body turns me inside out.
In the novel Rosa's sexuality forms the point of entry to an exploration of the topography of the racist psyche. The disjunction between external and internal realities is rendered in the form of the novel in the alternation of first and third person narratives, narratives which interact in order to explore the roots of racism.
Burger's Daughter poses the question of racism as primary or secondary phenomenon. Is racism the product of a political system (capitalism) as Lionel Burger would argue? Or is racism a screen for more primary sexual insecurities? The central images of the novel are drawn from an informed awareness of the principal arguments involved here. Racism has been generally understood by various commentators as a product of sexual repression. In his early, classic study of prejudice Gordon Allport notes that to the white the Negro appears dark, mysterious and distant, yet at the same time warm, human and potentially accessible. These elements of mystery and forbiddenness are present in sex appeal in a Puritanical society. Sex is forbidden, blacks are forbidden; the ideas begin to fuse. White racism expresses itself in response to ambivalence towards the body, conceived of as both attractive and repugnant. In White Racism: A Psychohistory Joel Kovel developed the argument, describing aversive racism as the product of anal repressions. In his view the Negro is not the actual basis of racism but a surrogate or substitute. In white culture bodily products are seen as dirt. The subject therefore splits the universe into good (clean, white, spiritual) and bad (dirty, black, material). Things associated with the sensual body are dirty; those things which may be seen as non-sensuous are clean. Racism therefore depends upon the displacement of "dirty" activities onto an alter ego. Fantasies of dirt underlie racism, which is a product of sexual repressions.
Octave Mannoni offers a rather similar analysis, though with greater emphasis on sexual fantasy. Nadine Gordimer entitled her Neil Gunn Fellowship Lecture 'Apprentices of Freedom' quoting Mannoni. In Prospero and Caliban Mannoni argues that colonial racism simply brings to the surface traits buried in the European psyche, repressed in Europe but manifest in the colonial experience. Colonial countries are the nearest approach possible to the archetype of the desert island. Colonial life is a substitute life available to those who are obscurely drawn to a world of fantasy projection, a childish world without real people. For Mannoni, European man is always in inner conflict between the need for attachments which offer emotional security, and the need for complete individualisation. Revolt against parents is an important factor here. When a child suffers because he feels that the ties between him and his parents are threatened, the child also feels guilt, because he would also like to break those ties. He therefore dreams of a world without bonds, a world which is entirely his, and into which he can project the untrammelled images of his unconscious. This desire to break every attachment is impossible, of course, in fact. But it is realised by the colonial when he goes into a "primitive" society, a society which seems less "real" than his own. In the modern world this urge may be realised by the substitution of depersonalised links for original attachments. Mannoni cites the film star and pin-up girl as examples. These people are still persons, but only just enough for the subject to form unreal relations with them. The more remote people are, the easier they appear to attract our projections. Prospero's relation with Caliban and Ariel, Crusoe's with Friday, are cases in point. In Gordimer's July's People a similar relationship obtains between white woman and black servant. Maureen Smales comes to realise in the course of the action that the traits she admired in July were not his real character but only assumed characteristics, assumed in order to conform to Maureen's mental image of him. In the literature of colonialism the native woman is more commonly a focus for this type of projection. The white colonial marries the native girl because her personality is so little externalised that it acts as a mirror to his projections. He may then live happily among these projections without granting that the Other has autonomous existence. In Mannoni's words:
It is himself a man is looking for when he goes far away; near at hand he is liable to come up against others. Far-away princesses are psychologically important in this respect.
As will become evident, Rosa Burger almost becomes identified with the image of the far-away princess, inhabiting a world of erotic fantasy, though in her case Europe becomes the magic island, and her guilty revolt against her father is only temporary.
In this connection Mannoni's analysis of the roots of racism in a patriarchal system is particularly important. For Mannoni the antagonism between Caliban and Prospero in The Tempest hinges upon Miranda's presence as the only woman on the island. Having first treated the black (Caliban) as his son, Prospero later accuses him of having attempted to rape Miranda, and then enslaves him. In short Prospero justifies his hatred of Caliban on grounds of sexual guilt. Analysing the "Prospero complex" Mannoni draws a picture of the paternalist colonial whose racism is a pseudo-rational construct to rationalise guilty sexual feelings. In his view the sexual basis of racism is revealed in the old cliché of the racist: But would you let your daughter marry one? Uneasy incestuous feelings in the father are disturbed by this argument. For Mannoni it is easy to see why it is always a daughter, sister or neighbour's wife, never his own, whom a man imagines in this situation. When a white man imagines a white woman as violated by a black man he is seeking to rid himself of guilt by projecting his thoughts onto another (Caliban), putting the blame for his "dirty" sexuality upon someone else. In The Tempest Prospero's departure from the colonial island is accompanied by his renunciation of his art, in this case magical arts which enable him to dominate a world created in his own image. Caliban remains behind, however, as disowned son and slave. There are clearly extremely interesting connections here with the character of Baasie (adopted as a son by Lionel Burger but later abandoned) with Rosa's relationship with her father, in whose shadow she lives, and with the nature of Gordimer's art.
Mannoni's is, of course, a highly ambivalent analysis of the colonial enterprise. His central thesis, that the dependence and inferiority complexes are present in rudimentary form in everyone, too easily elides into the untenable hypothesis that people are colonised because they want to be colonised, at least subconsciously. Communists, in particular, have denounced the search for psychological solutions, as too easily providing an alibi for those who refuse to confront political problems. In Black Skin, White Masks Fanon contested Mannoni in detail. While Fanon allows that the "civilised" white may retain an irrational longing for areas of unrepressed sexuality which he then projects onto the Negro, he argues that this image of the sexual-sensual-genital Negro can be corrected:
The eye is not merely a mirror, but a correcting mirror. The eye should make it possible for us to correct cultural errors.
For Fanon, sexuality need not remain at the level of frustration, in authenticity or projection. True authentic love is "wishing for others what one postulates for oneself." Confrontation of one's psychic drives is only a necessary part of a process of cultural evolution:
The tragedy of the man is that he was once a child. It is through the effort to recapture the self and to scrutinize the self, it is through the lasting tension of their freedom that man will be able to create the ideal conditions for a human world … Was my freedom not given to me in order to build the world of the You?"
Burger's Daughter charts just such a process of self-scrutiny. Rosa remembers and observes her past self, in an extensive attempt to recapture and reconstitute it, and to engage with the world of the "You". Rosa's first person narrative is directed to three people, each addressed as "You": Conrad, a surrogate brother with whom she enjoys childish erotic freedom, Katya, a sexually permissive replacement mother, and finally Lionel Burger, the father to whom she eventually returns. "You" is obviously also the reader, who is initiated into these three identities. The reader participates in the fantasy while also measuring the distance between these surrogate people and himself. At key points Gordimer adopts Fanon's phraseology. For Conrad, the significant dynamic is "the tension between creation and destruction in yourself". Rosa describes Lionel, however, in antithetical terms: "the tension that makes it possible to live lay, for him, between self and others." In the novel Gordimer's narrative technique draws the reader into a tension of freedom, progressing from Conrad's inner psychological existence to a fresh orientation towards the world of the autonomous other. The alternation between first and third person narrative creates a tension between external image and internal voice, between "She" and "I". As "You" the reader continually mediates the two, correcting the errors of the eye, emerging from the spell of the internal voice. The reader is therefore offered a choice. He may place the voice addressing him as initiating him into a secret intimacy. Or he may refuse to identify with a surrogate "You" and thus register the possibility of a world in which communication is not limited to depersonalised stereotypes.
In the first movement of the novel, Rosa Burger disowns her original attachments in order to enter a world in which surrogate brothers and mothers replace them in a fantasy landscape. She does so largely as a result of ambivalence towards the body, as one example will indicate. When Rosa meets Marisa Kgosana (gorgeously regal while buying face cream) their embrace is described as a step through the looking glass.
To enter for a moment the invisible magnetic field of the body of a beautiful creature and receive on oneself its imprint—breath misting and quickly fading on a glass pane—this was to immerse in another mode of perception.
To the salesgirl Marisa appears in the image of the sensuous black woman, distant and unreal. She asks, "Where's she from? One of those French islands!" Marisa, however, has returned, not from the exotic Seychelles or Mauritius, but from Robben Island, the island to which white racist attitudes have banished her husband. From Marisa, Rosa's mind moves at once to Baasie, who is remembered quite differently as a creature of darkness and dirt. Rosa remembers Baasie wetting the bed which they shared as children:
In the morning the sheets were cold and smelly. I told tales to my mother—Look what Baasie's done in his bed!—but in the night I didn't know whether this warmth … came from him or me.
Quite obviously the two images suggest the twin racist strategies delineated by Kovel and Mannoni—the attempt to use blackness as a way to sensual liberation (Marisa), the attempt to blame "dirty" actions on the black (Baasie). Rosa exists in tension between these two forms of racism, but it is a tension Gordimer's complex art transforms into a political challenge. Key terms and images—island paradise, incestuous desires, projection onto mirrors, far-away princesses—recur in the novel from Mannoni's thesis, as do images of dirt, guilt, bodily products and repugnance, taken from Kovel. The language of racism is exploited, however, in order to confront the reader with a series of questions. Which vision of Rosa do we accept?—that of a white woman who is part of a racist society and who can address a "You" who exists only in her own projections? Or that of a woman confronting and correcting a stereotyped image and painfully learning to address herself to a world of other autonomous beings? It is my contention that the complex narrative art of Burger's Daughter refuses to maintain the text at the level of private fantasy or dream, and also avoids the danger of the depersonalised image. Gordimer employs the terms of the white racist subconscious in an attempt to free her art from Prospero's complex, and to direct it towards a world where "You" is not a fantasy projection, but real.
Gordimer's daring strategy, here, is to select as the focus of the novel a white woman attempting to achieve autonomy by emerging from her father's dominance. As the daughter of a white Afrikaner Communist, Rosa is an extremely complex figure. She may be defined in terms of sex, race, and position in the class struggle, and thus encapsulates the warring explanations of South African racism. In order to assert her autonomy Rosa can rebel only against another rebel. Her father is fighting political repression, so to fight his psychological influence is to join with the forces of political repression. This paradoxical situation is made evident from the beginning. In the eyes of the faithful, Rosa is desexualised and infantilised, maintained in the image of the faithful daughter. In the opening scene Rosa is described as having already "taken on her mother's role in the household" "giving loving support" to her father. That father cheerfully permits Rosa to have boyfriends while laughing at them for "not knowing she was not for them". In the Burger household the children have few exclusive rights with their parents for whom intimate personal relationships are subordinate to the struggle. As a young woman Rosa gains her parents' approval by posing as the fiancée of Noel de Witt, a device to enable him to receive visits in prison. Decked out, scented, "a flower standing for what lies in her lap" Rosa presents herself as a sexual object in prison, conveying a political subtext beneath innocuous lovey-dovey phrases. She returns to her mother's welcoming expression, the expression reserved for her "as a little girl" returning from school, and to her father's "caress". Rosa's parents are blind to the fact that she is actually in love with Noel. They are happy to cast her in a surrogate sexual role, a role which denies the reality of her emotions, confining her sexuality within prison walls. In the overall action of the novel, Rosa moves from prison to prison. Infantilised as "Little Rosa Burger" at the start, she becomes in the final pages, once more a child. Flora describes her at the end: "She looked like a little girl … About fourteen." In the eyes of the faithful Rosa has not changed at all. She is still her father's daughter, and is living out the historical destiny prepared for her by him. Imagistically, the prison is connected to the dichotomy of "inside" and "outside" in the novel. The reader, with access to Rosa's internal voice, knows that Rosa defected from her father in a belated revolt against the ideology of the parental generation. Does Rosa return from France to continue the political struggle, making a free choice on the basis of internal understanding? Or has Rosa simply fled from the erotic life of Europe in order to return to a desexualised security, a prison of women where she is once more her father's daughter? Rosa is finally imprisoned on suspicion of abetting the schoolchildren's revolt—a revolt informed by consciousness of black brotherhood, and directed against paternalism, whether white or black. Rosa's return follows her encounter with Baasie who denies her "brotherhood". In external political terms the white is rejected by blacks and retreats into paternalism. In internal psychological terms, however, the position is more complex.
That Rosa's rejection of her father is connected to sexual assertion is made clear in the scene with Clare Terblanche, daughter of Dick and Ivy who have been as surrogate parents to Rosa. Rosa is tempted by the parental warmth of their welcome and recognises their attraction:
In the enveloping acceptance of Ivy's motherly arms—she feels as if I were her own child—there is expectance, even authority. To her warm breast one could come home again and do as you said I would, go to prison.
Clare Terblanche lives with her parents and her life is devoted to their cause. As a result she is desexualised, in contrast to Rosa who is beginning to emerge. Clare appears at Rosa's door as a shadow which "had no identity" glimpsed through a glass panel. In Rosa's eyes, Clare is still her childish playmate, sturdy as a teddy-bear, suffering from eczema and knock knees which went uncorrected by parents for whom the body is unimportant. Where Rosa's is a body with "assurance of embraces" Clare, faithful to her father's ideals, has "a body that had no signals" and is "a woman without sexual pride". Clare has two purposes here—to recruit Rosa as a political intermediary, and to rent a flat for her lover. The first is clearly the dominant motive. Rosa refuses on the grounds that she will not conform to her parents image of her:
Other people break away. They live completely different lives. Parents and children don't understand each other … Not us. We live as they lived.
One event specifically links Clare to the earlier Rosa. When Rosa shows Clare the vacant apartment, Clare discovers a used sanitary towel in a cupboard. As they leave she removes this unmentionable object to the waste-bin, "and buried her burden … as if she had successfully disposed of a body." Disposing of her body is, of course, what Clare has done. Supposedly involved with the people's struggle, her background isolates her from the realities of the body. Irony cuts both ways here, however. In the background a radio announcer is:
reciting with the promiscuous intimacy of his medium a list of birthday, anniversary and lover's greetings for military trainees on border duty.
Rosa's refusal to help Clare aligns her with this promiscuous intimacy. In South Africa there appears to be no possible mediation between the desexualised image and an erotic intimacy which is the voice of the repressive state.
This erotic intimacy is developed in the person of Brandt Vermeulen. Breaking her attachments to the original family, Rosa sets out to obtain a passport, aligning herself with an alternative family. In order to defect, she makes a series of visits to Afrikaners "whose history, blood and language made (Lionel) their brother." Of them all, she selects as her ally Brandt Vermeulen, member of the Broederbonde, the Afrikaner political "brotherhood" which runs South Africa from within Parliament. Brandt's house expresses the psychological reality of colonialism. The facade is that of a Boer farmhouse of seventy or eighty years ago. Within, however, all the internal walls have been demolished to create one large space of comfortable intimacy, with glass walls giving access to a secret garden. Behind the facade of historical legitimacy there exists a vast personal space, inhabited by the erotic male. Brandt runs an art publishing house, and is about to publish a book of erotic poems and woodcuts. By participating in a racist political system Brandt has found sexual liberation. Rosa's attempt to escape from her father has brought her to a "brother" whose facade of reverence for the traditions of his fathers conceals a sophistic eroticism. Rosa is placed here against a highly representative background of objets d'art. Brandt's walls are hung with Pierneef landscapes, modernist abstractions, a print of the royal Zulu line, and images of tortured bodies. The room is dominated, however, by a sculpture, a perspex torso of a woman's body, set upon a colonial chest. Described as suggesting both the ice of frigidity and the hardness of tumescence the sculpture presents an image of erotic woman as a reified object of display, possessed by the male and existing only in his internal space. It is on this erotic object that Brandt's more "sophisticated" art depends, as Prospero's art draws upon a complex of sexual motives. In the garden a small black boy plays, amidst chairs spattered with messy bird-droppings, indicating his place in Brandt's internal landscape. To escape desexualisation by a father Rosa has entered a landscape organised by a surrogate brother to reflect his own fantasy.
Conrad is another such "brother". (The watchman for whom he places bets describes him to Rosa at one point as "Your brother".) Rosa's relation with Conrad is foreshadowed in the visit she pays to the Nels' farm when first separated from her jailed parents. At the farm "More and more, she based herself in the two rooms marked Strictly Private—Streng Privaat." On the door hangs a wooden clock-face on which visitors mark the time of their call. To Rosa it is:
immediately recognizable to any child as something from childhood's own system of signification. Beyond any talisman is a private world unrelated to and therefore untouched by what is lost or gained …
The dummy clock marks the entrance to the timeless world of the child's psyche, a place to which Rosa returns when separated from her parents. The visit to the Nels also marks the disappearance from Rosa's life of Baasie. Rosa recalls that she and Baasie had both been given watches, but that Baasie ruined his in the bath. To Rosa, Baasie has become timeless, existing only in her memory. When Rosa is permanently separated from her parents, she sets up house with Conrad in a world which is also outside time and place. Their cottage, soon to be demolished in favour of a new freeway, is let without official tenure at "an address that no longer existed". Set in a jungle of palms, beneath a bauhinia tree, the house is "safe and cosy as a child's playhouse and sexually arousing as a lovers' hideout. It was nowhere." In the dark of their secret cottage, Conrad and Rosa act out their dreams of a private erotic world in which parents are no longer controlling. For Conrad, a man with no political affiliations, only psychological events matter: Sharpeville passes unnoticed, obscured by the realisation that his mother had a lover. Freed from his Oedipal conflicts by the awareness that his mother was no longer the sole possession of his father. Conrad became obsessed with her.
I was mad about her; now I could be with someone other than my father there already.
Rosa admits a kinship with Conrad:
We had in common such terrible secrets in the tin house: you can fuck your mother and wish your father dead.
Conrad's reaction to Lionel's death is "Now you are free." Freedom from the father liberates Rosa sexually, but is attended by guilt. She wished for this freedom. She obtained it on her father's death. She concludes, "I know I must have wished him to die." In the psyche there is no distinction between what she has actually done and what she has imagined. This criminality of the white imagination is seen as liberating by Conrad. For him Rosa can only begin to live once she blasphemes her father's ideology. He quotes Jung in his support:
One day when he was a kid Jung imagined God sitting up in the clouds and shitting on the world below. His father was a pastor … You commit the great blasphemy against all doctrine and you begin to live.
As Conrad's choice of example suggests, he and Rosa are still inhabiting a world structured around the opposed terms of racist language. When Rosa ends her relationship with Conrad she does so in terms which suggest important connections with Lionel and Baasic:
I left the children's tree-house we were living in, in an intimacy of self-engrossment without the reserve of adult accountability, accepting each other's encroachments as the law of the litter, treating each other's dirt as our own, as little Baasie and I had long ago performed the child's black mass, tasting on a finger the gall of our own shit and the saline of our own pee … And you know we had stopped making love together months before I left, aware that it had become incest.
Rosa recoils from Conrad's erotic activities—activities which depend upon the replacement of the father—because these activities are perceived as dirty and incestuous. The closer Conrad becomes to Rosa, the more he blasphemes against her family's beliefs, the more he approaches Baasie, the black "brother" with whom her first "dirty" acts were performed. For Rosa sexual freedom is forever connected to images of the black, and to imperfectly suppressed incestuous desires. Significantly Conrad later sails off upon a yacht to islands in the Indian Ocean. Rosa departs for Paris—an unreal place, "Paris—a place far away in England" as she describes it to the Nels' maids—and thence to the South of France, to the arms of a surrogate mother, Lionel's first wife, who placed erotic freedom before the needs of the Party.
Rosa's arrival in the South of France is described in terms which establish it as the enchanted land of fantasy. "The silk tent of morning sea" tilts below her plane, glimpsed through the distorting glass of the window. Below, tables outside a bar become "tiny islands" in "a day without landmarks". On the verge "roadside tapestry flowers grow" and in the background "a child's pop-up picture book castle" stands against a landscape of sea and flowers, where
People were dreamily letting the car pass across their eyes an image like that in the convex mirror set up at the blind intersection.
Rosa's perceptions are dazed here, as if entering a dream world, a world drowning in sensuality. Katya's dining room appears as "swimming colours, fronds blobbing out of focus and a sea horizon undulating in uneven panes of glass." Katya's reminiscences of the Party—vodka, parties, sexual affairs—accompany Rosa's meal while she is "dissolving" in the pleasures of wine, and French sights, sounds and tastes. A room has been prepared for Rosa at the top of the house, full of feminine bric-à-brac, flowers, mirrors, and peaches:
a room made ready for someone imagined. A girl, a creature whose sense of existence would be in her nose buried in flowers, peach juice running down her chin, face tended at mirrors, mind dreamily averted, body seeking pleasure. Rosa Burger entered, going forward into possession by that image.
Rosa is thus presented with an image of herself as sensual woman, created by Katya, an image which she delightedly assumes, enjoying the sensual pleasures of an unreal country, where her projections are reflected back to her, where she ceases to be her father's daughter and becomes instead the mistress of Bernard Chabalier. The particular features of the landscape—islands, tapestry, flowers, mirrors, silk tent—are focused in the tapestry series, "La Dame à la Licorne" which is presented to the reader after Rosa's return to Africa.
Rosa's lover plans to show her these tapestries. He also takes her to see an exhibition of painting by Bonnard. As he says, "In Africa, one goes to see the people. In Europe, it's paintings." The white in Africa sees people as objects to be contemplated, objects which mirror their own projections. In Europe art offers a timeless substitute reality. To Rosa the paintings of Bonnard are just as real as the French people she lives among. These people are "coexistent with the life fixed by the painter's vision". Bernard points out that Bonnard's style and subjects never changed. The woman painted in 1894, the mimosa painted in 1945 during the war are treated in the same way. In the fifty years between the paintings there was the growth of fascism, two wars, the Occupation, but for Bonnard it is as if nothing has happened. The two paintings could have been executed on the same day. In Bernard's analysis, the woman's flesh and the leaves around her are equal manifestations:
Because she hasn't any existence any more than the leaves have, outside this lovely forest where they are … Your forest girl and the vase of mimosa—C'est un paradis inventé.
With Bernard, Rosa lives in a similar invented paradise, a world of sensual pleasures, divorced from the world of historical events, cut off from both future and past, a world in which she is only a timeless image. Rosa meets Bernard for the first time in the bar owned by Josette Arnys, a Creole singer. The bar is mirrored and suggests the solipsism of France for Rosa. "In the bar where she had sat seeing others living in the mirror, there was no threshold between her reflection and herself." In the background runs a recording of Arnys' unchanging voice, singing about "the island where she and Napoleon's Josephine was born." Arnys is quite unaware of the naive political content of the song. For her, art is timeless in its eroticism. She argues at one point that "the whole feminist thing" will mean the death of art, as women will no longer be able to sing of love. In her view, "the birds sing only when they call for a mate". Katya is associated with the same vision, when she takes Rosa to hear the nightingales singing. Rosa's final rejection of this world is linked to a different voice—that of Baasie—and to the image presented in the tapestry series.
The tapestries of the Musée de Cluny have been very variously interpreted both by artists and scholars. Discovered by George Sand, who featured them in her novel Jeanne, they were also the inspiration for a ballet created by Jean Cocteau in Munich in 1953. Rilke was also attracted to them, and celebrates them in one of his Sonnets to Orpheus, which begins "O dieses ist das Tier, das es nicht gibt" (This is the creature that has never been.). Rilke also described the tapestries in detail in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The hero, Malte, has found that growing up is a process of reducing and distorting experience to make it fit conventional categories, thus acquiring a false identity or mask. To his horror that mask becomes more real than his inner self; the self he sees in the mirror is more real than the person it reflects. When he observes the tapestries, however, Malte feels a restored sense of totality. From the tapestries he gains a sense of total or simultaneous time, with no sense of an absent future.
Expectation plays no part in it. Everything is here. Everything forever.
Forced as she grows up into a similar assumption of a fixed role, Rosa is also attracted at first to the tapestries, as part and parcel of her assumption of the role of Bernard's mistress.
Bernard Chabalier's mistress isn't Lionel Burger's daughter; she's certainly not accountable to the Future; she can go off and do good works in Cameroun or contemplate the unicorn in the tapestry forest. "This is the creature that has never been"—he told me a line of poetry about that unicorn, translated from German. A mythical creature. Un paradis inventé.
Scholars have suggested various interpretations for the tapestries, seeing them as representing a Turkish prince and his lady, as celebrating a marriage between two noble houses, as an act of homage to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and most importantly, as a celebration of the five senses, to name only a few of the available explications. A particular focus of difficulty is the sixth tapestry, in which the lady, on a blue island, against a rose background strewn with tapestry flowers, stands in front of a silk tent over which hangs the banner motto "A mon seul désir". The Lady appears to be taking a necklace from a box and the tapestry has thus been understood as celebrating a gift of love. Nadine Gordimer draws upon both Rilke's vision of the tapestries and the most recent scholarly explanation. In the text, she describes the first tapestry, in which the lady holds a mirror in which the unicorn is reflected, and then simply lists the four following tapestries as "the representation of the other four senses", hearing, smell, taste and touch. The text then moves to the sixth tapestry which is described in more detail. In 1978, Alain Erlande-Brandenburg agreed that the tapestries represent the five senses, but suggested that the meaning of the sixth tapestry lay not in the acceptance of a gift, but rather in its renunciation: the lady is not receiving the necklace but replacing it in the box. The sixth tapestry may therefore be understood as signifying the need not to submit to the power of the senses, but to exercise free will in their control. The necklace is therefore a symbol of the renunciation of the passions, which may interfere with our ability to act morally. "A mon seul désir" translates as "by my own free will" and is linked to the Liberum arbitrium of Socrates and Plato. Where formerly the tapestries were seen as celebrating the senses, as embodied in a beautiful woman, the understanding of the sixth panel has now corrected the eye of the observer.
On the simplest level, therefore, the tapestries indicate that Rosa's decision to abandon the luxuriant sensual joys of life with her lover is an act of free will, and a renunciation of the fantasy eroticism of projection, mirror images and magic islands. Life with Bernard would remove her from her historical destiny to a "place" outside time. Gordimer's description of the tapestries is entirely in the present tense, a timeless participial present which creates an impression of enchanted stillness. "The Lion and the Unicorn listening to music…. The Lady weaving … The Lady taking sweets from a dish …" In France Rosa has been possessed by an image of herself as sensual, floating like the lady on "an azure island of a thousand flowers", hearing nightingales sing, delighting in the taste of French foods and the sights of France, enjoying the touch of a lover. For all their beauty, however, the tapestries were executed in "the age of the thumbscrew and dungeon". Bernard would take Rosa away from a similar world of pain and imprisonment in order to sequester her in a private world of sensual joy and art, a world in which he could show her the tapestry he loves—"to love you by letting you come to discover what I love". What Bernard loves is an image of Rosa to which she does not entirely correspond. In the extremely complex presentation of the tapestries, Gordimer describes a woman gazing at them, a woman who has all the time in the world to do so.
There she sits gazing, gazing. And if it is time for the museum to close, she can come back tomorrow and another day, any day, days.
Sits gazing, this creature that has never been.
In the "Sight" tapestry the lady is also gazing, into a hand-held mirror, but she sees only the reflection of the unicorn, the mythical creature which has never existed outside the human mind. In the tapestry the oval face of the lady with her hair twisted on top is echoed in the oval frame of the mirror and the unicorn's twisted horn. Rosa Burger may become, like the lady, a gazer into a hand-held mirror which reflects back to her only an unreal and mythical creature, a woman who has only existed in the projections of others. In returning to South Africa, however, Rosa chooses not to be such an image, an object to be displayed and desired, a figure in an erotic or political iconography. In South Africa, Rosa, like Rilke's Malte, acquired a false identity imposed upon her by others. Pursuing a personal erotic course, however, simply creates an alternative mask. Rosa's progress towards autonomy involves coming to terms with the mythic masks which men have fastened over the female face—whether desexualised or erotically reified—and correcting the errors of her own internal eye.
Where the tapestry series articulates the necessity of correcting the errors of the eye, Baasie's voice establishes the autonomous existence of "You". Rosa wakes in the night to "the telephone ringing buried in the flesh" and in the darkness at first assumes it is her lover, Bernard. When she realises it is Baasie she tries to put him off. When Baasie keeps telling Rosa to put on the light, Rosa refuses on the grounds that it is late; she will see him "tomorrow—today, I suppose it is, it's still so dark." Rosa would very much like to keep this conversation in a timeless darkness. To her, Baasie is not a person with an autonomous existence, but a creature of her own mind.
The way you look in my mind is the way my brother does—never gets any older.
She addresses him as Baasie. The childish nickname, insulting in the world of baasskap, infantilises and desexualises an adult male, converting him into a "boy". For Rosa his real name—Zwelinzima Vulindlela—is unknown and unpronounceable. Infantilised and desexualised by Rosa's impersonal greeting at the party, Baasie angrily insists that he is not her "black brother" and doesn't have "to live in your head." He will not enter into a relationship with her in which he functions as a psychological surrogate. His insults force Rosa to put on the light, transforming his voice:
the voice was no longer inside her but relayed small, as from a faint harsh public address system.
Baasie's insults externalise his voice, no longer a part of Rosa, but a person in his own right, challenging her. By taunting her.
he had disposed of her whining to go back to bed and bury them both.
Burying the body is a part of Rosa's strategy, as much as it is Clare Terblanche's. She, too, would like to live in a world which corresponds to childish projections, a world in which the childish magical landscape is more real than a "Suffering Land" (Zwelinzima). In the conversation, Baasie can only be "You", a voice without pronounceable identity. Up to this point in the novel Rosa may be said to have addressed a "You" of fantasy. Now, however, "You" answers back. At the end of the conversation, vomiting in front of the bathroom mirror, Rosa sees herself as "Ugly, soiled", "filthy" and "debauched". She comments, "how I disfigured myself." Disfiguration is an essential step in Rosa's progress to autonomy, an autonomy which depends upon confrontation with her real body, repugnant as well as beautiful, a body which cannot be split into good, clean, white or bad, dirty, black.
The realisation is also a product of the subject of Rosa's conversation with Baasie—their respective fathers. In the conversation Rosa tries to assume responsibility for Baasie's father. She says that she was responsible for getting a pass to him, a pass with which he was caught, and as a result died. Baasie, however, refuses to allow whites to assume responsibility for blacks: "it's nothing to do with you … who cares whose 'fault'". Baasie rejects Lionel as spokesman for the black cause, as he rejects white paternalism. Rosa's desire to assume responsibility for her "brother's" father's death is finally checked here, as she emerges from the world of the psyche into the light of conscious action. What Baasie says to her ends her fantasy guilt over a white father, but does not absolve her from political responsibilities. She leaves behind an incestuous psychological world, in the recognition that blacks are autonomous beings, who are not bound to her by imagined ties of dependence.
Rosa returns to South Africa to take up her father's work again, in two senses: firstly in terms of a renewed political commitment, and secondly in the tending of black bodies. As a physiotherapist, Rosa (like her doctor father) restores feeling to the nerves of injured black people. Rosa's return is to a world of repugnant bodies—horribly mutilated in the Soweto riots—but she is now able to face these bodies and act in their world. When Rosa is charged with "aiding and abetting of the students' and schoolchildren's revolt" the reader knows of no external evidence for the truth of the accusation. Internally, however, Rosa had participated in a schoolgirl's revolt against paternalism, a revolt which has brought her to political consciousness. The novel ends with a revolt against parents which is not the product of white fantasy, but a political and historical reality. The schoolchildren's revolt in Soweto is directed at the white paternalist state, but also at the political compromises of black fathers. Fats Mxenge is such a father, a man who appears at the end of the novel like "someone brought abroad out of a tempest."
The extent to which she has left Prospero's complex behind is indicated in the art of Gordimer's novel. Two points are important here. In the final pages of the novel the third person view is emphasised and Rosa appears flatter and more distant than before. Gordimer also introduces into these final pages a statement from the Soweto Students Representative Council, ungrammatical, misprinted and rhetorically crude. Rosa comments:
They can't spell and they can't formulate their elation and anguish. But they know why they're dying.
In the prison Rosa obtains drawing materials and produces paintings which are also crude in their expression. Failures in aesthetic terms, they are however politically valuable. One drawing is a Christmas card. Ostensibly an innocuous group of carol singers, the card represents the clumsily drawn figures of Marisa, Rosa and Clare, signalling to its recipients that the women are in touch with each other. In the prison Marisa sings—not of love—but in order to announce her presence to the other prisoners. Rosa has also found her political voice and as a result her inner voice has become silent. The other picture is a
naive imaginary landscape that could raise no suspicions that she might be incorporating plans of the layout of the prison.
In this crude drawing tiny boats appear "through some failure of perspective" to be sailing straight for a tower. Rosa's drawing is an analogy to the art of Gordimer's novel, which takes the landscape of the racist psyche and inverts it to political ends. At the end of the novel Rosa is distanced as a result of a creative change in the reader's perspective. The "You" of fantasy has disappeared, replaced by the political voice of autonomous blacks (the S.S.R.C. statement). The internal voice has been silenced in favour of communication directed towards the world of the Other. Burger's Daughter opens with the epigraph
I am the place in which something has occurred.
Gordimer's aesthetics are directed against the constructs of a racist imagination, constructs which depend upon psychological displacement in order to relocate the individual in a real political perspective.
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SOURCE: "Gordimer Is in the Details," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, pp. 2, 10.
[In the following review, Roraback notes the freshness of the themes in Jump, despite their familiarity.]
Nadine Gordimer takes you by the hand. Sometimes she leads you gently. Sometimes, impatient, she yanks. Come, she says, there are things I want you to see.
We've been over Gordimer turf before. We know the field is not level. As always, there are salients of insensitivity, injustice, inhumanity—apartheid. After so many tours, can there be something we missed?
There can. There is [in Jump]. Our cicerone knows where the real stuff is—new insights, apercus, epiphanies, buried under layers of complacency. She knows where to dig.
As the conscience of the white South African, Gordimer could be expected to pause here and there to pontificate. Instead, in the best African tradition, she favors the role of a griot, a storyteller, who encourages her auditors to draw their own conclusions from the behavior of the characters she conjures up out of an endless imagination.
Here, in "My Father Leaves Home," we are introduced to an impoverished and persecuted Eastern European youth who migrates to Africa, where he discovers that no matter how humble one's origins, white makes right. There, in "Keeping Fit," we meet his foil, a well-to-do white jogger who strays into the teeming shantytown across the highway. Abruptly, he finds himself a cipher, generic, "only another white man, no other identity, no other way to be known." They all look the same.
In "The Ultimate Safari," the very young and very old of a village are forced by strife to leave and traverse a vast game reserve to gain safe haven with another branch of their tribe. Creation of the park—"the place where white people come to look at the animals"—has arbitrarily split the tribal homeland, and as a small girl, ravenous, trudges through the reserve, she cannot help but note that "the animals ate, ate all the time … and there was nothing for us."
In another game park, this one private, weekend guests, leaving a cozy campfire, are driven by an African servant to watch, in something approaching awe, as lions feast on a fresh-killed zebra. The balance of nature is served when the driver hacks off a cut of loin, a small one: "The lions know I must take a piece for me because I find where their meat is. But if I take too much they know it also. Then they will take one of my children."
As in any well-planned tour, there are side trips—to London, where an intensely quiet Arab radical lures a commonplace Cockney girl to the ultimate betrayal; and, in blessed comic relief, to an English seaside resort where "a man who had had bad luck with women" finds a valuable ring, advertises in Lost and Found, and is braced by a beautiful claimant who couldn't possibly have lost it.
There are O. Henry endings that would make the master curl his toes in glee (the last four words of "The Moment Before the Gun Went Off" hit like a sledge). And there is even a parable.
The island of "Teraloyna," whose original shipwrecked inhabitants have dispersed generations ago—some now white, some black, some "colored"—is now overrun by descendants of two imported cats. A planeload of young soldiers, one of distant Teraloynan heritage, is dispatched to get rid of the pests. "He is going home to the island. He is looking forward to the [fun] he and his mates will have, the beer they will drink, and the prey they will pursue—this time grey, striped, ginger, piebald, tabby, black, white—all colours, abundant targets, didn't matter which, kill, kill them all."
In this tour de force don't be afraid that you may misunderstand the guide. Gordimer is multilingual. She can speak male and female, young and old, black and white, and ginger, piebald, tabby.
Her voice is that of a Siren, simple words arranged like flowers, or embers:
—"The hyenas with their backs that sloped as if they were ashamed."
—"He went to the compounds where black miners had proudly acquired watches as the manacles of their new slavery."
—"Schoolgirls tramped onto the bus with their adolescent female odours and the pop of gum blown between their lips like the text balloons in comics."
—"We wanted to go away from where our mother wasn't and where we were hungry. We wanted to go where there were no bandits and there was food. We were glad to think there must be such a place; away."
These are Gordimer's tales. Go with her; there are things to see.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1352
SOURCE: "Dry Eyes," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 23, December 5, 1991, p. 20.
[In the following excerpt, Bayley discusses the stories of Jump in the context of classic stories by literary masters of narrative art.]
A Jane Austen of today is barely imaginable: but if one nonetheless imagines her, and locates her in South Africa, how would she be exercising her art? Could she find any subject other than the one Nadine Gordimer writes about? A great, even a good writer does not find his subject, it takes him over: he becomes it, and the world it has brought with it. But there exist situations in which this is necessarily not the case. Not only the subject but the way to treat it is handed to the talented South African writer in the most unambiguous terms. His success must be measured, not in terms of the world he has made by his art, but by what his art reveals of a particular world.
Jane Austen's sense of the society she lived in is subject to a variety of interpretations. D. W. Harding detected her 'controlled hatred' for it, while most of her fans regard her as supremely at home in it, using it as a vehicle for amusement and perception and something like comfortable fantasy. She repels and attracts; she can be attacked and defended. Nadine Gordimer, on the other hand, can only earn a chorus of dutiful praise. It must exasperate her sometimes to read that her novel or story is 'not to be missed' by anyone who cares what has been happening in South Africa; or that by revealing what has happened she has 'earned herself a place among the few novelists who really matter'. An honourable place, of course, and earned by the demonstrational sympathy and intelligence of Burger's Daughter and My Son's Story and The Conservationist. But her real talents are compromised by this style of celebrity in a way that does not reflect on them, yet imprisons them; and that seems not to happen to a novelist like Amos Oz, whose subject is not so much Israel and its future as some vision of his own about human beings and their spiritual insides. This is not the same as 'intertwining the personal with the political', and delineating 'each shift' in the African situation as a literary keeper of records'. With fans writing that on the dust-jackets of Nadine Gordimer's books, who needs depreciatory critics?
The success of the story or nouvelle stands in particular need of an equivocation the art of the form brings into being. A real masterpiece like The Aspern Papers reveals James's own fascination with the phenomenon of greed and power: the greed of the narrator for possession of the papers, whose ownership is poor Miss Tita's only weapon in her struggle for power and for possession of him. Every touch in James's evocation of Venice, like the statue of Colleoni, the indomitable warrior and ruthless mercenary, makes its ambiguous undercover point: and yet the touchingness of the tale itself seems not to be aware of what is going on, just as the governess-narrator in The Turn of the Screw is not aware of what is going on in the children's private world. This is the freedom of the story form, and it is a freedom sadly withheld from Nadine Gordimer's searching talent and narrative skill. 'Safe Houses', one of the best stories in this collection [Jump], suffers from the parameters it cannot avoid. A white political subversive, in hiding from the Police in Johannesburg, meets a rich woman whose business husband is away on frequent trips to Germany or Japan. Their meeting on a bus—her car has broken down and she has never been on a bus before—and their subsequent affair is immaculately described; and the end is not betrayal, for she never finds out who he really is, but a succession of less glamorous safe houses and eventual arrest. The donnée of the story is of course the contrast between his own secret dedicated life and her idle and privileged one, but it is not a theme which allows room for manoeuvre, or freedom for the story to surprise us and itself.
And yet it is possible to feel the author willing it to have such a freedom, and putting her skill into two kinds of understanding of the pair. They are representative, emblems of their time and place, but they are also physically realised. Their relation is observed with the tough business-like sympathy Nadine Gordimer has developed over the several volumes of her stories. She is more at home with physical notation than with what goes on in people's minds. Her episodes are to inform rather than to move us, and this means that a story which explores its own possibilities is more likely to reach our emotional responses than one which indicates a proper way to think and to feel. These stories are trapped inside the nature of their event. In one, a white farmer accidentally shoots his unrecognised son, a black boy whom he favours and who goes everywhere with him. In another, 'Some are born to sweet delight', a London family (locations outside Africa are left deliberately vague) acquires a Middle Eastern lodger. The daughter of the family falls in love with him and gets pregnant. She goes abroad to have the child with relatives, and he gives her a plastic toy to take to them. She thinks fondly of the way he watched without taking his eyes off her as she went through the barrier into the passport and security area. The plane blows up in mid-air.
The trouble is that a story can have nothing to add to such an event. Like Mérimée or Maupassant or Somerset Maugham, Nadine Gordimer seems most at home when no commentary is necessary: most of all when even an implicit ideology can be sidetracked. 'A Find' is about a man powerful and prosperous enough to have got through two designing wives, and who then goes to take a bachelor holiday on a Riviera beach. Among the sea stones he finds a valuable ring, and decides to make use of it through an advertisement. The dénouement is admirably done, and the author seems rather disconcertingly at home in it, as if easing herself with a holiday from normal duties and commitments.
Connoisseurs of the short story will remember the use that Maupassant, Maugham and James all make of the same theme: the jewellery whose value or lack of it gives a quick print-out of individual human reactions. James is of course the one who in his tale 'Paste' ponders the notion most effectively, starting from the inheritance of some trumpery jewellery which turns out to be the real thing. The psychology of acquisition then breeds a whole new generation of victims and predators.
Nadine Gordimer wisely leaves her participants without any inner life. In her title story 'Jump' this pays off with a Science Fiction setting in which a new black world houses in conditions of privileged nightmare a white renegade, a former 'supporter'. The awful futility of the isolation is treated inconspicuously and dryly, and the ambiguity of anti-climax has spread even into the concepts of revolt and repression. The image of a jump, a leap in the dark, borrowed from Conrad's Lord Jim, is neatly turned round, so that it never seems quite time to make the final gesture, the right moment for what was once the dangerous challenge of an assignment, and would now be simply the one to bow out on, to confront extinction. Freedom-fighting necessarily takes place in a slot like the one now occupied for life by the nameless hero, a slot isolated from the other realities of Africa—hyenas on the prowl, a lioness stalking a zebra—which are the subject of the laconic 'Spoils'. Lamb chops flavoured with rosemary for camp dinner fit together, in the indefinable degradation of a 'safari park', with the excitement of watching from the safety of a jeep a carnivore devouring a herbivore….
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2554
SOURCE: "Nadine Gordimer: Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1991," in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 7-10.
[In the following essay, Eckstein discusses the political atmosphere of South Africa and how it affected Gordimer's career and fiction.]
The world literary community has noted each year the prevailing tastes and proclivities of the Nobel jury. So rare was the choice of the Nigerian Whole Soyinka in 1986, for example, that it evoked comment from many quarters. John Kwan-Terry has speculated on the reasons for the exclusion of Chinese names from the list of winners. The paucity of women recipients is no less cause for speculation. In addition, commentary on the Nobel Prize traditionally includes the observation voiced here by John Banville: "The committee has always appeared distinctly chary of anything that smacks of art for art's sake, preferring its literature well salted with political or social concerns." Alfred Nobel's stipulation that his money reward literature of benefit to mankind [sic] and many of the jury's choices through the years do contribute to this perennial observation that artists' artists (e.g., Borges and Nabokov) do not win the Nobel Prize. Writers' and critics' common assumption that esthetic experiment and political commitment are incompatible is, however, equally responsible for this Nobel lore. The jury's awarding of the Nobel Prize to Nadine Gordimer in 1991 provides an opportunity not only to congratulate her for a reward earned through a lifetime's work but also to challenge the assumption separating esthetic complexity and political engagement.
Gordimer's receipt of the award in 1991, rather than earlier, speaks to the recent negotiations of the South African apartheid regime and leaders of the black majority population. The overt white supremacy practiced by the South African government has long been, at the very least, an embarrassment to Europeans and other people of primarily European descent, regardless of our own sins. Until that embarrassment had reason to abate, or seemed to, no white South African living in material comfort in South Africa, whatever the individual's stated resistance to apartheid, could receive a Nobel Prize, the major European prize. As a black African, the moderate but nonetheless worthy Bishop Desmond Tutu could receive the Peace Prize in 1984 for his resistance to the recalcitrant apartheid government. Still, separation of black rights and white rights being what they are in South Africa, the awarding of a Nobel Prize to a white South African would, until this year, have been untenable for the jury—or so I am guessing. This is, of course, not to say that Gordimer's prize also belongs to the South African government or that it deserves it. It is to speculate that, from the jury's point of view, the time is right to reward Nadine Gordimer and the political commitment her work has expressed for over four decades.
In her career, to date, Gordimer has published eight collections of short stories, ten novels, and two nonfiction works, has contributed excerpts from her fiction to two fine collections of photographs by David Goldblatt, and has given numerous interviews, now collected in one volume. This large body of work has prompted some reviewers and critics to assert that Gordimer is at her best in the short story and others to insist that the novel is her milieu. Having succumbed to this comparative thinking in the past, I now suspect my judgment—all these judgments—were based on the wrong question. Evidence of success in both genres disproves any assertion that Gordimer's talent is better suited to one fictional form than to another. She has also published less-polished pieces in both genres. Her work is not more accomplished in the one than in the other. Reflecting on her body of work, I realize instead that she repeats certain social situations in a number of works and that this repetition sometimes results in powerful work and sometimes not. The question to ask, then, is how repetition of these certain social situations has served Gordimer's fiction.
In a recent essay Irene Gorak points to a situation repeated in much of Gordimer's work. "Interpenetrating white and black bodies … forms the hidden center of all her books," Gorak asserts. Gorak criticizes what she calls the political quiescence of this repeated situation, dubbing it "libertine pastoral." I agree that much, though not all, of Gordimer's work describes bodies, explores the role of sex in life, and imagines the possibilities and difficulties of interracial sex. But Gorak is wrong to see this crucial repetition as a separation of private appetite from social choice. Examining the role of repetition in linking Gordimer's esthetics to her politics and ethics, I find that private life and public life, desire and choice, are also inextricably linked.
I use the term repetition thinking of Edward Said's essay "On Repetition" and Henry Louis Gates's use of the concept of repetition and reversal to explain signifying as it is practiced primarily by African Americans. Both critics focus on what Said describes as "Marx's method [which] is to repeat in order to produce difference." Said concludes:
Probably repetition is bound to move from immediate regrouping of experience to a more and more mediated reshaping and redisposition of it, in which the disparity between one version and its repetition increases, since repetition cannot long escape the ironies it bears within it. For even as it takes place repetition raises the question, does repetition enhance or degrade a fact?
Does Gordimer's repetition of black-white sexual relations "enhance or degrade" the fact? Is the hegemonic fear of rape by the black man that dictates the behavior of the white woman in "Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?" enhanced by the cruel law and white self-interest imposed upon the young black women with white sexual partners in "Town and Country Lovers"? Is the Utopian interracial union that represents a new nonracial political state in A Sport of Nature enhanced by the interracial extramarital affair that finds itself at the margin rather than the center of My Son's Story? To both questions I answer yes, in short, and see clear value in the mediated repetition. In other stories of interracial sexual union the repetition is less successfully reshaped. Even in these stories, however, one can understand the need for and the use in repeating the problem and the question in response to the apartheid government's reiteration of unchanging racialist answers and solutions.
But why this particular repetition, this "interpenetrating of black and white bodies"? An answer lies in these repetitions' struggle to elucidate what are the political powers of intimate relations. By this I mean not only how state political powers define the limits of personal desire by such acts as a law against miscegenation; but I mean also how all private spheres, all families of whatever ethnicity, perpetrate sets of gender and racial ideologies. This Gordimer shows masterfully in a number of pieces, among them the early story "Something for the Time Being" and the recent novel My Son's Story. Thus when sexual partners of different races meet, Gordimer postulates, a possible interpenetration of these different privately held ideologies occurs. In its best fictional forms this interracial intimacy asserts itself as more than an allegory for a nonracial state.
Racial supremacists' fear of miscegenation—promoted as fear of black man's rape and enforced by laws, lynchings, and torture—occupies considerable space in South African and United States history (to name two). That fear, obscured by violence, derives in part from the possibility that the interpenetration of ethnically different private spheres and their ideologies would result in ideological accommodations threatening to absolute separation and one group's assumption of supremacy. Individuals' attempts to wrest personal appetite or desire from ideological determination are social choices. Interracial sexual relations are one means Gordimer used to explore the possibility of a social choice free from ideological determination. Her fiction repeatedly demonstrates, however, that such choice is rarely, if ever, achievable in any situation. Nevertheless, in repetition is "mediated reshaping," the possibility of change.
South African writers of every ethnic origin face the question, "Am I politically radical enough?" Whether or not they ask it of themselves, it is asked of them by reviewers and critics both inside the country and out. Behind the question is the model of the martyrs, those South Africans, like Steve Biko, who believe that only overcoming fear of death will free them to oppose the apartheid regime as one must. Theirs is a standard of sacrifice difficult to match or to doubt. Reviews and essays about Gordimer's work frequently raise the question of political commitment through a comparison of her to another South African writer (often John Coetzee), and often these essayists formulate the comparison by means of the dichotomy between so-called modernist esthetic experiment and so-called historically determined revolutionary commitment. The usual strategy assumes that the modernist esthetic is ahistorical and therefore incompatible with political commitment. In 1983 Rowland Smith compared the work of Gordimer and Coetzee, arguing that her writing is historically grounded and, thus, preferable. Richard Martin begins his 1986 comparison with the promising idea that both Gordimer's and Coetzee's uses of history are borderline cases in their treatment of realist and nonrealist form and content, but Martin returns in the end to the favored assumption. Paraphrasing Gordimer's review of Coetzee's 1983 novel The Life and Times of Michael K, Martin asserts that the novel demonstrates a revulsion of history. On the other hand, Martin concludes that Gordimer's 1979 novel Burger's Daughter is "at home in history and in language, [and so] the text can take its place in the struggle for … a solution." Irene Gorak turns the tables of the dichotomy in her 1991 essay, declaring Gordimer the modernist whose "radical aesthetic tradition [is] yoked to a quiescent political one" and quoting Coetzee's review of The Conservationist, in which he asserts that Gordimer's novel has not laid the Afrikaner pastoral to rest. Although my cursory treatment does not do justice to these arguments, it is, I believe an accurate characterization of the tendency to polarize narrative experiment and political engagement, the same tendency which influences Nobel lore. This polarization, together with the tendency also to compare Gordimer to other writers in order to measure relative political merit, elicits in me not the question "What should the relation of 'modernist' literature and political change be?" but "What can the relation between any literature and political change be?"
It is possible that no direct relation exists between literature and political change, regardless of how prescriptive or how paradoxical the literary form; but I reject the certainty of this idea, just as I do the certainty that literature does produce political change. Instead it is probable that no easily determinable relation exists between literature and political change. Gordimer clarifies in part why this is true in numerous stories about the difficulty of beginning and maintaining direct political action and the dubious relationship between that action and greater justice. A Sport of Nature aside, the skepticism with which Gordimer depicts political change in most of her fictions prevails; it is obvious, for example, in A Guest of Honor, "A Soldier's Embrace," and "A City of the Dead, a City of the Living."
As a teacher of Gordimer's fiction, I have witnessed what the relation between her fiction and political change might be. All her best work undoes easy outrage and assumption about blame. It demonstrates the complicity with racist injustice of those who seem innocent, uninvolved, or even possessed of the correct sympathies. It teaches the careful student how to read politics as systems of power reaching into private life, lying with lovers. Those who learn what her fiction shows from affiliative bonds, links to consciously learned ideas challenging the intimate ideologies of unexplored assumptions. Whether or not these affiliative ideas provoke action and action produces change are another matter.
The strength of Gordimer's fiction lies less in what her characters say than in her careful descriptions of how they move through different private, public, physical, and political landscapes. Her characters' essential gestures speak. They tell of the characters' cruelty and grace, vulnerability and will, desires and choices.
The old man from Rhodesia had let go of the coffin entirely, and the three others, unable to support it on their own, had laid it on the ground, in the pathway. Already there was a film of dust lightly wavering up its shiny sides. I did not understand what the old man was saying; I hesitated to interfere. But now the whole seething group turned on my silence.
Characters within a story often repeat a gesture, turning habits of living into statements of belief, and sometimes Gordimer repeats a gesture of a character from one piece in another character of another work, but repeats it with a critical difference. These modest changes are both credible and moving. One such example occurs in two works separated by decades: "Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?" and My Son's Story. The first, the story Gordimer chose to begin her Selected Stories, describes a meeting in an isolated field between two strangers, a young white woman and a poor black man.
… any move seemed towards her and she tried to scream and the awfulness of dreams came true and nothing would come out. She wanted to throw the handbag and the parcel at him, and as she fumbled crazily for them she heard him draw a deep, hoarse breath and he grabbed out at her and—ah! It came. His hand clutched her shoulder.
The ambiguity of this isolated encounter in which the woman interprets the man's gestures through the fear she has learned becomes in this second scene a passing encounter in a crowd. Hannah, a white woman, attends memorial services for slain young men in a black township.
… moving over forgotten graves with the party from the combis she stumbled on a broken plastic dome of paper flowers and was quickly caught and put on her feet by a black man in torn and dirty clothes: sorry sorry. They were all around, those who had followed the convoy, and those who were streaming down from all parts of the township to the graveyards.
With the absence of isolation, separation, and unmediated fear in this second scene, the hand that seemed to clutch now quickly put her on her feet. This is repetition with a difference—not necessarily in the black man's hand but in the white woman's head.
While congratulating Gordimer on her achievement, it is important to concede what she herself would concede: her opportunities as an artist in South Africa between the 1940s and 1990s have, because of her "color," surpassed any available to artists of other "colors" whom political conditions have often forced into exile. Ezekiel Mphahlele, one of those exiles, gracefully illustrates this point at the end of his 1959 autobiography Down Second Avenue. Having escaped the confines of South Africa and gone to Lagos, he sits in a garden listening to Vivaldi and remembers an afternoon in Gordimer's garden where they also listened to Vivaldi. The memory serves as a reminder that Gordimer's garden could only be a temporary oasis; in Lagos Mphahlele felt the full refreshment of Vivaldi in his own garden. Perhaps the Swedish Academy has contributed to the dismantling of the apartheid government's separate systems of opportunity by honoring Nadine Gordimer's art and its resistance to injustice.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3152
SOURCE: "Nadine Gordimer: 'I've never left Africa,'" in Progressive, Vol. 56, January, 1992, pp. 30-2.
[In the following interview, Gordimer discusses her work and political change in South Africa.]
It was a frosty New York autumn afternoon, and Nadine Gordimer, South Africa's pre-eminent novelist, was sitting in the Union Square offices of her American publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Just a week later she would become the first woman in a quarter century to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and the second member of the African National Congress to win any Nobel. (Chief Albert Luthuli won the Peace Prize in 1960.)
Gordimer, sixty-seven, had come to New York to see her grown son, to do some public readings, and to promote her newest book of short stories, Jump. Like most of her fiction, Jump is full of realistic political tales of how apartheid destroys the souls of all who live in South Africa—though this collection also includes stories set in Mozambique, England, and the South of France.
During our two hours together, I mentioned that Gordimer had made the Nobel short list several times but had never received the award. "I really don't think about it," she said. "It's really unlikely to happen if I think about it."
A week later, the Swedish Academy made its announcement: "Nadine Gordimer, who through her magnificent epic writing has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity…. Her continual involvement on behalf of literature and free speech in a police state where censorship and persecution of books and people exist have made her 'the doyenne of South African letters.'"
I spoke with Gordimer again, briefly, on the day of the Nobel announcement. The interview that follows is an amalgam of the two conversations.
[Dreifus:] Jump seems like a set of transitional stories for you. Are you living now in a transitional country in a transitional time?
[Gordimer:] Well, I always think of a line from Gramsci, "living in the interregnum." But you know, there have been few times in the last ten years that haven't been a kind of interregnum—in Europe, too, though that one will be more quickly resolved than the one in South Africa.
Few writers have been able to influence the politics of their place as much as you have.
I wonder if I have. A handful of South African writers, including myself, if we helped at all to bring about change there, we helped through our influence on the outside world. In what countries have writers been influential? It seems to be happening again now that you have Václav Havel in Eastern Europe.
In Latin America, the writers have been influential.
Yes, in Latin America. But it's pretty rare. Can you imagine writers influencing things in this country? Can you imagine a writer in England influencing? Absolutely not. And in France? It used to be, but no more—absolutely not. France used to, at least, have writers as diplomats, but not any more.
In a country like South Africa, we have nuisance value, because those of us who have become known overseas have certainly helped to inform people about what life is like there.
Is the Nobel Prize an endorsement of your anti-apartheid work over the years?
I really can't say. I can only say that if you look at the recent Nobel Prize winners, one couldn't say that the work didn't matter and the political commitment did. Who had ever heard of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz? He is not politically involved. Octavio Paz is a great poet, also not politically involved. The Nobel Prize is for literature, for the quality of work over the years.
Some of your recent writings have been set in places far from South Africa. Do you consider yourself primarily a South African or a citizen of the world?
I don't think I am a citizen of the world; I am very much a citizen of my own country. But my own country is closely related to other parts of the world and influenced by what happens there. I think this has happened more and more in my lifetime. When I was a child, we seemed to be living in a world remote from the rest of the world. But television has made a great difference to all of us. If something happens where I live, you see it tomorrow or perhaps even at the same time it is happening there.
It's not "one world" in the sense that conflicts are resolved in the world. But we are more one world in that we know what is going on and are psychologically influenced by what goes on around us.
The Afrikaner government long resisted putting television in. South Africa was the one place in the world where Dallas wasn't to be seen on a Friday night. What was their problem with it?
Well, I think they made quite a wrong calculation; they thought television would spread ideas that were inimical to the kind of society they were trying to preserve. But when television was brought in—now about twelve years ago—it was entirely state-owned, and they discovered they had been neglecting the most effective tool for the propagation of their ideas. From their point of view, they had made a mistake to keep it out so long.
I myself have not appeared on South African television.
Are you semi-banned from South African television?
I banned myself! I decided that I wanted nothing to do with South African government television while any of my fellow writers were banned and couldn't speak publicly. Once you have some sort of reputation in the outside world, they will try to woo you. They will say, "Won't you come and be on a talk program about books? That's not political." Then they can say to the outside world, "See how free it is, she appears on television. See how free it is." So I refused to have anything of mine read or dramatized on South African television.
In 1990, when the African National Congress and the other movements were unbanned and Nelson Mandela and our other leaders came out of prison, they had to make an agonizing decision, which was then passed on to the rest of us: whether to continue to boycott South African television. Nelson and our other leaders decided that the time had come to use television. Once he'd done that, we writers met and discussed our position again.
In the meantime, the cultural section of the South African Broadcasting Company was beginning to woo us. They wanted to do an in-depth program about my work. So I went to the African National Congress, of which I was a member, to discuss what I should do. We asked how this was to be done, if I would have final cut. I also made a condition that I wouldn't be told afterwards that it was a half minute too long and had to be cut. So everything that I said went out exactly, intact. It was quite a breakthrough.
When did you join the African National Congress?
A year ago last March. I had been a long-time supporter. I had identified with the ideas of the ANC, and now one could come out and make one's allegiance public. I still hope that many other white people will follow suit. There are many people who are sympathetic toward the Congress but haven't actually gotten to the point of joining. In Johannesburg, there's quite a large membership of white people.
Who are they?
Well, it's quite interesting. In the area where I live, they get a mixture of elderly people who've been in the left-wing movement—some were in the Communist Party—and you get fighters for justice and liberation.
People like "Lionel Burger," the fictional anti-apartheid leader of your Burger's Daughter?
Well, people of that generation. And then, a lot of young people. Where I live is near the university, and a lot of the young people are joining.
And then, of course, you get an amazing mixture, because quite near where I live there's a crowded apartment-house area where lots of black people have moved in, whether it's legal or not. So this chapter of the ANC now has quite a lot of blacks, even though it is not near a black township or a black ghetto.
How did it happen that a neighborhood in central Johannesburg came to be integrated?
Well, it was a triumph of people power. Two things have brought about change in South Africa. One was the incredible endurance and determination of black people who really hung in there. One can't measure how a mood of confidence comes about. Somehow, in the last ten years, blacks have simply begun to move in where they've always been kept out. It's partly the fact that you could no longer run a country of something like thirty-six million people with four-and-a-half million whites. So areas where blacks have never been able to get jobs before have had to be opened to them.
Banks, for instance. Banks have had to train black tellers. And by blacks, I mean all kinds of people—people of mixed blood, people who are completely black. Indians, and so on.
Then people began to use facilities that had not been open to them, and with that came the confidence that when an apartment building had some apartments to let, when the building had been empty for some time, the owner would decide she would risk prosecution and black people would move in. And so this whole area is now full of people of all colors.
What have the last two years—as you've watched such intense social change in South Africa—been like for you personally?
Very exciting, certainly. It was something you would hardly believe would happen because it had gone on so long. It had been deadlocked for so long.
If the heroine of Burger's Daughter, a young white woman whose father dies in prison for his anti-apartheid work, were living in the South Africa of today, what would she be doing?
It's interesting that you asked. What was she doing at the end of the book? She wasn't active in politics. I think, as she put it, she was teaching victims of apartheid, children, "to put one foot before the other." Now that the ANC is unbanned, I think she would probably be running one of its branches. She would be living a much freer and open sort of life.
John Edgar Wideman, in a review of a recent book of yours, wrote, "Her withering insights deflate us; they show a fine contempt for the human species." Do you think that's accurate?
Totally inaccurate. I don't know what is meant by "contempt for the human species." It's the last thing in the world I have. I couldn't be sufficiently interested in human beings to be a writer if I had contempt for human beings.
Are the people you know personally happier now that apartheid has eased up?
Certainly the people who are close to me are happier. They feel freer. I'm thinking, for example, of a black friend, a regional organizer for the Congress. He's twenty-nine. At the age of seventeen, when he was in the youth group of the ANC, he went to prison, to Robbin Island, for five years. After prison, he went into trade-union work. He's spent his whole life in black ghettos in great poverty with great dignity. And now he and his young wife, who is an actress, have just moved into an apartment where only whites have lived before. They have no furniture there, just a bed for themselves, a bed for the baby, and a big TV, of course. But I think the very space around them is something extraordinary.
It's still a struggle, but they are living more fully than they did. But they are city people; for country people, things are as they were. They are very remote, very poor, very dependent on the white farmers they work for. It's very difficult to organize them.
There are still huge, huge problems to be tackled.
Doris Lessing, in the preface of her African Stories, says Africa provides no end of source material, no end to the horrors and dramas and joys and the courage you can witness. Do you agree?
About the joys and the courage, I really don't know what other people think. I just know that I've never left Africa. I've lived there all my life. And one of the wonderful things, in spite of all the terrible things that happen in South Africa, is the way people continue to keep their dignity. They continue to love, to laugh, to get pleasure out of life.
People come out of jail and pick up their lives and go on. I've met people in exile who have gone through terrible prison experiences—I'm talking about blacks now—and who've gone through all the terrible experiences that exile can mean, and suddenly they discover they've fallen in love. They marry and produce a baby—even though they know that they may be shot where they are, that they may have to move on to somewhere else, without any of the bourgeois calculation of, "How can I bring up children if I can't give them a settled life?" They just have the idea that you simply live your life to the full and accept whatever comes.
This idea that revolutionaries are martyrs who go around looking gloomy and noble, this is a romantic idea for people who've never met anybody who's gone through the experiences.
In your newest collection of short stories, Jump, you have one about a Middle Eastern terrorist who moves in with a working-class English family, impregnates the daughter, and then sends her on a plane with a bomb. This sounds suspiciously like a true-life story that I read some years ago.
Yes, it's one of the few stories in my whole life that has ever come out of three lines in a newspaper.
Could you say something about the process?
I read the newspaper account. Journalism picks up the dramatic point, but what led up to it? What happened after? How did these people meet? One simply doesn't know, so this intrigues the writer's imagination, and you invent the life.
I think Graham Greene once said, "We invent alternative lives for people." We catch a glimpse that intrigues us of somebody's life, and we invent an alternative life for them. And that's what happened with that story.
Did the events strike you as particularly horrible, so that you felt a need to write about them?
No. I mean, what he did was inconceivably awful. But if you've known people who believe that the cause they work for justifies everything, and that everybody else is to blame for this, and he belongs, as he must have, to some cell, and he's disciplined to do what he's told…. The mystery remains for me, when he started sleeping with that girl, or further on, when she was pregnant, at what point did he actually decide to give her that bomb to carry on? But to me this is what fiction is about; it asks questions, and it doesn't answer.
Another story in Jump tells about the current nightmare of civil war in Mozambique through the eyes of one child-victim.
People should know more about that situation. Two years ago, I made a documentary film with the BBC on Mozambique, on the South African side, where these camps are. And I realized, though I live just over the border from where these camps are, that I didn't know what a terrible, terrible thing this war in Mozambique is. And it is something being done in our name.
The changes in South Africa seemed to occur almost in response to the changes in the Soviet Union.
I think it was coincidental. The real influence of the events in the Soviet Union was to spread a lot of unease and anxiety in the African National Congress, because the Soviet Union had been the only country, really, that had stood by us all those years.
The West never lifted a finger or gave a cent to the African National Congress. America, England, Germany—everyone supported the South African government against the attempts of the African National Congress to bring about change. So actually, there was worry about losing that support—somewhat offset by the fact that now the ANC began to receive support from the West.
Of course, the strange thing is that the South African government is now madly wooing the new Soviet Union, or what is left of the Soviet Union. So we have Russian journalists there, and a Russian trade commission is coming, having lunch one day with the government and the next day with the ANC.
When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison two years ago, he seemed to be almost the last person on Earth who still spoke about "socialism."
I know. But the Communist Party is very popular in South Africa, especially among the young people. Never having had a chance to travel, and having suffered so much under capitalism, they still can't believe that the Russian people themselves have rejected it.
What are your impressions when you come to the New World Order, U.S.A.?
I come to this country a lot, and have for over twenty years. I've seen New York City, where my son lives, go up and down, and it seems to be in a down phase at the moment. People have had this idea of how wonderful it would be to live in America—the dream of so many Europeans, so many Africans—but it doesn't seem to be a desirable dream to have at all.
I find it odd how now, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, America has become so powerful internationally. You call the tune wherever you are, whereas at home, things just seem to be getting worse and worse. I would have thought this would have caused President Bush to lose a lot of popularity, because by and large people only care about domestic policy.
I wonder what's going to happen here, because it seems to me the material life in this country has decayed.
How do you feel about President Bush recently having lifted sanctions against South Africa?
I am pro-sanctions, and I was very sorry to hear that President Bush had made the decision to lift sanctions. I know, as someone living there, that sanctions have been tremendously important in forcing the South African government to finish the job.
If the sanctions are removed prematurely, what will happen?
I share the fear of Mandela and others that there will be a sliding back, that we will stay only halfway to freedom.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6831
SOURCE: "Going All the Way: Eros and Polis in the Novels of Nadine Gordimer," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 24, Spring, 1993, pp. 37-50.
[In the following essay, Knipp traces the thematic development of traditional expressions of Western liberalism in Gordimer's fiction.]
Nadine Gordimer's ten novels and seven collections of short stories constitute an impressive fictional achievement that is remarkable for its unity of vision and singleness of purpose. Gordimer has been preoccupied with a single great theme: the fate of ideological and methodological liberalism in South Africa since World War II. In interviews, essays, and speeches, she has clearly stated that she dislikes being called a liberal. Writing as a liberal and writing about liberalism are not the same, but Gordimer does both. Her commitment to the African National Congress and to the United Democratic Front are "radical" in the sense that they reflect her commitment to fundamental change—a root change—in the political and economic structure of South Africa. Nevertheless, values of the future South Africa that she envisions in her fiction, speeches, interviews, and essays (the values that form the moral basis of the struggle in which her protagonists are engaged) remain deeply rooted in a Western tradition of liberal individualism.
In two of her most important essays, "Living in the Interregnum" and "The Essential Gesture," she advocates non-racialism, constitutional freedom, and the writer's need to respect "the will to liberty" wherever it might appear. She is an outspoken defender of "basic rights" and "guaranteed" individual rights. In a 1987 conversation with Margaret Walters, for example, she says. "I am concerned with the liberation of the individual no matter what sex or color." The ends and premises of the liberal individualism that she defines in such statements are the same ends and premises that concern the protagonists of her fiction through whom she most fully delineates her moral vision. She herself recognizes this, admitting in "The Essential Gesture" that "nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction."
When she declared that learning to write "set [her] falling, falling, through the surface of 'the South Africa way of life,'" she was intimating that writing was, for her, the process of discovering the nature of state and society in South Africa. What she finds is a tangle of race and sex and politics. "In a fumbling way that sometimes slid home in an unexpected strike, I was looking for what people meant, but didn't say, not only about sex, but also about politics and their relationship with the people among whom we lived." She found what she was looking for, examined her findings from the perspective of liberal individualism, and reported them in her novels and stories. In the novels, this reporting follows two different narrative patterns. The minor pattern involves the presentation of South African life through the lens of a foreign liberal sensibility such as that of Toby in A World of Strangers. Variations upon this narrative pattern can be found in A Guest of Honor and Occasion for Loving; in the latter, it is interwoven with Gordimer's dominant narrative mode—a maturation plot in the form of a quest in which a South African girl (woman) searches for a liberal moral center in an illiberal land. This quest is Gordimer's great story, a theme upon which she orchestrates variations in The Lying Days, Occasion for Loving, The Late Bourgeois World, Burger's Daughter, and A Sport of Nature.
In these novels, similarity of plot and singleness of theme lead to the creation and variation of a single type of protagonist. Helen in The Lying Days, Jessie in Occasion for Loving, Liz in Late Bourgeois World, and Rosa in Burger's Daughter are all thoughtful, self-absorbed, self-reflexive, intelligent women who seek to make their way through the moral wilderness of apartheid. The fact that Hillela in A Sport of Nature is an antithetical character who does not engage in introspection merely serves to underscore Gordimer's awareness of the "unity in variety" of her protagonists. Hillela's life is also a sad commentary upon the failure of intellectual liberalism to transform South Africa. She does what others don't and can't do. She intuits the distinction between liberal ends and radical means, and she acts on the implications of that distinction.
Gordimer presents this search as a sexual guest. Eros is her primary symbol. Each heroine's success in harmonizing the psychological with the political—in moving toward a liberal moral position in an illiberal political context—can be measured in terms of the political attitudes of her lovers. In a sense, each of Gordimer's female protagonists makes love to her own principles. For example, Liz in The Late Bourgeois World moves from her origins in the white South African petite bourgeoisie through a marriage to Max, the failed radical, and a love affair with Graham, the liberal lawyer, to a flirtation and collaboration with Luke Fokase of the PAC. In all these relationships, including those that are not overtly sexual, Gordimer (or her protagonist-narrator) emphasizes the erotic. Luke and Liz have not made love by the novel's end, but their relationship is charged with eroticism:
He put his hands at once on the top of my arms and let them slide down towards the elbow, squeezing me gently. We stood there a moment grinning, flirting … he gave me a little appraising lift, with the heel of the hand on the outer sides of my breasts, as one says, "There!"
Gordimer's ten novels were written during a thirty-seven-year period when South Africa was undergoing momentous changes. Through 1985 the nationalist government became increasingly fascistic, and the implementation of apartheid grew more ruthless and arbitrary. The options available to liberals changed during this period because many liberal attitudes and activities were declared criminal. Gordimer's fiction reflects these changes and marks the tragedies that occurred at Sophiatown, Sharpeville, Soweto, and elsewhere, but she herself always writes about liberalism and as a liberal. She writes about personal relationships and personal moral choices—about what Emerson called "the infinitude of the private man." For her, the individual moral choice is not just the focus of art but the pivot of history.
Liberalism can be said to function at four levels: as an ideology, as a mythology, as a collection of attitudes, and as a predisposition toward particular sorts of behavior. Ideological liberalism is rooted historically in Christian moral teaching and, as a secular political philosophy, has a long and complex history; but its fundamental principles are that individuals have rights, responsibilities, and the capacity for individual moral action. Over time these principles have been expressed through a variety of political and economic systems, sometimes giving rise, ironically, to structures and systems that contradict and subvert the principles upon which they themselves are based. International capitalism in its exploitative neo-colonial phase is an example of this tendency. The application of liberal principles across racial and cultural barriers has always been difficult and marked by failure. Numerous racial or cultural mythologies have emerged to justify these failures: manifest destinies, racial stereotypes, etc. Thus liberal principles have often become the bases of illiberal political and economic cultures.
An example of this process has clearly arisen in South Africa, where liberal political ideals are espoused by a minority of enfranchised citizens at a time when liberal attitudes and behaviors have been criminalized. Under such circumstances, liberals soon discover that traditional liberal institutions such as jury trials, legal codes, and proportional electoral representation have been coopted by an illiberal power structure. The challenge to the liberal is to find alternate forms of action that express liberal principles. The individual search for such principles and such actions constitutes Nadine Gordimer's major theme, a theme that she has projected as a woman's erotic quest. Politics and sexuality, polis and eros, public and private, move in tandem as the erotic becomes the vehicle for the political. If The Lying Days provides a paradigmatic example of this theme, her later works contain deeper, richer variations of it. A Sport of Nature might well be the summative formulation of the theme. (Note that the questing liberal heroine is absent from her most recent novel, My Son's Story, the protagonists of which are a black [coloured] father and son.)
The Lying Days is the first-person narrative of Helen Shaw's quest-journey from childhood to womanhood, from a South African mining town through the university and the city to Europe. This journey outward is also a journey inward, because, for her, the discovery of the other (i.e., the male, the black) is also the discovery of the self. Moving from a closed world to an open one. Helen's journey begins in the limited world of her mother, of whom she says: "Wives and husbands and children and the comfortable small plan of duties they owed to one another—for her, this was what living was."
The novel's opening incident compresses within itself the moral force and narrative design of the whole novel. Committed to an afternoon of tennis (a trivial pleasure in the closed world of white privilege), Mrs. Shaw hesitates to leave her daughter Helen alone. Her reluctance has its origins in the unarticulated fear of the suppressed black man:
"You know I can't leave you on your own, the girl's out." Yes, I knew that, an unwritten law so sternly upheld and generally accepted that it would occur to no child to ask why: a little girl must not be left alone because there were native boys about.
But Mrs. Shaw does leave and Helen does go out, away from the closed world of the mine: "I went straight down the garden path and out of the gate into the world," she said, "somewhere I had never been," and "there were dozens of natives along the path." But if she goes out, she also returns, a pattern that is repeated several times in the novel.
The Lying Days is divided into three sections: "The Mine," "The Sea," and "The City." These are way stations on Helen's journey away from the closed world of the mine and toward an open, liberal world. Her quest is not unsuccessful, but it is incomplete. The progress that she makes is marked by her erotic encounters with Ludi and with Paul, and it is placed into perspective by Joel, the lover with whom she never makes love.
Alienated from bourgeois South African life and from its values, Ludi is absent without leave from the army. From a perspective based on his instinctive harmony with nature, he shows Helen the limits of mine location life, which, under "a surface of polite triviality," is "the narrowest, most mechanical, unrewarding existence you could think of in any nightmare." He makes her feel "lonely … for something [she] had not yet had," and his kiss awakens "the beginning of desire," but it is a desire he does not fulfill because of his own limitations: his lack of intellectuality and ideology. Ludi is a drop-out, but he succeeds in convincing Helen that she needs to escape from her own small world, and he launches her on a search for a world where sexual fulfillment and social commitment are the same.
Paul, a social worker struggling with the housing problems of the blacks in the townships, seems to offer the possibility of such a world. He works within the system to ameliorate the lives of blacks and, in his free time, he works outside the system to help them organize politically. Reflecting Gordimer's belief that love is a process by means of which sex and society come together as value and meaning in the person of a lover, Helen says:
So I, who had inherited no God, made my mystery and my reassurance out of human love; as if the worship of love in some aspect is something without which the human condition is intolerable and terrifying, and humans will fashion it for their protection out of whatever is in their lives.
In fashioning her love, Helen focuses on the "aspects of Paul" that are traditional expressions of liberalism. "The job that Paul did first interested then excited me" (emphasis added), she says. In fact, she loves him because of his job, "the only kind of job … that could bring a white man deep into the life … of the Africans who surround us." Summarizing her love, Helen exclaims, "not only was Paul the source of joy, he was also at grips with the huge central problem of my country," the problem of recognizing and responding to the human individuality of black Africans. In other words, she loves Paul because he embodies the liberal ideology and lives the liberal agenda.
Or so she believes at the time: "I was at that stage in idealism when the gesture was satisfying in itself." What she learns is that the gesture (Paul's life) is futile. He himself becomes fragmented and sneers self-deprecatingly at his job: "It matters so little whether it goes on or not." He is, in reality, outside the historical process, doomed to irrelevance, not because his liberal ideology is invalid but because his traditional liberal methods are ineffective against the oppressive control of the apartheid state. A growing realization of this futility pulls the two lovers apart. Helen's love no longer has a viable context. As a result, she admits that, "intense love-making was all we had now." Her complaint, "nothing fits," suggests a dysfunction that is both sexual and social. "I loved Paul and part of my loving him was my belief and pride in the work he had chosen." The failure of the work is the death of their love. Thus, Paul proves to be only one encounter in Helen's ongoing search for herself in the selfhood of others.
Joel, the son of a poor Jewish shopkeeper in the mining town where he and Helen had grown up, embodies the traditions of a Jewish liberalism that endow him with the sense of self for which Helen is searching: "His nature had for mine the peculiar charm of the courage to be itself without defiance." Their friendship almost but never quite takes on an erotic dimension, but whether they are conversing alone in a house, picnicking in the country, or dancing in Durban before their respective departures for Israel and London, the erotic is always just beneath the surface of a relationship that is studded with symbolic action. With Joel she drives beyond the reef, with him she climbs the kloof.
Joel is Helen's guide through the moral swamp of South African life. She clearly accepts him as a mentor, and as she prepares to sail for London at the end of the novel, he offers her a final insight when he tells her that, in searching for herself in others, in attempting to fuse eros and agape (of which liberalism is the secularized ideological expression), she is both snobbish and lazy:
"You always set yourself such a terribly high standard, Helen. That's the trouble. You're such a snob when it comes to emotion. Only the loftiest, the purest, will do for you. Sometimes I've thought it's a kind of laziness, really. If you embrace something that seems to embody all this idealism, you feel you yourself have achieved the loftiest, the purest, the most real."
The novel ends in the middle of Helen's journey. Armed with a heightened self-awareness and a tinge of disillusionment, she anticipates her London adventure calmly, knowing, "I'm coming back here." When she returns, she will have become Rosa Burger.
A World of Strangers is almost the structural obverse of The Lying Days. The protagonist is male, not female; he is outside the South African ethos looking in, not inside struggling to get out; he is selfishly liberal, not an avid seeker after a liberal basis for selfhood. Toby is a young English publisher recently arrived in Johannesburg in whom liberal principles have deteriorated into a thoughtless and self-indulgent individualism. He insists upon maintaining a "private life" and a personal perspective unencumbered by causes and commitments. Drawn into a friendship with Steven Sitole (a self-absorbed black) and into a love affair with Cecil (a thoughtless white suburban beauty), he keeps Sam (the committed black) and Anna Louw (the white activist lawyer) at an emotional distance.
About South African life, Toby observes: I felt the attraction of this capacity for joy as one might look upon someone performing a beautiful physical skill which one has lost or perhaps never had. Lopped off, gone, generations ago, drained off with the pigment fading out of our skin. I understood, for the first time, the fear, the sense of loss there can be under a white skin…. I was drawn to the light of fire at which I have never warmed, a feast to which I had not been invited.
This effusiveness is sentimental, but Sitole's meaningless death awakens Toby to the real human cost of this joie de vivre, and the pain-filled lives of Sam and the other township blacks sensitize him to the exploitative racial basis of Johannesburg's vitality. His heightened awareness of South African reality and his growing commitment to black aspirations are symbolized by his willingness to act as godfather to Sam's newborn child. Nevertheless, A World of Strangers ends in uncertainty as Toby leaves Johannesburg, promising to return to his newly acquired commitments and relationships.
A World of Strangers is the first novel in Gordimer's secondary mode—that in which an outsider comes to terms with Africa by experiencing it and by placing his or her experience into a matrix of liberal values. Occasion for Loving brings this mode together with the dominant one in her fiction. The protagonist of this novel is Jessie Stillwell, a South African liberal in her late thirties who is contentedly married to a university lecture: in history. Like Helen Shaw, Jessie moved from childhood in a mining town through several erotic encounters, including two marriages, to her present situation in the liberal bourgeoisie. During the course of the novel, she discovers the ironies of this situation as she is drawn into the experiences of Ann Davis, a self-willed young woman who had been raised in England and who has a love affair with Gideon Shibalo, a black South African painter. As a witness to this affair and its consequences, Jessie comes to understand the untenable nature of her and her husband's liberal attitudes and behavior. Once again, polis is revealed in terms of eros.
Jessie's "journey" is a flight as much it is as a guest. It is a flight from her home on the mine location and from her mother, a symbol of white South Africa's emotional and intellectual aridity. Her first husband who had been killed in the war was a man whose limitations mirrored her own at the time of their marriage. He was father of Morgan, the son whom she does not and cannot love. When the novel opens, Jessie "still belonged to the height of life, the competitive sexual world." And "for the best part of eight years she had lived honestly, wholly, even passionately. But for some time now she had been aware that though this was the way she had chosen to live … it was not the sum total of her being." Such an existence did not satisfy all her inner needs because it did not respond adequately to the external realities of her world. That is, Jessie's life is inadequate because its characteristic liberal responses are ineffective in the face of the increasing repressions of the apartheid state. This inadequacy is epitomized by the career of her husband Tom, who is working on a history of Africans as invaded peoples rather than as "fauna dealt with by the white man in his exploration of the world." Tom's inadequacy and, by extension, that of Jessie, are symptomatic of the liberal failure, as an African colleague makes clear when he talks to Tom about the tightened restrictions on the education of Africans: "Fight them over this business if you want to, man, but don't think anything you do really matters." This sense of irrelevance marks the limitations of Jessie's inner life (eros) as well as the failure of her liberalism (polis).
In contrast to Jessie. Ann, like Toby in A World of Strangers, has an outsider's perspective and cultivates the selfish individualism of an unreflective Westerner. She "has no work of her own" and "is easily amused." She indulges "her impatience with … limitations" in small matters such as pushing her way to the head of queues and in the large issue of the love affair. However, she is interested neither in the limitations placed upon Gideon's life, nor in the politics that are contingent upon them. She is in love with his body and his talent, not with his principles and his struggles. The result is "a reckless love affair" marked by "emotional anarchy." She derives pleasure from scandalizing strangers in public places, and she has no compunctions about inconveniencing black people when she and Gideon are traveling together. Ann brings only ego and passion to the love affair, not awareness and commitment. But Gordimer (and Jessie) insist, "There are certain human alliances that belong more to the world than to the people who are amusing themselves by making them." Because Ann refuses to engage this world, to integrate eros and polis, all her attempts to flee from it with Gideon are futile. Their affair becomes a journey without a destination, an idyllic but ephemeral interlude.
Ann's blindness allows Jessie to see clearly. "Like a kid playing hide and seek," Ann flees with Gideon, willfully ignoring South Africa's political realities. "She did not love him across the colour bar; for her the colour bar did not exist." By denying the political realities of the larger world, Ann reduces their lovers' world to the dimension of the automobile in which they are riding; when the car breaks down, they are drawn back into the real world where they are obliged to dissimulate. In their final bid to live outside the real world, they seek seclusion in the seaside summer home where Jessie is spending several weeks with her children. Initially resentful of their intrusion into her temporary escape from the real world, Jessie gradually accepts not only their presence but her own reluctant awareness of what they mean for her and in her world. As Ann becomes restive within the constraints of her limited world and anxious to have her affair resolved "by something drastic, arbitrary, out of her own power," Jessie comes to know Gideon in his blackness and in his particularity:
A black man sitting in the car with the small ears they have, and the tiny whorls of felted black hair…. A black man like thousands, the Kaffir and picanin and native nig of her childhood, the "African" of her adult life and friendships: the man, the lover. He was these. And none of them. Shibalo.
Thus individualized, Gideon is drawn into Jessie's personal world. He becomes the temporary patriarch of her family, playing with the children, carrying them from the beach, holding them while they fall asleep. But unlike Ann. Jessie also sees his world "where people were born and lived and died before they could come to life."
Occasion for Loving is a subtle, complex novel. The core of it is the taxonomy of a love affair. The point of it is the response to the affair by a number of people who are differently situated in relation to the political realities of South Africa: Gideon, who knows "the only thing possible—the struggle"; Ann's husband, who "cannot kick a black man in the backside"; Ann herself, for whom "everything was taken for granted, everything that had ever been struggled for and won with broken bodies and bursting brains"; even Tom with his self-appointed task of writing history from a black perspective. But it is Jessie who learns from Ann's erotic failure to comprehend the limits of her own moral world:
[She and Tom] believed in the integrity of personal relationships against the distortion of law and society. What stronger and more personal bond was there than love? Yet even between lovers they had seen blackness count … nothing could bring integrity to personal relationships.
The Stillwells' code of behavior toward people was definitive, like their marriage; they could not change it. But they saw that it was a failure.
The implication of this discovery is not that the Stillwells should abandon their liberal principles, but that they should embrace a radical means of achieving them. And Jessie, who had come to see Gideon as a lover, albeit somebody else's, would be the one to act upon this insight. "Tom began to think there would be more sense in blowing up a power station; but it would be Jessie who would help someone do it."
The Late Bourgeois World is the shortest of Gordimer's novels. A first-person narrative, it depicts the events that take place on a particular Saturday in the life of the protagonist, Liz van den Sandt, who also recalls the past events that help explain the meaning of that day's agenda. At the beginning of the novel, Liz receives notice that her ex-husband has committed suicide; by the end of the novel, she has all but agreed to smuggle money into the country for Luke Fokase and the PAC. In the meantime, she visits her son and her grandmother and receives a visit from her lover. Liz's life reveals a pattern of personal experience similar to that of Helen Shaw in The Lying Days—a movement away from her origins and a simultaneous inward journey toward a moral center that would enable her to embrace radical means to achieve liberal ends.
Confronted by Max's death, Liz recalls his futile life. As an undergraduate Marxist, Max had rebelled against his family's "moral sclerosis" and its exploitative bourgeois gentility. At the time of his death, he was a failed radical. "Max, three years ago, tried to blow up a post office," but he was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. During the trial, he turned state's witness. As Liz observes, "He wasn't the sort of person he thought he was." More importantly, he was not equal to the expectations she had for him:
I wanted to make love to Max, and I wanted to give him the approval he wanted. I wanted to please him. But it wasn't a matter of watching your husband rising a notch in the salary scale. What I wanted was for him to do the right thing so I could love him. (emphasis added)
Max is Liz's unsuccessful attempt to achieve the moral high ground of liberal individualism through the actions of a sexual partner—to define her own liberated self on the basis of her lover's deeds.
Liz is presently involved in a comfortable, non-demanding love affair with Graham, a liberal lawyer who "defends many people on political charges." Graham works with and within the law; he "has defined the safe limits of what one can get away with." Liz asks herself: "If I wanted a man here at this time, in this country, could I find a better one? He doesn't act, that's true; but he doesn't give away, and that's not bad, in a deadlock." But for all his virtues, Graham demonstrates the futility of liberal methods. Due process, trial by jury, and other procedures are useless once they have been coopted by fascists. He and, through him, Liz are among "the liberal minded whites whose protests, petitions, and outspokenness have achieved nothing." All they really have is an inward daintiness and a code that does not address the real problems of "the people who … crowded in on us with hurts and hungers kindliness couldn't appease."
During the course of her long Saturday, Liz visits both her son and her grandmother, the white future and the white past in South Africa, but when the day ends, she is still contrasting the moral tension between means and ends in her own life as she dines tête-à-tête with Luke Fokase. A member of the PAC, Luke has requested that she smuggle money into the country by taking advantage of her grandmother's bank account. That is, he has asked her to go beyond the discredited liberal means that have achieved nothing—to go beyond the "safe limits."
During their encounter, the political and the erotic are united. Gordimer presents Luke's political request as a seduction. Liz recognized Luke as "an expert in what might be called sexual regret: the compliment of suggesting that he would like to make love to you if time and place and the demands of two lives were different." His action and his words are a kind of foreplay. "He trailed the tips of his fingers along my ear and down my neck," Liz says. And he calls her Lizzy. "The play on my name, using incongruously, intentionally clumsily and quaintly the form in which it is a kitchen girl's generic, made a love-name of it." As the novel ends, Liz looks back on a day in which she has moved reflectively from Max to Gordon to Luke. She hasn't made love to Luke or promised to smuggle funds, but the reader is left with the impression that she will. In her mind, the two represent complementary aspects of the same experience, part of the movement away from the mine and toward a racially egalitarian world. Lovemaking is a political act:
A sympathetic white woman hasn't anything to offer him—except the footing she keeps in the good old white Reserve of banks and privileges. And in return he comes with the smell of the smoke of the brazier in his clothes. Oh yes, it is quite possible he will make love to me, next time or sometime. That's part of the bargain. It's honest, too, like his vanity, his lies, the loans he doesn't pay back; it's all he's got to offer me.
Burger's Daughter is a variation upon Gordimer's dominant theme and mode. Like its predecessors, it is the story of an outward journey which is also an inward journey—a quest during which the personal parallels the political. The erotic motif is more muted in Burger's Daughter than in the earlier novels and occasionally transformed into a series of non-erotic personal and familial images of the interpenetration of the public and the private. This version of the motif is illustrated by Rosa's recollections of the onset of puberty and of a later menstrual period when her mother and father were being arrested:
The bleeding began just after my father had made me go back to bed after my mother had been taken away…. But outside the prison the internal landscape of my mysterious body turns me inside out, so that in that public place on the public occasion … I am within that monthly crisis of destruction, the purging, tearing, draining of my own structure.
The juxtaposition of "outside" and "internal," the fusion in the memory of the two "landscapes," the repetitive emphasis on the word "public" all bridge the gap between eros and polis.
The erotic motif is muted in Burger's Daughter because the main point of the story is Rosa's discovery that the love of her father and the love of her country are the same in the sense that they combine to impose a sense of commitment upon her. But, as with Helen and Liz, Rosa's erotic encounters are part of the process of discovery. As she withdraws from anti-apartheid politics after her father's death in prison, she becomes involved with the moody, self-absorbed Conrad, who has adopted an egocentric form of individualism. He says, "I don't give a fuck about what is 'useful.' The will is my own. The right to be inconsolable. When I feel, there's no 'we,' only 'I.'" Later, she recalls Conrad as part of the process by means of which she has come to understand her father's house, its liberal foundation, and her commitment to it. "The creed of that house discounted Conrad's kind of individualism, but in practice discovered and worked out another" (emphasis added). In the South African context, Lionel Burger's Communist Party membership is an expression of liberal individualism.
Indulging in her own version of Conrad's selfish individualism, Rosa leaves South Africa for the Mediterranean coast of France, where "you forget all about degrees of social usefulness." There she learns, or learns to articulate, the crucial distinction between liberal ends and liberal means, as this exchange illustrates:
"Oh well, ordinary civil rights. That's hardly utopia. You don't need a revolution for that."
"In some countries you do."
On the French Riviera, she enters into a love affair with Bernard, a member of the French leftist bourgeoisie. Ironically, his relaxed but committed liberalism helps Rosa to comprehend her own destiny as a South African. The thought process that culminates in her decision to return to South Africa is complex, but Bernard's assurance that "you can't enter someone's cause of salvation" and her awareness that she is gradually drifting into an acceptance of permanent exile catalyze the realization that her own salvation is at stake as well as that of black South Africans such as Bassie, her now exiled childhood playmate. Rosa learns that the only success is a life "that makes it all the way." Reflecting on her own attempt to flee South Africa and to build a life with Bernard, she concludes that "Nothing can be avoided … no one can defect."
She returns to South Africa not to indulge in overtly radical behavior but to practice her profession as a physical therapist and to accept the fate of those who bear witness to the truth. She is imprisoned without charge together with her black friend Marisa Kgosana. There are homoerotic undertones in Rosa's attitude toward Marisa, who is first presented in terms of sexual splendor "jerking her beautiful breasts." There is also an erotic energy in the language she adopts to express her feelings for Marisa: "I felt a dangerous surge of feeling, a precipitation toward Marisa … [a] longing to attach myself to an acolyte destiny; to let someone else use me, lend me passionate purpose, propelled by meaning other than my own." When she flees South Africa, Rosa "abandons" Marisa "without saying goodbye," and when she returns, she comes back to Marisa, who "got permission to be escorted to Rosa's cell twice weekly for therapeutic exercises for a spinal ailment she said was aggravated by sedentary life in prison. Laughter escaped through the thick diamond mesh and bars of Rosa's cell during these sessions."
Hillela, the protagonist in A Sport of Nature, begins her erotic and political quest more or less where Helen Shaw, Jessie, and Liz end theirs. She matures in a household where the adults are increasingly confronted by the failure of liberal modes of behavior to stem the advance of apartheid. She spends most of her adolescent years in the home of her liberal Aunt Pauline and Uncle Joe, a lawyer who defends blacks and activists indicted for violating apartheid statutes and regulations. However, unlike Rosa and other Gordimer heroines, Hillela is not introspective or self-reflexive. Early in the novel, we see Hillela as Pauline does: "One of the problems with Hillela was that she never seemed able to explain what made her do what she did." She responds to every situation in and through her body. Ben, the psychiatrist for whom she works briefly, reflects on "the unselfconscious ease with which she was at home with her body." Arnold, her radical friend on the beach in Tanzania, asks, "What are you saying? You don't trust anything but your own body?" She answers in the affirmative. The insight of her second husband, Reuel, is summative: "Everyone has some catch of trust, while everything else—family love, love of fellow man—takes on suspect interpretations. In her it seemed to be sexuality."
This seems unmistakably clear. For Hillela, eros and agape are the same, love and justice two aspects of the same experience. More unequivocally than in the case of Gordimer's more thoughtful and self-aware heroines, her erotic adventures are an integral part of a political quest. This quest is anticipated by the friendship she forms, while at school, with a coloured boy and by the scandal that results in her expulsion from school. It begins in earnest when, having violated in spirit the taboo against miscegenation, she violates that against incest by seducing her cousin Sasha, a rebellious heir to the bankrupt tradition of decorous liberal behavior. She proceeds from Sasha to Andrew Key, the double-dealing radical journalist who made her aware "of the orchestration of her body conducted by him," to Udi, the aging German labor organizer who teaches her about commitment by not making love to her, to the French diplomat who becomes her lover. This social-sexual quest ends when she meets Whaila Kgomani, the militant Azanian revolutionary who becomes her lover and then her husband.
Whaila is the fulfillment of her instinctive erotic search to discover herself in the other. His blackness and maleness make her complete. She says, "When we are together, when you're inside me, nothing is missing." In her authorial voice. Gordimer says, "If Pauline and Joe had known it, the daughter of feckless Ruthie had what they couldn't find, a sign in her marriage, a sense and certain instruction to which one could attach oneself and feel the tug of history." In fact Hillela senses that this attachment will produce the political future—a new "rainbow coloured" people who will be free and in possession of their individual selves. With Whaila she had "animated confidence that she was escorting the first generation that would go home in freedom." However, he is assassinated by the fascists, and she miscarries her second child. One beautiful black daughter is all she has; Whaila and the unborn "rainbow" children are the price she pays for having found herself in the answering self of a black man. It is the price demanded by the political struggle against the apartheid state.
The last hundred pages of the novel are curiously futuristic and redundant. They constitute a reprise with variations upon the erotic journey/political quest that constitutes the first two-thirds of the narrative. At home in the cause of Azania, Hillela wanders the world on its behalf, encountering a series of lovers who parallel those in the first part of the novel—Karel and Pavel in eastern Europe, Bradley in the United States, and finally Reuel, her second black husband, the successful liberator-president of his unnamed country. At the end of the novel, a new flag is raised over a free Azania. Hillela attends the ceremony with Reuel, who is serving as the president of the OAU. Standing next to her black lover-husband, "Hillela is watching a flag slowly climb…. It writhes one last time and flares wide in the wind, is smoothed taut by the fist of the wind, the flag of Whaila's country."
In this image of the miscegenous lovers uníted under the flag of a free Azania, the liberal goal of the two-fold quest of Gordimer's heroines has finally been achieved because, in Hillela, the white sensibility has finally accepted radical means without abandoning liberal ends. This goal has also been achieved incrementally from one novel to the next. Helen leaves South Africa to test her liberalism, intending to return. Partly because she is witness to a miscegenous love affair, Jessie learns the futility of liberal means in an illiberal land. Liz hovers on the brink of commitment to radical means. Rosa completes the journey Helen had begun, accepting imprisonment as the inevitable consequence of her commitment to Marisa. For each protagonist, the erotic parallels and defines the political. For each protagonist, the act and process of love develop the soul and reveal the world and establish a connection between the two.
Hillela recapitulates and completes Gordimer's characteristic paradigm. She completes it by living the truth that William Plomer's protagonist had discovered and turned away from in the explosive 1926 novel Turbott Wolfe, the truth with which the liberal South African novel might be said to have begun. Wolfe loved the African woman Nhliziyomi and knew that his salvation—and South Africa's—resided in that love, yet he failed to act. From novel to novel, Gordimer's heroines move toward this truth until the moment when Hillela and Reuel stand together before the Azanian flag. The truth that inheres so tightly in the novels as to be part of their structure is really a plexus of truths: the journey outward is also a journey inward; eros and polis are the same—facets of the same existential experience; in an illiberal land, liberal ends require radical means; and finally, the most radical act in every sense of the word is the act of love.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5548
SOURCE: "Echoes From Elsewhere: Gordimer's Short Fiction as Social Critique," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 61-73.
[In the following essay, Huggan applies Gordimer's short story theory to her practice, analyzing "Six Feet of Country" in comparison to three later stories.]
Nadine Gordimer's novels have done much toward "articulating the consciousness" of contemporary South Africa. What is not often realized, or not realized often enough, is that her short stories also contribute to this articulation, and that the short story is just as well-equipped as the novel to attempt it. Gordimer has proved herself over time to be one of the foremost exponents in the world of the modern short story. Yet her critics have tended, almost exclusively, to focus on her novels. Why should this be so? The main reason for the critical imbalance in favor of Gordimer's novels might be brought down, perhaps, to a lowest common denominator: that critics have had and continue to have difficulty with the short story. The lack of theoretical groundwork does not help; for while theories of the novel abound, it has not been until relatively recently that short story theory has awakened academic interest, most noticeably in the United States. Recent theoretically informed studies such as Susan Lohafer's Coming to Terms with the Short Story and Bill New's Dreams of Speech and Violence act as valuable correctives to those who persist in seeing the short story as a "minor" genre or, still worse, as an incipient or microcosmic form of the novel. Two collections of nineteenth- and twentieth-century views of the short story, Charles E. May's Short Story Theories, and its "sequel," Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey's Short Story Theories at a Crossroads, are also particularly useful, although it seems significant that most of the views provided in either collection are by short story writers rather than by short story critics. It is in May's collection that Gordimer's most succinct statement on the short story can be found: her essay "The Flash of Fireflies," which first appeared in The Kenyon Review in 1968. In this paper, I shall look first at some of the propositions put forward by Gordimer in this earlier essay, and compare them to later statements made in her introduction to the 1975 Selected Stories. I shall then go on to suggest how her short story theory may be applied to her fiction, beginning with a detailed analysis of the early story "Six Feet of the Country," and continuing with brief, comparative comments on three later stories: "A Company of Laughing Faces," "Livingstone's Companions," and "Keeping Fit."
The essay "The Flash of Fireflies" opens with the question: "Why is it that while the death of the novel is good for post-mortem at least once a year, the short story lives on unmolested?" Gordimer's contention is that "[i]f the short story is alive while the novel is dead, the reason must lie in approach and method." Yet how do the approach and method of the short story differ from that of the novel? Gordimer argues that the strongest convention of the novel, its "prolonged coherence of tone," is also potentially its weakest aspect, since it is "false to the nature of whatever can be grasped of human reality." The short story, which relates to "an area-event, mental state, mood, appearance which is heightenedly manifest in a single situation," is, according to Gordimer, "better equipped to attempt the capture of ultimate reality." Shelving for a moment the problem of what Gordimer might mean by "ultimate reality," I shall focus on her concept of "heightened manifestation." Reminiscent of Joyce's epiphanies or Woolf's moments of being, the "heightened manifestations" of the short story are posited by Gordimer as being particularly appropriate to modern consciousness, which "seems best expressed as flashes of fearful insight alternating with near-hypnotic states of indifference."
So far in her essay, Gordimer would seem to be doing little more than restating Frank O'Connor's influential thesis that the short story is somehow a more "authentic" form of self-expression than the novel, and that the self it expresses is more often than not lonely, alienated, idiosyncratic. Gordimer goes on, however, to ask what I believe to be the most challenging question posed in the essay: "What about the socio-political implications of the short story's survival?" For Gordimer, the novel "marks the apogee of an exclusive, individualist culture … [I]t implies the living room, the armchair, the table lamp." The short story, like the novel, presupposes leisure and privacy, but it does not have "the consistency of relationship" of the novel; because of its limited duration, fragmented form and immediate impact, it "depends less than the novel upon the classic conditions of middle-class life, and perhaps corresponds to the breakup of middle-class life which is taking place." It is not clear what Gordimer means here by the "classic" conditions of middle-class life. Presumably she is referring to the security and tendency toward a reassuringly integrated outlook that are reflected in the literary conventions of, say, the nineteenth-century realist novel. It is debatable, of course, whether the novel is as consistent and integrated, or the society it supposedly reflects as secure, as Gordimer implies; her own novels, in any case, expose the flaws and contradictions inherent in middle-class ideology. Her second point, however, is more illuminating: for if the short story corresponds to a breakup of contemporary life, its implicit expression of the disintegration of the existing social order makes it an ideal vehicle for radical social critique. The anti-authoritarian potential of the short story has not been lost on other commentators: O'Connor, for example, suggests that "we can see in it an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups, whatever these may be at any given time." It is precisely this attitude of mind which emerges from Gordimer's short fiction, corresponding to the short story writer's attempt to articulate what I shall refer to here as a "submerged consciousness." This hypothesis suggests that the reader should treat the primary narratives of Gordimer's short stories with suspicion, and should look instead for what emerges from beneath the surface or between the cracks of these narratives. Terry Eagleton's comments are useful here:
It is in the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt. It is these silences which the critic must make 'speak'. The text is, as it were, ideologically forbidden to say certain things.
Eagleton is describing Pierre Macherey's theory of literary production, but he could equally well be describing the politically repressive conditions under which Gordimer's work has been—and continues to be—produced. In Macherey's model, however, ideology is unconsciously produced by the literary text; in Gordimer's, it emerges from a deliberate strategy of textual interruption. Repressed narratives rise to the surface and make their presence felt: a technique Gordimer uses most obviously in the novel The Conservationist, but which is used in intensified form in several of her short stories. The literary devices of inference and ellipsis—not restricted to the short story, of course, but at their most telling in the short story—are particularly well-suited to Gordimer's exposure of the politics of repression. By using inferential techniques to articulate a submerged consciousness, Gordimer identifies the short story as a powerful agent of social critique in a country where freedom is strictly limited.
Gordimer outlines her approach toward the short story more clearly in her introduction to the 1975 edition of her selected short stories. The problematic "ultimate reality" to which she refers in her earlier essay, implying that her primary interest is in portraying "universal" aspects of the human condition, is this time more closely identified with her immediate social environment. "A writer is selected by his subject [sic]," claims Gordimer, "his subject being the consciousness of his own era." The short story, in this context, is not political by design but by necessity: "ultimate reality" is indissociable from social reality. This does not mean that Gordimer's short stories need subscribe to the "dreary" social realism she disparages in "The Flash of Fireflies" but rather that, irrespective of their artistic handling, they are the products of a specific set of social and historical conditions. Gordimer suggests further that, since the writer is "selected by his subject," he or she is highly likely to inquire into the mode of production of his/her work, to explore both the social conditions which have given rise to it and the ideological presuppositions on which it is based. It is true of course that in her explicitly political novels (such as Burger's Daughter) and her implicitly political ones (such as The Conservationist) Gordimer does just that, but the most succinct and, in my view, most pertinent expression of the limits of the ideology within and against which she writes is in short stories where an elided sub-text, submerged beneath the body of the presented text, implicitly challenges and undercuts the dominant narrative voice. I would like to demonstrate what I mean by taking a closer look now at some of the narrative tactics employed in Gordimer's short stories, beginning with the early story "Six Feet of the Country."
For a reader accustomed to the complex narrative displacements of Gordimer's novels, the apparently univocal and syntactically uncomplicated story "Six Feet of the Country" might seem disarmingly simple. The disarmed reader is the deceived reader, however, for the apparent simplicity of the story is part of a greater narrative strategy which consists in presenting the reader with an illusion of completeness while allowing him/her (if he/she reads carefully enough) to see through that illusion. The reader recognizes, in the process, that the content of the story is not so much contained in the form as omitted from it. The central technique, then, is that of irony; the most telling literary device, that of ellipsis.
The plot of "Six Feet of the Country" can be quickly summarized as follows: The anonymous narrator, a travel agent in the city, has bought a nearby farm for himself and his ex-actress wife in the hope that it will improve the quality of their lives and give some stability to their unhappy marriage. Neither happens, and matters are complicated further when Petrus, one of the black farmhands, informs the narrator that his brother has died. Petrus's brother is taken away by the authorities for post-mortem and duly disappears; but Petrus and his family insist on (and pay for) the right to bury their own. After some delay, the coffin is returned, and the funeral takes place; it transpires, however, that the body in the coffin is not Petrus's brother. The mistake cannot be rectified, and Petrus loses both his brother and his money.
The story seems well rounded: beginning with background, it proceeds with action and moves on to dénouement in conventional realist fashion. Yet, from the outset, the reader is led to suspect that the narrative is unreliable and incomplete. "My wife and I are not real farmers," says the narrator at the beginning of the story, giving the reader immediate grounds for suspicion: for if he is not a "real" farmer, who is he "really"? Significantly, we never learn his name: and although his is certainly the dominant narrative voice, the "real" voice is suggested as being elsewhere. This initial suspicion increases when we learn that his wife would like to be an actress (i.e., to play another role), and increases still further when he compares his wife unfavorably with his female visitors: his wife, "her hair uncombed, in her hand a stick dripping with cattle dip," is contrasted with "some pretty girl and her husband shambling down to the riverbank, the girl catching her stockings on the mealie stooks." The impression given to the reader in the first few pages is of an unstable marriage in uncertain surroundings; for the narrator lives neither in the city nor, properly speaking, on the land: instead of "having it both ways," he finds himself with "not even one way or the other but a third, one he had not provided for at all." The implication is that the narrator's control over his subject is at best limited, and that he is offering us a falsification—or at least an abridged version—of the story.
Out of this uncertainty, the possibility emerges of a subtext (or texts) which tacitly inform(s) the reader of the "real" conditions that drive the narrative. This sub-text can be located in two areas: first in (his wife) Lerice's, second in (his farmhand) Petrus's version of events. That there is a large degree of coalition between these two versions is suggested by the narrator's discovery of a strange similarity between his wife and Petrus:
She and Petrus both kept their eyes turned on me as I spoke, and oddly, for in those moments they looked exactly alike, though it sounds impossible: my wife, with her high, white forehead and her attenuated Englishwoman's body, and the poultry boy, with his horny bare feet below khaki trousers tied at the knee with string and the peculiar rankness of his nervous sweat coming from his skin.
Although their social status is obviously very different, Lerice and Petrus both occupy a subordinate subject position; as Martin Trump puts it: "Gordimer has perceived a common element in the degrading way in which black people and women are treated in her society." Indeed, the major source of irony in the story can be traced back to the narrator's failure to recognize that the third possibility, the one he has not provided for at all, is that his own patriarchal values are complicitous with the more obviously divisive and inhumane practices of the apartheid state. His failure to acknowledge his wife's right to her own voice is thus consistent with the authorities' failure to acknowledge the blacks' right to bury one of their own people.
Let me return for a moment to the notion of "submerged consciousness." Gordimer's belief in the heightened manifestations which suddenly illuminate the narratives of short stories to produce "flashes of fearful insight" can be interpreted in this context as an attempt not merely to capture momentarily an "ultimate reality," but to identify this reality with the emergent consciousness of a beleaguered social group (or groups). The two groups I have in mind, of course, are the blacks of South Africa and the women of South Africa and elsewhere. The narrator of "Six Feet of the Country," rather like Mehring in Gordimer's novel The Conservationist, only provides the "principal" voice of the narrative; he does not provide the "real" voice, which belongs to a "submerged consciousness" functioning as sub-text to the presented text. In The Conservationist, the sub-text, Henry Callaway's The Religious System of the Amazulu, gradually comes to the forefront of the narrative to disposess Mehring of his "inauthentic" version of events and relocate them within an "authentic" Zulu context. The sub-text not only destabilizes Mehring's narrative; it also provides an alternative narrative (even if, as Brian Macaskill points out, that narrative continues to function within a counter-hegemonic interruptive framework that eschews interruption as mere replacement). In "Six Feet of the Country," however, the sub-texts of Lerice and Petrus are precisely that: sub-texts, drowned out by the patriarchal rhetoric of the dominant narrative voice. Neither Lerice nor Petrus is given an opportunity to give their side of the story, and when the opportunity would seem to arise, they are immediately cut off, or accounted for, by the narrator. Noticing that in Petrus's presence, his wife seems "almost offended with him, almost hurt," the narrator refuses to elucidate: "In any case, I really haven't the time or inclination any more to go into everything in our life that I know Lerice, from those alarmed and pressing eyes of hers, would like us to go into." Like Lerice, Petrus is condescendingly accounted for by the narrator; when he hands over the money for his brother's exhumation, for example, we are duly informed that "[t]hey're so seldom on the giving rather than the receiving side, poor devils, that they really don't know how to hand money to a white man." The narrator thus covers up his earlier, mistaken assertion that the possibility of Petrus ever obtaining the money was something "so unattainable that it did not bear thinking about." This persistent strategy of self-exoneration complements the central image of the story, that of Petrus's brother "somewhere in a graveyard as uniform as a housing scheme, somewhere under a number that didn't belong to him or in the medical school, perhaps, laboriously reduced to layers of muscle and strings of nerve." Buried and forgotten in some unknown place, Petrus's brother becomes a metaphor for an apartheid régime which withholds the identity of its subjects by denying them a sense of place. He also represents the disenfranchised voice which can neither speak nor be spoken about, being submerged instead beneath a strident rhetoric of authority that at best restricts, at worst annuls its own freedom of expression. The health authorities' mistake in digging up the wrong man, and their apparent unconcern in looking for the right one, thus mirror a mistake-ridden but self-exonerating narrative: a narrative that seeks spurious legitimacy by dismissing the whole affair as "a complete waste" and by glossing over potentially incriminating alternatives.
There are occasional moments, however, when these alternatives provide, against the grain of the narrative, their "flashes of fearful insight." Such moments, for example, are those when, in Johannesburg, "a black man won't stand aside for a white man" or when, during the funeral procession, "the old man's voice was muttering something…. [T]hey could not ignore the voice; it was much the way that the mumblings of a prophet, though not clear at first, arrest the mind." It is precisely when the mind is arrested, when the flow of the narrative is interrupted, that the flash of insight occurs. The reader is informed, at these moments, that the primary narrative has been false all along; that the narrator has either been consciously diverting us from truths he does not wish us to understand, or unconsciously diverting us from truths he does not fully understand himself.
Quite clearly, the narrator of "Six Feet of the Country" is not in full control of his narrative. His lack of control is made manifest in two ways: first, in his attempt to hide or cover up his mistakes: and second, in his ignorance of his mistakes, as when, for example, he ironically upbraids the health authorities for their lack of principle, unaware that their principles coincide largely with his own. It is significant that at his moments of greatest stress, the narrator experiences, or claims to experience, a sense of unfamiliarity. Thus, when he first sees the dead man, Petrus's brother, he admits to feeling "extraneous, useless"; similarly, his wife, in her moments of greatest emotional intensity, is described as looking "searchingly about her at the most familiar objects as if she had never seen them before." These admissions of unfamiliarity seem suspiciously disingenuous, however, for the narrator proves adept, throughout the story, at laying claim to the unfamiliar: a self-protective ruse that includes, for example, his perception of blacks refusing to stand aside for whites as "strange," or his description of Petrus's wish to give up a large part of his earnings to rebury his brother as "incomprehensible." In these cases, it is not that the narrator does not understand, but rather that he does not wish to understand: calling an action "strange" or "incomprehensible" becomes a convenient means of repressing its deeper implications.
Let me dwell for a moment on the further implications of the unfamiliar. Defamiliarization has been seen by many critics and theoreticians as a characteristic effect of the short story. For the Russian Formalists, defamiliarization was primarily a question of stylistics (the "making new" of form within the structure of the literary text through the "laying bare" of its technical devices); but for contemporary critics of the short story such as Charles May, it becomes a question of epistemology (the unsettling effect of the text on the reader's knowledge of the world). According to May:
The reality the short story presents us with is the reality of those sub-universes of the supernatural and the fable which exist within the so called 'real' world of sense perception and conceptual abstraction. It presents moments when we become aware of anxiety, loneliness, dread, concern, and thus find the safe, secure and systematic life we usually lead disrupted and momentarily destroyed.
May concludes from this that "the short story is closer to the nature of reality as we experience it in those moments when we are made aware of the inauthenticity of everyday life … those moments when we sense the inadequacy of our categories of conceptual reality." As Gordimer shows, however, these categories of conceptual reality are based on existing social conditions and prevailing ideologies: the "familiar" and the "unfamiliar" are finally questions neither of stylistics nor of epistemology, but rather of social and cultural context. Defamiliarization therefore becomes a means of "laying bare" both the form of the text and the form of the society in which the text has been produced; by internalizing the defamiliarizing effect of the short story, making it operative on its narrator, Gordimer effects the critique of a society in which it is possible for the narrator's "ordinary" world to be the world of apartheid. By jolting the narrator's "categories of conceptual reality," Gordimer exposes the false consciousness of the narrative and validates the "submerged consciousness" beneath it.
"Six Feet of the Country" provides an early example, then, of the ways in which Gordimer uses the formal devices and generic conventions of the short story to social ends. Similar techniques are applied in a story Gordimer wrote nearly ten years later, in her fourth, ironically entitled collection Not For Publication. In the story, "A Company of Laughing Faces" (itself ironically entitled), the seventeen-year-old ingénue Kathy Hack is escorted by her mother to the beach resort of Ingaza for the Christmas holidays. In a company of dutifully laughing faces, amid the empty rituals of a holiday entertainment carefully orchestrated for Kathy and her adolescent companions by their overprotective parents, Kathy meets, and is seduced by, an arrogant young man. Shaking off his crude advances, shocked by the apparent indifference with which he makes them, Kathy turns her attention instead to a small boy of nine: a loner, like herself, who prefers his own company to the comforting anonymity of the crowd. But no sooner has Kathy befriended the boy than disaster strikes: the boy goes missing and Kathy finds him, drowned. Kathy cannot bring herself to break the news to the boy's big sister, however: and long after the boy is discovered, lamented, and—presumably—forgotten, Kathy still guards her complicitous secret.
In "A Company of Laughing Faces," Gordimer uses inferential strategies—litotes, prolepsis, innuendo—to convey the ironic discrepancy between a world of glittering surfaces and a darker world within. The flash of fearful insight that occurs when Kathy finds the boy is a moment not of shock, but of recognition. For the lagoon in which the boy lies drowned, "not a foot below the water … held up by the just submerged rock that had struck the back of his head as he had fallen into [it]" harbors another secret: Kathy's realization that her "sight [of the boy], there, was the one real happening of the holiday, the one truth and the one beauty." As in "Six Feet of the Country," a previously hidden sub-text reveals itself through layers of geographical metaphor. In the earlier story, Petrus goes missing and is never found; in the later one, the boy is eventually retraced. But both figures, in a sense, form the absent center around which their respective stories revolve. The boy's death and his subsequent unreported discovery by the protagonist allow for the articulation of a submerged consciousness that underlies, but also undercuts, the superficially "correct" but unprincipled conventionality of the primary narrative.
In "Six Feet of the Country," Gordimer had used short story techniques to uncover a repressive politics of race and gender; in "A Company of Laughing Faces," she uses similar techniques to expose the hollow value-system of a white middle class which seeks to disguise its privilege by "giving some semblance of productivity to [its] leisure." The adolescent holidaymakers in Gordimer's story seek solace in the crowd: initiated into this willfully homogeneous world. Kathy experiences the momentary "thrill of belonging." But she senses, even as she makes polite conversation with her newly acquired boyfriend, that
the only part of her consciousness that was acute was some small marginal awareness that along this stretch of gleaming, sloppy sand he was walking without making any attempt to avoid treading on the dozens of small spiral-shell creatures who sucked themselves down into the shore at the shadow of an approach.
Through proleptic moments such as this one, Kathy foreshadows her own subjection; she also anticipates her alliance with the young boy whose drowning is itself foreshadowed when, in the "pause that comes in the breathing of the sea," and muffled music from the beach tearoom wafts up to her hotel bedroom, Kathy imagines herself "under the sea, with the waters sending swaying sound-waves of sunken bells and the cries of drowned men ringing out from depth to depth long after they themselves have touched bottom in silence." Sights and sounds from below rise to the surface of Gordimer's fractured narratives, imposing themselves upon the consciousness of their narrators, their protagonists and, not least, their readers. The novel, says Bakhtin, resonates with a multitude of voices. So too does the short story, but many of its voices, and some of the most insistent among them, do not emanate from "within" the text; instead, they reverberate from "outside" or "beyond" it: from behind walls or beneath floors, from underwater or underground. Through their troubled visions and unsettling "absent presences." Gordimer's stories resurrect a series of unquiet ghosts: through their conspicuous silences, embarrassing interruptions, and vaguely threatening undertones, they orchestrate a sequence of echoes from elsewhere.
In the title story of Gordimer's 1972 collection Livingstone's Companions, echoes well up from the graves of Livingstone's eponymous companions: unsung heroes of his last expeditionary party. Sent by the newspaper he works for to retrace the steps of Livingstone's last journey, Carl Church finds himself drawn not to Livingstone himself, but to the pages of Livingstone's journals, where the celebrated explorer pays rich, if patronizing, tribute to those who died on his behalf. Searching for the graves of these "companions," Church loses his way and ends up at an isolated hotel: itself something of a ruin, a product of former colonial times, now a weekend retreat and haven for those, like Church, who seek temporary refuge from their worldly responsibilities. Church spends a few untroubled days at the hotel: "This sort of hiatus had opened up in the middle of a tour many times [before]," he consoles himself, "lost days in a blizzard on Gander airport, a week in quarantine at Aden." The difference? "This time he had the Journals instead of a Gideon Bible." But the journals, as Church discovers, open up a different kind of hiatus: a submerged counter-narrative that throws ironic relief on his own explorations in Africa; on his allegedly compassionate liberal politics; and on his frustrated desire for personal companionship.
In "Livingstone's Companions," Gordimer employs similar interruptive techniques to those used in her novel The Conservationist. But the random clippings from Livingstone's journals, unlike the accumulated excerpts from Callaway's Religious System of the Amazulu, fall short of establishing an alternative narrative. Instead, they alert the reader to a submerged consciousness within the primary narrative: a consciousness which speaks the silences of the colonial past, but which also gives voice to the contradictions of a neo-colonial present. (Set in Central Africa, in an unnamed country which sets itself apart from the white-supremacy states south of its borders, Gordimer's story explores the ironies of an emergent nation which claims to have thrown off the shackles of its former oppressors—to have disabused itself of the legacy of the colonial past—but which continues to be driven by social, political, and economic differences: differences that are submerged beneath a rhetoric of national unity, but are clearly unassimilable to that rhetoric.)
By adopting a technique of multiple ventriloquism—Church speaking Livingstone speaking Livingstone's companions—Gordimer draws attention, once again, to the palimpsestic structure of her short story narratives. As in "Six Feet of the Country," the sociology of narrative voice—who speaks, and for whom; who does not speak—is closely related to the politics of territorial claim. The owner of Gough's Bay Hotel, like the narrator in "Six Feet of the Country," appears to have few doubts about her territorial rights. The graves of Livingstone's companions, she tells Church, are only two minutes' walk from the hotel: "My graves. On my property." But as Church discovers, the graves, and the submerged narratives they contain, cannot be so easily accounted for. Another grave lies alongside them: that of Richard Macnab, the original owner of Gough's Bay Hotel and its current owner's former husband. This grave, too, contains its own hidden story: a story, like the stories of Livingstone's companions, which effectively challenges the entitlement of the primary narrative. Who "owns" Gough's Bay Hotel and the land that surrounds it? Who is the story of Gough's Bay Hotel "about"? And why is the hotel still there: a survivor, like the graves of Livingstone's companions, from another era? These questions remain unresolved in Gordimer's story; by presenting a surface narrative which then cracks and ruptures to reveal other narratives sedimented beneath it, Gordimer articulates rival claims to a "new" but residually colonial country that remains, like the story itself, unfinished, unstable, and subject to dispute.
In a story from a more recent collection, Jump, Gordimer provides a further variant on the intrusive sub-text. A bird, trapped in a drain-pipe outside the protagonist's bedroom window, cheeps plaintively from somewhere behind the wall, disturbing his sleep, "penetrating the closed space of his head from some other closed space." As in "Livingstone's Companions," a voice from elsewhere impinges upon the protagonist's consciousness, defamiliarizing the world of his everyday experience. The bird's accident reminds the protagonist of his own misadventure earlier that morning when, jogging in the indeterminate area between his protected white suburb and a neighboring black township, he had witnessed a brutal murder and had been forced to run: not for his health, this time, but for his life. Unlike the bird, or the latest casualty of South Africa's intertribal violence (if that is the reason for the murdered man's death, for we never find out), the protagonist eventually gets away; but not before he is trapped into complicity with the events of the morning. For in a sense, like both bird and man, the protagonist has no place to go: he can only escape into further captivity.
As in so many of Gordimer's short fictions, the absent presences of the text—the suffocating bird, the murdered man—become the invisible nodes around which the story coheres. Both creatures are robbed of their most fundamental of rights: "the first imperative [of life] … to breathe." But breathing depends on space as well as air; and space depends, in turn, on social status. After witnessing the murder, the panic-stricken protagonist crosses over into the "forbidden territory" of the township, where he is rescued by a family who offer him temporary, if understandably grudging, shelter. The protagonist is well aware of his intrusion: the intimacy of his new—and wholly unfamiliar—surroundings "pressed around him, a mould in which his own dimensions were redefined. He took up space where the space allowed each resident must be scrupulously confined and observed." The inferences are easy enough to draw: the protagonist is reminded that the air is not his alone to breathe; that privacy elides privilege; that physical freedom masks psychological entrapment; that the accidental intruder can also be an inadvertent accomplice.
"Keeping Fit"—the title, once again, is heavily ironic—provides the latest instance of a preoccupation in Gordimer's fiction with the politics of space: a polities in which text and sub-text, surface narrative and submerged narratives, interact with one another in a complex imbroglio of territorial disputes. These disputes, needless to say, are conducted on unequal terms; but paradoxically, it is within the more concentrated form of the short story, rather than the more elaborate structure of the novel, that the enormity of this discrepancy makes itself most readily felt. It is hazardous, of course, to make categorical distinctions between the novel and the short story; Gordimer's fictions are no exception. But by using the inferential techniques of the short story to articulate the submerged consciousness of marginalized and/or oppressed groups, and by using the defamiliarizing effect of the short story to expose the moral bankruptcy of a white bourgeoisie intent on "naturalizing" its unearned privilege, Gordimer illustrates that the seemingly innocuous short story may well cut deeper than the ostensibly political novel into the fabric of society.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 711
SOURCE: "In a Far-off Country," in Times Literary Supplement, September 9, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following review, Dinnage outlines the narrative of None to Accompany Me.]
For forty years Nadine Gordimer has been revealing to us the splendours and miseries of life in her extraordinary country; now in this latest novel [None to Accompany Me] she takes us through the dramatic and confused transitional period just before the establishment of South African majority rule.
The narrative (there is no "story" in the usual sense) centres on two couples, one white and one black, and parallel with the political events that carry them along, is an account of the vicissitudes of long marriages. Vera Stark (the name must indicate special endorsement for the character) has been married since the 1940s to Bennet. She has two secrets: their elder son may actually have been fathered by the husband she had lived with in a brief first marriage; and along the way, she has had an intense adulterous affair. As a lawyer she has been consistently involved over the years in the struggle for black freedom, while Bennet's role has been to run the business that supports the family. The other couple, Sibongile and Didymus Maqoma, have been even more deeply a part of the movement and have spent time in exile and in jail. Now, though, it is the wife, Sibongile, who has been chosen to help set up the new regime, and Didymus has to accept that he is an ex-hero. So in both couples there is a strong woman and relegated man.
As always, Gordimer impeccably exposes how the times they are living through affect every aspect of their lives. Vera can hardly bear the weight of Bennet's love, that it never changes: "It hasn't been taken up into other things. Children born, friends disappearing in exile, in prison, killings around us, the death of his father in the house, the whole country changing. It hasn't moved", she says in her exasperation to her son. Sibongile, on her side, has had to go through long periods of separation: "Parted so often; what happens in these partings, his, now hers, in the one who goes away? Is the one who left ever the one who comes back?" The comradeship of having to face violence and disruption together makes Vera closer to her black colleagues than to Bennet: she survives a physical assault with only a leg wound, while her friend Oupa dies slowly and excruciatingly from the complications of his own wound. The cruelty and injustice and punitiveness that are the background of their day-to-day lives are indicated at every point, simply taken for granted. Sibongile gets a letter telling her she is on a hit list. Bullets could come from a passing car, or through an open window; she has to go out of the house at unpredictable times, put out notes in case she never comes back, always leave things in place.
The politics of the time make new ethical dilemmas; Didymus's is that he once had to work in a camp for traitors to the movement. Terrible things were done there, and he had eventually managed to disengage himself. But the problem of keeping clean hands while opposing a soiled regime is one of the preoccupations of the group.
Vera gradually separates herself from her husband, who goes away on a visit from which, it becomes clear, he is not going to come back. The theme of woman alone, facing up to truth, finding herself (and so on) has become something of a current fictional cliché, and one feels a touch of disappointment here. But again it is the South African context that matters. It seems to be not so much Vera's past sexual secrets that dissolve the marriage, but the fact that she has been the active campaigner, going ahead alone. The marriage of Sibongile and Didymus remains close because, though they have been physically separated, as blacks they have to be together in their commitment. The question of whether South African whites can really belong on the continent is always implicit. But there are the splendours as well as the miseries of the country: dedication, sacrifice, heroism. In raddled, cynical Britain these come from a very long way off.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215
SOURCE: "Faces of Revolution," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 18, 1994, pp. 3, 10.
[In the following review, Eder emphasizes the theme of change, both social and personal, in the South Africa of None to Accompany Me.]
There are revolutions—the French, the Chinese, the Russian—that devour the children who made them. More often, perhaps, it is a matter not of being devoured but of being digested. A little ahead of the curve of history, as always, Nadine Gordimer writes of two anti-apartheid fighters from whom victory, like a river rising and jumping its bed, has begun to withdraw and leave stranded.
None to Accompany Me takes place in the blurred and confusing excitement of South Africa in the early 1990s. Nelson Mandela was out of jail and negotiating with the government, the black exiles were returning and change was happening too quickly to be legalized or stopped—or safe. What with so many straws, leaves and twigs in the wind, it was like Birnam Wood advancing.
Two of the characters, for example, meet at an elegant gallery. It was showing a black painter "whose work had become fashionable since city corporations and white collectors had seen such acquisitions as the painless way to prove the absence of racial prejudice." Gordimer is a master ironist; here she plays in light tones.
She can play in darker ones. Odendaal, an Afrikaner farmer, refuses to negotiate with several thousand squatters. At the same time—if you can't lick the devil perhaps you can make a profit off him—he quietly but unsuccessfully tries to get the government to proclaim the land a black township and buy it up.
In a patriarchal fury, but not really losing his head as it turns out, he enlists a band of white commandos. Nine squatters are killed and many wounded, including their leader, Zeph Rapulana, one of the book's pivotal figures and one of its richest. Zeph is not happy about it—Gordimer is rarely simplistic—but he recognizes the advantage. Both sides will profit. With nine dead, at a time when De Klerk and Mandela are subtly maneuvering toward change, the government will have to give the squatters the land. And Odendaal will be handsomely paid.
Two families are the center of the novel. Their fortunes, their nerves and their deepest sense of themselves all refract the change between the old struggle and the new times. As other authors use sexual passion, Gordimer is able to use politics as the fine psychological matrix of her characters. (In this novel Gordimer uses sex too, and in some detail, but she uses it awkwardly; it lacks pheromones.)
Vera and Ben Stark are privileged and conscientious whites. She has worked for 20 years as the indomitable moving force in a foundation that fought apartheid in one of its cruelest aspects: its forced displacement and resettlement of rural black communities. Her husband, a sculptor once, became a businessman to provide security for her dangerous life.
In their youth two of their closest friends had been Didymus Maqoma, a budding Soweto lawyer, and his wife, Sally. Their families would spend weekends together at the Starks' pleasant house, despite the apartheid restrictions. Then the Maqomas disappeared, ostensibly abroad. In fact, while Sally lived in London, Didymus went underground as one of the top leaders of the African National Congress resistance inside the country.
Now they are back. Among the hundreds of returned exiles he has pride of place—a chauffeured car met him at the airport—as one of the movement's authentic heroes. But he had made enemies; and in any case his courage and fighting qualities are not what are wanted. Flexibility and the ability to negotiate with the white powers are what counts. Shockingly, he is excluded from the newly elected executive committee.
Sally, on the other hand, who had lived quietly during the fighting years and held their family together, is elected in his place. She had been put in charge of finding jobs for the returning exiles. To do so she had to deal with the business community; and she showed such tact, energy and talent for it that she has become a rising star. The night of her election, and his defeat, she rages and mourns in their bedroom; at the same time she feels a dizzying exhilaration.
Vera's passage is less marked and less dramatic. She remains active in her mission to fight for displaced black claimants. She works with Zeph against Odendaal. And, reluctantly, she will let herself be elevated to the mixed commission in charge of drafting the crucial document of the future: a constitution. Her decline has to do with a gradual loss of function: White heroes will no longer be relevant to the fight for black empowerment. The word itself is a displacement for her. "What is this new thing?" she asks Zeph. "What happened to what we used to call justice?"
There is a hint of "Animal Farm" foreboding here and in a few other places, but it is only a hint. Gordimer can at the same time be ironic about the changes, committed to them and capable of seeing the dangers. There are shadows on the new forces; there is also the infinitely promising figure—though with his own dangerousness—of Zeph. By the end of the book he has achieved stature, deepened mystery, and perhaps large promise.
None to Accompany Me is a political novel of intelligence and subtlety and it brings us news that we need. It is more than that, as well; though its more is somewhat less successful. The characters have an expository function, and for the most part what they have to expound is worked into their vital condition. Several are memorable; particularly Vera's endearing assistant, Oupa, who becomes a tragicomic victim of the changing times, and Didymus and Sally. Their reciprocal rise and fall makes a political point, but it is also a moving and beautifully imagined account of the intimate shifts within a marriage.
Gordimer works them all hard, though, and sometimes their duties wear their essences pretty thin. The writing grows rough when it tries to do too much, knotting into an odd mix of the baroque and the elliptical. This is particularly true with Vera, the novel's main voice. Her personal history, her emotions and her character get the fullest treatment of anyone. She has a gnawing will to power, as well as genuine nobility, and Gordimer works it into her two marriages and her two adulterous affairs. The more deeply she is opened up to us, though, the more effortful and less real she becomes. She and the author seem to need a certain distance from each other.
Measured distance lights up the book's most haunting link between the political and the personal. Vera's function as white mentor dissipates gradually; gradually too, she is growing old. Her last love—her husband has faded away—can exist only as a relinquishing. No One to Accompany Me, alludes both to the waning of all white hegemonies, even that of heroic idealism, and the waning of old age. Gordimer's novel is prophetic, and it has the very still quality of what is already passing. Your truest revolution is your clock's: recurring each 24 hours, always predictable and always a dismay.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454
SOURCE: "After the Euphoria," in New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1994, p. 7.
[In the following review, Bausch praises Gordimer's personal approach to social and political issues in her None to Accompany Me.]
I read somewhere long ago that a good novelist is also a social historian; the operative word there is also. And while literary criticism, at least in the United States, has lately become more and more a kind of ersatz social science, where worth is judged according to social impact or a political agenda, one is always grateful for writers like Nadine Gordimer whose fiction is so often categorized as work of social significance, and who, when one actually reads her novels and stories, shows herself again and again, in the face of enormous pressures, to be insistently personal in her approach.
Ms. Gordimer is concerned, as all good writers are and always have been, with the individual cost of the events she depicts. Because she has had a long career and has been prolific, producing to date 11 novels and 9 collections of stories, her writing life creates a kind of record of her troubled country. We may turn to the historians, we may even turn to primary sources like newspapers and letters, yet it would be hard to find a more direct experience of the times through which South Africa has passed over the last 40 years than in the intimate portrayals Ms. Gordimer has given us. Now, as the country tries to re-create itself, to make the shift from repressive white rule to a democratic government with full participation by blacks, Ms. Gordimer has, once again, provided a clear window through which to witness the ramifications of these momentous changes on particular lives.
None to Accompany Me concerns two couples, one white and one black, and the people around them—their children, the men and women they work with and have lived with and loved. While we are given glimpses of events through the eyes of each of them at various points in the novel, its central figure is Vera Stark, a progressive white woman, and experienced lawyer who has abandoned a prosperous firm to become a mainstay of the Legal Foundation, which "is not a legal aid organisation in the usual sense," but "came into existence in response to the plight of black communities who had become so much baggage, to be taken up and put down according to a logic of separation of black people from the proximity of white people." As Ms. Gordimer wryly notes, "a logic can be made out of anything; it lies not in the truth or falsity of an idea, but in the means of its practical application."
Apartheid has been defeated, and efforts to forge a progressive government are under way. The black couple, once exiles are in hiding, are struggling with the many changes wrought by the new reality. Didymus and Sibongile (Didy and Sally) Maqoma have a history with Vera Stark and her husband, Bennet, an English professor. But each of the four has a private history as well, a store of memories that lies beneath the euphoria of political liberation, that cannot entirely be put aside, even when they and their friends seem "giddy with discovery."
As time passes, new tensions emerge. Didy, his wife observes, "seems to be living in the past," unable to jettison his carefully acquired habits of deference and caution. Matters are not helped by the fact that Sally is a rising star in the new political movement—or that their 16-year-old daughter, Mpho, raised in England, is out of touch with the culture her parents have sacrificed so much for. There are conflicts for Vera, too—most immediately obvious in her work, where she and her colleagues struggle over policies for the redistribution of land, seeking to return some of it to blacks who were evicted during the long repression.
But all of these conflicts, while providing an outer shell of plot, serve mainly as a kind of shifting backdrop to the central drama of the novel, which takes place in Vera Stark's soul. Here is a journey to what, at least on the surface, looks like a remote kind of personal independence, a distancing in which Vera becomes, rather oddly only her public self. Her husband is "worried about her way of life, apparently so completely involved, in public, always part of group thinking, group decision, and so withdrawn outside that." But "wherever she was now, it was not a form of escape."
Paradoxically enough, as Vera seeks to disentangle herself we become ensnared in the process—because we have been allowed to know her in the way that we know any artfully created fictional character. We have shared Vera's memories and her own assessments of her actions. We have witnessed her nightmares and her hopes for some sort of authenticity, and we have eavesdropped on her failures of understanding. We know that she left her first husband to marry Ben, and that because she allowed that first husband to make love to her one last time after the divorce, her older child, Ivan, may not be Ben's son. She has been unfaithful to Ben, and she fears that it was because her daughter, Annick, divined this in early childhood that she has grown up to become a lesbian. Vera also broods over the broken marriage that her son describes in his letters to her from London. And she feels some sense of sorrow over Ben's very constancy; she is achingly aware of what he has given up to love her, as though it were a form of imprisonment to be that important in another human being's life.
This portrait of Vera's internal turmoil is delivered with a fierce clarity in the light of the social moment, so that external events give it resonance without ever taking over. There are no puppets in Ms. Gordimer's work, no mouthpieces; her people are all afforded the dignity of human vanity and complexity. Black and white, they are neither very noble nor very bad. They are people whose failures almost always stem from lack of courage—or from their stubborn attempts to journey toward self-knowledge.
As I followed Vera's journey, I kept thinking of the old existentialist idea that we are doomed to fail in our search for authenticity because authenticity requires solitude and we exist in society. Vera manages to divest herself of so much—her family, her whole personal life, really—that we feel her hard-won freedom as being ironic and sad. Her journey ends in a solitude that finally seems rather pathetic. This passionate presence becomes a quiet lady living in an annex, a sort of docent in the museum of her own private history, a committee woman. One middle-of-the-night encounter with a young naked woman in the corridor of her landlord's house makes us feel her separation, not only from her family, but from all the sources of joy.
About midway through this capacious novel, there is a passage that reports an attack on two people who are on a fact-finding mission; one of them, we soon learn, is Vera. Here the novelist addresses us directly: "What were they doing on a road far from the site of any state land on their itinerary? To know that would be to have to enter their lives, both where they touched and widely diverged, to be aware of what they knew about each other and what they did not know; where they had expectations, obligations operating covertly one upon the other. To know at least that much."
Even as she reminds us of how little we can really know, Ms. Gordimer's every fictional gesture aims at knowing everything; the result is what is, at times, an almost blinding particularity. In the midst of her affair, we are told of Vera's fears "that when she began to grow old she would become one of those women who have a fancy for young men, that she would dye her hair and undress in the dark to hide drooping buttocks and sad belly from a lover paid with—what? Gold weights and silk shirts are only the beginning. Thank God, no sign of any taste for young men was occurring, but the passing mistrust of self projecting upon the commanding outer reality of a community only just breathing under its own rubble … what meaning could the mistrust of self have, what reality, standing against that!"
The answer to this unanswered rhetorical question provides a kind of ironic reverse image of the way Ms. Gordimer's fiction really works: what meaning could these events, for all their enormity, have without the intensely personal mirrors of personality through which they shine forth?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2501
SOURCE: "Free of the Bad Old World," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 20, December 1, 1994, pp. 12-3.
[In the following review, Wood concentrates on characterization in None to Accompany Me, detecting autobiographical impulses in the narrative.]
Prisons have opened, exiles have returned, the notion of apartheid is in ruins. Blacks have moved into white suburbs, a new constitution is being drafted, the old opposition is practicing for new habits of rule. But there are hit lists, muggings, murders; violent rearguard actions; there is a housing shortage, there are land disputes, squatters risking their lives to reverse old patterns of settlement. There are unheeded warnings that corruption doesn't vanish easily, and isn't a respecter of race or class or political and tribal boundaries. This is the last year of the old South Africa, or as Nadine Gordimer puts it in her new novel [None to Accompany Me], "this is the year when the old life comes to an end." The year, as she says later in the same book, "of the last white parliament that would ever sit," but also of the rise of the swastika "from bunker to blazon."
History has moved on since then, and many things have changed (utterly) in a very short time. Other things, reports suggest, have changed less than we might have thought, former structures and familiar faces looking to linger well into the foreseeable future; and of course the moment just before change, that last old year, would in any case be a gift to any novelist who cared about times and places, and was ready for the formidable challenge the moment presents. But what sort of gift would it be?
Nadine Gordimer is interested in what history does to particular people, both those who embrace it and those who seek to ignore it, and also in what history forgets, or cannot afford to remember. The end of the old life, as a setting and a story, allows her to weave personal and political destinies into an inconclusive but disturbing question about solitude. "Perhaps the passing away of the old regime makes the abandonment of an old personal life also possible." Perhaps. But wouldn't you then just be exploiting the public moment, making a false equation between your needs and the country's? Or would you be saying that history really has written itself into your most intimate assumptions, that the end of public lying may be a start of private truth?
Vera Stark, the person around whom these questions circle in the novel, abandons everything except a certain kind of public life, her work on the new constitution and at the Legal Foundation, but what does she find? She gives up her property, the house that came to her with her divorce long ago, and becomes the tenant of a black landlord, ironically miming in white, so to speak, the insecurity of the black lives she has been trying to protect. She is fond of her children and her second husband, but has slipped away from them into a kind of anonymity, because her children don't need her and her husband does. The final straw, after an incident in which she has been wounded by casual assailants, is her husband's saying, after forty-five years of marriage, that he couldn't live without her. "What am I to do with this love?" she thinks; and to her daughter she formulates a riddling answer: "I cannot live with someone who can't live without me."
So what she has found is a form of privacy, an edgy kind of independence, something she used to seek, perhaps, in sex and infidelity, and has probably always sought in her work. She is free, let us say, but she has locked herself out of most of the things other people want freedom for. Her closest associate at the end of the novel is the man whose tenant she is, a former schoolmaster and representative of squatters' rights who is now "a director on the boards of several finance companies, a development foundation, two banks." There is no sexual activity between them—"sex had no part in their perception of each other except that it recognized that each came from a base of sexual and familial relations to a meeting that had nothing to do with any of these"—but Vera is disturbed and attracted by the echoes of sex in their friendship, an old "chemistry of human contact" turned to new uses.
Vera has gone too far, as one of the epigraphs to the novel suggests ("We must never be afraid to go too far, for truth lies beyond"—Proust) but her truth, if that is what it is, is pretty icy. The other epigraph, a haiku by the Japanese poet Basho—
None to accompany me on this path:
Nightfall in Autumn
—acquires, in the context of the novel, an oddly positive ring. It's only at the end of stories (days and seasons and lives), maybe, that you get to shake off all that company, and find the solitude you wanted all along. The difficulty of this novel, which makes it, in spite of the smoothness of its writing and a certain ready-made quality in a number of its characters, one of Gordimer's most ambitious, arises from this mixture of ice and fulfilled desire. You can't tell whether Vera is wonderful or repellent; you certainly can't feel sorry for her. "Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self." That is what Vera thinks, and she enacts the thought. But is it an uncomfortable truth or a simple withdrawal into egotism? If it were true, would it be so even in times of great change? Especially in times of great change?
Here is our last glimpse of Vera. She has just bumped, during the night, into the girl her friend and landlord is sleeping with; a sign that sex really is over for her, that she is outside all that too. She steps into the garden.
Cold seared her lips and eyelids; frosted the arrangement of two chairs and table; everything stripped. Not a leaf on the scoured smooth limbs of the trees, and the bushes like tangled wire; dried palm fronds stiff as her fingers. A thick trail of smashed ice crackling light, stars blinded her as she let her head dip back; under the swing of the sky she stood, feet planted, on the axis of the night world. Vera walked there, for a while. And then took up her way, breath scrolling out; a signature before her.
This is courageous writing, because it gives so much away. It ends on an upbeat, and perhaps even wants to celebrate the cold as a kind of clarity. Vera has her wish, she has no regrets, she is free of the bad old world, part of the new one. She has done a lot of good in her life, she has rarely deceived herself, and she doesn't condescend to anyone. She makes a pause in the night and she takes up her way; she still has a signature. But she is also blinded and freezing; the necessary fate, perhaps, of those who can't live with those who can't live without them.
The plot of the novel is quite slight, although it's not all about Vera. Her black friends Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma have returned from secrecy and exile to open politics at home, except that Sibongile, the former waiting wife, is the figure of tomorrow, while Didymus, once the man of action, is the sidelined hero. This situation causes them difficulties, but they handle them with grace. Their daughter, Mpho, half Zulu, half Xhosa, but mostly a teen-age Londoner, brings out the mild gush that black beauties tend to provoke in Gordimer:
This schoolgirl combined the style of Vogue with the assertion of Africa. She was a mutation achieving happy appropriation of the aesthetics of opposing species.
Mpho gets pregnant and is forced to have an abortion. Later she takes off to study drama at NYU. Just the child of important people; not the future for South Africa. One of Vera's employees at the Legal Foundation is shot and appears to survive, but later dies of internal leakage from his wounds. Vera's son Ivan, who lives in London, gets divorced and sends his faintly delinquent son to live for a while with his grandparents in Johannesburg. Vera's daughter Annick turns out to be a lesbian who lives with a loving friend and adopts a baby. This is all very decent, but a bit perfunctory, as if Gordimer's mind were not entirely on it, as if the charm of Vera's austerity and the fine offhand intelligence of the prose had taken up all her interest. "No doubt every divorce is a soap opera," Ivan writes to his mother. No doubt if you can't concentrate on the details, and if you are surprised to find you are like everyone else.
What is striking in this book is its array of apparently casual insights: the sense of how much an old photograph reveals and conceals ("There's always someone nobody remembers"); the effect of old faces returning from clandestinity or dispersion ("the weight their lives had was the weight of the past, out of storage and delivered to those who stayed behind"); of a shantytown with an eager, unmanageable ambition to be a suburb ("The assertion of this half-built house is so undeniable … the sudden illusion of suburbia, dropped here and there, standing up stranded on the veld between the vast undergrowth of tin and sacking and plastic and cardboard that was the natural terrain, was something still to be placed").
There are sensitive discussions of violence, of moments when outrage gives way to a murky understanding ("If they killed that good man, why not deal back death to them—she understood with all her impatient angry flesh the violence that, like others, she called mindless"); and hauntingly, through this book dedicated to a moment on the edge of an extraordinary future, runs the refrain of a complicated loyalty to the past: not nostalgia, not guilt, but an acknowledgment of what Gordimer calls "uninterpreted life"; a belated and continuing attempt to see who we were. And who they were; and what "we" and "they" have meant. "Does the past return because one can rid oneself of it only slowly, or is the freedom actually the slow process of loss?"
Kathrin Wagner's book [Rereading Nadine Gordimer (1994)] is an intelligent and informed account of her "deep-seated discomfort with the claim that [Gordimer] should be seen as the spokesperson for white South Africa." Given this angle, Wagner can hardly be generous, but she doesn't explore her discomfort as she might. It's not enough to say that domestic audiences "may find merely banal what the outsider finds illuminating" or may think Gordimer's depictions of South African conditions "tired or clichéd." Wagner and the domestic audiences could be right, but we need to know what's banal or tired in the writing; we need to know that the natives are not just blasé or envious. We do know that fans are often as silly as they seem ("If one were never to read any other literature about South Africa, Gordimer's work would be enough"—Penny Perrick, quoted by Wagner); but that doesn't mean what they are seeing is silly. Wagner says South Africans share "an unease with the quality of Gordimer's vision, a sense … that there is something fundamentally unsatisfying and even misleading about her interpretation of the South African experience," but this is a strangely foggy claim. Interpretation scarcely ever sets out to satisfy, and Gordimer's fiction can be "misleading" only if we forget the partiality of all fiction, and also assume she is our only source of news. Similarly, it seems perverse on Wagner's part to assume that only liberals feel queasy about violence, and to attribute Gordimer's complex and courageous views on this subject to a "pre-feminist" construction of femininity ("such as the expectation that women function as the civilising, nurturing, all-giving and all-sacrificing power which would redeem the crude excesses of the male world").
It's true, though, that there is a certain "thematic predictability" in Gordimer's work, and that, like Vera escaping her family, we could long to be freed from the sheer political decency of what she is doing. Wagner finds at the end of A Sport of Nature, in the young woman who is allowed "to disappear into the political irrelevance of a private life," a "small but potent symbol of hope for a New World whose hall-marks will be not only a non-racial community of men, but also, perhaps more significantly, a society in which the individual will be liberated from the stranglehold of the imperative to radical political action." The trouble is that this sounds like a travesty of the liberal dream of ease ("Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self"), and I was only halfway through typing it out when I wanted to go back to politics.
None to Accompany Me is a novel about the deep politics of the unpolitical person, as well as about the intricate politics of political people. The solitude it projects is not a refuge but a zone of peace in an intensely contested place. Vera says she distrusts power because she has "belonged to a people who used it horribly." Her black friend Zeph says her work on the new constitution will mean "real empowerment for our people," and this delicate linguistic reflection follows:
It was accepted tacitly that when he spoke of "our" people it was a black speaking for blacks, subtly different from when he used "we" or "us" and this meant an empathy between him and her. They continued to accept one another for exactly what they were, no sense of one intruding upon the private territory behind the other. It had come to her that this was the basis that ought to have existed between a man and a woman in general, where it was a question not of a difference of ancestry but of sex.
Ought to have. There is a poignancy in the tense, as if only a historical nightmare could bring us, and even then bring us too late, anywhere near this understanding.
Gordimer is quoted by Wagner as saying she has been interested "all my life" in the "oblique picture of the narrator himself, emerging from the story he tells and the way he tells it; an unconscious revelation." The narrator of None to Accompany Me is sprightly and personal, full of reflections, but doesn't give much away. Yet I can't help thinking that the figure of Vera, distinguished, lonely, admirable, a little forbidding, must have something of an autobiographical edge. When Vera steps out into the garden, Gordimer is not picturing the coldness she is often accused of, and she is not claiming for herself the warmth Vera lacks. She is saying: Don't think I haven't thought about this, don't think I'm not still thinking.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535
SOURCE: "Pale Ghosts," in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 12, 1995, pp. 20-3.
[In the following excerpt, Harding assesses the narrative strengths of None to Accompany Me.]
… Nadine Gordimer's novel [None to Accompany Me] is set in the period after Mandela's release. It is about homecoming and transition. The heroine, Vera Stark, who works for a progressive legal foundation, is not an exile as such, but she has lived at a distance from herself, which is slowly closed by her encounter with a black land rights spokesman, courageous, ambitious but unpretentious—virtues that are not confined to Mandela, but which try a novelist's skills, and occasionally a reader's patience. Didymus and Sibongile, old friends of Vera, have returned from Europe and Africa. Didymus, an ANC worthy, fails to land a senior post at home—his wife gets one—and it transpires that he has been involved in the persecution of ANC members (during the Eighties, both the ANC and Swapo detained and tortured their dissidents) up in some front-line state 'where the methods of extracting information by inflicting pain and humiliation learnt from white Security Police were adopted by those who had been its victims'.
This thread is spun pretty much in passing. It is taken up again at a party in Johannesburg, but here Gordimer forecloses any discussion by making the speaker a ludicrous cameo character—a young English journalist 'in a catfish-patterned dashiki', whose motives for bringing up the subject of ANC detention camps are suspect. Gordimer's books often unstitch their own politics in this way and, as derision of one thing becomes extenuation of another—or vice-versa—it does no harm, even at the risk of appearing a fool, to slip into a dashiki by about page nine and start mumbling one's objections; tricky, however, for readers who are close to Gordimer's world—everyday 'Movement' folk, of whom, and in many ways for whom, None to Accompany Me is an ordinary tale.
The rhythm of the novel is good. It glides easily from the inside of Vera's head, with its round-the-clock screenings—first husband, second husband, erstwhile European lover, thoughts on middle age, the struggle, children—to the outside, where events are moving almost as hectically. But the interior is always vivid while the world is sketchy, forever in draft. Being with Vera, whose sensibilities are the main thing, is like being on a ship at night in rough weather, where there is little by way of a view beyond the rise and fall of cabin furnishings. But this has its purpose. The rewards of personal freedom after years of general misery would not be grasped in a novel that divided its attention more evenly. 'Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self.' Vera reflects, in the calm at the end of the book, when she has left white suburbia. She has thrown over the old life, just as the old politics has been overthrown, and in her connection with the land rights activist, who embodies her own hopes as well as those of the people who queue outside her office at the legal foundation, she seems at last to become her own woman—'herself a final form of company discovered'….
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 994
SOURCE: "On 'The Concealed Side,'" in Chicago Tribune Books, November 5, 1995, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Graham describes Gordimer's artistic ethos as outlined in Writing and Being.]
This collection of Nadine Gordimer's recent Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University [Writing and Being] offers six lucid and interconnected essays on fiction that should be read by every serious reader and writer. Throughout this slim yet intellectually hefty volume Gordimer—the distinguished South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner—succeeds in elegantly explicating her hard-won artistic ethos, a moving and fluid blend of personal discovery and commitment to the wider world.
Gordimer's first essay, "Adam's Rib: Fictions and Realities," explores with a wry eye the persistent desire of some critics and readers to play the game of "I Spy": trying to discover who a fictional character "really" might be. Such an endeavor is, of course, quixotic, for even if a writer "wanted to replicate, there is no seeing, knowing, the depth and whole of anyone, and therefore no possibility of so-and-so being you-know-who…." Yet Gordimer is unwilling to embrace the counter argument that an author's characters are wholly imagined; instead, she writes, they are an artful blend. "Imagined: yes. Taken from life: yes."
Gordimer then offers a personal account of how she imagined the lives of people she only peripherally knew for the novel that is perhaps her masterwork, Burger's Daughter. She remembers seeing outside a prison courtyard a young girl she knew, the daughter of a political prisoner. As this child—white, privileged—waited for a brief visit with her father, Gordimer wondered "What was she thinking?" The result was a novel that, in attempting to imaginatively capture a moment in the life of a single person, grew to embrace the complex moral dilemmas of her divided nation.
Not until the second essay, "Hanging on a Sunrise," does Gordimer explicitly offer her definition of literature: the "exploration of the possibilities of language, the power of insight to human behavior beneath its outward manifestation, the unending expedition into the mysteries of existence, the creation of a world of words." Fiction's crucial aim, she argues, is to uncover what she calls The Concealed Side, that elusive knowledge of the inner life that each writer must struggle to discover for him- or herself, for it has no "final containing design." Yet once achieved, each writer's truth becomes a secret home, "the final destination of the human spirit beyond national boundaries, natal traditions."
Gordimer claims that this always uneasy, always provisional understanding is a powerful source of strength, a place from which a willing writer can "counter the lie in one's society." For Gordimer, the highest form of literature is an unflinching acknowledgment of the inescapable mirroring of inner history and metahistory, "the pull between the personal and the historico-political."
To illustrate her point, she examines in her following three essays writers who have been molded by a particularly dramatic historical time and place: Chinua Achebe, Amos Oz and fellow Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. In her lovingly detailed mappings of Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy, Achebe's The Anthills of the Savanna and Oz's Fima. Gordimer demonstrates that "where society is perceived as devious, all angles of approach to possible truth may have to be tried."
In her final essay, "That Other World That Was the World," Gordimer returns to autobiography, a moment of personal revelation which, it becomes clear, she has been leading up to all along. She describes her early years as an isolated young woman in a South African rural community and writes poignantly of the physical and intellectual confinement of South African apartheid, which, she makes clear, extended to the white world as well as the black. Only many years after Gordimer left her parents' home did she realize that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had once lived a portion of his own childhood in the black ghetto across from her white enclave. "There was as much chance of our meeting then," she writes ruefully. "as there was of a moon landing."
Because Gordimer understood intuitively that she needed to create and discover herself in order to avoid becoming "the dangling participle of colonialism," she turned to the world of books, that other world that was the world: "I ate and slept at home, but I had my essential being in books."
Literary revelations led, inevitably, to personal and political revelations. At the age of 20, Gordimer, as a member of an amateur theater company, performed The Importance of Being Earnest in a black township. At first, the audience's easy laughter seemed to bless the production with success, but then Gordimer "came to the full appreciation that the audience, those people with drama, tragedy and comedy in their own lives about which we knew nothing, were laughing at us."
When Gordimer began her first attempts at creating her own fiction, her early stories were a looking outward as well as a turning inward. "In my desire to write, in the writing that I was already doing out of my pathetically limited knowledge of the people and the country where I lived, was the means to find what my truth was." So it was imperative that her personal and artistic revolution include the political revolution of her troubled nation. "I had to be part of the transformation of my place in order for it to know me."
Because Gordimer is as rigorous a thinker as a prose stylist, following the eloquent argument that she weaves through these six essays is a pleasurable task. Some readers, however, may find Gordimer's belief that fiction should be wedded to political commitment to be unnecessarily narrow. Yet if, as Henry James once elegantly asserted, the house of fiction has many windows, then Gordimer's passionately described view is bracingly clear and inspiring particularly when she declares. "The expression in art of what really exists beneath the surface is part of the transformation of a society. What is written, painted, sung, cannot remain ignored."
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SOURCE: "Southern Africa and the Theme of Madness: Novels by Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer," in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Goozé, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 137-49.
[In the following excerpt, Topping Bazin discusses how utopian and dystopian visions of Gordimer's novels reflect past and present racism in South Africa.]
However different their lives, Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer share the common heritage of having grown up in southern Africa. All three were profoundly affected by that experience. Their responses to the colonialist, racist, and sexist attitudes that permeated their lives have determined, to a major extent, the nature of their fiction. Their novels reflect the grotesque situations and bizarre human relationships created by prejudice, injustice, and the desire to dominate. These three authors focus on the mad nature of this social and political situation in southern Africa. In their works, dystopian and utopian visions of the future provide perspectives from which to view the nightmarish quality of the past and present. These writers seek to communicate the horror of what they have known and their longings for something else—other ways of being and acting than those that characterize not only most whites of southern Africa but also most people of all colors….
The sight of a violent black man in Nadine Gordimer's novel Burger's Daughter functions … as a recurring spur for the protagonist. Rosa Burger, to persist in her political activities. Such moments make her intensely aware of the necessity for an alternative. Born and raised by white activist parents in South Africa. Rosa Burger is driving along when she sees a donkey-drawn cart with a woman and child huddled in terror among the sacks. The black driver, frustrated by his own victimization, in turn, abuses his animal and his family. Rosa sees him standing on the moving cart:
Suddenly his body arched back with one upflung arm against the sky and lurched over as if he had been shot and at that instant the donkey was bowed by a paroxysm that seemed to draw its four legs and head down towards the centre of its body in a noose, then fling head and extremities wide again; and again the man violently salaamed, and again the beast curved together and flew apart.
For Rosa, the donkey, cart, driver, and mother and child behind him "made a single object that contracted against itself in the desperation of a hideous final energy." What that scene represents for her is:
the entire ingenuity from thumbscrew and rack to electric shock, the infinite variety and gradation of suffering, by lash, by fear, by hunger, by solitary confinement—the camps, concentration, labour, resettlement, the Siberias of snow or sun, the lives of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada, Kgosana, gull-picked on the Island, Lionel [her imprisoned father] propped wasting to his skull between two warders, the deaths by questioning, bodies fallen from the height of John Vorster Square, deaths by dehydration, babies degutted by enteritis in "places" of banishment, the lights beating all night on the faces of those in cells.
Faced with so much suffering that she cannot determine when or how to intervene, Rosa's first reaction is to leave her native South Africa: "After the donkey I couldn't stop myself. I don't know how to live in Lionel's country." But later in the novel, Rosa Burger realizes that she cannot stay away and ignore this suffering; her place is in South Africa. She must rejoin the struggle. This is symbolized by the epigraph for section two of the novel: "To know and not to act is not to know."
Through writing her next novel, July's People, Nadine Gordimer seeks an end to the psychological and social madness created by apartheid or any master-servant relationship. She reveals how even the white South African liberals are collaborators benefiting from racist policies. In this book Gordimer presents a dystopian vision of the future. Through it she can perhaps move white readers to take action to abolish apartheid and the many injustices suffered by blacks, thereby preventing the situation described in the novel from becoming a reality. In July's People, violence has erupted. With the help of Cuban and Soviet missiles, the black Africans are taking over the cities, and the white Smales family is saved, presumably from death, only by the ingenuity of their servant July, who allows them to escape with him to his village. However, in the village the power shifts from the whites to the blacks, just as it had in the city. Roles are reversed; July, the servant, becomes the master. Once again there is dominance rather than equality.
Through depicting in July's People what it would be like to be a white person abruptly thrown into a basically hostile black African village, Gordimer conveys a little of what the black person experiences when thrown into an alien white environment. To survive in the white world, July had to learn English; Bam and Maureen Smales need to know, but do not know, July's African language. Unable to speak and comprehend the dominant tongue, they are rendered powerless. Unable to understand local customs or methods of getting food and necessities, the Smales family becomes almost entirely dependent upon July for its survival. Because Bam cannot be seen driving his own small truck, called a bakkie, July keeps the keys. A little later, Daniel, one of the villagers, steals Bam's gun and goes off to fight against the whites for possession of the country. The Smales no longer have any police protection, and both the chief of the village and July have the power at any time to deny them the safety the village provides. On one hand, they are—like the urban blacks—invisible, nonparticipants in the social system; on the other hand, they are totally visible because they are watched closely by every villager.
Both Bam and Maureen Smales lose their status and traditional roles when they enter the African village. Their marital relationship is destroyed by this breakdown of their social order. Powerless, Bam can no longer support or protect his family. He does not know anymore how to speak to his wife, Maureen, because, without their roles, they seem to have no self or identity. He is unable to see this woman he lives with now either as Maureen or as someone functioning in any of her past roles—wife, mother, partner, dance teacher, daughter; therefore, he views this female as "her." He views her as a presence whose "sense of self he could not follow because here there were no familiar areas in which it could be visualized moving, no familiar entities that could be shaping it." Likewise, Maureen can no longer identify Bam as the man she had known back home in the "master bedroom." No longer able to function as her financial and physical protector, he seems useless; "she looked down on this man who had nothing, now." When the village chief asks Bam to explain what is currently happening in South Africa between the blacks and whites, Maureen is quick to perceive that what he was really asking about was "an explosion of roles, that's what the blowing up of the Union Buildings and the burning of the master bedrooms is." Similarly, July had lost his macho role and status when he had gone to the Smales to work, for Maureen had been his daily master and he her "boy." July tells her bitterly, "Fifteen years / your boy / you satisfy." Just as Maureen lost her respect for her husband in the black African village where he had no power, the black African wife's respect for July had been permanently diminished by his lack of power in the white-dominated city. To become powerless and hence to lose control over one's own life mean a loss of social status but also a loss of self-esteem and a clear sense of one's own identity. This loss of identity and well-defined roles is central to the terror evoked by this South African dystopia.
In desperation, Maureen seeks to play a subservient and semi-intimate role with July. She discovers, however, that she, who had had control over his daily life, rather than Bam, the real white power, has earned all of July's hostility. Furthermore, she has absolutely no power over him anymore, for "his measure as a man was taken elsewhere and by others. She was not his mother, his wife, his sister, his friend, his people." His lack of response to her plea for a new kind of relationship makes her understand for the first time the true nature of their prior employer/employee interactions. She suddenly "understood everything: what he had had to be, how she had covered up to herself for him, in order for him to be her idea of him."
More quickly than Bam, Maureen sees the total impossibility of their situation. July will obey black soldiers when they show up in the village just as he had obeyed whites, and for the same reason: he is powerless. By hiding his white family instead of staying in town to fight with his own people, July was already a traitor, a nonhero. So, too, in the village Bam is a nonhero. He will not fight with the village chief, who wants to defend himself against the revolutionary blacks. Politically, Bam is on the side of the revolutionaries; ironically, these same rebels may kill him.
It is not surprising then that, deserted by Bam and July, Maureen runs toward the helicopter that one day lands near the village. From the noise of the helicopter, "her body in its rib-cage is thudded with deafening vibration, invaded by a force pumping, jigging in its monstrous orgasm." This masculine symbol comes down with "its landing gear like spread legs, battling the air with whirling scythes." Concerned only for her own survival, Maureen is instinctively drawn toward this representation of male power. Her fantasy is of "a kitchen, a house just the other side of the next tree." The book ends with the two words "She runs," and critics have speculated about what it is she is running toward. Will the helicopter contain saviors or murderers? If black men will be inhabiting the new master bedrooms of Africa, will Maureen be accepted inside?
In Gordimer's next novel, A Sport of Nature, she develops further this desire of a white woman to share the future of black Africans as an insider. Being in the master bedroom with the new men in power makes that possible. The white South African protagonist, Hillela, crosses over the racial barrier effectively, marrying first a black revolutionary and then a black ruler. Under their aegis, she works continually and efficiently for the new black Africa. The latter part of A Sport of Nature is a fantasy in which we witness "the proclamation of the new African state that used to be South Africa." Hillela can be part of the new world, but only because, as Nadine Gordimer says, "'Hillela is a kind of freak. She represents a break with all the ways that have been tried.'" Hillela is a "sport of nature" (defined in the epigraph as an "abnormal variation") in South African society, because she is free of racial prejudice. Distrustful of words, her decision making is determined by instinct and sexual passion. Meanwhile, her cousin Sasha, who makes decisions based upon political commitment, spends time in jail and then leaves the country. Despite his revolutionary commitment, he is unable to achieve the degree of integration into the black revolutionary societies of southern Africa that Hillela does through marriages.
Nevertheless, Hillela has to face the fact that the time was not yet right to realize her utopian dream of having an "African family of rainbow-coloured children." Loving the skin and hair of the Other cuts at the root of racism; yet love between a few interracial couples cannot by itself alter an oppressive social structure. Moreover, this white female/black male attraction often hurts the black female—which a close reading of A Sport of Nature and Gordimer's next novel, My Son's Story, makes all too evident. Physical and spiritual love between whites and blacks is one way to undermine the madness of racism, but that love will be fragile in a struggle for dominance or in a racist or patriarchal context—white or black. Will the new African government itself be free of racism, and will black women be empowered? At the end of this futuristic novel, the answers to those questions are not clear. Still, the image of an interracial couple at the founding of the new African nation suggests that racial harmony may eventually prevail.
For Nadine Gordimer, as for Doris Lessing and Bessie Head, the future could be a dystopia or a utopia, depending upon the decisions we make in the present. Growing up in southern Africa made all three writers especially sensitive to the barriers between people. Barriers that separate, based on race or gender or class, breed madness in individuals as in social policies. Their novels suggest that experiencing mystical moments and/or witnessing moments of grotesque human violence convinced them that alternatives had to be found. Their dystopian fantasies and hallucinations help readers better understand the nature and the consequences of injustice and evil. Their utopian fantasies enable readers to imagine positive alternatives. In the words of Sasha, Hillela's cousin in A Sport of Nature, a utopia may be unattainable but "without aiming for it—taking a chance!—you can never hope even to fall far short of it." He concludes that "without utopia—the idea of utopia—there's a failure of the imagination—and that's a failure to know how to go on living." The novels of Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer make clear that to alter attitudes and behavior to support what is just, rationality and sanity are necessary. Until individuals not only know this but also act accordingly, the madness will continue.
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SOURCE: A review of Writing and Being, in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 4, June, 1996, p. 8.
[In the following review, Milton comments on the themes of Writing and Being.]
Nadine Gordimer is a writer whose moral vision predicates her literary one. The same could be said, to some degree, about any writer one would willingly read. But I see Gordimer's perspective on good and evil as being quite different from that of many, or even most, of the thinking writers of our day: Gabriel Garcia Marquéz, say, or Günther Grass or Doris Lessing, who are so burdened by the madness of contemporary society that they often need to break out of the confines of realism to give sufficient voice to their sense of absurdity.
By contrast, there is something almost old-fashioned about Nadine Gordimer: not only because she stays within the limits of exactness and reason—even when she writes prophetically as she does in July's People—but because she seems to have been able to balance a sober, often somber, outlook with innate respect for her neighbors and the hope that the human race may deserve a future.
Perhaps this balance stems from a well-focused vision and a sure sense of where she belongs. There are remarkably few serious writers nowadays who describe the world securely from the viewpoint of their native place in it, or even of their accustomed place. Many live in exile, either voluntary or involuntary; and if they speak for a particular landscape or for a particular country—as Tolstoy did, and Hardy did, as Hawthorne and Balzac and Austen did—it is usually from the perspective of an outsider.
Nadine Gordimer, to the contrary, was born in South Africa, and has stayed there. She lives in Johannesburg; in her writing, certainly, as well as in some more personal ways that she insists were merely modest, she took part in the struggle against apartheid, until justice, finally, seems to have prevailed—though one should be cautious about all political prophecies. Far from being alienated from her world, she is deeply involved in recovering its good health and in its survival; her moral outlook is a matter of daily life, not a literary abstraction. One could call it, simply, her conscience.
Writing and Being, which encompasses the six Charles Eliot Norton lectures Gordimer gave at Harvard in 1994, bears witness to that conscience both in Gordimer's perception of herself as having done, if anything, too little and in the generosity and admiring insight with which she reads the writers she reflects on here. It is interesting that all of them share her secure sense of place—that, like her, they have documented, passed judgment on and suffered from the political and social conditions of their native countries—which are also where they still live. Gordimer is emphatic about the fact that none of the work she is discussing "belong[s] to the main stream of Euro-American literature…. These writers," she says,
know who they are; their work is no part of the Euro-American search for identity; what it expresses is … not that the individual does not know himself, it is that as Amos Oz's character Fima says, "his place does not know him."
In her opening essay she speaks rather generally about the transactions between life and art, reader and writer, introspection and morality. The second essay becomes specific. It describes the work of several South African revolutionaries: the autobiographies of the quiet Carl Niehaus and the charismatic Ronnie Kasrils; the poetry of Jeremy Cronin, who is white, and of Mongane Wally Serote, who is black. With her third essay Gordimer arrives at the heart of her subject as she begins to draw evidence about the moral uses of fiction from the work of three writers. Her discussion centers on The Cairo Trilogy by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Anthills of the Savannah by the Nigerian writer and activist Chinua Achebe, and Fima by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz.
The authors she has chosen are immersed, have always been immersed, like Gordimer herself, in the cultural milieu which they document. But though these are, I suppose, political novels in a larger sense, their political bias transcends the specifics of the world in which they are so firmly placed and looks towards the common struggles and insistent failures of human history.
"These … are works that go too far, they're after Zaabalawi, looking for Home on The Concealed Side," notes Gordimer—who, it should be said, is neither at her most simple nor her most eloquent as a critic, particularly when she adapts this idiosyncratic series of borrowed metaphors and phrases to serve as her critical tools. Let me offer a translation.
Gordimer takes the concept of "going too far" from a passage in Proust, "Do not be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond." The phrase becomes her touchstone for everything that is virtuous in literature. "Home" she defines as "truth … the final destination of the human spirit beyond national boundaries, natal traditions."
"The Concealed Side" translates two Aramaic words quoted by Amos Oz, and incorporates a concept I am at a loss to interpret—though one can pretty much intuit its meaning. As for Zaabalawi, he is adopted from a parable—something of a shaggy dog story, in fact—which Gordimer finds in The Cairo Trilogy. The holy man Zaabalawi, it seems, the object of a sick man's passionate pilgrimage, is so elusive that the poor invalid has fallen hopelessly asleep by the time the seer appears, sprinkles him with water and disappears again before he has woken up.
There may be a certain defensiveness in the eccentric wording Gordimer uses for her analysis: a sort of linguistic self-protection against the snobbery of more conventional criticism. But it is not without other uses. Once you become accustomed to her borrowed vocabulary, which is simultaneously homespun and global, what she says proves powerful. And you begin to feel a sort of intimacy with her, a sense of privilege both in getting to know the particular person she is and in being introduced to the vast subject she is addressing.
What she sees everywhere is incompleteness. In The Cairo Trilogy sons and grandsons struggle for political, moral and spiritual enlightenment but fail to overcome the damage caused by the primordial narcissism of the patriarchal system. In Anthills of the Savannah the battle for economic and military control—in an imaginary country much like Nigeria—stems from British colonial domination: but liberation merely contorts the already established injustice and sends violence into new and larger channels.
Gordimer describes Fima, Oz's verbally blocked and morally paralyzed poet, as suffering from "an existential heartburn the antacid tablets he's always munching after indigestible snacks are powerless to appease." Israel's suppression of the Palestinians appalls him. He is particularly disgusted by the sleights of language in which this suppression is habitually disguised. Something of an anguished clown, Fima "has chosen to fail in the terms of success his society recognizes because he believes it has lost its way …"
In Fima, Gordimer discovers emphatically two characteristics she admires: self-doubt and contradiction. She quotes a passage in which Fima meets a cockroach and, about to smash it with his shoe, recognizes himself: "He is himself the cockroach, and so are the blacks, and … the Palestinians. And he himself … is the hater, the persecutor, the one with the … raised shoe."
Her sympathies are clear. For Gordimer, one of the highest moral achievements may be an ability to disagree with oneself, an uneasy, self-contradictory humanity. Ambivalence is the attribute for which she commends Achebe when she cites his "deep distrust of Right and Left" and which she admires in Carl Niehaus, who can identify equally with the oppressed black majority for whom he is fighting, and with the white Afrikaaner oppressors who are his family and have become his enemies.
The strongest thread which runs through Writing and Being is a disdain for simplistic alliances and self-righteousness; with each essay, this thread—and the writing itself—becomes stronger. The last essay addresses colonialism—less in its conventional political and cultural dimension than as a potent state of mind. Diffidently and sketchily, Gordimer outlines her South African growing-up. She is wary of autobiography, but she paints a formidable portrait of colonialism as a species of exile. Since law and custom permit her no association with Africans, she can have no understanding of Africa. Though she is brought up on the model of the proper English schoolgirl, she has never been near England. She grows up, in effect, marooned between two societies, a dismal condition which she notes was shared by Marguerite Duras, who spent her early years in Indochina, and by Albert Camus, raised in Algeria. "Colonial: that's the story of who I am," she writes of her childhood. "The one who belongs nowhere. The one who has no national mould."
Yet it strikes me that this state of isolation she describes has given her place and purpose. In the end, her condition as outcast in her own country has served her well: she has stayed in place and her place has come to know her. When her personal triumph in the wake of South Africa's newly-found democracy leads her to declare "I am no longer a colonial. I may now speak of 'my people,'" most of us can only envy her. And remark how few writers there are, these days, with an equal sense of hope or of belonging.
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Beauman, Sally. Review of Livingstone's Companions, by Nadine Gordimer. New York Times Book Review (31 October 1971): 6, 22.
Lauds the stories in Gordimer's Livingstone's Companions.
Broyard, Anatole. "The New African Landscape." New York Times CXXI, No. 41,554 (1 November 1971): 39.
Presents a stylistic and thematic overview of Gordimer's Livingstone's Companions.
Digilio, Alice. "South Africa and the Storyteller," Washington Post Book World XIV, No. 29 (15 July 1984): 4-5.
Asserts that there are some weak links in Gordimer's Something Out There.
Enright, D. J. "Which New Era?" Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,226 (30 March 1984): 328.
Discusses Gordimer's Something Out There and asserts that "Nadine Gordimer survives as a writer of distinction by virtue less of her themes than of her distinction as a writer."
Hayes, Richard. "The Moment of Illumination." Commonweal LVI, No. 8 (30 May 1952): 204.
Lauds the stories in Gordimer's The Soft Voice of the Serpent.
Jones, D. A. N. "Limited by the Law." Times Literary Supplement, No. 3,852 (9 January 1976): 25.
Discusses Gordimer's Selected Stories and asserts that "Besides being a good sort of propaganda, these stories are gracefully and, sometimes, beautifully written, and may be read as poems."
Kanga, Firdaus. "A question of black and white." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4,619 (11 October 1991): 14.
Lauds Gordimer's brilliance in Jump and Other Stories, but points out some extravagances in her style.
King, Bruce. The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993, 249 p.
Provides critical analysis of Gordimer's later fiction.
Mathabone, Mark. "Tales of the White Tribe." Washington Post Book World XXI, No. 36 (8 September 1991): 9.
Discusses Gordimer's Jump and Other Stories.
Mazurek, Raymond A. "Gordimer's 'Something Out There' and Ndebele's 'Fools' and Other Stories: The Politics of Literary Form." Studies in Short Fiction 26. No. 1 (Winter 1989): 71-9.
Compares the role of politics in the work of Nadine Gordimer and Njabulo Ndebele.
Nordell, Rod. "Miss Gordimer and Africa." Christian Science Monitor 48, No. 270 (11 October 1956): 10. Discusses the stories in Gordimer's Six Feet of the Country and asserts "All of them go beyond provincial applications to make a statement, however bleak, however limited, on the ways of mankind."
Peden, William. "Eternal Foreigners." Saturday Review XXXIX, No. 43 (27 October 1956): 16-7, 25.
States that "With Six Feet in the Country Nadine Gordimer emerges from the category of gifted beginner and assumes the stature of one of the most distinguished younger contemporary writers."
Phelps, Lyon. "Humane Comedy." Christian Science Monitor (22 June 1965): 9.
Praises Gordimer's Not for Publication and Other Stories.
Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. "Figures in a Landscape of Sun and Shadow." Washington Post Book World X, No. 36 (7 September 1980): 1, 4.
Lauds Gordimer's A Soldier's Embrace.
Theroux, Paul. "The Presence of Africa." Chicago Tribune Book World V, No. 48 (28 November 1971): 19.
Provides a thematic overview of the stories in Gordimer's Livingstone's Companions.
Tuohy, Frank. "Breaths of Change." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4022 (25 April 1980): 462.
Presents that merits and faults of the stories in Gordimer's A Soldier's Embrace.
Topping Bazin, Nancy and Marilyn Dallman Seymour. Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990, 321 p.
Contains interviews with Nadine Gordimer from throughout her career.