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.