Nadine Gordimer Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gordimer, Nadine 1923–

Gordimer is a South African novelist, short story writer, and essayist. Many of her works deal with the political and social ramifications of the apartheid system in South Africa, and with its recurrent problems of alienation and despair. (See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and volumes 5, 7, 10, 17, 80 and 123.)

Robert F. Haugh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Miss Gordimer is a stylist, a gem-polisher who creates in the reader a sense of Katherine Mansfield's shimmering immediacy of image. Sometimes the gems are not worth the polishing; sometimes the style does not seem congruous, in the broad mural of a novel especially. Yet her gifts are so diverse, her range so astonishingly broad, her gallery of places and people so various, that one cannot speak of her world in a phrase, as one would say Faulkner's South, or Hardy's Wessex. Her nimble imagination and capacity for response move from the urban and suburban life of Johannesburg, with its political activism, its art and theater groups, to the meager thatched roof and mud floor of native locations; from the bored matron, to the cruel child, to the professional hunter.

The image of a bazaar comes to mind when one thinks of Miss Gordimer's variety and resourcefulness. The image is useful for more than suggesting multiplicity and a teeming cornucopia of people and events. There is the same sense of a quick, almost photographic moment…. But there is also, along with the overpowering quick reality of the observed moment, the uneasy sense of the surface revelation only.

At such times, the brilliance guides the vision not to profundity, but to another dazzling facet of wit polished like a gem…. (pp. 13-14)

Miss Gordimer's most enchanting gift is the trait de lumière, the illuminating moment, the quick perceptive glance of the author…. When properly placed, the mot juste not only adorns the page, it makes incandescent an entire passage. When not organically functional, the moment becomes intrusive, an irritating habit of the author, a form of compulsive stylistic overkill. (p. 14)

Nadine Gordimer's creative profile is a beautifully sensitive, dazzlingly imaged insight into situations demanding love. She, [however, is also] attracted to ideas and to creative problems for which she has little gift…. The meticulous vision of the singular moment which, at its best, becomes a functional element in a larger form, gives Miss Gordimer's art its truest effect. The tension in her stories resulting from "what might be," in capacities for love and compassion, contrasted with the existing relationships, produces in her best stories an irony of tender sorrow. When the tension eventuates in a direct confrontation, that irony dissipates, and the story often fails. (p. 15)

[In the collection] Livingstone's Companions, Miss Gordimer displays both the felicities of [her typical] sojourner stories beautifully managed, and instances of the peculiarly seductive errors into which she falls with such stories…. The pitfalls derive from the nature of the genre, as well as from Miss Gordimer's writing persona. The sojourner story is peculiarly suited to a candid-camera capability; a first-impression snapshot, since sojourners, by their nature, often meet others for the first time, and form vivid first impressions. Her predilection for the sojourner gives Miss Gordimer a happy arena for her vivid impressionism, but it also conceals a trap. Because the sojourner has no richness of past (and in Miss Gordimer's stories, the past is neither rich nor functional) all must be created in the present moment. Action must be invented, sequences manipulated; and the author falls into the "plot" trap: the dependence upon sequential patterns of conflict in suspenseful relationship. (pp. 29-30)

Another flaw to which the sojourner story is particularly vulnerable, also because of shallowness of character development, is stylistic overcompensation…. [Sometimes the] story fails to come off, both for reasons implicit in the sojourner story (if not carefully written, the sojourner becomes a tourist), and because of Miss Gordimer's habits of style…. [The] functional basis of the story has not enough substance to carry the burden of admittedly brilliant observations…. [In] "Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?" or "Train From Rhodesia," [which are] beautifully evolved stories, the situations and sequences of relationship have a weight, a worth which will carry the brilliant ornamentation, respond to it, resonate with it, so that a mutual intensification occurs. The vivid illumination of image and the quick perception of the moment add depth to the readers' participation in the story; the weight and worth of the situation, in turn, give justification to the intense vision of the candid shots.

Such a story is "Livingstone's Companions," the title story of the 1971 collection. Here the author's skill is beautifully engaged to overcome the implicit dangers in the sojourner story. (pp. 30-1)

Whether or not Miss Gordimer had in mind the ending of [Conrad's] "Heart of Darkness" her story has a similar power, for somewhat similar reasons. The dignity and strength of a religious man, a century ago, put against the beautifully comic, brassy imagery of hotel life; the flip shallowness of love-making and hotel sex-play put against death and the solemn hope of resurrection as Livingstone records in his journal the death and burial of his companions. The resolution is not brought off by dramatic discovery, or a plotty reversal. As in Conrad's story, we gain an awareness, heightened to the stature of epiphany, by resonations of image, event, and idea. The satirical content of hotel life and shabby sex-play has no plot necessity…. The reader's imagination is quickened by the values inherent in juxtaposed "lifestyles"…. (pp. 32-3)

That same structural idea obtains in ["The Gentle Art," with realistic and imaginative planes intersecting]…. I prefer the term "resonate" rather than "intersect" for the suggestion of a continuing and changing vibration of images and ideas.

Note that there is no conventional plot in either story, even though "Livingstone's Companions" is a "search" story and "The Gentle Art" is a "hunt" story; either could have depended upon plot in the hands of another sort of writer, or, for that matter, in Miss Gordimer's hands when she is in less control of her materials…. These are not plotted stories because the suspense action in either does not lead through intensifying stress patterns to a resolution of plot. Instead, the action offers a vehicle for epiphany, not dramatic discovery; the reader's discoveries are tangential to the suspense action, not arithmetically derived from it. (p. 33)

Nadine Gordimer's capacity to draw upon plot, stress, and other dramatic elements for her own beautifully controlled purposes—that is, to extract from them the harmonies of poetry rather than the harshness of confrontation drama—is wonderfully evident in her management of racial story content. As a responsive and intelligent writer, born and schooled in South Africa, she has for all of her creative life been concerned with South African racial problems…. Her tone on racial matters in her fiction is soft, although not to South African censors, who have banned many of her writings. The softness lies not in her convictions, however, but in the nature of her art….

To use the material of the black experience without stridency has demanded exceptional skill of the writer, a skill very rarely evident in the long list of angry and concerned writers.

Nadine Gordimer, whose gift is that of a poet rather than of a journalist or a dramatist, is one of the rare exceptions. In the twenty or more of her stories which have to do with race, her control is superb. Only in a few does her art falter, usually because she has lapsed into a traditional form rather than her own poetic mode of tangential imagery and a slant treatment of racial content. (p. 34)

I place "Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?" at the very pinnacle of her art. The central event, the purse snatching by the native on the lonely path across the veld, could easily have been a melodrama of racial confrontation. Instead, it is a beautifully rendered epiphany moment, culminating in the hurt compassion of the bruised girl, as she limps down the street and out of the story. Not only does that ultimate awareness of the girl save the story from polemics and protest, it invites the reader to a truer, more universally human experience in a racial situation.

The native is elevated above the condescension of the "victim" category to one sharing the sadness of the human dilemma. As a fellow sinner, seen compassionately, he becomes beautifully human, dignified by the girl's vision of his human potentiality. (p. 35)

[Her less successful stories illustrate] the hazard in going frontally at race problems. Both parties to the conflict become caricatures; the whites in heavily drawn satire, the black in a smudged sentimentalism. Accuracy in social statement is not the question…. The point is that crude sociological journalism is not Miss Gordimer's cup of tea. The story idea, and the story elements of character juxtaposition, abrasive event, and realistic detail, do not demand of her writing temperament its finest response. (p. 38)

["The Defeated," the story of talented and beautiful] Miriam and her storekeeping ugly parents could have been, in a less gifted storyteller, a confrontation sequence, demonstrating the generation gap. Much shouting, defiance, ultimatum pronouncements, and so on. Instead, the two life styles exist in their own circuits, so to speak. Only the reader's imagination, expertly guided by the author, leaps from one circuit to another, producing an...

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Christopher Hope

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nadine Gordimer's method in her last novel, The Conservationist, and in [Burger's Daughter] compares with the naturalist's. She transfixes unlikely and, in this case, suppressed specimens of African life, slices them into sections and subjects them to microscopic scrutiny; it's a method which rejoices in fine detail and is inevitably partial but has the merit of getting in close and conveying with great fidelity the very texture and grain of particular lives and why they may be classified as endangered species. (p. 137)

Nadine Gordimer demonstrates again, as she did so brilliantly in A Guest of Honour, her gift for illuminating great tracts of historical background. The history...

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Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter is a remarkable book at the same time that it is difficult, repetitious, dense, and occasionally overwritten. It is remarkable in that it explores the political truths of 20th-century apartheid using the Afrikaner Burger family; their friends, black and white; their relatives; their Communist party allies and enemies; and most particularly their daughter Rosa….

The novel's time-span is great enough for us to observe the ideological changes among blacks, from their early alliance with whites in support of their freedom to their present political stance in which no whites of whatever liberal views are acceptable. A strength of the book is that, in the workings-out of Lionel Burger's career, and his daughter's, we begin to understand exactly what life for the politically involved white is like in South Africa….

[There] is a difficulty inherent in using so heavy a layer of ideology in a work of fiction, a danger that the characters will end up doing very little, or at least being seen to do very little. That is what happens here. Rosa comes alive, as does her father to a lesser degree because his presence is always represented by absence as a detainee and eventually as an almost mythic, heroic figure. But the other characters take on the aspect of allegorical figures. We hear them, they speak their ideological parts in this most intelligent and well-informed novel, but we do not see them as graphically as we should.

It may be a result of the heavy layers of political thought, or the intrusive repetition of fact, on occasion. It may be that Nadine Gordimer's passion against the horrors of apartheid has not carried over into and infused her characters. Whatever it is, we have in Burger's Daughter perhaps the most serious study of South African white supremacy and the cause of black liberation ever transposed from jails and courtrooms into the realm of fiction—with some of the consequent and no doubt necessary loss of fictional intensity. (p. 9)

Doris Grumbach, "Heritage and Its Burdens," in Books & Arts (copyright © 1979 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), Vol. 1, No. 2, September 28, 1979, pp. 8-9.∗

Joseph Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nadine Gordimer … has a great subject [for The Burger's Daughter]—a country playing out an historical tragedy—and it is astonishing what a big subject will do for a writer. Although people who care intensely about such things might not care to hear it, one of the things that a big subject can do is relieve a novelist of the burdens of nicety of style. In the course of Miss Gordimer's longish novel I came across many a description that seemed to me very far off the mark; at any rate I often simply could not visualize what she was describing. (p. 101)

Yet style is not utterly negligible in Burger's Daughter. As a reader, I must report that Miss Gordimer's novel is a mighty slow read…. Miss Gordimer puts many another obstacle in a reader's way. Points of view shift in her novel. Characters are often mentioned who never appear. Shotguns—in Chekhov's famous metaphor—are placed on walls yet are never brought down to be fired. A great many characters flow in and out. Miss Gordimer's is a crowded canvas, though perhaps it is more accurate, in referring to Burger's Daughter, to speak of a mosaic. Reading the novel one feels much of the time as if one were looking at a mosaic very close up, tile by tile; and it is only toward the end that one gets a feel for the whole—that one stands back and says, My, this is really quite impressive. (pp. 101-02)

That Miss Gordimer works out Rosa's fate in a manner that could not have been predicted yet seems in the end inevitable is a tribute to her art. "To know and not to act is not to know," a line from Wang Yang-ming, a fifteenth-century Neo-Confucian, and the epigraph to the second part of Burger's Daughter, is the proposition made persuasive in Nadine Gordimer's pages. This is a novel that gives scarcely any pleasure in the reading but which one is pleased to have read nonetheless. (p. 102)

Joseph Epstein, "Too Much Even of Kreplach," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1980 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 97-110.∗

Frank Tuohy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The ironies that surround the liberal point of view in a multiracial society have been a persistent theme in Nadine Gordimer's work. In A Soldier's Embrace,… Southern Africa remains the setting, with one exception. There are a number of reasons, however, for finding the mixture not quite the same as before….

[The] "natives" of her early stories became first "African" and then later "Black". In her view, this last term is singular in being the only one which has not been imposed from above but has been chosen by the black people themselves. (More probably, though she doesn't suggest this, it was copied from the United States.) On one level her writing can be seen as the most sensitive...

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Hermione Lee

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Nadine Gordimer] traces in her stories a shift in subject-matter from earlier paternalism to the multiracial dreams of the Fifties and on to the disillusioned legacy of white (and black) liberalism in the Seventies…. A Soldier's Embrace extends the historical process, with characteristic fierce irony…. As a whole the volume sets fixed, negative social patterns against the threat imaged by the lion's roar, 'the rut of freedom bending the bars of the cage'.

The stories' ironic tension between tragic circumstances and inadequate protagonists is paralleled by their marriage of detachment and intensity…. Many of these stories portray a 'monstrous detachment' where grief and passion might be called for….

There are some ornately written atmospheric pieces ('A Lion on the Freeway', 'For Dear Life'), which are as fluent and expressive as the earlier work, and there are some bitingly clear passages of satire…. But much of the language is reduced, flat: the two tragic stories about mixed love-affairs end with newspaper cuttings ('I won't let my daughter work as a servant for a white man again') as though any more eloquent comment were an impossibility. The failure of words—in the narrator as in her characters—is matched by failures of trust and courage. These are most bitterly exposed in the white middle-class families' inability to deal with their misfits: a promiscuous delinquent niece in 'Siblings', a crazy alcoholic aunt in 'A Mad One'. Sometimes Gordimer's pulling of political metaphors out of domestic situations is too emphatic, as in 'The Termitary', which describes the sealing-up of a termite's nest under a dull provincial bourgeois home of the Thirties: 'We lived on, above the ruin'. But at their best the stories express, forcefully, dispassionately, and intimately, occasions of disappointment and betrayal, failures of truth, stillborn desires….

Hermione Lee, "Bending the Bars," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2565, May 16, 1980, p. 751.

Edith Milton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gordimer is no reformer; she looks beyond political and social outrage to the sad contradiction of the human spirit, which delivers to those in power an even worse sentence of pain than they themselves can pass upon their victims. For her, as for many writers since Conrad, Africa embodies in fearful and epic simplicity a diagram of the failures of civilization: an awesome balance of ultimate innocence and ultimate corruption. But for her the heroic scale of this antithesis is also familiar, unexceptional, often banal. She sees the complex nuances of irony in her black-and-white landscape and measures decay from virtue with marvelous exactness, by the inch. (p. 54)

The contaminated, debased contact...

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Vivian Gornick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gordimer's] knowledge of the politics of her country is strong and her sense of the politicalness of life profound, but her power resides in the force of sexual feeling that permeates her work and makes of racist South Africa a metaphor for the stunning sorrow of caged and harnessed lives.

It is interesting, in this sense at least, to compare Gordimer with V. S. Naipaul … whose work covers the same territory, so to speak—that is, colonized Africa, the decay of empire, rising black fury—but whose sense of things is the nether side of Gordimer's. In Naipaul there is neither sorrow nor pity, neither tenderness nor the curious calm of deeply felt pain. Naipaul's Africa is all cold murderous...

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John Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Soldier's Embrace is a collection of thirteen of [Gordimer's] stories, all very short. Still, although they are short, and strong, like almost everything she writes, they are not easy to read. They hurt. They are [sad and beautiful]….

Women suffer deeply in these tales of Africa. But then, so do husbands, fathers, sons, lovers; and they suffer largely because of women. In some of the stories, notably in "Town and Country Lovers," women and men suffer together because of the Immorality Act that forbids sexual relations between the races. Yet the harsh Act seems only a cruel legality erected on some older and color-blind law of nature….

[The stories] raise far more...

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