Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153
Special Commissioned Entry on Nadine Gordimer Judith Newman
South African novelist, short story writer, critic, and editor.
The following special entry, written by noted scholar and author Judith Newman of the University of Nottingham, presents an overview of Gordimer's life and works. See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and volumes 5, 7, 10, 17, 18, 80 and 123.
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 caucasian living in South Africa, Gordimer occupies a difficult position in relation to the country's racial institutions. Despite being vehemently opposed to racism, Gordimer did benefit 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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1324
The following chronology provides a quick overview of Gordimer's life and writing career. In-depth explication of these subjects is presented in the “Criticism” section of this entry.
1923: Nadine Gordimer is born on 20 November in the mining town of Springs, near Johannesburg, South Africa. She is the second daughter of Isidore Gordimer, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant who had come to South Africa at the age of thirteen and worked as a watch repairer and jeweler, and Nan Myers Gordimer, who immigrated to South Africa from England at the age of six. Later Gordimer discovers that her father was probably Latvian.
1923–34: Gordimer is educated at the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy in Springs, after which she receives private schooling, following the diagnosis of a minor heart ailment. She is prevented from taking part in sports and dancing, her particular passion. She is later to discover that the ailment was largely a fiction promoted by her mother to keep her at home. Her adolescence is lonely and bookish.
1932: Gordimer writes a poem about Paul Kruger, former Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek president.
1937: Her first story, “The Quest for Seen Gold,” is published in the children's section of the Sunday Express on 13 June.
1939: Her first adult fiction, “Come Again Tomorrow,” is published in the Forum (Johannesburg).
1945: Gordimer attends the University of the Witwatersrand but leaves after one year. She has no high school qualification and therefore cannot become a fully registered student.
1946: An unpublished and unfinished novel is in existence.
1947: Gordimer's only play, The First Circle, is published.
1949: Gordimer marries Dr. Gerald Gavronsky. Publication of Face to Face, her first book.
1950: Her daughter Oriane is born on 6 June.
1952: Publication of The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories. Gordimer is divorced from Gerald Gavronsky.
1953: Publication of The Lying Days.
1954: Gordimer marries Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer whose family had fled from Nazi Germany to South Africa. The mid-1950s is the period when Gordimer's involvement with Drum magazine brings her into contact with a large group of black writers, artists, and critics including Es'kia Mpahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, and Nat Nakasa, most of whom had gone into exile by the mid-1960s.
1955: Her son Hugo is born on 28 March.
1956: Publication of Six Feet of the Country.
1958: Publication of A World of Strangers, which is banned until 1970.
1960: Publication of Friday's Footprint and Other Stories.
1961: She is awarded the W. H. Smith Literary Award for Friday's Footprint and the Ford Foundation fellowship to the United States as a visiting lecturer at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Washington, D.C.
1963: Publication of Occasion for Loving.
1965: Publication of Not for Publication and Other Stories.
1966: Publication of The Late Bourgeois World, which is banned until 1976.
1967: Gordimer edits South African Writing Today with Lionel Abrahams.
1969: She receives the Thomas Pringle Award (South Africa) for creative writing in English in South African magazines. She becomes visiting lecturer, Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts) and Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois).
1970: Publication of A Guest of Honour. Gordimer becomes visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor).
1971: Publication of Livingstone's Companions. Gordimer is appointed adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University (New York City). A Guest of Honour is nominated as best novel of 1971 by the Sunday Telegraph and the Observer in England.
1972: She gives African literature lectures at the University of Cape Town (South Africa), and writes the foreword to Oswald Mtshali's The Sound of a Cowhide Drum. She is awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (England) for A Guest of Honour.
1973: Publication of The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing and On the Mines (an essay to accompany photographs by David Goldblatt).
1974: Publication of The Conservationist. Gordimer is awarded the CNA Prize (South Africa) for A Guest of Honour and is joint winner of the Booker Prize (England) for fiction for The Conservationist.
1975: Publication of Selected Stories. Gordimer receives the CNA Prize for The Conservationist and the Grand Aigle d'Or Prize (France). She is visiting Gildersleeve professor at Barnard College (New York City).
1976: Publication of Some Monday for Sure.
1978: Publication of No Place Like: Selected Stories.
1979: Publication of Burger's Daughter, which is banned on 11 July under the South African Publications Act of 1974. There is an international outcry. In August the director of publications appeals the decision of his own committee and the novel is reinstated. Gordimer is appointed honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
1980: She is awarded the CNA Prize for Burger's Daughter and appointed honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Publication of A Soldier's Embrace, Town and Country Lovers, and What Happened to Burger's Daughter or How South African Censorship Works.
1981: Publication of July's People. Gordimer writes scripts for four of seven television dramas, The Gordimer Stories 1981–1982. She is awarded the Scottish Arts Council Neil M. Gunn fellowship, the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature (U.S.A.), the CNA Prize for July's People, and an honorary doctorate of literature from the University of Leuven, Belgium.
1983: Gordimer co-scripts and co-produces Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak with Hugo Cassirer.
1984: Publication of Something Out There. Gordimer is awarded an honorary doctorate of literature by the University of the Witwatersrand.
1985: Gordimer is awarded the Premio Malaparte (Italy) for her contribution to literature. Honorary doctorates of literature are received from Smith College (Northampton, Massachusetts) and Mount Holyoke College (South Hadley, Massachusetts), and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from City College of New York.
1986: Publication of Lifetimes: Under Apartheid, which juxtaposes excerpts from Gordimer's novels and stories with photographs by David Goldblatt. She is awarded the Nelly Sachs Prize (West Germany), Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), and Brockport Writers Forum International Award (State University of New York, Brockport). Honorary doctorates of literature are conferred by Harvard University, Yale University (New Haven, Connecticut), and the University of Cape Town. She helps to organize the Anti-Censorship Action Group (ACAG).
1987: Publication of A Sport of Nature. Gordimer is awarded honorary doctorates of literature by Columbia University, the New School for Social Research (New York City), and York University (England), and receives the 1986 Bennett Award (U.S.A.). She is elected patron and regional representative for the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW).
1988: Publication of The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places.
1989: Gordimer scripts and narrates a documentary concerning the South Africa-Mozambique border, which is broadcast 6 June as part of the BBC series Frontiers.
1990: Publication of My Son's Story.
1991: Gordimer is elected publicity secretary of COSAW. She is awarded the CNA Prize for My Son's Story. Publication of Jump and Other Stories and Crimes of Conscience. In October she is awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. In November she receives the highest French art and literature decoration, the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
1992: She is elected COSAW vice president. Gordimer is a participant in the Grahamstown Festival (South Africa) winter school lectures, 5 July; and the Mayibuye Community Arts Academy, 15–20 December, in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, concerning the role of the arts in the transformation of South Africa. Honorary doctorates of literature are conferred by the University of Durban-Westville and Cambridge University (England). Publication of Why Haven't You Written? Selected Stories, 1950–1972.
1993: Under the wing of the ANC's department of arts and culture, Gordimer is elected as a member of a board of trustees responsible for overseeing a proposed foundation for arts and culture, concerned with the process of transformation and cultural reconstruction in South Africa.
1994: Publication of None to Accompany Me.
1995: Publication of Writing and Being: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures.
1996: She is appointed as a trustee of the Arts and Culture Trust of the President (South Africa).
1998: Publication of The House Gun. She is appointed United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in the campaign to eradicate poverty. An international festschrift, A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer, marks her seventy-fifth birthday with contributions from a battery of distinguished writers and critics.
1999: Publication of Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century.
2001: Publication of The Pickup: A Novel.
About Nadine Gordimer
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5325
Born: 20 November 1923, in Springs, South Africa.
Married: Gerald Gavronsky, 1949 (divorced 1952); Reinhold Cassirer, 1954.
Education: Convent of Our Lady of Mercy, Springs; private tutors; University of the Witwatersrand, 1945–46.
When Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991 she also achieved the unimaginable: getting the African National Congress (ANC, the left-wing opposition led by Nelson Mandela) and the South African government to agree. Both Prime Minister F. W. de Klerk and the ANC issued official statements congratulating her. De Klerk claimed the prize as also an honor for South Africa and described Gordimer as one of his countrymen. Archbishop Desmond Tutu declared himself “over the moon for Nadine,” while André Brink, her fellow South African novelist, saw the prize as “the coming of age of South African writing.”1 Gordimer was the seventh woman to win the prize (after Selma Lagerlof, Grazia Madesani, Sigrid Undset, Pearl Buck, Gabriela Mistral, and Nelly Sachs) and the first South African.
In the judgment of the Swedish Academy of Letters, Gordimer won the prize for her great epic writings centering on the effects of race relations in her society, “of very great benefit to humanity.”2A Guest of Honor (1970) was cited as a landmark, and the committee also praised The Conservationist (1974), Burger's Daughter (1979), and July's People (1981) for their technical complexity. Although Sture Ahlen, the permanent secretary of the academy that selects the prizewinner, said that the award had nothing to do with political relations in South Africa, the citation also said:
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.3
Gordimer is the woman whom Time magazine once described as South Africa's restless white conscience.4 Certainly Gordimer welcomed the prize as an opportunity to focus attention on South Africa. In the Observer she agreed that
If you come from such a situation of intense political conflict as I have been born into, and spent my life in, you become a spokesperson for that situation, because you've got the ear—or rather, the eye—of people outside it. This prize increases the focus on my country through me. It's a responsibility and opportunity to keep people aware. Nobody should be starry-eyed that there's a millennium coming in South Africa because we're going to have a new constitution.5
Yet in every public statement, Gordimer has resisted the primacy of politics to her writing. She has never adopted the posture of the fashionable revolutionary, always maintaining that she did not have the courage to go to jail for her beliefs. In an interview she took a modest view of what a writer could achieve:
I don't think that writers anywhere, for a long time, have had a real influence. I think that probably we achieved two things: first, those of us who got known overseas definitely had an effect through our work, through showing how people lived, rather than just a news report of a riot or something, to show how this affected people's daily lives and their personal relationships.6
Secondly, she conceded that, inside South Africa, because of the high illiteracy rate and the lack of libraries, writers could not reach a wide public. “But we served a purpose there in that we expressed things that people kept locked up in themselves, we showed that it was possible to come out and say these things. So perhaps we had a heartening effect, to help them retain the legitimacy of their resentment.”7
In contrast to the tendency of critics and journalists to portray Gordimer as a representative of South African society (the press reports of the Nobel award headlined her variously as “Nelson's columnist,” “ANC Author,” “Muscular South African Liberal,” and “A Thorn in the Side of Apartheid”), Gordimer always places her activity as a creative writer absolutely first. In conversation with Susan Sontag, she asserted that
the day when it's more important for me to be more than a writer in the public sense, in the sense of being answerable to some political or social problem, in which I may be very involved as a citizen, the day that that becomes more important than being a writer, I think I'm discounted in the world. I've got no use and no place, because I believe that you must do the thing you do best, and if you're a writer it's a mistake then to become a politician.8
In her life the two spheres of intense personal and imaginative creativity, and of social responsibility and historical witness approach and retreat across the world of her fiction.
Nadine Gordimer was born 20 November 1923 in Springs, a small goldmining town of about 20,000 people on Johannesburg's East Rand, the main mining area of the country. She is the daughter of Isidore Gordimer, a Latvian Jewish jeweler, and a mother, Nan Myers Gordimer, who was of British descent. She has described her father as lacking a strong personality, almost as if burnt out by his experience of persecution and by the effort involved in bringing his nine sisters out from Europe to safety. For Gordimer there was something timid and arrested about him. His life is still something of a mystery to her in many respects. She had believed for many years that he was Lithuanian (as are the majority of South African Jewish immigrants) and only discovered later in life that he was Latvian.
In fact her father came from an area near Riga, where the first Jewish communities were later liquidated by the Nazis. One of a family of twelve, he was raised in the country by elderly relatives while his parents worked in Riga as a dressmaker and a shipping clerk. With secondary education not available to Jews, he boarded a boat at the age of thirteen, and joined his elder brother Marcus, to become an itinerant watchmaker in South Africa, and later a small shopkeeper, selling such items as commemorative sets of knives and forks for presentation to retiring miners. He had arrived with only his bag of watchmaking tools, and had traveled around the mines on a bicycle mending watches. As a Jew he was largely unobservant, though Gordimer remembers sitting in the car in shorts outside the synagogue, waiting for him, on the Day of Atonement. Although her parents married in the Great Synagogue in Johannesburg, that was the last time Gordimer's mother set foot in it, or in any other place of worship. She was scornful of all organized religion, and when she sent her two daughters to a Catholic convent, they were excused from all religious instruction.
Although Gordimer's father was Jewish, she has discounted Judaism as an influence upon her. (She is an atheist.) The Jewish population in South Africa had grown rapidly in the 1930s as there was accelerated immigration from Germany, Eastern Europe, and Austria-Hungary. In 1938 the South African government closed the country to Jewish immigrants from Europe. John Cooke (The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes, 1985) has argued that there was a scenario of repressed conflict in the Gordimer household, between a socially ambitious, assimilationist mother who wanted to integrate into the gentile, English-speaking society of the town, and a father whose mother tongue was Yiddish, and who spoke English with an accent. Several of Gordimer's early stories present Jewish identity as problematic. In “The Defeated” (1952) the Jewish daughter marries “up” and disowns her parents, whose otherness is a source of social shame for her. The parents own a mine-compound concession store, one of many leased out to Eastern European immigrants for the patronage of black gold miners, and are therefore of low social prestige. Gordimer's occasional visits to Jewish relatives exposed her to Jewish ethnicity but not to a cultured milieu. She was surprised to discover the extent of Jewish culture when she later read Isaac Bashevis Singer. Later at a literary conference in Budapest in 1989 she staked a claim to her Jewish ancestry and berated Israeli writers for their lack of involvement in political protest (to Israeli indignation). Jews were very active in the anti-apartheid movement, including Helen Suzman, Ruth First, and Joe Slovo, and were prominent as victims of the roundup at Rivonia that captured Nelson Mandela.
Gordimer's mother had immigrated at the age of six from a much more secure background. Gordimer's maternal grandparents came from England and had gone to South Africa before the birth of Nan, Gordimer's mother. Her grandfather went prospecting for diamonds, and then became what was known as a “tickey-snatcher” on the stock exchange, a small-time dealer in stocks and shares. In South Africa, pregnant and alone in the house while her husband was at a poker game, Gordimer's grandmother Phoebe was taken aback when she opened the door to find a Chinese man in a pigtail with his throat cut from ear to ear, who dragged himself under her kitchen table and immediately died. Phoebe promptly packed her bags and caught the next train to Cape Town and the boat to England, returning only years later to a country she clearly saw as uncivilized.
In fact, the society in which Gordimer grew up was conventionally colonial and English-identified, with limited expectations for its daughters. Gordimer remembers celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ascension to the throne of King George V, and decorating the house with bunches of leaves, feeling very patriotic. The family laid claim to Britain as “home” and the town related to British traditions, even though the province in which Gordimer was born had been a Boer republic. Most girls left school at fifteen or even before, did a short commercial course at a local college, and then worked as secretaries or clerks until marriage. In Springs the mine manager was rather like a local squire, whose annual garden party had considerable social importance. The environment was that of a company town, on a great windy plateau, a man-made landscape of mountains of white sand from underground, lakes of waste mine water, and plantations of eucalyptus trees (used as pit props).
Gordimer's cultural background was not at all literary. People in Springs read the U.S. book-of-the-month and the Reader's Digest, though Gordimer herself haunted the local library. Her mother, however, broke with convention to some extent, sending her daughter to the local Catholic convent for a good education, in defiance of both the father's origins and the general anti-Catholic prejudice of the town. Gordimer has described her mother as well-meaning towards blacks, and humanistic. She was apolitical but prepared to carry out the usual acts of individualistic charity, as opposed to Gordimer's father's frankly prejudiced attitude. She organized a daycare center and clinic for black children in the area. Gordimer herself only visited a black township as a young adult incongruously as a member of an amateur dramatic troupe putting on a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. Gordimer, playing Gwendolen in a bustle and a false bosom, was horrified by the filth and poverty of the township, and recognized in consternation that she was displaying European culture to an audience of whose own culture she knew nothing at all. (The story “The Amateurs” was the result.) Gordimer was also educated by her reading, and considers herself to have been decisively influenced by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), when she realized that black mineworkers lived a similar life to Sinclair's exploited meat-packers in Chicago. She had always thought these men, often in native dress, were exotic, and it was a shock to realize that in fact she was the exotic outsider in Africa.
In contrast to her father's shadowy presence, Gordimer's mother's influence was a dominating one, in one vital respect at least. At the age of ten, a sudden faint on Gordimer's part led to the diagnosis of heart trouble, a ban on all physical activity, removal from school, and an adolescence passed in isolation, writing and reading. Gordimer was prevented from dancing, which she passionately enjoyed (her whole ambition had been to become a dancer). Dancing is often a marker of freedom for the heroines of her novels. She spent her time with her mother's generation, at tea parties and social events for adults, becoming a jester for the grown-ups and an accomplished mimic. Her sister, who was four years older, was already away at university.
Later, Gordimer discovered that the “heart problem” was a fiction, fostered by her unhappily married mother for obscure emotional reasons. As a result of having a “delicate” daughter, Nan gained a constant companion and sustained a friendly relationship with the local doctor, who became a regular visitor. Gordimer has described her mother's action as decisive in shaping her life. “I retreated into myself. I became very introspective. She changed my whole character. … It was such incredible loneliness—it's a terrible thing to do to a child.”9 Her mother arranged for private tuition, but Gordimer had absolutely no contact with other children and became, in her own description, “a little old woman” (Hurwitt, p. 90). Before her mother's death, in 1976, Gordimer suppressed these facts from early autobiographical writings, portraying herself as an independent truant, voluntarily absenting herself from formal education. Interviewed in 1983, she commented, “It's only in the last decade of my life that I've been able to face all this” (Hurwitt, p. 89).
Critics of Gordimer's writing have seized upon this personal story to suggest that Gordimer went on to endow her private history with public associations, and that her enforced dependency on the protective-oppressive mother gave her a sharp insight into the psychology of colonial dependencies, both of race and of gender. As Gordimer commented, “First, you know, you leave your mother's house. Later you leave the house of the white race.”10 But psychological analysis is as much Gordimer's own subject as a process to which she might be naively subjected. Her work demonstrates that she is well-read in the literature of psychoanalysis, particularly in the work of Freud and Reich, and her own fictional treatment of the heart problem (in Occasion for Loving) challenges the Freudian paradigm directly, as an ahistorical explanation of the individual. The suspicion lingers nevertheless that it was this experience that made Gordimer into a writer. The years spent in solitude, reading and writing, gave extra impetus to a writing career initiated at the age of nine, somewhat improbably, with a poem, written as a school exercise, eulogizing the Boer Republic president Paul Kruger, an Afrikaner Nationalist symbol.
As a child Gordimer read anything and everything. She describes looking back at one of her childhood notebooks and finding little book reviews of works which she had read, at the age of twelve. The review of Gone with the Wind was followed by that of Pepys's Diary, with no indication that there was any particular difference between the two books, and she was still reading children's books as well. By the age of ten she was drafting whole newspapers, inventing details of weddings and funerals, advertisements and book reviews, with the format modeled on the Johannesburg paper the Star. Real publications were to follow swiftly, first in 1937 as a child author writing for children in the Sunday supplement of the Johannesburg newspaper the Sunday Express. Gordimer published four children's stories. Many letters followed and she corresponded with some of the children for a long time. Then when she was fifteen she published her first adult short story, “Come Again Tomorrow,” in the Forum, a Liberal periodical founded by the politician J. H. Hofmeyer. She published it anonymously in order to conceal her age and to appear to be a grown-up. From then on she became a regular contributor to local journals and magazines in South Africa, such as Trek, Common Sense, Vandag, Jewish Affairs, and South African Opinion, most of which were not primarily literary or “little magazines” in today's sense of the term, so much as they were politico-cultural journals largely founded in an attempt to influence opinion away from the rising tide of Afrikaner nationalism. Childhood, at least as a writer, was effectively over. Beginning so early had both its advantages and its drawbacks as Gordimer has noted.
When you begin writing very young as I did, you are really seeing everything in the world for the first time, so you tend to rely on sense impressions. There's a glittering sensuous surface to your writing, it's full of suggestion, impressionistic; but you are not preoccupied with complex ideas. The intellectual possibilities of a short story are not fully developed because you are still so fascinated with the breathing and living surface of life. So that's how you begin. Then your experience becomes more complex, and your desire to delve into human motivation becomes more complex, and this needs more room for development. Bigger themes take hold of you and they belong in a broader form—in the novel.11
If the false heart condition offers one way of defining Gordimer, her involvement in South African history has offered another. For some critics the life-stealer was not so much the mother as the mother country. Stephen Clingman (The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside, 1986) reads Gordimer's work largely in terms of the conditioning force of social and ideological codes as if the writer is formed by South Africa itself, deprived of any individual agency. But history can be as much of an overarching master-narrative as psychology, and Gordimer herself has always argued that she would have been a writer even if she had not been a South African. Although Sharpeville and Soweto are events in the personal life of every South African of her age, some political developments are nonetheless of particular biographical significance. Gordimer recognized in 1965 that apartheid had been the crucial experience of her life. In this connection two of her often reiterated comments speak for themselves. “If you write honestly about life in South Africa, apartheid damns itself.”12 “People like myself have two births, and the second one comes when you break out of the colour bar.”13
Gordimer's own second birth appears to have taken place in the 1950s. As a young woman, Gordimer spent only a year in formal education at the University of the Witwatersrand. She had no high school diploma and could not therefore undertake a degree program. But she began to move in Johannesburg's artistic circles and to meet blacks socially. In the 1950s Gordimer's involvement with Drum magazine brought her into contact with a large group of black writers and artists, in the brief golden age of multiracialism associated with Sophiatown, the mixed race area of Johannesburg, and fostered by the Congress Alliance of the 1950s. Es'kia Mpahlele was her first black friend; both were struggling young writers. Mpahlele was a regular contributor to Fighting Talk and was highly politicized. Gordimer worked on the Classic, a magazine started by Nat Nkasa. Black musicians were leading the cultural drive in the 1950s and it was a time of tremendous, memorable parties, with people dancing all night, visiting shebeens (illicit drinking dens), and going on pub crawls. (Gordimer found the shebeens, with their emphasis on solid, dogged drinking, rather boring.) In the 1950s she had also formed a close friendship with Bettie du Toit, a trade unionist and political activist who eventually had to leave South Africa for exile in Ghana. Gordimer commented, “She remains unique in my affection and admiration because she has transcended the ties of blood and friendship to which most of us limit our active concern for the simple reason that we cannot feel anything beyond this orbit of relationship.”14
In the 1960s, the massacre of unarmed demonstrators at Sharpeville, the 1960 Treason Trial in which many ANC activists were condemned to jail, the state of emergency which imposed a form of martial law on the country, the arrest and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, and the Rivonia Trial of 1963 which condemned almost all the remaining leaders of the ANC to jail, issued in an unprecedented repression of both Liberal and radical protest. Gordimer has described the Treason Trial as of major importance in her life. Chief Luthuli was staying in her house at the time, and she later wrote a biographical sketch of him. When Nelson Mandela was sent to prison for life for sabotage, she did not recoil from the ANC as many white Liberals did, and became a close friend of Mandela's lawyer George Bizos. (There was at one time a plan for her to write Mandela's memoirs.) Sharpeville had had momentous effects on her group of friends: “an incredible time when … almost everyone I knew was in jail or fleeing.”15 Sophiatown had been bulldozed and replaced by a white suburb, unashamedly named Triomf. By the mid-1960s Gordimer's friends from the previous decade—Es'kia Mpahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Nat Nkasa—had all left South Africa.
In reaction to the silencing of an entire generation of black artists, Gordimer began a concerted campaign against censorship, linking political and cultural repression in a battery of essays and speeches. The Black Interpreters, a study of indigenous African writing, was a product of her championship of black writers. Gordimer's interest in the African continent began in the 1950s when she traveled for the first time to Rhodesia, Zambia, and Botswana. She went to Egypt in 1954 (in the week when Nasser took power) and again in 1958, and traveled up the Congo River into East Africa just before the Belgian Congo gained its independence. In 1969 she visited Madagascar, and at one point in the 1960s even considered immigrating to Zambia. Her travel writing, republished in The Essential Gesture, provides a vivid record of her experiences, which spanned the great period of African independence movements.
As a vice president of the International Association of Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists, and Novelists (P.E.N.), and a patron and regional representative of the largely black Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), Gordimer has also been tireless in the struggle against censorship worldwide. (Three of her own novels were banned in South Africa.) She was heavily involved with the Anti-Censorship Action Group (ACAG). A vociferous opponent of apartheid, Gordimer grew increasingly radical in the 1970s and now describes herself as a socialist. The 1970s were a painful period for white writers as the growth of Black Consciousness tended to silence and marginalize them, and black activists increasingly perceived them as irrelevant. The mulitracial writers' association to which Gordimer belonged was dissolved, as black writers formed their own group. Gordimer became increasingly interested in the black trades unions movement, as one of the few areas where whites could work with, rather than patronizingly, for blacks.
Although Gordimer had had attachments to the ANC while it was an underground organization, it was only in 1983 that the foundation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) offered her an organization of a left-wing type with which she could identify. She became very active also in the COSAW, and more involved in the cultural wing of the ANC, with frequent contacts with Wally Serote, then manning the ANC cultural desk in London. She was one of those who attended the Culture and Resistance Festival in Botswana. COSAW essentially replaced the local chapter of P.E.N., a move which brought some criticism abroad. Gordimer explained however that, under the P.E.N. charter, which allows members to join irrespective of their political affiliation, her group could not have refused membership to those who served the government's censorship board and banned other people's books.
Gordimer herself has acknowledged that her participation in the Delmas Treason Trial (1985–88) was a watershed for her. The main charge against the twenty-two UDF activists on trial was that their political activities constituted a conspiracy with the banned ANC to overthrow the state. The legal defense team attempted to contest the idea of conspiracy by trying to prove that the political activities cited arose out of the specific conditions of township life and not from illegal or external prompting. Gordimer's role was to testify to the “good faith” and character of some of those charged, whom she knew well, particularly Popo Molefe and Patrick “Terror” Lekota. Lekota, a prominent UDF leader later became the premier of the Orange Free State, while Molefe became the premier of the North-West region, both under the ANC banner, after the 1994 election. Gordimer was often in court, despite the journey of 120 kilometers from her home to Delmas in the Transvaal, where the accused were being held. In her evidence in favor of Lekota, Gordimer also defended others who were not then in court but were accused of participating in the conspiracy, including Allan Boesak, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela. Under cross-examination Gordimer agreed that she supported Umkhonto We Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC.
[Gordimer:] As I say, I myself am against violence but I can see that in the circumstances that have been brought about in South Africa (namely the intransigence of the white establishment towards black aspirations), a time had to come when there would be a military wing in a mass movement like the African National Congress.
[Examiner:] Do you support Umkhonto we Sizwe, is that what you are saying?
[Gordimer:] I support the African National Congress.
[Examiner:] Please answer the question, Miss Gordimer. Do you support Umkhonto we Sizwe?
[Gordimer:] Yes, as part of the ANC.16
She had come a long way from Springs. Yet one reason she had become involved was literary. Lekota was writing a book in the form of letters to his daughter and she was smuggling it out with the help of his lawyers.
Gordimer became a member of the ANC the moment it was legal in February 1990. Joining the ANC previously had not been like taking out a subscription for a club and getting a membership card, since it was a criminal offence to belong to a banned organization and the ANC was banned. She remains committed to the Left, despite past history. As she explained,
We need to love truth enough, to pick up the blood-dirtied, shamed cause of the Left, and attempt to recreate it in terms of what it was meant to be, not what sixty-five years of human power perversion have made of it.17
Twice married, to Gerald Gavronsky and Reinhold Cassirer, with a daughter, a son, and four grandchildren, she remains resident in South Africa.
AWARDS AND RECOGNITION
Gordimer has received almost all of the major international literary awards, beginning in 1961 when she was awarded the W. H. Smith Literary Award for Friday's Footprint. In the same year she received the Ford Foundation fellowship to the United States as a visiting lecturer at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Washington, D.C. In 1969 she received the Thomas Pringle Award (South Africa) for creative writing in English in South African magazines. A series of appointments as visiting professor in American universities was to follow over the next ten years. In 1969 she was appointed visiting lecturer at both Harvard University and Northwestern University, in 1970 she was visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan, and in 1971 was appointed adjunct professor of writing at Columbia University.
More major prizes were to follow. In 1972 she was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (England) for A Guest of Honor, and in 1974 received the CNA Prize (South Africa) for A Guest of Honor and was named joint winner of the Booker Prize (England) for The Conservationist. In 1975 she again won the CNA Prize, for The Conservationist, as well as the Grand Aigle d'Or Prize (France). Her appointments to American colleges continued. In 1975 she became visiting Gildersleeve professor at Barnard College. In 1979 Gordimer was appointed honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1980 was appointed honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Also in 1980 she won the CNA Prize for Burger's Daughter.
In 1981 she was awarded the Scottish Arts Council Neil M. Gunn fellowship, the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature (U.S.A.), and the CNA Prize for July's People. In 1981 her first honorary degree was conferred, an honorary doctorate of literature from the University of Leuven, Belgium. In 1984 the first South African honorary degree was accepted, an honorary doctorate of literature from the politically radical University of the Witwatersrand. Gordimer had previously refused to accept an honorary degree from Rhodes University because she rejected the segregated nature of the South African educational system. In 1985 she was awarded the Premio Malaparte (Italy) for her contribution to literature, and received honorary doctorates of literature from Smith College and Mount Holyoke College, and an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the City College of New York. West Germany awarded her the Nelly Sachs Prize in 1986, while France made her an Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in the same year, and honorary doctorates of literature were conferred by Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Cape Town. In 1986 Gordimer was elected vice president of P.E.N. In her work with P.E.N. and COSAW, Gordimer has also been tireless in the struggle against censorship worldwide.
More conventional honors continued to be showered upon her. In 1987 she was awarded honorary doctorates of literature by Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, and York University (England), and received the 1986 Bennett Award from the Hudson Review. At home she was elected patron and regional representative of COSAW, becoming its publicity secretary in 1991 and its vice president in 1992. In 1991 she was awarded the CNA Prize for My Son's Story. In October she received the Nobel Prize for literature, and in November the highest French art and literature decoration, Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
When Gordimer's name was announced as the Nobel winner there were cries of “Finally” from the Swedish journalists present. Gordimer was only the second African to win the Nobel (after Wole Soyinka in 1986) and the first woman since Nelly Sachs in 1966. She refused to be presented for the prize by any representative of the South African government but was accompanied by friends from the ANC. Her return to South Africa after the ceremony was marked by a crowd of younger black writers, led by Bishop Tutu, who greeted her exultantly at the airport.
In 1992 honorary doctorates of literature were conferred by the University of Durban-Westville and Cambridge University. Honors were accompanied with responsibilities of the highest order. In 1993, under the wing of the ANC's department of arts and culture, Gordimer was elected member of a board of trustees responsible for overseeing a proposed foundation for arts and culture, concerned with the process of transformation and cultural reconstruction in South Africa. In 1996 she became a trustee of the Arts and Culture Trust of the President (South Africa), and in 1998 was appointed as United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in the campaign to eradicate poverty.
John Carlin, “Gordimer Unites Old Foes with the Write Stuff,” Independent, 4 October 1991, p. 11.
“South African Author Wins the Nobel Prize,” Scotsman, 4 October 1991, p. 3.
“ANC Author Gordimer's Nobel Prize,” Glasgow Herald, 4 October 1991, p. 13.
Mike Nicol, “A Thorn in the Side of Apartheid,” Guardian, 4 October 1991, p. 34.
Janet Watts, “Gordimer Speaks of Fear for Friends in ANC,” London Observer, 13 October 1991, p. 15.
Peter Godwin, “Nadine Gordimer, Nelson's Columnist,” London Observer, 1 February 1998, p. 5.
Godwin, p. 5.
“Nadine Gordimer and Susan Sontag: In Conversation,” Listener, 23 May 1985, p. 16.
Jannika Hurwitt, “The Art of Fiction LXXVII. Nadine Gordimer,” Paris Review 88 (1983): 90.
John Barkham, “South Africa: Perplexities, Brutalities, Absurdities: The Author,” Saturday Review, 21 January 1963, p. 63.
“Nadine the Prophet,” Sunday Times Magazine, 30 August 1981, p. 43.
Pat Schwartz, “Pat Schwartz talks to Nadine Gordimer,” New South African Writing (Johannesburg: Lorton, 1977), p. 81.
Studs Terkel, “Nadine Gordimer,” Perspective on Ideas and the Arts 12, no. 5 (1963): 44.
Nadine Gordimer, foreword to Ukubamba Amadolo, by Bettie du Toit (London: Onyx, 1978), p. 3.
Stephen R. Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986), p. 75.
Delmas records, doc. M1: 28 805 (Historical Papers Library, University of the Witwatersrand).
Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places. With Stephen Clingman. London: Cape, 1988, p. 283.
Nadine Gordimer At Work
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14283
Given the facts of Gordimer's childhood publishing career, it was not difficult to get started as a writer. Several figures were influential in launching her literary career, first and foremost Amelia Levy, publisher of a magazine run by the Society of Jews and Christians, who encouraged Gordimer in the early stages of her career. (Doris Lessing was another of Levy's protégées.) Then Uys Krige, the Afrikaans poet, suggested that one of her stories should be included in an anthology. Silver Leaf, a small, new publishing house in Johannesburg, brought out the first collection of her stories. The non-literary nature of the society into which this collection was launched is suggested by the account of the publisher's party, in “Amelia's Column” in the Star on 5 September 1949. The column opens with an account of preparations for a ball celebrating the golden jubilee of the famous regiment, the Imperial Light Horse. The ball, with its links to the traditions of empire, is clearly much more interesting than the publishing party. The second item describes the party at which “those who had not previously met Miss Gordimer were surprised to discover that the author was quite the youngest-looking person in the room.”1 As this report demonstrates, the local press tended to treat the writer as a social phenomenon, and there was a gossip column approach. Reviewers and interviewers repeatedly note that Gordimer is young, dark, and slim, and mix social information (in this case erroneous in its description of Gordimer's children) into literary assessments. “In private life, Miss Gordimer, short, dark, and slim, is Mrs. Reinhold Cassirer with two daughters and three dogs.”2
Gordimer, however, was beginning to be treated seriously outside South Africa. When Krige suggested she send her work overseas and found her an agent, her stories began to appear in American magazines, beginning with the Yale Review in 1950, with the Virginia Quarterly Review and Harper's following shortly afterwards. In 1950 the New Yorker bought “A Watcher of the Dead”; Gordimer was thrilled to receive proofs with the famous editor Harold Ross's comments on them. After his death her editor at the New Yorker was Katharine White, the wife of E. B. White. She became close friends with both of the Whites. The New Yorker offered her a contract for first refusal of any short story she wrote. Gordimer has also paid tribute to her agent, Sidney Satenstein, who looked out for her in her early years as a writer. By the age of twenty-nine Gordimer was a divorced mother with a small child. Satenstein, a colorful figure who enjoyed gambling, golf, and cigars, had no children and had a fatherly attitude to Gordimer. He enjoyed sending her French perfume and throwing large parties for her. When her first collection of short stories was accepted in America, it was on the understanding that she would also write a novel. Simon and Schuster commissioned her first novel, The Lying Days, but it was Satenstein who got her enough money to live on while she wrote it.
There were nonetheless false starts. An early unfinished novel dating from before 1946 (untitled) concerns Sam Karanov, a former concessions store keeper and now a successful company director, who learns, as the novel opens, of the deaths of his brother and all his family in Poland at the hands of the Germans.3 The contrast between business success in South Africa and misery in war-torn Europe was one which Gordimer also exploited in her only play, The First Circle (1947), which offers a similar contrast between rich and poor in South Africa as that in the unfinished novel. A second unfinished novel, dating from about 1951, concerned middle-class marriage. The only other novel she abandoned became the short story “Not for Publication,” which used the first chapter of the intended novel as its basis. Gordimer realized as she wrote that she did not know enough about growing up in a black township to write from the perspective of the black protagonist.
When asked how she found time to write, Gordimer replied that she simply sacrificed her social life. Gordimer has an intensely disciplined approach to her craft, writing every morning for four hours uninterrupted, often for months at a stretch. Burger's Daughter took four years to write. She is never at home to anyone before 2 p.m. Indeed she describes the solitude of writing as quite frightening.4 (She broke this routine for the first time after the shock of the Sharpeville massacre.) Nobody is ever allowed to enter the room in which she works in her home in Parktown, an old residential suburb of Johannesburg. Nor does she show her work to anyone before it goes to the publisher.
For Gordimer, a good day's work might be 1000 words. She rereads what she has written before going to bed. She has never written by hand—she used a typewriter from the start—and keeps very few notes. A Guest of Honour, a long book, evolved from some six pages of jottings. For A Sport of Nature she had ten pages of notes. Names come early in the process of writing, but she often begins with only the first sentence in mind. She revises very little. There is often a single original draft with minor changes only, none of them structural. Indeed she has argued that there is a moral problem in revising, as for example when making a selection of short stories for a collection. “In revising I feel disloyal to myself, it feels like cheating to make corrections and improvements on what one has written a long time ago.”5
She rarely suffers from writer's block, though she had a difficult few days getting beyond the Brandt Vermeulen episode in Burger's Daughter. For short stories she has to have the title in mind, as a kind of distillation of the tale. Publishers are not allowed to interfere with her titles. She carries out careful research—on trade unions in the case of A Guest of Honour, or the Communist Party for Burger's Daughter—and keeps notebooks. The notebook for My Son's Story contains quotations from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, together with newspaper clippings concerning political events.
For Nadine Gordimer technique is always intimately related to the content of her work. Asked whether she used a specific technique she responded:
For me it is a matter of finding the approach that will release the most from the subject. The form is dictated by the subject. In some people's writing you are very conscious of the writer—the writer is between you and the subject all the time. My own aim is to be invisible and to make the identification for the reader with what is being written about and with the people in the work—not to distance the reader.6
Finding the appropriate way of telling the story is part of the story itself. Terribly marginalized by being white, female, and South African, Gordimer sets out in her fiction to synthesize formal innovations with political motivations, seeking narrative forms that combine European and indigenous cultures. Major concerns in her novels include racism, the crisis of Liberal values, the nature of the historical consciousness, and sexual politics. As a result, individual novels repeatedly pose the question “Whose story is it?” by means of a multiplicity of narrative strategies: by establishing a counterpoint between male and female protagonists, white and black interpreters; by employing double plots that readjust the relation between social context, text and subtext; by the reconstruction of the implied reader; and by challenging the unstated values embedded in the language of South African writing. Eurocentric concepts of the novel are progressively subverted, as Gordimer develops away from Liberal meliorism and towards a Marxist recognition of the historical situation as dynamic. High modernist notions of the novel are questioned as she follows Georg Lukács in condemning their ahistoricism and subjectivism, and moves towards fiction that is increasingly politically committed. Gordimer is also prolific in other forms, with their own technical and formal demands, the author of short stories, essays, literary criticism, and travelogues, and a collaborator in photographic studies. As an outspoken opponent of apartheid and champion of black majority rule, she has had to write in the face of declarations by black writers that the white writer is irrelevant, and that the same is true of the language and conventions within—or against—which her voice is raised. And when apartheid ended, she had to face a fresh challenge as the agenda for writers came under renewed scrutiny, as the international audience began to wonder if writers in South Africa had a subject, once they were no longer in opposition.
Although Gordimer commented in 19867 that she felt that she had been neglecting the short story, as the themes which interested her grew increasingly complex, some two hundred stories offer eloquent testimony to the achievement of a writer whose command of the form is unrivalled in the contemporary period. Her first literary efforts were short stories. In addition she has recognized the crucial importance of the influence of Katherine Mansfield in convincing her that she, too, could take a colonial world as her subject matter. One of her finest stories, “A Company of Laughing Faces,” constitutes both an act of homage to her literary foremother, and a politicization of her themes, collapsing the action of Mansfield's “The Garden Party” and “At the Bay” into a tale of rebellion against female acculturation. Like Mansfield, Gordimer employs the “summer colony” of a holiday resort as a colonial microcosm, and a locus for the encounter with the deathwish it engenders. Gordimer has commented on her obsessive return in her stories to certain themes, prominent among which are the relations of parents and children; the nature of power; violence as communication; and the dangers of paternalism. Yet, as she herself recognized in the introduction to her Selected Stories, her development as a writer may also be traced through the chronology of the tales, which reflect both alterations in social attitudes and her own evolving apprehension of change.
The chronological order turns out to be an historical one. The change in social attitudes unconsciously reflected in the stories represents both that of the people in my society—that is to say, history—and my apprehension of it; in the writing I am acting upon my society, and in the manner of my apprehension, all the time history is acting upon me.8
For Gordimer, writers are selected by their subjects; in her case, the consciousness of her era. In broad terms, critics have discerned an overall development in the techniques of the stories, with the early work tending to be individualistic, realist, and essentially Liberal in its poetics, marked by a strong authorial presence. As more topical political themes come to the fore, the later stories reduce the authorial presence in favor of entry into the consciousness of the characters, by means of interior monologue, or stream of consciousness. Realism yields to the awareness of the perception of “reality” as itself problematic. While earlier stories move towards individual, psychological illumination, later ones feature typical or representative characters, in thrall to historical forces, and the progression is not so much towards a Joycean epiphany, or moment of transcendent realization and insight, as towards the point at which understanding dissolves, where, as David Ward has suggested (Chronicles of Darkness, 1989), readers understand that they fail to understand. Gordimer has also drawn attention in her critical writing to the political potential of the short story form. Where Lukács saw the novel as intrinsically bourgeois, implying the living room, the armchair, and the lamp, and thus essentially the product of conditions of leisure and privacy, Gordimer envisages the short story as a fragmented, restless form, suited to modern consciousness. As opposed to the false coherence and consistency of the traditional novel, it is
more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment.9
In an influential declaration, Frank O'Connor has argued that the short story best flourishes in unstable or developing cultures, and that it has an outlaw tendency towards social criticism on the part of the exiled or isolated.10 Gordimer's celebrated early story, “Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?” is an example which supports O'Connor's view, translating “Little Red Riding Hood” into a world of racial and sexual tensions, as a young girl recognizes that she can encounter her black alter ego only in conditions of fear, economic exploitation, and brutality. A complex parable of isolation, desire, and repression, the tale functions as sexual, political, and historical allegory. A story published almost thirty years later, “The Termitary,” constructs a similarly emblematic situation—that of a white house undermined by a termite queen, which simultaneously represents and challenges the authority of the mother, and reveals to the daughter the secrets concealed below the public facade of the culture of white supremacy. Descending into the underworld of the termite queen, located immediately beneath the middle class drawing room with its Steinway, the child uncovers both the ambivalence of her relation to the mother, and that of the South African colonial world to the motherland.
Similarly in Gordimer's stories the interaction of personal and political occurs at every level, often with unforeseen circumstances. Irony is situational. Mrs Bamjee, the conservative Muslim housewife of “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” commits herself to the liberation struggle, not as part of an espousal of modern values but as a consequence of her traditional concern for the extended family, and thus for a wider humanity. Polite manners and the observance of conventional social civilities propel the heroine of “A Smell of Death and Flowers” to act in a civil disobedience campaign. She is too polite not to. In “Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,” a male protects a white woman against a sexually predatory invader from across the border—but the male in question is black, the woman a deluded racist. In “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living,” a black woman betrays the freedom fighter who is hiding in her township home, largely because his presence threatens to disrupt her traditional domestic role, and opens her eyes to the real horrors of her day-to-day existence in the location. Other stories draw their ironies from the broader sweep of history—the aftermath of liberation in a former colony (“At the Rendezvous of Victory”); the disjunction between ersatz European communities and the surrounding African world (“Friday's Footprint,” “Livingstone's Companions,” “The African Magician”); the education and politicization of an African political leader (“Not for Publication”); and the fate of a group of guerrillas in exile (“Some Monday for Sure”). Some stories reveal almost no trace of their African context, such as Kafka's father's fictional riposte to his son (“Letter from His Father”) or accounts of marital betrayal (“Sins of the Third Age,” “Terminal”). Others, such as the two, paired stories of interracial sex (“Town and Country Lovers One and Two”), could only be South African in theme, if not in genre.
Finding a genre is the major concern of Gordimer's early novels, The Lying Days and A World of Strangers. The one a female, the other a male Bildungsroman, or “novel of education” (like Virginia Woolf's The Voyage In, or D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers), each interrogates the notion of “development” in a society in which the systematic underdevelopment of the black majority is the norm. While the theme of Eurocentric cultural domination is the major focus of A World of Strangers, in The Lying Days it is dwarfed by the formative influence of gender. Helen Shaw's trajectory reveals the problematic nature of Bildung (education) for women in a patriarchal culture. Progressively infantilized by parents, Liberal friends, and lovers, Helen eventually recognizes the need to pursue her own life, independent of the male, when political violence impinges upon her. Her own horrified witnessing of the shooting of a black in a riot is immediately taken over by a male friend, who tells the story for her, substituting his own skilful narrative for her personal account. Her experience is thus narrated by the male to the point at which she begins to feel that she was hardly present at the event at all. If the episode implicates the fashion in which men select and appropriate the significance of female experience, it also exposes the potential emptiness of focusing on technique in isolation from content. Helen's earlier friendship with a black woman, Mary Seswayo, had alerted her to the possibility that for a woman cooking mealie porridge on an open fire the study of the English novel was of dubious relevance. Just as Helen's personal relationships are interrupted (a vestigial political parallel in the conjunction of the failure of Helen's love affair with the Nationalist victory of 1948), so narratives under patriarchal domination are frozen in form. At the close, poised in limbo between Africa and Europe, Helen lays claim to her own story as a series of disjunctures, which she refuses to reorganize into a false coherence.
Where Helen's “voyage in” ends in a voyage out of Africa, A World of Strangers takes up almost where Helen left off, as Toby Hood docks at Mombasa, en route to Johannesburg and a British-owned publishing business. Internal relationships are the major focus, as the novel takes its narrator into the world of the townships (the urban areas where blacks live), in the brief golden age of multiracialism associated with Sophiatown in the mid-1950s. This was the period when Gordimer's involvement with Drum magazine brought her into contact with a large group of black writers, artists, and critics (Es'kia Mpahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, for example), most of whom had gone into exile by the mid-1960s. It was in reaction to the silencing of an entire generation of black writers that Gordimer began a concerted campaign against censorship, linking cultural and political repression in a battery of essays and speeches, and eventually producing in The Black Interpreters a pioneering study of indigenous African writing.
In A World of Strangers, Toby's friendship with Steven Sitole, founded on their shared desire to escape from the orthodoxy of Liberal opposition into an apolitical private life, crashes on the rocks of apartheid. Steven's death in a car-crash during a police chase following a raid on an illicit shebeen is a direct consequence of his color. Toby himself has contributed to the maintenance of separate worlds, carefully concealing his friendship with Steven from his prejudiced white mistress and living a double life between the mansions of Johannesburg and the townships. He is thus forced to recognize the deficiencies of a life lived only in terms of personal and erotic gratifications. Toby's limitations are explicitly connected to his tendency to view South Africa through a Eurocentric literary lens, treating external reality purely as a means to self realization, so that Africa is mediated second-hand through ready–made concepts. Readers are therefore warned off from any similar approach by a series of intertextual references to Sinbad, Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham, and especially E. M. Forster. Toby's identification with Steven and with the aesthetic and human vitality of Sophiatown is reminiscent of Forster's Italians and the lure of the exotic “Other.” In a fragile indication of hope, Toby's story is shadowed by that of Anna Louw, a radical Afrikaner who sidesteps the delusions of his world. Though Anna ends up imprisoned, Gordimer's attack on the separations fostered by apartheid that make all South Africans strangers to each other, is simultaneously a critique of the values of the Forsterian fictional paradigm as connections break, friendships fail, and individual realization is dwarfed by political determinism. Primarily diagnostic, contesting metropolitan values, the novel is nonetheless unable to propose a political or aesthetic remedy. Toby, in his turn, departs for Europe at the close.
It is only with Gordimer's third novel that sexual and racial themes conjoin and that the life lived only for personal goals is fully satirized. In Occasion for Loving, Gordimer draws upon her childhood experience—the fictional heart problem—to transform personal trauma into political metaphor. Jessie Stilwell spends much of the novel undertaking a retrospective reconstruction of her past, a process that runs in tandem with her husband Tom's attempts to write an impartial history of Africa, which will present the African people as a historical subject in their own right rather than as a subset of European history. Jessie's memories of apparently Oedipal fears and longings are revealed as essentially bogus, together with the inefficacy of her quest for individual integration through a past conceived in terms of Eurocentric psychoanalysis. The catalyst for her self-exploration is provided by her friend Ann's affair with Gideon Shibalo, a black painter. As vibrant alter ego and image of a younger self that might have been, Ann reveals to Jessie the prestructuring effects of apartheid on her own psyche. Ann's affair ends, not because of state intervention (the 1950 Immorality Act) but because the repressions of apartheid have become psychologically inscribed. Jessie realizes that her own mysterious childhood fears were not of the father (as the European psychological fiction would have it) but of the black man. Jessie has been constructed by an African past. Her traumas are historicized, not as the individualistic product of bourgeois repressions, but as stemming from political and social conditions.
A surrogate artist, Jessie, locked in subjective ahistorical and psychological enquiry, had romanced her life in a fashion which evaded its horrors. The novel therefore turns away from the illegitimate timelessness of the Freudian paradigm to historicize desire and to impel a realization of the relationship of love to power. The South African state withdraws Gideon's passport, annulling his future just as European historians have wiped out his past. Jessie realizes that her mother had used the fictional heart complaint to perpetuate a relationship of dependency—in which her mother was the true dependent—just as whites in South Africa treat blacks as children while depending in reality upon their labor. In this context of repression there can be no occasion for loving between white and black; the traditional values of the Liberal novel with its emphasis on the primacy of personal relationships in opposition to the facts of cultural and social difference are called into question. The Stilwells realize that:
even between lovers they had seen blackness count, the personal return inevitably to the social, the private to the political … So long as the law remained unchanged, nothing could bring integrity to personal relationships.11
Gideon, his scholarship withdrawn by the state, cannot connect to European traditions, but is equally alienated from the tribal music which Boaz researches. Gordimer's ambivalent awareness of the need to adapt the novel form to African conditions, to avoid exercising a white proxy in the arts, finds its expression in the characterization of Ann and Jessie as surrogate artists. Ann can dance to any rhythm, play any instrument, but thus reveals a facile adaptability to dominant cultural conventions. Jessie, locked into individual psychological enquiry, romances her life to evade its horrors. Reading at the beach, confronted with Gideon and Ann, Jessie suddenly discovers that her book, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, is no longer an old-fashioned novel of character and furniture, but a terrifying descent through the safety of middle-class trappings to the individual anarchy and ideological collapse at their heart. The parallel is with Gordimer's own fiction, foreshadowing the next phase of her technical development, in which bourgeois conventions come under attack and the necessity of a fully historicized aesthetic is explored.
Gordimer's two subsequent novels, both profoundly influenced by Marxist thinkers, may be read as fictions of a revolution which failed. The Late Bourgeois World chronicles the unsuccessful efforts of a naive white revolutionary against the background of the crushing of South African opposition in the 1960s, while A Guest of Honour examines the theme in broader terms in a hypothetical African state. Both works pair male and female protagonists, the one beginning with the death of Max Van Den Sandt, who is remembered by his ex-wife over the course of one day, the other concluding with the death of James Bray, leaving the heroine to continue into the future. Quite overtly, each moves towards a more committed social aesthetic, with The Late Bourgeois World forming something of an artistic manifesto. The novel takes its title (a description of the twentieth century) from The Necessity of Art by Ernst Fisher, a Marxist critic who argued that art represents the freedom of the spirit and is therefore automatically on the side of the oppressed.12 For Fisher, all art is conditioned by time and represents humanity as it corresponds to the ideas and aspirations of a particular historical situation. Art has its origins in utility and evolves towards a transformative social function. Fisher thus envisages socialist art as a means of going beyond contemporary isolation, reuniting the individual with communal existence, and fostering change, as opposed to late bourgeois art which can only reflect a decaying and dehumanized world, in which mystification and mythmaking offer a way of evading social decisions.
Max's death reveals to Liz that time is change. Although his life was an apparent failure (ineffectual sabotage, prison, betrayal of associates), he was at least motivated by a desire for community with blacks in reaction against the atomized individualism of his bourgeois background. Even in death, Max remains more alive to her than the inhabitants of the becalmed, cloistral world of South Africa, represented here by her senile, amnesiac grandmother. When Luke Fokase asks Liz to use her power of attorney over her grandmother's bank account to channel funds to an underground political organization, Liz recognizes him as an Orpheus come to fetch her from her underworld limbo. Gordimer ironizes a myth here, transforming Luke, a member of the political underground, into Liz's rescuer from the terminal white laager, in an implicit reference to Jean-Paul Sartre's “Black Orpheus,” the essay which marked the first attempt to come to terms with negritude as a historical and aesthetic force, adapting African myth to radical ends. Though Gordimer leaves Liz's future social decision open, the novel ends on a suggestive note. Awake in the dark, Liz has no clock in her room but finds that her heart now supplies the temporal beat. Human time is emphasized, in rhythmic prose, as Liz finds the thought of the bank account growing within her “like sexual tumescence,”13 an image which indicates the awakening of her deadened emotions and anticipates the central concerns of the novel to follow.
In an interview Gordimer said of A Guest of Honour, “I tried to write a political novel treating the political theme as personally as a love story,”14 a comment which suggests a marked development from the anaesthetized coolness of style of its predecessor. Again two stories are interwoven, that of Bray, a Liberal white returning to an unnamed African country, and that of his lover Rebecca. For most critics Bray's is the story of the novel, while Rebecca's is merely tangential. The novel therefore immediately provokes the question, “Whose story is it?” That of a newly liberated colony sinking back into neocolonialism and authoritarian structures? That of a Liberal individual torn between personal and collective demands? Or that of a love-relationship, to which the minutely observed sociopolitical detail is only a backdrop? In deliberately fostering this uncertainty of focus between collective, individual and relational stories, Gordimer sets out to interrogate the connections between the political and the sexual. The set of sexual relationships at the heart of the narrative is used to investigate the psychological causes of authoritarianism and of failed revolutions. Drawing on Wilhelm Reich's Freudo-Marxist theory of repression (The Mass Psychology of Fascism is a point of reference in the book),15 Gordimer sets up the procedure through which the family structure internalizes the authority of ideology and shows how characters cannot escape it in their Liberal social or linguistic practices. Reich argued that by liberating the instincts one could create the condition for an irrevocable liberation of human society. In his view, revolutions will fail if they are only political and economic, and do not extend to the repressive morality of everyday life. For Reich, repression is the product of authoritarian patriarchy, as individuals are created with a character structure that renders them submissive to authority and willing to be ruled. Revolutions fail because rebels see authority figures subconsciously as their own fathers. However radical the revolution, as long as the family model persists, authority creeps back. Rebellions of sons against fathers therefore permit the return of the father in the character of the son.
Reich's ideas inform several of Gordimer's novels, but particularly A Guest of Honour, in which national liberation reverts to authoritarianism (the British army is invited back by a dictatorial president to suppress revolt). Bray is a Liberal whose creed is insufficient to the demands of a period of dynamic social conflict, and Rebecca, instinctually erotic, moves beyond traditional family structures. Bray has to choose both between his wife Olivia and his mistress, and between Mweta, the fatherly president for whom he feels considerable affection, and the less likeable Shinza, who encapsulates radical and phallic power. Mweta and Olivia are continually associated in his mind through plot parallels and a set of letters exchanged concurrently with each, but are eventually abandoned in favor of Rebecca and Shinza. Mweta's political choice of economic gradualism supported by foreign investment, as opposed to Shinza's brand of African socialism, is aligned with the choice of money over people, in a reference to Julius Nyerere's Arusha declaration (1967): “We have made a mistake to choose money. … The development of a country is brought about by people, not money.” When Mweta's authority is challenged by a coup, whipped up on the accusation that he lacks the strong arm to control Shinza and the unions, the political history of the state becomes a conflict between fathers and sons. Mweta had previously viewed Shinza, his mentor, as a father figure. Now he evolves from son back to father, replicating authoritarian structures in a preventive detention act. The initial state commitment to sexual equality also falters, as women are barred from the party congress. Rebecca's affair with Bray, however, is not such a clear-cut choice of people over money. Bray smuggles her savings out of the country for her, bleeding settler capital from an impoverished country for personal reasons. He is murdered when en route to Europe, both to raise funds for Shinza and to take Rebecca to safety. Rebecca escapes in the company of a currency smuggler and his prostitutes, an image that appears to equate liberated sexuality with mere whoredom. At the close Bray is written off by the Western press as a “martyr to savages”16; Rebecca's story seems to be merely a tale of erotic exploitation.
A second major concern in the novel, however, introduces a corrective perspective, raising a question central to Gordimer's later work, that of the adequacy of the novel form to the articulation of African realities. From the outset Bray is situated in a world marked by selective storytelling and a struggle for interpretive control of events. Gordimer's interrogation of the relation between ideology and psychology finds extension in linguistic terms. If, as linguists have argued, patterns of thought echo the systematizations of language, which carry cultural values, if a particular language conditions the life of an individual, then what of the work of literature, itself a specialized language act with its own omissions and biases? In A Guest of Honour Gordimer draws attention to the process of omission, so that at the end, as Bray's life story is submerged in a wash of journalistic mendacity, the reader has been alerted to the possibility of absent stories and of silences in the text. Rebecca's story dramatizes the awareness that the recreation of sexuality in language, its rescue from repression, must also resist language, with its preexistent cultural codes. The silences in Bray's letters to Olivia and Mweta contrast with his dual recognition, that Rebecca's is the story that counts, and that Shinza is a speaking presence to him. Teaching Rebecca an African language, he finds that the lesson (which concerns kinship terms) also instructs her in alternative familial structures, and reveals how a new language, a new cultural context, gives their story its direction, and changes its course. Bray dies with the realization that he has been interrupted, his last words unsaid. Gordimer nonetheless avoids translating the African experience into conventional literary or political terms, aware that Africa needs an articulated consciousness other than that of newspaper headlines and Western political rhetoric. It was a point to which she would return in her next novel, which expands the awareness of the relationship between linguistic and political realities.
The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer's story of an African farm, exposes the colonialist biases of her predecessors, Olive Schreiner and Karen Blixen, through the self-incriminating interior monologue of its central character, Mehring, a pig-iron industrialist whose international entrepreneurial activities contrast with his weekend pose as would-be farmer and conservationist. Despite his origins in Namibia, Mehring is a thoroughly representative South African type, his story offering a classic example of the “complicity plot.”17 In this often-occurring plot of recent South African fiction, individual whites seek lives of relative harmlessness, separation, and privacy, only to find themselves unable to maintain any such separate peace. In The Conservationist the return of the politically repressed is symbolized by the slow rising to the surface of an imperfectly buried black body, accompanied by the repossession of the land by blacks, in symbolic and politically proleptic terms. Influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement, which emphasized a return to black cultural roots and traditions, Gordimer employs Zulu myth to create a buried logic of fictional events, a subtext which slowly comes to obliterate the social text of public culture. The major events on the farm—drought, the dead man, the attack on Solomon for debt, fire, the spirit-possession of Phineas's wife, flood and finally reburial of the black body as the cycle of the seasons completes itself—are specifically related to patterns of Zulu myth, as represented in the novel by interpolated quotations from Henry Callaway's The Religious System of the Amazulu (1878).18 Thus the attack on Solomon for debt connects with the non-payment of a cultural debt to the “Amatongo” (ancestors) in the cursory burial of a black brother. Rainmaking practices, mediumship, and spirit-possession articulate a different set of values to those of white society. In addition the feminine empowerment of these black cultural practices contrasts with the masculine colonialism and latent sexual fascism of Mehring's world. Phineas's wife's spirit-possession shapes the life of her surrounding community, whereas the white female characters are almost without exception sexually exploited and repressed. The point is dramatized in Mehring's airborne molestation of his flight-neighbor, a young girl, in a scene in which the identification of woman with the land allows sexual guilt to function as a surrogate for colonial lusts.
It may be objected that this mythological anchoring of the novel involves resorting to an archaic and pre-industrial basis for African values, rendering the tale both apolitical and ahistorical. Gordimer is, however, careful to demystify the content of religious symbols as such, concentrating on their potential power as carriers of political change. Thus, when floods follow the activities of the rainmakers, the weather comes from the Mozambique channel, near the Portuguese territory which was soon to claim its independence. The regeneration of the land by fire and flood, a mock-apocalypse, offers a vision of Africa without the white man, as Mehring's laborers take over the farm in his enforced absence. When the black body is reburied the reader learns that “he had come back,”19 invoking the ANC rallying cry “Afrika! Mayibue!” (“Africa! May it come back!”). The refusal to address political issues is more properly that of Mehring, a thoroughly modernist character through whose consciousness the entire narrative is filtered. Mehring's colonialism extends to the whole of reality. His interior monologue creates the impression of consciousness functioning in a void, dissociated from the world about him. Just as his relationship with the young girl involved surreptitious contact beneath a pretense of physical separation, so his society is presented as a set of circumscribed codes and worlds which communicate only crudely, underhandedly, or with violence. Mehring's willful refusal to recognize his place in history, his botched attempts to communicate across the race and class lines, and his solipsistic blindness to events in the black community culminate (in a highly ambiguous ending) in a mock death and final abandonment of his claims. As a result The Conservationist offers a prophetic image of a different South African future, in the best tradition of the visionary political novel. In formal terms, Gordimer throws into sharp relief the connections between conventional representations of realism and the imposition of colonial structures on the land and landscape of Africa. By rendering an internal reality (Mehring's), progressively divorced from the reality outside it, and ultimately replaced by an alternative social text (the black story), Gordimer refuses to grant final narrative or political authority to her white center of consciousness, and avoids translating events into the realism of a materialist society. Modernist Mehring is “displaced,” in more than one sense, in favor of a socially-led aesthetic in which conservation equates with community, and possession with prophecy.
There are those, however, who have argued that the white South African novelist is automatically corrupted by privilege, that Gordimer's audience can only be other whites, and that the products of her imagination must be intrinsically a part of a racist society. With the growing influence of Black Consciousness in the 1970s, whites (including white writers) were increasingly sidelined as irrelevant by black activists intent on seizing their destiny in their own hands. Gordimer followed The Conservationist with Burger's Daughter, a more overtly political novel designed to examine the accusation that the white artist can produce only solipsistic art. As the daughter of a white, Afrikaner communist hero, Rosa Burger may be defined in terms of race, sex, and position in the class struggle, and therefore encapsulates the warring explanations of South African racism. A figure in an ideological landscape, she is assumed simply to reflect her father's views, thus confining her to a hall of mirrors, as an object in the eyes of others, whose internal reality is unknown. The disjunction between internal and external realities, rendered formally in the alternation of first- and third-person narratives, creates a tension between external image and internal voice, representative stereotype and personal fantasy, so that the novel is able both to present the fantasies of the white subconscious and to undermine its power. (Many of the central images of the novel draw upon an informed awareness of theories of racism as a product of sexual repression.) Ironically, to assert her independence, Rosa can rebel only against another rebel. Her father is fighting political repression, so to contest his psychological influence is to join with the forces of political repression. Infantilized and desexualized in the role of faithful daughter, Rosa eventually defects from the struggle, in a belated act of sexual assertion, to live a narcissistic and self-gratifying life in France, presented here as a world of art and of female sensuality. Nonetheless Rosa does return to South Africa, where she is imprisoned on suspicion of abetting the schoolchildren's revolt. In so doing she refuses to be an object of display, a figure in an erotic or political iconography. While in South Africa she had been desexualized, in France she had merely adopted an alternative mask.
Rosa's progress to autonomy involves coming to terms with the mythical masks men have fastened over the female face, whether desexualized or erotically reified. In addition, in a bruising encounter with Baasie, her adopted black brother, Rosa learns that just as her father infantilized her, so she had deprived Baasie of adult identity, projecting her own fantasies of black brotherhood onto him. As a result, Rosa commits herself anew, her own schoolgirl rebellion now a part of the Soweto Rising, a revolt against paternalism which is not the creation of white fantasy, but a product of black brotherhood, and a political and historical reality. At the close the third-person view is reemphasized as Rosa cedes her place to a Soweto Students Representative Council statement, as the political voice of actual blacks takes over the story. By deliberately including this intertextual material, Gordimer transgressed the rules prohibiting its reproduction, and therefore effectively converted the entire novel into a political act. In throwing the gauntlet down in front of the South African authorities, she was not disappointed; the novel was promptly banned but reinstated a month later after a huge international outcry. The voice of Soweto, the black location where the 1976 uprising began, was finally expressed through a technical device
Just as Rosa projected her own fantasies onto Baasie, in a relationship reminiscent of Crusoe's with Friday or Prospero's with Caliban, so Maureen Smales, the protagonist of July's People, discovers how little she knows of her servant July, to whose rural village Maureen and her husband Bam flee, refugees from a future war-torn Johannesburg. In July's People, however, the focus shifts from psychological to economic determinants. In a period of interregnum between the Republic of South Africa and some future, independent “Azania,” Maureen comes to realize the traits she admired in July were not his essential character, but merely the product of her mental image of him. As social roles explode, Maureen also discovers that her own values are context-bound and relative; her morality is dependent on her means. She steals (medicine) out of necessity; her husband kills for food. Just as July's two-year migratory labor pattern led him to take a mistress in town, while providing economically for a wife in the village, so the Smales, deprived of the privacy and luxury of the master bedroom, find the pattern of their sexual activities changing. As July replaces Bam as economic provider, Maureen looks increasingly to him to supply her wants. The deconstruction of socially ordained gender roles is accompanied by a delineation of the interdependence of meanings and means. Changes in economic status transform the culturally inscribed values of language, and literature comes into question. (Maureen is now quite unable to read the European novel.)
More specifically, July's People draws attention to the problematic relation between narrative and cultural authority, implicitly signaling the need to cede interpretive control, to deconstruct the authority of the white “teller” in both economic and literary terms, as teller of the tale and as the one who makes the reckoning, financial or moral. Between Maureen and Bam the battle for interpretive control centers upon the past. Maureen's assumption that she is always the one addressed, that it is for her to interpret between Bam and July, founders on her absolute inability to read the realities of July's world. A series of confrontations rising in verbal violence between Maureen and July exposes Maureen's desire to translate July into her own cultural terms, and to interpret their relationship in ways pleasing to her own self-image. Now she realizes, in a memorable sentence, “The present was his; he would arrange the past to suit it.”20 In the climactic scene, when July bursts forth in his own language, no translation follows: the reader shares Maureen's realization that her standards of interpretation are irrelevant. If the novel ends in characteristically open fashion, as Maureen runs towards an unmarked helicopter, which may contain saviors or killers, it indicates that Maureen's story will be defined by others and will make sense only in terms of an as yet unimaginable future.
If July's People looks to an apocalyptic future, the novella “Something Out There” acts to demystify the past. Two plots are interwoven, in a sequence of alternating scenes, that of a group of four terrorists planning an attack on a power station, and that concerning another outlaw and fugitive, a mysterious ape who plunders the suburbs of white Johannesburg. The two plots evolve in tandem, the ape disappearing from view at the same time as the terrorists, his attack on a white South African juxtaposed with the terrorists' attack on the power station, the ape's death reported coincidentally with the death of a saboteur. Ape and man are identified in a provocative parallel which questions whether the terrorist is merely a brute, and more generally whether man is essentially only and always a naked ape. Gordimer draws here upon a series of debates in ethology, the science of animal behavior, with special reference to apes and Africa, in order to propose a mock-ethological study of the South African police state. The novella proceeds by a structured comparison of ape and man; its dominant imagery is territorial (parodying Robert Ardrey's concept of the territorial imperative) and “aping”—mimicry, parody, imitation, subterfuge, and disguise—is central to theme, structure, and language. Paradoxically, although the animal's progress through the action recapitulates the popular account of human evolution, it is the white South Africans who are portrayed (often hilariously) as territorial and killer apes, with their Eurocentric copycat lifestyles, their concern for land and prey, and their exculpatory fantasy of an unchangeable animal nature.
In contrast, where Gordimer draws the parallel between ape and black man, it is to establish the exploited condition of the latter. Wandering without title to a home, an unrecognized presence in his own land, the black contract laborer at the mercy of Influx Control is explicitly compared to the ape (in fact, a native species of baboon). The four terrorists, however, offer a fragile image of a better future, in contrast to the brutalist image of man. Though forced to mimic the oppressor (the two whites act as master and mistress) and the oppressed (the two blacks who mastermind the mission act the roles of laborers), theirs is a conscious imitation in order, as endangered species, to survive under cover. As the symbolism establishes, their association is less with the territorial ape than with the ape-gods of African antiquity, particularly the Egyptian sacred baboon, attendant upon Thoth, the god of writing. Imagistically, therefore, the settler ape yields to an African sacred ape, indicating that the comparison of man to ape is suspect, and that man can be a creature of ideals and of culture as well as of aggression. At the close of the tale, the two blacks, concealed in a cave, appear to have regressed to savagery. With their occupation, however, history asserts itself over myth, for the cave is actually an ancient mine, dug thousands of years before by blacks. The novella therefore ends with an image of a past black culture, independent, in a territory all its own, which is about to be reclaimed. The alternatives of real history replace the mystifying myths of “naked apery.”
Myths can, nonetheless, be productively employed, as the epic sweep of A Sport of Nature demonstrates. In a novel that embraces most of Africa and extends in time from the 1950s to an independent black South Africa in the near future, Gordimer returns to several key concerns, notably the repudiation of reformist Liberalism, and the innately radical nature of sexuality. The picaresque form is a new departure, however. From the beginning of her career, Gordimer has proceeded from a recognition of the interaction of gender with genre. In A Sport of Nature, as a corrective to literary and political readings of empire that concentrate exclusively upon the male hero, she creates a female adventuress, rewriting the term in order to include sexuality within a positive hypothesis. Hillela, the heroine, is described as a sport of nature, “a plant, animal, etc. which exhibits abnormal variation or departure from the parental stock” (Oxford English Dictionary). A spontaneous mutation, she outrages her middle-class, Liberal family's norms by her sexual behavior, notably quasi-incest with her cousin Sasha, and embarks on a series of adventures (as go-go dancer, beach bum, mistress of a Belgian diplomat, widow of an assassinated black freedom-fighter, wife of the President of the Organization of African Unity) in a trajectory that moves from South Africa to Tanzania, Ghana, Eastern Europe, America, and back to South Africa for its independence celebrations. Throughout Hillela is seen from an external point of view, with the narrator piecing her history together as if researching the biography of a public figure, tracking an evanescent subject through multiple identities as she changes according to the forces of history. The technique registers the crisis of the Liberal view of the subject, with its accompanying assumptions of the organic coherence of the individual, transcending social conditions.
In addition, the pattern of events conforms to the paradigm of the myth of the hero. A strong mythical undertow runs as a subtext in the novel. Just as black writers had sparked off a resurgence of interest in black heroes of the past, in order to answer a need for myths to feed fervor, so Gordimer eschews apolitical mystification in the choice for mythical subtext of a Xhosa hero-god, Qamata, associated in modern times with revolts in the Transkei and with Poqo, one of the largest black clandestine organizations of the 1960s. The project appears to be Utopian: to compose a futuristic ending in order to inspire just such an ending to the contemporary Republic of South Africa. Throughout the novel, however, occasions for fervor are accompanied by occasions for irony. The reportorial voice of the narrator lends the novel a mock-historical tone, with the emphasis alternating between history and mockery. Hillela offers the reader a choice of stories, that of a quasi-mythical revolutionary heroine, and (in the ironic reading) that of a sexual adventuress who is at best the passive handmaiden of revolution. In addition, the fate of her lover Sasha tells a less reassuring tale. Caught in the tragic repressions of his family, Sasha remains within history, rather than utopian mythmaking. Despite becoming a real hero to blacks for his unflamboyant political service, he fails to participate in the visionary futurity of the closing pages, with Gordimer leaving only time to tell which of the two, Hillela or Sasha, is the sport of nature, and which the representative hero.
Gordimer's next published novel, My Son's Story, exemplifies both continuity of theme (the nature of heroism, the interaction of language and politics, psychological conflicts in the revolutionary family) and major innovations. The narrator is not only male but “coloured” and the story draws its ironies as much from the consequences of liberation as from the struggle against repression. For the first time since The Lying Days Gordimer returns to the mining town environment of her youth, and to a central character, Will, whose writing career begins in trauma: he catches his father Sonny, a political activist, leaving a cinema with a white mistress. Ironically it is only because the cinema is desegregated that this event can occur, and only because of hard won reforms that Sonny can pursue his affair with Hannah in hotels without the threat of prosecution. As a result Sonny is eventually sidelined, painfully, by the very freedoms which he helped to win. His daughter Baby becomes a political exile, after a suicide attempt; his wife Aila is caught hiding terrorist arms; his mistress leaves.
Unsentimentally Gordimer spells out the consequences of incipient liberation, not all of them welcome. For the writer, also, coming out of battledress poses new problems of identity and purpose. Will narrates the novel (which is divided between omniscient third- and first-person narration) in such a way as to pose the question of the relevance of the activity of the writer to political action. Named for Shakespeare, he is his father's son. Sonny was a schoolteacher who corrected the spelling and grammar on his students' political posters, warmed to Hannah through her letters, used literary phrases as passwords, and became a skilled orator. For the men, words are power. Aila's silence is equated by Sonny with submission, not with the secrecy of her own purposes. Yet Will and Sonny's conspiracy of silence about the latter's adultery eventually sets the women free. Their silence emerges as more powerful than the patriarchal word. Baby, Hannah, and Aila all move on; father and son remain. The Shakespearean echoes of the text (Will as Hamlet to Sonny's Claudius and Baby's Ophelia) reveal that words take meaning only from action. Sonny had happily quoted Shakespeare until he discovered what it was to almost lose a daughter and to be hated by his children. In set piece speeches Sonny can animate the shop-soiled phrases of revolutionary rhetoric, only as long as they fuse with his experience. Aila jumps bail in order definitively to silence Will, who intended to testify at her trial. As the title implies, the story may appear to be owned and appropriated by the father, whose son is Will, but Will is also the son of his mother, who keeps her story to herself for excellent strategic reasons. When Will ends the novel with the words, “This is my first book—that I can never publish,”21 he pays tribute to the strength of female-inspired silence, and substitutes female for male heroism. As that conclusion implies, Gordimer is both brave and clear-sighted enough to recognize that her own time and place will pass judgment on her, that the verdict upon the white South African writer may be a harsh one, and that the fate of being eventually silenced in favor of black writing is that to which her own activity may tend. Yet there is little doubt that her writing fulfils to the highest degree the demands of social responsibility, imaginative creativity, and historical witness.
Gordimer's subsequent work clearly reflects her sharpened awareness of the role of the arts in the transformation of South Africa, first, in a collection of stories which span the repressive years of the 1980s and early 1990s (Jump), offering an examination of the relationship of literature to the struggle for freedom; then, in a novel published as the perestroika years culminated in a new social settlement (None to Accompany Me), proceeding to an analysis of the problems of the process of transformation. Although Gordimer was actually on a lecture tour promoting Jump when she received news of the Nobel award, the collection itself was received as something of a disappointment, more the product perhaps of a “cultural worker” than of a Nobel-winning artist. Reviewers tended to detect a hectoring tone, an excess of political gesture or humorless parable, and in particular a tendency to unbalance a tale by final sentences which spelled out a moral or added an O. Henry “twist.” In “The Moment before the Gun Went Off,” for example, the last sentence reveals that the young black accidentally shot by the Afrikaner was not his “boy” but his illicitly-conceived son. “Some Are Born to Sweet Delight” concludes as a terrorist bomb blows a plane—and the reader's illusions—to smithereens. “Once upon a Time” ends as a white child is ripped to shreds on the razor wire designed to safeguard his fairy tale home. Conversely, however, critics noted a reflexive quality in these apparently too obvious stories—a narrator-as-character, candidly admitting to the invented nature of the tale (“Once upon a Time,” “A Journey”), or the deceptive nature of the facts presented (“My Father Leaves Home”); double narratives (“Amnesty”) or angles of vision (“A Journey”); and formal jumps or shifts in tense, temporal location and voice. For some readers, this multivocal form demonstrates a laudable attempt to end cultural monopoly by a full representation of the other in a variety of perspectives and narrators, so that the voice of the white bourgeoisie no longer fills up the artistic space of the collection. For others, however, the volume simply failed to cohere.
Gordimer's critics had missed a vital dimension of the collection—and one which makes it one of the most interesting of Gordimer's formal experiments—the explicit connection between story and physical action indicated in its title. In Jump, Gordimer plays with one particular genre of the short story—the jump story, in which the tale ends abruptly in physical contact with, and consequences for, the audience, usually as the storyteller tickles, grabs, or pounces upon a listener. Jump stories tend to be macabre (Gordimer's are no exception), orally performed by a storyteller, often in a group situation (hence Gordimer's emphasis on the storyteller as performer, and the sense of a varied group or collective narration), and today are probably most often animal stories told to children (a dominant presence in the tales). The collection emphasizes predation with its repeated images of the hunt (“Spoils”) or the sexual chase (“A Find”), and of children caught, seized, or abducted (“Jump,” “Once upon a Time”), or vulnerable to wild beasts. In “The Ultimate Safari,” children fleeing a RENAMO raid cross the Kruger Park in almost equal terror of white police, bandits, and prowling beasts, huddling together by night in a squirming mass lest a lion jump onto them. “Spoils” ends as a black man leaves a major part of the slaughtered zebra meat behind, believing that if he takes too much the lions will come in their turn to carry off his children. Other stories emphasize the costs involved—especially for the young—of prioritizing the armed struggle over other needs (“Comrades”). Physical activity is thematically important—trekking to safety, parachute jumps, jogging, journeys—as is the suggestion that children's games have suddenly turned to brutal reality—jogging turned to desperate flight, a safari becoming a struggle for survival, a child's toy transformed into a cache of plastic explosive.
By demonstrating how a story can turn into an event, Gordimer implicitly problematizes the connection between fiction and action. Some stories culminate as the reader is seized, physically inscribed in the experience narrated, as the O. Henry “twist” almost becomes a physical pounce. Others show a narrator annulling the tale at the close, sending the real back to the realms of fiction. The dangers of too easy a continuum between fiction and action are demonstrated in “Once upon a Time,” in which the child acts out the tale of Sleeping Beauty, impaling himself on twists of razor-wire thorns, rather than on a rose hedge. In “Jump,” the turned-RENAMO prisoner, forced to relate his story again and again to his interrogators, looks ahead at its close to one final jump, suicide from his upper-story window. Jumped on and imprisoned by blacks for taking an illicit photograph, promptly politicized, he had used his contacts in a parachute club to become a counterrevolutionary mercenary, changing sides only when he saw the fate of black children, seized, abducted, maimed, and raped. One pounce upon him has impelled counterrevolutionary action; the sight of others who have been seized impels him to its opposite. Hunters and hunted also cross over in “My Father Leaves Home” as the father, a child of thirteen, flees pogroms in Europe only to become a member of an oppressive racist regime, in which he is one of the beaters in the global hunt. In “Some Are Born to Sweet Delight,” a lover saves the life of his unborn child (from threatened abortion) only to blow-up fetus and mother with a terrorist bomb. As these two stories indicate, in their non-South African settings and closeness to real historical events, the emphasis in the collection on political rapacity extends well beyond the national borders of South Africa and its near neighbors to other “liberation” struggles, more ambiguous morally than the fight against apartheid. In the West, a jump story may still seem to be a game for children. Gordimer's achievement is to reveal the impossibility of any safety for the child—African or other—as long as political injustice is condoned and perpetuated. If the collection demonstrates the importance of action in the pursuit of justice, it also constitutes a searching inquiry into the ethics, and the aesthetics, of such action.
But what of the artist when active service ends? The loss of apartheid as the essential South African subject poses questions for the South African writer—and offers new narrative possibilities. As the concept of the writer as cultural worker disappears, readers have wondered whether there was to be merely a return to the individualistic norms of bourgeois fiction, or whether the South African writer could construct a different form of subject. In 1993 Gordimer had been elected member of a board of trustees charged with overseeing a foundation for arts and culture concerned with the process of cultural reconstruction in South Africa, under the wing of the ANC's department of arts and culture. In None to Accompany Me, paradoxically written as the country left the imposed isolation and institutionalized self-enclosure of apartheid behind, questions of individual homelessness and isolation come to the fore. In her lectures, Writing and Being, Gordimer had discussed three writers, Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Oz, for whom the domination of their society by an outside power had made home a vexed term, and produced resistance to the occupation of the national personality. For them, as for Gordimer, “The truth is the real definition of ‘home’: it is the final destination of the human spirit beyond national boundaries.”22 The notion of the complexities of home becomes a running thread in the lectures and illuminates None to Accompany Me, a novel in which “home”—the intersection of the politics of place with the notion of personal identity—is the central focus. On the one hand the self is irremediably altered by the events of history, as social changes produce fluid identities. A corrupt churchman becomes an accepted figure in the movement because he represents a politically useful constituency; a rural squatter becomes a power in finance. Change is inevitable, as returning exiles discover to their discomfort. On the other hand, only a belief in a core self will allow such characters as the returned heroic exile or the ANC torturer to be either celebrated or held responsible for their past actions. (Characteristically, the two figures coalesce in Gordimer's Didymus Maqoma, one of her most complex and human fictional creations.) Honor has to be paid to the past—yet the individual who remains in it ossifies, as in the case of Didymus's opposite number, Bennet Stark, trapped by his love for his wife. Vera Stark moves from a European sense of self, a bourgeois identity resisting national self-definition only privately, in sexual freedom, to find herself confronted eventually with a stark truth: “Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self.”23
As a colonial, Vera cannot construct herself out of European culture. The construction of her own consciousness must take place without coherent references or models of how to proceed, in all the ambiguities of geopolitics. As Vera works for the Legal Foundation, redistributing land, examining claims, and touring Afrikaner farms, rural squatter camps, urban townships, and white bastions, the problems of a just relationship between self and society in South Africa are laid squarely before the reader. Inevitably, perhaps, Vera betrays Bennet, appalled by his conformity and dependency, and seeks a home in a person rather than a place. Gordimer has frequently envisaged sexual activity as a route to freedom. In Writing and Being she includes it as a form of rebellion against social domination, “the display of sexual energy as a force that has not been, cannot be, touched by alien authority.”24 For Didymus and his wife, for example, frequently homeless and always in transit, their relationship is their only home. Wherever the couple is in exile, they come home together in each other's arms. Once back in South Africa, however, they find home less comfortable. Didymus is sidelined, tainted by his past, while his wife Sibongile is promoted to a prominence that guarantees they become vulnerable to assassination threats from right-wing extremists; their daughter, Mpho, comes home geographically and sexually, and experiences the fate of the location-dweller: teenage pregnancy. Her lover Oupa seduces her at least in part because his wife is absent, confined to a home in a resettlement area. A love nest named for a European battle (121 Delville Wood) offers Vera and her lover a sheltered space for their sexual activity, a separate peace in the middle of a battlefield. They are quite unaware of the huddled black servants in their makeshift “rooms” on the roof. When black reclamation allows Oupa to take over the apartment, it offers him a place to seduce Mpho. Eventually, however, he cannot resist the claims of other blacks to a share of his space (particularly those of a fellow veteran whose claim is also based on a place shared, when imprisoned on Robben Island), although the result is vandalism and squalor as the wheel turns full circle and the space becomes embattled once more. Significantly, perhaps, at the close Vera gives up her physical home (and husband) to move into the annex of a black comrade's house, relinquishing a claim to domination while establishing her right to a place in the new society. She finds a home, if a temporary one, in a person—but that person is herself. The novel (organized into three books entitled “Baggage,” “Transit,” and “Arrivals”) leaves Vera still in process towards the truth of self and a more truthful society; her journey has not ended, although it has reached a new stage. Implicitly here Gordimer recognizes that the South African artist now faces what Flaubert called “the most difficult and least glamorous of all tasks: transition.”25 It makes None to Accompany Me perhaps the rarest of fictions: the novel of a revolution which was successful—and which continues.
Gordimer's novel The House Gun, which focuses on a murder trial, extends her range into the fields of literature as law and law as literature. Technically the novel has the fierce concentration of the courtroom drama, its cast made up of a trio of triangles: mother, father, and son; male lover, woman, her other male lover (a triangle complicated by preceding homosexual attractions between the two males); and murderer, detective, victim. The Oedipal theorizations of the detective story have rarely been so thoroughly engaged. Despite the apparently narrow focus on a personal crime of passion, ostensibly apolitical, and rooted in the mysteries of the psyche, the novel has a clear political agenda. Gordimer had been struck on a visit to Ghana by the relative safety of the city of Accra. Despite poverty and social misery, the city was safe by night, unlike any city in South Africa. For Gordimer, the explanation lay in the lack of a prolonged liberation struggle in Ghana, which never had the level of state violence with which South Africans had to contend for so long. The sense of a “climate of violence” came to her as she was writing.26 The murder weapon, the house gun, is there because of past violence in South Africa, and when Duncan discovers his girlfriend in flagrante delicto with one of his friends, it is conveniently at hand. A spare novel, The House Gun explores the deepest recesses of the private mind as the public world suddenly impinges upon it. In a reversal of the preceding relationships of dependency, Harald and Claudia have to rely on a black lawyer to defend their son Duncan, who has admitted the murder. As the facts of the case are endlessly rehearsed and debated, the novel reveals the inefficacy of such factual probing, the necessity of understanding the past and its violence in terms of deeper human motives, and of recognizing that, in the structures of personal relationships, apartheid's effects live on. Just as in Gordimer's first novel, a specific example of genre is used to question the underlying social assumptions of genre in general—in this case the assumption in the classic tale of detection that by unraveling cause and effect, finding and punishing the criminal, a benevolent order can be reasserted, and the past essentially erased.
The relevance of the novel to the activities of the South African Truth Commission is implicitly suggestive. Telling a full and detailed story, confessing and repenting, may bring the rewards of a lighter sentence, amnesty, or safety. Telling the right story, therefore, involves packaging and selling the past, obscuring the fundamental mystery of killing. The reader realizes that this is not a fictional depiction of the workings of the law, so much as a recognition that the law itself depends upon fictional and narrative processes for its operation. Gordimer's narrative carefully avoids the cut and dried narration of the documentary and factual, by shifting from present to past tense, sliding in and out of the point of view of different characters, and allowing direct and indirect speech to mingle, thus creating a sense of action taking place always within a context, a thickly-textured moral, social, and political atmosphere. As Stephen Clingman has noted, each perception is modulated simultaneously through the eyes and voice not only of the self but also through the eyes and voices of others as the self might expect them to see or speak. A flow of consciousness and time envelops us all and at a moment of sudden social transition the edges of self and other fragment and overlap in startling ways, making each of us “responsible for each other's reality.”27 Understanding is no longer a question merely of rationality, but shades into the ethical. In its conditionality the novel's style undercuts any idea of a rationalist solution. In a sense the opening sentence, “Something terrible happened,” is also where the reader concludes the novel.
Using the term “reception” for Gordimer's work gives a misleadingly polite impression of the ways in which it has been received or rejected. Three of her novels were embargoed and silenced by the South African state. Bannings apart, Gordimer's literary reception has also undergone shifts of focus. Heralded at first for her acute, almost lyrical sensitivity, richness of style, and detail, she also attracted adverse comment for her lack of narrative muscle and the coolness of her tone. She herself noted that she had begun as a short story writer and had made a conscious change to the novel because “the vehicle was too delicate to carry what I had to say.”28 Finding her voice, the struggle had then been not to lose sensitivity, precision, and delicacy, even when dealing with harsh themes. She has acknowledged, “My narrative gift was weak in my early novels—they tend to fall into beautiful set-pieces.”29 As political detachment fell away, attention focused on Gordimer's ability to sustain a tense dialectic between the personal and the political.
The events of the 1990s have provided a compelling context for new readings of her work. Almost simultaneously the world has witnessed the end of apartheid in South Africa, with the concomitant rise of new dangers in the politics of nationalism and ethnicity, both on the white right and in black neo-tribal groupings. For the South African writer, the question of the future, or of the many possible futures, has devolved from the allegorical level to the realistic novel. In addition, as the writer comes out of battledress into purely literary commitments, problems previously subordinated to single issue politics have surfaced anew.
Dissatisfaction with Gordimer's work has been developing some critical impetus in South African academic circles, with the charge increasingly leveled that she is over-didactic or politically naive. Understandably perhaps, given the circumstances, her work is read almost entirely in relation to its South African context, rather than in terms of international developments in the form and technique of the novel. Comparative criticism has also had a misleading effect. The tendency to set up J. M. Coetzee and Gordimer as opposite types of writers, with Coetzee as the intellectual Sherlock Holmes to Gordimer's more pedestrian Dr. Watson, has led to a caricaturing of Coetzee as apolitical but fictionally inventive, with Gordimer as politically worthy but stodgily realistic. The political tables were turned in 1988 when Coetzee objected to the decision by COSAW to cancel a public appearance by Salman Rushdie, following death threats, and Gordimer was forced to defend her actions. Gordimer's relationship to Alan Paton has also been a difficult one. Gordimer declared in forthright terms to the Times, “I am a white South African radical. Please don't call me a Liberal. Liberal is a dirty word. Liberals are people who make promises they have no power to keep.”30 Alan Paton, who had been leader of the Liberal Party before it disbanded in 1968, took exception and a furious row broke out in the South African press with an exchange of letters between Paton and Gordimer in which neither gave ground. André Brink weighed in on Gordimer's side (arguing that the meaning of the term Liberal had changed) but no reconciliation appeared to take place.
When Gordimer's seventy-fifth birthday became the occasion for a celebratory volume, however, it was a rare occasion for unity among South African and international writers. Coetzee has described her as “a visitor from the future,”31 as someone who does not wait for liberation, but enacts it in her fiction, and he contributed a piece of his own to the volume. Tributes spanned the range of her career. Albie Sachs described how reading The Lying Days had made him feel like the discoverer of his own continent, its familiarity stripped away by her prose. Günter Grass wrote of his admiration and enthusiasm for The House Gun. Seamus Heaney offered an image from Beowulf, in her honor, introducing twenty more poetic tributes, followed by fictional pieces and a play, from both well-established writers and younger talents. André Brink praised the tense interaction between personal and private in her work. Even in this celebratory collection, however, there was a dissenting voice. Lewis Nkosi argued that though her early work had been a stunning exploration of the white psyche, her later work had become too intricate and rococo, self-consciously labored. (Nkosi and Gordimer had angry exchanges in 1989 over his view that the white writer could not represent township life.)
Gordimer's reception has of course been both domestic, inside the borders of South Africa, and international. Internationally there is a growing tendency to read her work within the context of postcolonial writing, understood as any literature emanating from a colony or former colony, whether of conquest or settlement, with some loss of specificity as a result. The criticism of outsiders, sometimes less than familiar with South African politics and history, can be ill-informed, though it is generally celebratory. American critics, in particular, tend to categorize the writer in very loosely defined ways as “liberal” or “left-leaning.” When a critic is unaware of history, characters and situations can be easily misread. Gordimer, for example, puts the words of the banned Steve Biko into the mouth of a character, or inserts a real historical document into a novel, not merely as tending towards verisimilitude but as a direct political act. The reader who analyzes the references to family relationships in Burger's Daughter without knowing that “the family” was the code for the banned South African Communist Party, will not appreciate the full ironies. American critics have always tended to see Gordimer as a spokesperson against apartheid, but without much sense of what other South African readers and critics have said. Literary theory has sometimes been applied to her work in a homogenizing and globalizing fashion, without much understanding of the very different ways in which race, for example, may be construed outside the United States.
On the other hand, well-informed South Africans have a variety of their own axes to grind, ranging from residual distaste for her abandonment of Liberal ideas, or unwillingness to be “represented” by a white writer, to condemnation of her as too left wing or too middle class. Much has been made of Gordimer's art-dealer husband, large old house, and the Utrillo in the living room, as if Utrillo-burning were a necessary precondition for social responsibility and artistic creativity. When the Nobel prize was announced almost the only hostile voice came from within South Africa, where Stephen Gray, a poet, professor, and playwright, condemned her roundly. In Gray's view, Gordimer's work had been commodified and promoted as a South African “brand name,” despite the deterioration in quality he detected in My Son's Story.32 Jillian Becker's bitter attacks are a similar case of a South African critic condemning on political grounds, rejecting Gordimer's socialism. On the other side of the fence, a review by “Z. N.” in the African Communist in 1980, began by arguing that Burger's Daughter was welcome as a discussion of the relationship between the Communist Party and the ANC, the Mineworkers Strike of 1946 and the Comintern, but went on to regret the readability of the novel which eclipsed any revolutionary content, and sullied its doctrinal purity.33 The review of The Conservationist in the Johannesburg Sunday Times argued just the reverse; that the novel was very hard going and that the punctuation (dashes instead of conventional quotation marks) added to the general confusion of the writing. As Rowland Smith has indicated,34 discussing the reception of Gordimer's work in the South African papers, her relationship with the South African press and its reviewers has not been a friendly one.
Paradoxically, while some critics objected to political involvement, a more frequent criticism has concerned the nature of Gordimer's detachment. As early as 1969 Dennis Brutus argued that Gordimer lacked warmth and feeling and merely observed in a dehumanized fashion entirely typical of South African society.35 In an early essay, Christopher Hope (1975) was also dismissive, emphasizing the dreariness of the landscapes of her novels and detecting a sententious tone.36 Ursula Laredo agreed, but saw this detachment as a strength, reading the work from an essentially Liberal viewpoint.37 Both Laredo and Hope were émigrés and may well have been influenced by the view that to remain in South Africa in the 1970s was to be tainted by the material and political situation. Gordimer, however, has stuck it out in South Africa in the belief that “to go into exile is to lose your place in the world” (Jean-Paul Sartre). In 1989 David Ward returned to the question, to argue that the nature of Gordimer's detachment hinges upon her ability to produce a narrator as “Other,” quite distinct from any possibility of being perceived as the author's mouthpiece, so that it is essentially a technical virtue. Critics who have focused on Gordimer's ironic effects and her ability to set up a dialectic in her fiction have applauded the multivocality and variety of viewpoint for which a degree of detachment is a prerequisite. The visual politics of the fiction, often enacted through portrayals of landscape and photography, depends upon the ambivalent and problematized detachment of the camera eye. Gordimer herself clearly sees detachment as strategic and contributory to an emotional effect. She has several times repeated Kafka's dictum: “A book ought to be an icepick to break up the frozen sea within us.”
Battle has also been joined, perhaps predictably, over Gordimer's relationship to feminism as her credentials as a woman writer have become a focus for concern, with her representation of women seen as fixed in outmoded and sexist paradigms. Critics can be unaware of their own assumptions in this area. Bruce King (introducing The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, 1993) trod on most women's toes when he set up a dichotomy in her writing between the public, masculine, rational world, and that of the feminine, instinctual, and personal. At a more sophisticated level of criticism, Gordimer is sometimes envisaged as a feminist writer because her characters step outside stereotypes; at other times she is derided as uncritically sexist. In many cases there is a lack of understanding of the intellectual roots of Gordimer's discussions of gender, in the Freudian and Marxist analyses of the family by Wilhelm Reich and Frantz Fanon. (Intellectual contexts are rarely given enough prominence in the discussion of women writers.) Unrepressed sexuality has always played a major part in Gordimer's writing, often as a force for radical individual and political change. For Gordimer, sexuality was clearly not restricting or oppressive, but liberating, the way out from the white family into social freedom. Given her childhood experiences, she was never likely to idealize maternal love, or any essentialist form of feminism. Although Gordimer famously described feminism in South Africa as “piffling,”38 Karen Lazar's essay in the Bruce King volume makes it clear that what Gordimer was targeting was the type of “liberal feminism” that separates issues of gender from those of race. In the context of apartheid, attempts by white women to insist on being allowed entry to white male clubs did not seem a high priority. Andrew V. Ettin (1993) goes some way towards meeting the anti-feminist accusation. Gordimer's denunciation of Olive Schreiner is persuasively read by Ettin as the product of her firm socioeconomic grasp, her sense that Schreiner's wronged sense of herself as a woman was a secondary matter given her historical situation. In consequence, Gordimer envisages feminism as elitist, arising from the bourgeois white intellectual's refusal to face up to her true position of power. Feminism becomes a surrogate protest; the racial situation is the real.
Gordimer was attracted to Roland Barthes's definition of writing as the writer's essential gesture. Critics have highlighted the role of the physical and sensuous in the fiction, calling attention to Lawrence and Whitman as influences. Barbara Temple-Thurston (Nadine Gordimer Revisited, 1999) has highlighted Gordimer's ability to catch the implications of even the smallest gesture or nuance, and to trace its connections to broader social and political arenas, offering a kind of Freudian psychopathology of the everyday. In an interesting recent approach, Louise Yelin has argued (From the Margins of Empire, 1998) that there is a sense in which Gordimer contributes to dialogical criticism, in exposing the terms “race” and “class” which are occluded in Mikhail Bakhtin's work. In the work of contemporary critics, the earlier straightforward opposition between art and politics is becoming a much more sophisticated and interesting account of the various intersections of race, class, and gender which operate in Gordimer's work. Because South African society offers such binary oppositions of black and white, body and mind, art and politics, Europe and Africa, male and female, Gordimer's fiction has to avoid playing in to the same sorts of division and categorizations. Debates over the dialectical nature of her fiction have now moved on towards a criticism more concerned with hybridity, border states, and transitionality. My Son's Story, with its focus on a “Coloured” family, appeared to support this vision of Gordimer as focusing on areas where divisions were not so clear cut.
On a more purely “literary” front, critics have assessed Gordimer's writing as profoundly intertextual, alluding to, and quoting from, other texts in a creative spirit of adaptation. For some (Kathrin Wagner, for example), the very existence of references to the great writers of the metropolitan tradition has been enough to position Gordimer as a Eurocentric writer. For others, such as Dominic Head, Gordimer is dedicated to producing a hybrid fusion of African and European cultural forms. In a powerful reading, J. U. Jacobs has argued that the intertextual qualities of My Son's Story interact with the hero's interstitial position, mediating between white and black, wife and mistress, leadership and followers.39 For Jacobs, the full South African story is to be told between black and white texts, rather than from the inside, or from the outside.
Rowland Smith, ed., Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), p. 10.
Smith, p. 11.
Stephen R. Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986), Chapter One.
Jannika Hurwitt, “The Art of Fiction LXXVII: Nadine Gordimer,” Paris Review 88 (1983): 122.
“Nadine Gordimer Interview,” with Johannes Riis, Kunapipi 2, no. 1 (1980): 22.
Pat Schwartz, “Pat Schwartz talks to Nadine Gordimer,” New South African Writing (Johannesburg: Lorton, 1977), p. 75.
Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour, eds., Conversations with Nadine Gordimer (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1990), p. 258.
Nadine Gordimer, No Place Like: Selected Stories (London: Penguin, 1978), p. 13.
Nadine Gordimer, “The International Symposium on the Short Story: South Africa,” The Kenyon Review 30, no. 4 (1968): 459.
Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice (Cleveland: World, 1962).
Nadine Gordimer, Occasion for Loving (London: Jonathan Cape, 1978), p. 279.
Ernst Fisher, The Necessity of Art: A Marxist Approach (London: Penguin, 1963).
Nadine Gordimer, The Late Bourgeois World (London: Penguin, 1982), p. 86.
Diane Cassere, “Diamonds Are Polished—So Is Nadine,” Rand Daily Mail, 27 July 1972, p. 4.
Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (London: Penguin, 1970).
Nadine Gordimer, A Guest of Honour (London: Penguin, 1973), p. 525.
Lars Engle, “The Political Uncanny: The Novels of Nadine Gordimer,” Yale Journal of Criticism 2, no. 2 (1989): 101–27.
Henry Callaway, The Religious System of the Amazulu (London: 1878).
Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist (London: Penguin, 1978), p. 267.
Nadine Gordimer, July's People (London: Penguin, 1982), p. 96
Nadine Gordimer, My Son's Story (London: Penguin, 1991), p. 277.
Nadine Gordimer, Writing and Being (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 45.
Nadine Gordimer, None to Accompany Me (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 306.
Nadine Gordimer, Writing and Being (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 53.
Writing and Being, p. 134.
Andries Walter Oliphant, ed., A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer (New York: Viking, 1998), p. 420.
A Writing Life, p. 14.
Diana Loercher, “South African Political Novelist Nadine Gordimer,” Christian Science Monitor 21 (21 January 1989), p. 21.
Hurwitt, p. 100.
Smith, p. 15.
A Writing Life, p. xii.
David Beresford, “Caught in the Chain of Idealism,” Guardian, 18 June 1992, p. 25.
Z. N., “The Politics of Commitment,” African Communist 80 (1980): 100–1.
Smith, p. 13.
Smith, p. 5.
Smith, p. 8.
Smith, p. 7.
Robert Boyers et al., “A Conversation with Nadine Gordimer,” Salmagundi 62 (1984): 20.
J. U. Jacobs, “Nadine Gordimer's Intertextuality: Authority and Authorship in My Son's Story,” English in Africa 20, no. 2 (1993): 25–45.
Nadine Gordimer's Era
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6572
To understand the context in which Gordimer began writing it is important to recognize the peculiar history of South Africa, a history fought over and continuously rewritten by the different groups within the country's boundaries. During the apartheid era, South African historical propaganda tended to advance the view that the whites reached South Africa before the black inhabitants, or, more moderately, that the two groups got there together. Many histories of South Africa need to be treated with great caution. One useful account is that of Charles Van Onselen, Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, which is particularly relevant to the area in which Gordimer grew up. Leonard Thompson's A History of South Africa can also be recommended. In The Seeds of Disaster, John Laurence gives an excellent account of Afrikaner propaganda and doublespeak.1 Heidi Holland's The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress is a readable account, based on interviews with ANC spokespeople. The distortion or suppression of historical fact was one of the weapons of apartheid. In 1978 when Floors van Jaarsveld, a Pretoria professor of history, questioned the view that divine intervention was responsible for the victory of the Boers over the Zulus at Blood River, a group of men burst into the University of South Africa's lecture hall and tarred and feathered him. Because of the shortage of educational materials in South African schools, in 2001 black children were still being taught from apartheid-era history books, one of which devoted precisely three pages to black South African history.
The facts of colonial conquest are not in dispute. The first white settlers (Dutch) reached Table Bay in 1652, to be met by “Hottentots” and “Bushmen” (the Khoikhoi and San peoples), whose land was swiftly taken over. Nonetheless, in the 1960s South Africa's ambassador to Great Britain referred to the interior of South Africa in the eighteenth century as totally uninhabited territory.2 Other historical accounts tended to describe the Bushmen as having little contact with whites or with having withdrawn to the semi-desert of the Western Cape of their own free will. In fact in 1774, after more than a century of white settlement, a white commando is reported as having killed 503 Bushmen and taken others prisoner. As late as 1862, white farmers in the northern Cape Colony were pursuing a policy of exterminating Bushmen. Historians recognize that the history of the white annexation of the Cape tends to be unknown because the two groups, Bushmen and Hottentots, are no longer around in any numbers to dispute the question.
Contrary to claims that the Boers (settlers of Dutch origin) were entering uninhabited lands, there is also clear evidence of a large Bantu-speaking black population, one which had been there for a long time. Archaeologists have estimated that there was extensive black mining on the famous gold reef of the Witwatersrand well before the arrival of any whites. Excavation of Iron Age sites in Phalaborwa shows a chronological sequence beginning from as early as 8 A.D., and positively documented from the tenth century onwards. Phalaborwa is a rich copper field in the northeastern Transvaal with fifty-foot deep Bantu mineshafts. Gordimer refers to the antiquity of black mining in “Something Out There.” Until the 1930s the belief had remained prevalent that the Bantu (black) peoples came into what is now South Africa only around 1652. But in 1937 Afrikaner archaeologist L. Fouche excavated a Sotho settlement in the northern Transvaal and was able to date pottery to 1200 A.D. Subsequent discoveries have confirmed the situation. It is now clear that the ancestors of the Bantu-speaking peoples had settled south of the Limpopo River by 300 A.D. Once the Dutch East India Company had founded a refreshment station at Table Bay, however, the Afrikaners (or Boers) expanded steadily, conquering the Khoisan and also importing slaves from Indonesia, Ceylon, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Britain took the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1795; the Dutch regained it by treaty in 1803; lost it once more in 1806; and staged a rising in 1815. Between 1816 and 1828, Shaka created the Zulu kingdom and there was warfare across much of southern Africa. In 1820 British settlers reached the Cape Colony. The Great Trek began in 1836—the mass migration of some five thousand Boers from the Cape Province into Natal, the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal—and is glorified in Afrikaner history as a God-inspired pilgrimage of a devout and Christian people. Voortrekker diaries themselves demonstrate the truth was that the British wanted to free the Boers' slaves, and that the Boers would not comply. (The slaves were of various races, and to complicate the issue, freed slaves went on to own slaves themselves.) From this point on, warfare is the one constant in the country's history, including the British defeat of the Xhosa (1835); the Afrikaner victory over the Zulus at Blood River in 1838; the wars between Lesotho and the Orange Free State (1856–58); the defeat of the British by the Zulus at Isandhlwana in 1879 and the British defense of Rourke's Drift (familiar in its heroic version as the basis of the film Zulu); the Jameson Raid between 1895 and 1896; and the Boer Wars (1899–1902), now rechristened the War Between the Whites, with the infamous British concentration camps. More than twenty-eight thousand Afrikaner civilians, mostly children, died in these concentration camps, of dysentery, measles, and other diseases. The British burned thirty thousand farms, exiled captured leaders abroad, and crushed resistance. Black Africans also suffered. There were at least 116,000 in the camps and many of them died there. When the Peace of Vereeniging was signed in 1902, the British clearly planned to swamp the Afrikaners with English-speaking immigrants and establish British supremacy, and made no provision for the extension of the franchise to blacks.
To this history of political violence the historian has to add the peculiarly violent nature of the country's industrialization. Diamond mining began in Griqualand West in 1867; gold mining began on the Witwatersrand in 1886. Between 1886 and the First World War, a space of thirty years, the area was transformed from an agricultural backwater to a colony with the world's largest and most technologically sophisticated gold-mining industry. These same three decades involved four different governments, plus an attempted coup. The South African gold industry was producing 27 percent of the world's gold by 1898, 40 percent by 1913. In the process the forty mile stretch along the line of the gold reef from Gordimer's birthplace in Springs in the east to Krugersdorp in the west became a landscape disfigured by mining headgear, ore dumps, railway lines, dams and pools of waste water, and the hastily erected homes of the miners. To quote Charles Van Onselen: “Into this cauldron of capitalist development poured men, women and children drawn from all over the world, giving the Rand a cultural diversity and social texture that bubbled with excitement and vitality.”3
This was a masculine world of robber barons and roughnecks who knew little about culture but were out to get rich. Immigrant miners tended not to bring wives and children with them, whether they were skilled white miners from Cornwall, Cumberland, and Lancashire, or less-skilled black workers from the Cape, Transvaal, and Mozambique. As a result drinking, gambling, and prostitution became major social evils. Ambrose Pratt, a visiting Australian journalist, remarked in 1910, “Ancient Babylon and Nineveh have been revived. Johannesburg is their twentieth-century prototype. It is a city of unbridled squander and unfathomable squalor.”4 The Transvaal ruling classes tacitly encouraged the consumption of alcohol and the recourse of white workers to prostitutes in order to maintain control of them. Many black miners were recruited in Mozambique, where the Portuguese had already introduced them to alcohol; once their wages were spent, they had to keep on working and remain on the Rand, rather than heading for home, thus providing a pool of labor. There was therefore an enormous market for cheap liquor on the Reef, and large numbers of prostitutes plied their trade there, from 1888 onwards. In 1896 there were more than one thousand professional prostitutes in Johannesburg. Later attempts to control the sale of alcohol were more successful than those aimed at cleaning up vice. The opening of the railway line from the port of Lourenço Marques in 1895 placed the Rand within easy reach of several European ports, with the result an influx of French, German, and Belgian prostitutes. At the same time, by an unfortunate coincidence, Russo-American organized criminals fled from New York to establish brothels in Johannesburg. Gordimer makes fun of the claims of her character Dr. Grahame Fraser-Smith to ancient lineage, in “Something Out There,” by tracing his ancestry back to a late Victorian brothel-keeper.
Throughout the 1890s the Rand was a society characterized by large numbers of single men, living close to their workplace, the whites in boarding houses, the blacks in mine compounds. There were slumps and booms in the mining industry, and the mine owners evolved various strategies for holding down the costs of African labor, including the importing of 63,397 Chinese workers between 1904 and 1907. Gordimer's grandmother's experience of discovering a murdered Chinaman under her kitchen table, while her husband was out gambling, is emblematic of the kind of society she was living in. As well as providing cheap labor, the Chinese presence allowed the mine owners to undercut black wages even further. Indians were also imported into Natal, outnumbering whites in this area, and including a young London-trained barrister, Mohandas Gandhi, who went to South Africa in 1893, organized several campaigns against the unjust laws of the period, and left for India in 1914, taking with him the technique of passive resistance which was to have significant effects on the future histories of South Africa, India, and, in the Civil Rights conflicts of the sixties, the United States. Attempts were also made to introduce more white domestic servants from Europe, partly to begin to remedy the lack of family life among the miners (which had drawn adverse comment from British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald in 1902), but also to make black male “houseboys” available for mine work. In order to stabilize the white working class population, the mining companies began in the early years of the twentieth century to put up quarters for their married, white workers. In 1897 only 12 percent of the European mine employees were married and had their families with them. By 1912 the figure was 42 percent. On the one hand the growth of family lives was a welcome shift away from the male-dominated world of the earlier years. Yet it also increased the social distance between white and black miners, who now lived in very different social worlds. In the early years of the colony, there was a degree of resistance to the mine owners from the lower classes, who often adopted each other's tactics and strategies irrespective of race; black washermen, organized along Zulu military lines, wore turbans adopted from Asian custom and went on strike like the white working class when their livelihoods were threatened; Cape “Malay” cab drivers added their signatures in Arabic script to a petition to President Kruger in the name of the working classes. But the separation of the races meant that industrial action was less easily coordinated in the twentieth century. White miners enjoyed supervisory roles whereas black workers were poorly paid and maintained unskilled positions.
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923, six years after the Russian revolution, five years after the close of the First World War, and five years after the founding of the Afrikaner Broederbond, a secret society of the Afrikaner elite which signaled the beginning of an era of rising Afrikaner power in South Africa. Historians have seen the period between 1910 and 1948 as a period of segregation, as the whites strengthened their grip on the black population. A series of “colour bar” measures also prevented blacks from competing with Afrikaners (a more impoverished group than English-speakers), who slowly gained economic ground. Many Africans were being transformed from sharecroppers into tenant and wage laborers. Migrant labor was common, with blacks traveling from the “reserves” to work for whites, most of whom never set foot in a reserve and spoke no African languages. A few blacks managed to gain access to education (and were exposed to Liberal white values) through mission schools, and in 1912 Africans founded the South African Native National Congress, which later became the ANC. In 1924, J. B. M. Hertzog's Nationalist-Labour Pact gained election victory, further encouraging Afrikaner nationalism and racial segregation. The Wage Act was passed to protect unskilled white workers; other legislation protected white semi-skilled workers. White (but not black) women got the vote, thus reducing the black proportion of voters. In 1925 Afrikaans (rather than Dutch) became an official state language, and after considerable agitation, the flag of the country incorporated the Union Jack and the flags of the Afrikaner republics. In 1934 Hertzog and Smuts formed the United Party (though Hertzog lost influence later when he tried to keep South Africa neutral in the Second World War). The Natives Representation Act (1936) disenfranchised many Africans formerly qualified to vote. In the thirties a group of Afrikaners, led by D. F. Malan, a Dutch reformed minister, founded the Purified National Party, and in 1938 took over celebrations of the Great Trek centennial, describing the Voortrekkers in heroic terms, including their opposition to the mixing of races. In 1943 the African Congress Youth League was founded by Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, and Nelson Mandela; three years later the African mine workers' strike closed down nine mines and paralyzed twelve others. Gordimer's first novel, The Lying Days, deals with this period but the strike is glossed over.
Conditions in the mines in South Africa remained arduous. Men worked in intense heat in a crouching position, and between 1933 and 1966, nineteen thousand gold miners, 93 percent of them Africans, died in accidents. The African miners were housed in single sex compounds of between three thousand and six thousand men, sleeping on concrete bunks or homemade beds in dormitories, outside which they also ate, no other facilities being provided. No women were allowed in the compounds. The mines themselves were run on military lines, with white shift bosses and compound managers commanding underground “boss boys” who controlled the mass of laborers. Many miners came from outside South Africa; Gordimer recalls them in tribal dress, in her childhood. Black Africans also began to be increasingly urbanized. Small towns tended to have a white, modern area separated from a black “location” of shacks and huts, squatters hurriedly erected dwellings, with no electricity and only earth closets as sanitation.
In 1948 Malan's Afrikaner National Party won the elections, despite the fact that Afrikaners were only 12 percent of the population, and the apartheid era began. Apartheid (separateness) was essentially a political program of separate development founded on the idea that Africans were a distinct subspecies of humanity, permanently inferior to white people and with no historical claim to the land of South Africa. Twelve African leaders called immediately for African unity and supported the ANC Youth League proposal to engage in mass struggle. The battle—which was to end only in 1994 with the first free and fair elections in South Africa's history—had started. Many Nationalists had been openly pro-German during the Second World War; extremist Afrikaner organizations such as the Ossewa-Brandwag (“Ox-wagon Sentinel”) and the New Order had explicitly supported Nazi ideology. German radio broadcasts in Afrikaans had been beamed to South Africa. As a result the opposition, both Left and Liberal, saw their role as part of the wider struggle against fascism, particularly as a whole series of repressive legal measures came into force. In 1949 the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act made marriage between whites and members of other racial groups illegal. Gordimer describes the effects in The Lying Days as Paul tells Helen of mixed race couples arrested in their beds, and of couples who have lived together for years being suddenly forced apart. In 1950 the Population Registration Act classified everyone by race, as white, coloured, Indian, and African, though later even more nonsensical groupings were introduced, including “Other Coloured” and “Griqua,” and according the status of “honorary whites” to the Japanese. A central tenet of apartheid was that whites formed a single nation (whether they spoke English or Afrikaans) whereas blacks were from many different nations. In the same year the Immorality Act (with its various sequels) made interracial sex illegal. The Group Areas Act divided urban areas into racially exclusive zones, and the Suppression of Communism Act was introduced. (The Group Areas Act and its sequels effectively evicted blacks from any desirable areas, now reserved for whites, and was part of a group of measures designed to confine blacks to poor, non-urban areas, as a pool of labor to be used and then immediately returned to what eventually became ten “homelands.”) Hendrik Verwoerd became minister of native affairs. The Nationalists were unashamedly racist, and believed in European supremacy in South Africa. There was no longer even a pretense at “trusteeship,” or guardianship of blacks. “Baasskap,” or boss-ship, was the order of the day, and its symbol became the sjambok, or ox-hide whip. Politicians posed unashamedly clutching a sjambok, for photographs. One of the protests, a stayaway mounted against the Suppression of Communism Act, took place on May Day in 1950, the day on which Helen witnesses the police killing of a black protester in a township.
In 1952 the Defiance Campaign was launched by the ANC and the South African Indian Congress. Huge numbers joined the ANC. The opposition throughout the 1950s was essentially multiracial, and the way of life it represented is accurately portrayed in A World of Strangers, in the Sophiatown world of Steven Sitole. Sophiatown, an ethnically mixed and culturally flourishing township on the borders of Johannesburg, came to symbolize the hope of a multiracial future. Because the basis of apartheid was segregation, multiracialism appeared to be the best weapon with which to fight it. The Congress Alliance, a loose alliance of black, Indian, coloured, and white democratic groups, was a multiracial organization which proved by its very existence that the races could combine. Although not a Liberal movement, the ideology was in some senses Liberal, with an emphasis on passive opposition, nonviolent struggle, the virtue of parliamentary democracy, and the brotherhood of man. The ANC had denounced the actual Liberal party in 1953; in their turn many Liberals were suspicious of communist infiltration of the ANC. Nonetheless, Liberals played an active part in opposition to apartheid in the 1950s. In the end, however, there was little space for any middle ground. By now all those classified as African had to carry passes. A version of Orwellian “doublespeak” characterized South African legislation: the law which enforced this practice was entitled Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act (1952). The following year introduced the Separate Amenities Act, the Public Safety Act with emergency powers, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and the Bantu Education Act. The latter ensured that blacks were educated only to be fit for manual labor. In the education system developed (or underdeveloped) under apartheid, blacks had to pay for their own books and tuition; were exposed to only ill-qualified teachers, few of whom would have reached the standard of an American high-school graduate; and were taught in ill-equipped schools. In 1973, for example, only sixteen Rand was spent per head on black education, as opposed to three hundred and fifty Rand for whites. In 1954 the Native Settlement Act began the massive removal of non-whites. In 1955 the Congress of the People met outside Johannesburg and adopted the Freedom Charter; police broke up the rally, and the following year 156 Congress of the People participants were arrested for high treason. The protracted Treason Trial ensued. In 1956 Sophiatown was rezoned and rechristened Triomf (Triumph). The street on which the demolitions began was Toby Street, the road which marked the frontier between the worlds of white Johannesburg and the black township. Gordimer's protagonist in A World of Strangers, Toby Hood, had been aptly named.
The Alexandria bus boycott took place in 1957. In 1958 Verwoerd became prime minister and introduced the homeland policy. Africanists broke away from the ANC to found the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), an event which suggested that multiracialism was losing ground. In 1959 the State-Aided Institutions Act closed access to libraries for blacks, and the Kafakaesque quality of South African existence was heightened when the Extension of University Education Act deprived universities of the right to admit black students without government permission. Occasion for Loving opens as Tom Stilwell becomes involved in a campaign against the Act. Yet when he goes to a meeting to discuss the Act, a black man tells him he is irrelevant; the novel culminates in a bruising encounter between white and black which reflects the end of multiracialism and the growth of black nationalist separatism. It was becoming clear that apartheid was a matter of brute political power and systematic economic exploitation, and that peaceful opposition was fruitless.
On 21 March 1960 one word—Sharpeville—rang out around the world, when a PAC campaign against the pass laws ended in a massacre, with sixty-seven unarmed protesters shot dead, 186 injured by the police. Over eighteen thousand people were detained; large numbers went into exile. African political organizations were banned and the struggle for freedom went underground. South Africa was ostracized in world affairs, and the underground began plans for strategic violence. In 1961 South Africa became a republic and left the British Commonwealth. Inside the country the military wings of the ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation), the PAC (Poqo, Pure), and the white African Resistance Movement (ARM) began sabotage campaigns. The ANC and PAC established headquarters outside South Africa. Reaction was swift. In 1962 detention without trial and the policy of house arrest were introduced. Umkhonto we Sizwe was broken after Mandela's arrest in August, with the arrest in July 1963 of the remaining leaders a body blow to the movement. In 1964 Mandela and other Umkhonto leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage. Bram Fischer was also arrested but jumped bail and went into hiding, orchestrating the underground campaign until 1965, when he was recaptured and sentenced to life imprisonment. In The Late Bourgeois World, the shift from peaceful opposition to a revolutionary ethos and violent resistance in the 1960s is focused on the character of Max, a failed white saboteur. The statistics for acts of sabotage tell their own story: 203 cases in the first half of 1964, none in the whole of 1965. The early 1960s has been persuasively interpreted as a failed revolution; certainly the counter-revolutionary forces were triumphant. The heroine's potential decision to use a bank account to channel funds to the underground also reflects reality. In the 1960s various people were brought to book for acting as conduits for underground funding.
In 1966 Verwoerd was assassinated and B. J. Vorster became prime minister. By this time repression had intensified, with the extension of powers of detention without trial from twelve days in 1962 to 180 days in 1965. The opposition press was stifled, partly by direct censorship, partly by the detention or banning of its major figures. A person under a banning order was confined to his home between dusk and sunrise; obliged to report to the police once a week; and was forbidden to write, teach, broadcast, speak in public, or meet more than one person at a time. In 1970 the Bantu Homeland Citizenship Act was designed to enforce a “homeland” citizenship on every black person in South Africa. “Homeland” was a euphemism for the Bantustans supposedly reserved for members of different tribes, many of whom had no connection with the localities at all. Gordimer has noted that her home in Johannesburg is in a suburb under which lies the archaeological remains of a vast seventeenth-century Tswana settlement, though it is a hundred miles or more from this affluent white area to the “homeland” of Bophuthatswana.
Cosmas Desmond's The Discarded People painted a horrific picture of black resettlement areas. Desmond was banned in 1971 and his book became unquotable. Various territories became “self-governing”: Transkei, Ciskei, Zululand, Bophuthatswana, and Lebowa. International governments understandably refused to recognize these fictional countries as nations (thus depriving many black South Africans, now redesignated as citizens of a Bantustan, of passports and identity.) The Bantustans also hardened neo-tribal antagonisms. The early seventies was the period in which it became obvious that the future of white South Africa was directly connected to that of other southern African regimes—Mozambique, Angola, and Zimbabwe. By 1972 the first white farms came under guerrilla attack in Zimbabwe. The army officers' coup in Portugal in 1974, with the fall of the Caetano government, presaged the end of Portuguese domination of Mozambique. The independence struggle in Mozambique had been an inspiration to black South Africans—and an image of horror to the dominant white groups, who saw their buffer states crumbling. Inside South Africa the “laager” mentality was gaining ground, with increased defense spending and military service, stronger frontiers, and the picking off of the last vestiges of institutional opposition. (The “laager” was originally the term for an encirclement of Boer wagons, to protect against attack.) At the same time black resistance was hardening. In 1968 Steve Biko founded the black South African Students Organization (SASO), promoting the Black Consciousness Movement, which gained steadily in influence culminating in the founding in 1975 of the Black People's Convention (BPC), with Biko as its president.
A second word flashed around the world: Soweto. On 16 June 1976 the Soweto Revolt took place after fifteen thousand schoolchildren protested against the compulsory use of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction, and the police opened fire on demonstrators killing two children. Violence swept the country, and it took the police and army the better part of a year to regain control. The revolt was widespread, spontaneous, and cost black South Africa dearly. By 1977 the official death toll (probably a gross underestimate) was 575 dead and thousands injured. In 1977 Biko was arrested and died from brutal treatment in police custody. He had been in custody for twenty-six days, kept naked and manacled. By 1979, P. W. Botha, who became prime minister in 1978, was facing a much strengthened ANC, which, although in exile, had attracted increased support after Soweto and was pressing for international isolation of South Africa by boycotts, sanctions, and embargoes.
In August 1983 a thousand delegates of all races, representing 575 organizations, founded the United Democratic Front (UDF) to coordinate internal opposition to apartheid. In 1984 a new constitution provided for participation in government by Asians and “coloureds” (but not blacks); the elections were marked by widespread violence and boycotts, plus strikes, with fifty-eight acts of sabotage against the state and twenty-six attacks on the police. Inside the country in the following year there were school and bus boycotts, worker stayaways, attacks on black police and councilors, more strikes (involving 240,000 workers) and 879 deaths by political violence. Outside the country, international pressure was growing. The South African forces attacked alleged ANC bases in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Zambia in 1986, and an indefinite, nationwide state of emergency was declared. Under the state of emergency it is estimated that thirteen thousand people, many of them children, were detained and tortured. The pass laws were repealed in 1986. In 1987 the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike for three weeks, with half a million people participating. In 1988 South Africa signed an accord with Cuba and Angola for staged withdrawal of troops. In 1989 F. W. de Klerk succeeded Botha as state president, supported by reform-seeking whites, and immediately began consultations with the ANC leadership.
“Mandela freed”—again the world recognized a landmark in history in 1990, when Mandela was unconditionally released, and the ANC and other outlawed organizations were no longer banned. Mandela refused to leave prison until all the ANC leaders had first been set free. Conflict between Inkatha (the Zulu Chief Buthelezi's party) and the alliance of the ANC and the Congress of South African Trade Unions now became endemic. In 1992 de Klerk called a whites-only referendum to obtain a mandate for reform. CODESSA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa), a multi-party group, negotiated a new constitution. 1992 was also the year in which Chris Hane, widely supported as an ANC youth leader, was assassinated. The ANC attempted conciliation with rival groups such as the PAC. In 1993 de Klerk and Mandela were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1994 the ANC was elected with 62 percent of the vote in the first free elections, and on 9 May, Mandela was elected president of the republic of South Africa. The exiles were returning to South Africa, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began operating in 1993, under the Chairmanship of Bishop Desmond Tutu. South Africa presented a very different face to the world, including a constitution that now guaranteed freedom of sexual preference and the right to life, with a moratorium on the death penalty, two of the most important plot strands of The House Gun. Crime and violence were spreading, and the international press gave almost as much coverage to the taxi-wars and car-jackings in Johannesburg as to the legislative struggles. The spread of AIDS and the prevalence of rape in South Africa cast shadows over the utopian images of freedom. A long and painful process of change was ahead.
A writer's era is, of course, as much literary as political. During Gordimer's youth the only South African novelists widely known were Olive Schreiner, Pauline Smith, Sol Plaatje, and Sarah Gertude Millin. Jock of the Bushveld, the story of a dog, was probably much more popular. One novelist, Joy Packer, developed a large European following between the 1950s and 1970s, essentially writing naively racist romances for female readers. As far as more serious writing was concerned, John Cooke has noted the vigor of South African publishing after the Second World War, when a clutch of important novels appeared: Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), Peter Abrahams's Mine Boy (1946), Dan Jacobson's A Dance in the Sun (1955), Phyllis Altman's The Law of the Vultures (1953), and Harry Bloom's Episode in the Transvaal (1955).5 In 1956 a conference of writers and critics meeting at the University of the Witwatersrand heard soundly confident descriptions of a flourishing literary scene from William Plomer and Alan Paton, among others. But by the early 1960s Gordimer was almost the only member of the group to be producing fiction in South Africa. The only other novelists to have maintained a long-term concern with their era in South Africa were Es'kia Mpahlele, André Brink, and J. M. Coetzee. Alan Paton came back into the literary world with Ah, but Your Land Is Beautiful only in 1982, his first novel in thirty years.
A dominant feature of the apartheid era was censorship. Three of Gordimer's novels were banned. The censorship bureau was active in every province and only three censors needed to agree in order for a book to be banned. The censorship judges generally had no literary qualifications, but were loyal to the ruling National Party bureaucrats. They were paid for their services. In the period between the first censorship act in 1955 (followed by a more comprehensive act in 1963) and 1970, eleven thousand books were banned. There were ninety-seven definitions of what is undesirable in literature. The list of banned books included pornography and political propaganda, works of political analysis (Eldridge Cleaver, Frantz Fanon), sexually explicit novels (John Updike's Couples and Rabbit Is Rich), and such subversive texts as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Blaise Pascal's Pensées. The writer was not informed that the book was banned; it was merely listed in the Government Gazette in the weekly list of bannings (which also included records, posters, art works, and even T-shirts, if they bore a political slogan). Writers had to become very ingenious to get around the problem of banning. Books were sometimes banned for sale and distribution, but not for possession. If the reader had already bought the book, he or she could keep it (but, officially, not lend it to anybody else). Some documents were, however, also banned for possession, as was the case with the student document that Gordimer placed verbatim in the text of Burger's Daughter. Possession of Burger's Daughter was therefore also a criminal offense. Getting the book into the country disguised as other merchandise was one solution. Burger's Daughter came into South Africa in unlabeled parcels (the sight of Gordimer's name would have been enough to ensure that it was embargoed) and a couple of thousand copies got around before the censors caught up with it. Another solution was to distribute books in foreign language editions. A book banned in English might not be banned in other languages. A World of Strangers was not available in English but was available in translation. It had been available in English in hardback for eighteen months, but the paperback was banned the day it came out (perhaps because the readership for a hardback is assumed to have a larger stake in the South African economy than those who can only afford a cheap edition). It remained banned for twelve years. The Late Bourgeois World was banned for ten years.
A banned book published abroad could not be brought into the country. Another tactic of the censors, however, was to allow the book to enter South Africa and then to embargo it for a period. Gordimer's Livingstone's Companions met this fate, as did The Conservationist (embargoed for ten weeks). Since books often make most of their sales in the period shortly after publication, any censorship at that point tended to be disastrous to the author's profits, and to destroy the popular sales of the book. Even if the embargo was then lifted, the time delay while booksellers reordered, and the absence of reviews, tended to kill the book. Ironically perhaps, the fledgling Afrikaans novel was hardest hit, since if banned there was nowhere else in the world for the writer to publish. English-speaking writers could at least publish abroad, and once established abroad, the banning of their books created very bad publicity for the South African government, as in the case of Burger's Daughter, in which protests from John Fowles, Heinrich Böll, and a host of others created a storm of international press coverage. Gordimer made the most of the situation. When André Brink's publisher refused to publish his novel 'n Oomblik in die Wind in 1975, because his previous novel had been banned, a small group of academics decided to begin samizdat publishing as “Taurus,” publishing clandestinely and distributing through mail order. (“Samizdat” in Russian means circulating underground, as opposed to “tamizdat,” publishing abroad.) Gordimer heard of Taurus and approached the group to publish her text on the history of the banning of Burger's Daughter—What Happened to Burger's Daughter or How South African Censorship Works (1980)—after which, in partnership with her South African publishers, they published several of her works. She wanted to be associated with their active protest; they were glad to have the support of a figure of her standing.
South Africa is no longer under apartheid, but freedom brings its own problems. The uncertainties of the country as it emerged from the shadows were also those of its artists. As apartheid crumbled, the question which presented itself repeatedly was whether the South African novelist had lost his or her essential subject. Can the white novelist survive the end of apartheid—or has the artist's inspiration disappeared, together with the tools previously employed?
Recent debates in South African literary criticism have centered on the problem of the artist's role in relation to society, specifically in what has become known as the Albie Sachs debate, and in the response to the writings of Njabulo Ndebele.6 During forty years of opposition to apartheid, the avowed aim of literary practitioners was “solidarity criticism,” placing a strong emphasis on social realism and the evaluation of writing in relation to its adherence to a materialist dialectic. Writing was seen as a “cultural weapon” and was supposed to concentrate on expressing collective rather than individual experiences in a mode of popular realism. In 1989 Albie Sachs made a speech, “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom,” a paper prepared for an ANC in-house seminar on culture. Sachs (somewhat teasingly) proposed banning the phrase “culture is a weapon of struggle”; he described solidarity criticism, and the instrumental view of culture in general, as impoverishing artistic production and as merely a means of appearing politically correct.7 Above all he argued that the result of solidarity criticism was simply to ensure that all South African literature was about the oppressor. In his description of recent South African writing, he lamented the narrow range of themes, the closing off of ambiguity and contradiction, and the stereotypical nature of character.
For Sachs the power of art lies in the capacity to expose contradictions and reveal hidden tensions. The concentration on the struggle had closed off whole areas of human activity. “And what about love?” asked Sachs, rhetorically. “Can it be that when we join the ANC we do not make love any more, that when the comrades go to bed they discuss the role of the white working class?”8 For Sachs the editing out of everything but the political, the filling up of novels with oppressors, trauma, misery, risked a further diminishment of the individual already threatened by apartheid. “What are we fighting for, if not the right to express our humanity in all its forms, including our sense of fun and capacity for love and tenderness and our appreciation of the beauty of the world?”9 A better strategy was to allow art to bypass, overwhelm, and ignore apartheid by establishing its own space.
In contrast to Sachs, Njabulo Ndebele's was a more measured and deeply thought response, expressed in a series of essays collected in Rediscovery of the Ordinary (1991). Ndebele highlighted the dangers of a quasi-journalistic literature of indictment characterized by the psychology of the slogan and by intellectual powerlessness. Such literature may inform but cannot transform. Indeed Ndebele cautioned against an over-reliance on information, which could itself mirror the tactics of the opposition with its concern with information manipulation. Strongly influenced by listening to African oral storytellers (on trains and buses, on their way to work), he noted that their tales were not at all political. “When they talked politics, they talked politics. When they told stories, they told stories.”10 For him such storytellers were the makers of culture. Even when their stories were not centered on resistance, they had a social purpose. Similarly, for Ndebele, richness of character was not simply the product of bourgeois escapism into an ethos of individualism. Interiority could be a way in which the individual steps out of the network of exchange relations and values, away from the performance principle and the profit motive, and towards passion, imagination, and conscience.
Charles Van Onselen, Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand (Longman, 1982); Leonard Thompson, A History of South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995); John Laurence, The Seeds of Disaster (London: Gollancz, 1968); Heidi Holland, The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress (London: Grafton, 1989).
Laurence, p. 293.
Van Onselen, p. i.
Van Onselen, p. 2.
John Cooke, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985), p. 2.
Graham Pechey, “Post-Apartheid Narratives,” in Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory, eds. Francis Barker, Peter Hulme, and Margaret Iverson (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).
Albie Sachs, “Preparing Ourselves for Freedom” (paper prepared for an ANC in-house seminar on culture), in Spring Is Rebellious: Arguments about Cultural Freedom, eds. Ingrid de Kok and Karen Press (Cape Town: Buchu Books, 1990).
Sachs, p. 21.
Sachs, p. 21.
Njabulo Ndebele, South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991), p. 37.
Nadine Gordimer's Works
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15736
In describing Gordimer's works it is best to begin with an important proviso. Although Gordimer's technical expertise is considered elsewhere in this essay, in more detail, Gordimer is a prolific writer in several different genres, and her insistence that the relationship between her themes and the techniques of her writing is inseparable implies that the reader should always consider form and content together.
Face to Face: Short Stories. Johannesburg: Silver Leaf, 1949. Gordimer's first collection includes “The Soft Voice of the Serpent,” “Ah, Woe Is Me,” “The Umbilical Cord,” “The Battlefield at No. 29,” “In the Beginning,” “A Commonplace Story,” “The Amateurs,” “A Present for a Good Girl,” “The Train from Rhodesia,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?,” “The Kindest Thing to Do,” “The Last of the Oldfashioned Girls,” “No Luck Tonight,” “The Talisman,” and “Monday Is Better than Sunday.” Critics have tended to read these stories (and those in the following volume) as apolitical, their major concern lying in moments of psychological illumination. Stephen Clingman, however, has noted a significant focus on the world of Gordimer's own early years, especially in the emphasis on the lives of a poorer white class. Major characters include a small town piano teacher married to a fitter who works in the mines, and an Afrikaner nurse with a mineworker husband.
The First Circle. In Joyce Miller et al., Six One Act Plays by South African Writers. Pretoria: Van Schaik, 1949. The reference in the title is to the first circle of hell, and the play features Virgil and Dante among the characters, clothed as William Blake portrayed them in his illustrations to the Divine Comedy. The time is eternity, though given the recent victory of the Nationalists, the play has a topical reference which is inescapable. (The inmates of the first circle were those who did neither good nor evil, but who were concerned only for themselves.) A rich woman, a poor woman, a businessman, and a scientist are fellow inmates defending their positions. “I minded my own business. I wasn't interested in what the politicians were doing; I didn't concern myself with the troubles of labour; of what the workers were getting paid,” says the businessman (p. 50), oblivious to the fact that it was his business interests which fueled the war in which his son died. The scientist pursued the objective questions of his field with no concern for the use humanity makes of his discoveries. The rich woman, a hideous caricature of a society lady, has been too obsessed with her looks to give birth to a child, whose wailing to be born rings perpetually in her ears. The poor woman has been so occupied with a child every year that she has done nothing to help her situation, which she blames on everybody else. “I didn't go round getting into riots and strikes and kickin' up a row,” she mutters. “I minded my own business.” (p. 60) Within this rather obviously “agit-prop” dramatic framework the poor woman's satirical account of social do-gooders, with their attempts to make her appreciate beauty by visits to art galleries and plays, strikes a note of comic realism. Near the close the cast is swelled by the appearance of a politician and a clergyman who reveal that the one group absent from the first circle is the creative artists. “You see, there's no such thing as a creative artist who lives only for himself; he lives for art.” (p. 63). The defense of the artist comes with a sting in the tail, however. The artists are always located far deeper down in hell, with the more violent sinners. In itself a minor work, the play nonetheless makes interesting reading when compared to “The Amateurs,” which similarly satirizes Liberal “good works” in a farcical account of a white amateur theatrical company in a black township, performing The Importance of Being Earnest in thoroughly earnest fashion to a completely bemused audience.
The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. This collection reprinted some of the short stories from Face to Face, adding “The Catch,” “The Hour and the Years,” “A Watcher of the Dead,” “Treasures of the Sea,” “The Prisoner,” “Another Part of the Sky,” “The End of the Tunnel,” and “The Defeated,” and omitting “The Battlefield at No. 29,” “The Last of the Oldfashioned Girls,” and “No Luck Tonight.”
The Lying Days. London: Gollancz, 1953. Gordimer's first novel opens as Helen Shaw, sulkily refusing to accompany her parents to their club, finds the refrain “Not going anywhere” (p. 5) singing in her ears. Setting off for the local concession stores, Helen finds herself an outsider, both to the African world of the stores and to the concerns of a white boy whom she sees freely entering them. The sequence prefigures the problems for Helen of going anywhere, as a character excluded from both the black and the male worlds. Visiting the family of Ludi Koch, with whom her sexual awakening occurs, Helen begins a rebellion against the materialist values of her conformist parents. Ludi refuses to “get on” (p. 50) in career terms. When a broken bridge prevents him from getting ahead, for example, he leaps at the chance of an extended military leave and an erotic idyll. Helen's rejection of a university place reflects his influence as she imagines his satirical comment on such a career move: “Getting on, the bright ambitious daughter of the Mine Secretary.” (p. 85) Later, however, Helen meets the boy from the concession stores, Joel Aaron, now grown up, under whose influence she begins to see the need for education in the broadest cultural sense. Helen is naively well-meaning in matters of race and ethnicity, however, and her clumsy attempts to befriend Mary Seswayo, a black student, are essentially narcissistic. She proposes to her mother that Mary could use the servant's room to study for her examinations, without the least idea of the insulting nature of the offer to Mary, or of the political and social difficulties that would follow. In the ensuing row, Helen is catapulted out of the family home to live with the Liberal Marcuses. It is, however, a retrograde step. John and Jenny Marcus function as surrogate parents, describing Helen as a “good girl” (p. 210) and associating her with their new baby.
Paul Clark, Helen's lover, at first appears to offer a way forwards. Yet there are ominous signs that Paul prefers a world of separate gender spheres. He patronizes Helen, who abandons her own creative and intellectual pursuits to type Paul's thesis. Political and personal come together as the Nationalist victory of 1948 paves the way for the Mixed Marriages Act. Haunted by Paul's account of mixed-race couples arrested in bed, Helen wakes to car headlights in the room and instinctively recoils from Paul. The couple's attempt to forge a private world of intimacy, independent of patriarchal gender divisions, founders as apartheid gathers force, with Paul forced to recognize the irrelevance of his reformist activities to radicalized blacks. The direction in which South Africa is moving is indicated when Helen witnesses the shooting of a black man in a riot. It is only when political violence impinges on her that she recognizes the need to pursue her own independent life. Helen's portrayal of the riot emphasizes her experience of horror, as a fresh and real sensation, not as the secondhand emotion she has previously known from books and films. Paul promptly trivializes the event as “Helen's adventure at the barricades.” (p. 334) Her companion in the riot, Laurie, takes it upon himself to tell the story, as if Helen had not been there at all. Her real experience, independent of secondhand narratives, has been emptied of content in favor of an appropriating male narrative. At the end of the novel, leaving for Europe, Helen reassesses the form of her story. “All this came back to me in shock and turbulence, not the way I have written it here, but in a thousand disconnected images.” (p. 375) Rather than attempting to develop into a fixed self, a coherent but arrested identity, Helen accepts discontinuity as the principle of her female existence. “Life flows and checks itself, overlaps, flows again; and it is in these pauses that a story is taken up, in these pauses that there comes the place at which it is inevitable to set it down.” (p. 375) Helen's earlier belief in a Forsterian creed of personal relationships as primary has foundered. Joel Aaron reappears at the close of the novel but any suggestion that they need “only connect” to break out of the repressions of their South African identity is belied by the realization that their relationship had never developed, at least in part because Joel is Jewish. Helen chooses to conclude her story, as she observes a group of “native minstrels” (p. 376) singing “Paper Doll,” an appropriate image of the arrested nature of both female and black development. She has “got somewhere” if only because she has reached the recognition that she has left her previous certainties (her lying days) behind her.
Six Feet of the Country: Fifteen Short Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956. Includes “Six Feet of the Country,” “Face from Atlantis,” “A Bit of Young Life,” “Enemies,” “Which New Era Would That Be?,” “Out of Season,” “My First Two Women,” “The White Goddess and the Mealie Question,” “Clowns in Clover,” “A Wand'ring Minstrel,” “Happy Event,” “Charmed Lives,” “Horn of Plenty,” “The Cicatrice,” and “The Smell of Death and Flowers.” Also published as Six Feet of the Country, London: Gollancz, 1956, which omits “The White Goddess and the Mealie Question,” and rearranges the sequence.
A World of Strangers. London: Gollancz, 1958. When Toby Hood arrives in South Africa to work in his British family's publishing business, he enters a revolving constellation of disconnected worlds, from Sophiatown to the upper reaches of Johannesburg society. Sophiatown was described by Gordimer as “a place of bachelors” whose casual relationships with women were excluded from “the serious world of deep friendship with men.”1 The stage is set therefore for a close friendship across the racial divide between Toby and Steven Sitole, both politically neutral. Toby, however, has a mistress, Cecil Rowe (her name suggesting the arch-colonizer Cecil Rhodes), who shares Steven's egocentric hedonism. Despite their importance to Toby, Cecil and Steven never meet. Their worlds are too far apart. The novel oscillates between the High House, a luxurious mansion, and the House of Fame in Sophiatown. For Toby, women are also strangers, almost another species, whose appeal depends upon their difference and remoteness. As the plot unfolds, Toby loses Cecil to a conventional marriage, and loses Steven to death in a car chase following a raid on a shebeen. Toby recognizes that there are social factors that inhibit his creed of personal realization, and that he cannot remain distanced from the political and public world. Yet at the end it is not clear whether he will be able to maintain his commitment. When he bids farewell to Sam Mofokenzazi, he promises to return, but Sam remains skeptical. In the scene, the two men have already been forced onto separate stairways. Only one character, Anna Louw, a politically radical Afrikaner, appears to offer an alternative, but the novel ends with Anna in jail. Gordimer's attack on the “awful, triumphant separateness” (p. 203) of apartheid culminates in the novel in the hunt in which Toby participates, entering a world which is separate in time as well as space, an Edwardian time warp in which, dressed in hunting gear as if in an old “Trader Horn” movie, Toby reassumes the imperial heritage, as if reenacting the role of the white hunter. After the hunt, Grace, a setter bitch, is found dead of natural old age. Since the hunt is coterminous with the chase of Steven, it implicates the retrogressive nature of South African society, together with its implicit violence. Steven had less chance of life than Grace and was among the hunted. Toby was with the hunters.
Friday's Footprint. London: Gollancz, 1960. Includes “Friday's Footprint,” “The Last Kiss,” “The Night the Favourite Came Home,” “Little Willie,” “A Style of Her Own,” “The Bridegroom,” “Check Yes or No,” “The Gentle Art,” “The Path of the Moon's Dark Fortnight,” “Our Bovary,” “A Thing of the Past,” “Harry's Presence,” “An Image of Success,” and “Something for the Time Being.” Also published as Friday's Footprint and Other Stories, New York: Viking, 1960, which omits “Something for the Time Being.”
Occasion for Loving. London: Gollancz, 1963. In Occasion for Loving Gordimer engages directly with her own personal past, specifically the fictitious heart problem, here suffered by Jessie Stilwell, who was similarly taken out of school and cocooned by her mother, as an ally against the latter's second husband Bruno Fuecht. Though Jessie thinks she has put this behind her, she realizes at the novel's opening that “she had never left her mother's house.” (p. 8) Impelled by the catalyst of her awkward relationship with Morgan, her son by a previous marriage, Jessie begins to confront her past, at the same time her husband Tom undertakes the writing of a history of Africa.
Jessie's love relationships are marked by an oscillation between hothouse intimacy and emotional detachment. Struck by the potential symmetry of the triangle Morgan, Jessie, Tom with the young Jessie, her mother and stepfather, she has dispatched Morgan to a distant school and maintained him at an emotional arm's length. In contrast her vision of erotic love is romantic, individualist, and antisocial. She believes that to celebrate love is to retire into a world of only two. In her marriage she is uneasy lest this romantic intimacy harden into a conventional, social bond, like a dance which is repeated without any meaning. The correlative is the tribal minedancing (a travesty of the original dances, now performed for tourists), which she watches in horror. “They sang and danced and trampled the past under their feet.” (p. 37) Jessie sees a parallel with her own lost past and with her fear that her love-relation with Tom will become ossified for public display.
When Jessie discovers that Morgan has been frequenting a “taxi dance hall” (where the male pays for partners), she realizes that in order to understand him she must try to grasp what she herself had been at his age. Above all she remembers her sexual fantasies (heavily Oedipal) about her dead (legal) father, and her fears of the black man. Meanwhile Tom, the historian, discovers that Fuecht was Jessie's biological father, but is unable to tell Jessie. The nature of historical respect for truth comes under close scrutiny.
In the household there are also guests, Ann and Boaz Davis. When Ann begins an affair with Gideon Shibalo, a black painter, Jessie attempts to underplay the effect on her. She is a good Liberal, unworried by the race question and tolerant of the private affairs of others. But the love affair offers an image to Jessie in personal terms of the impasse to which she has come, privately, between intimacy and detachment. Gideon and Ann are driven apart less by the law, than by the psychological deformations of having to act in public as black “boy” and white “mistress.” In the end, Ann leaves with her husband for Europe. Gideon, denied a passport, has to remain behind. When Jessie later meets Gideon at a party he simply snarls “White bitch—get away.” (p. 288) She is now as much a social stereotype to Gideon as the black man was to her fantasy projections. Gideon, drunk, forgets what he said, but Jessie, now awakened to historical awareness, will always remember.
Not for Publication and Other Stories. New York: Viking and London: Gollancz, 1965. The American edition includes “Not for Publication,” “Son-in-Law,” “A Company of Laughing Faces,” “Through Time and Distance,” “The Worst Thing of All,” “The Pet,” “One Whole Year and Even More,” “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” “The African Magician,” “Tenants of the Last Treehouse,” “Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,” “Vital Statistics,” “Something for the Time Being,” “Message in a Bottle,” “Native Country,” and “Some Monday for Sure.” The British edition omits “Something for the Time Being.”
The Late Bourgeois World. London: Gollancz, 1966. The events of this short novel cover one day, as Liz Van Den Sandt remembers her former husband Max, who has committed suicide. Max had been a white saboteur, largely ineffectual, whose story was one of failure, betrayal, and jail. He is contrasted, however, with Liz's aged grandmother (a developed version of the rich woman in The First Circle), whose existence is as unchanging as that of the residents of hell. In the residential home for the aged, the seasons pass unnoticed, there is no sense of the day of the week, and her grandmother's amnesia projects a nightmarish image of timeless stasis. In the unchanging decor of her room, surrounded by memorializing photographs, “it always seems that nothing has happened.” (p. 58) In the great nullity of her existence, living upon dividends from past capital, the old lady, emblematic of the South African bourgeoisie, can know change only as death. And the same fate awaits Liz, whose lover tactlessly presents her with the same bouquet previously purchased for the old lady. Max, in contrast, may have failed utterly, but he had at least attempted to do something, to reach out to his fellow black South Africans, rather than remaining only for himself.
Liz's grandmother's fortune, however, offers a potential way forward. Liz has power of attorney over her grandmother's bank account and is approached by Luke Fokase, who needs a means of channeling money from abroad into the coffers of the Pan-Africanist Congress. Is Luke the Orpheus who will lead Liz out of the cloistral inferno? In the novel Liz and her partner Graham admire one of a series of super-sunsets, the probable result of nuclear fallout. At the close of the novel, Max's death has been superseded in the news by the technological exploits of man in space. The conjunction of technological triumphalism with the dying light of the sunsets suggests a potentially apocalyptic future. In the bank account, however, Liz sees a way of turning the weapons of South African capitalism against itself. The novel ends with Liz undecided, but with the thought of the bank account growing “like sexual tumescence.” (p. 86) Like Max, it seems likely that Liz will follow her emotions into a world of time and change.
South African Writing Today. With Lionel Abrahams. London: Penguin, 1967. Includes “Some Monday for Sure.”
A Guest of Honour. New York: Viking, 1970. In A Guest of Honour, Gordimer's longest and most complex novel, two stories are interwoven, that of Evelyn James Bray, a Liberal white returning to an unnamed, newly-independent African country, and that of his mistress Rebecca Edwards. In the novel the ordinary behavior of the characters carries weighty political implications, in a thickly textured world, in which realism never yields to political allegory. Bray has to choose between his wife Olivia, safely back in England, and his mistress. The country is divided between Adamson Mweta, a dictatorial president of a neocolonialist type, who believes in economic gradualism supported by foreign investment, and the more radical trade-unionist, Edward Shinza. Mweta and Olivia are the more sympathetic characters personally. Shinza and Rebecca share an unrepressed sexuality and concern for themselves that is initially repellent. In the past Bray had been expelled by the colonial government for his sympathies with the independence movement. Invited back to become a special education advisor, he discovers once again the community he had left behind, including Roly Dando, the attorney general; the Wentz family, who own the Silver Rhino hotel; Neil Bayley, the principal of the university; and Mr. Joosab of the Indian community. Bray sets to work with his two African assistants, Mr. Aleke and Sampson Malemba.
The initial honeymoon is soon over, however, as Bray discovers that the new government is still using methods of torture and detention, and as he witnesses the triumph of Mweta at the People's Independence Party Congress, at which the women members of the party are marginalized. As the country returns to repressive methods and the British army is invited back to keep order, Bray makes his choices—Shinza's socialist vision, Rebecca's passion—but is ambushed and killed, ironically by Shinza's forces who have mistaken him for a white mercenary. In a sense he is on a mercenary mission. Bray has agreed to go abroad secretly to raise funds for Shinza. He agrees to the mission partly in order to travel with Rebecca, whose capital he has safely transferred to a Swiss bank account, bleeding the country of necessary settler funds. (Rebecca's husband Gordon, a defender of South Africa, is absent in the Congo making money.) The ironies of the novel extend to the minor characters. Hjalmar Wentz had saved his Jewish wife, Margo, from Nazi Germany. Now his daughter Emmanuelle saves her lover Ras Asahe, implicated in a right-wing coup, by smuggling him out of the country. Margo's fury (as her daughter escapes from parental control) coincides with Mweta's show of political muscle, in a series of parallels between authoritarianism in the public and familial spheres.
After Bray's death the third-person narrative shifts to Rebecca's viewpoint, as she escapes to Switzerland and then England. Mweta meanwhile memorializes Bray as a faithful friend of the country and “publishes a blueprint for the country's new education scheme, the Bray report” (p. 525), co-opting his ideas for expedient ends. The press describe him as Mweta's “White Man Friday,” “a martyr to savages” (p. 503), and as a representative example in a journal article devoted to “The Decline of Liberalism.” Yet although Bray is appropriated, written off in Western rhetoric and subsumed to neocolonialist political norms, Gordimer's achievement in the novel is to demonstrate the yawning gap between the public record and the reality of Bray's life. The reader is unlikely to take such reports on trust again. While many critics have read the novel as disengaged from South African realities, in favor of a broader political sweep, Clingman notes that its publication coincided with the espousal of a neocolonialist agenda in the 1960s, when the South African government set up a special relationship with Malawi, offered to send troops elsewhere in Africa on request, and provided police for Rhodesia. The parallels between the wider world and the domestic South African policy repeat the ironic public/familial juxtapositions of the novel's action. Cited specifically by the Nobel Prize committee, which called the novel a landmark of the first half of Gordimer's career, it has received less critical attention than most of her writing, though Clingman, Head, Newman, and Temple-Thurston give it special prominence in their book-length studies.
Livingstone's Companions. New York: Viking, 1971 and London: Cape, 1972. Includes “Livingstone's Companions,” “A Third Presence,” “The Credibility Gap,” “Abroad,” “An Intruder,” “Inkalamu's Place,” “The Life of the Imagination,” “A Meeting in Space,” “Open House,” “Rain Queen,” “The Bride of Christ,” “No Place Like,” “Otherwise Birds Fly In,” “A Satisfactory Settlement,” “Why Haven't You Written?,” and “Africa Emergent.”
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing. Johannesburg: Spro-Cas Ravan, 1973. Generally considered to mark an important stage in Gordimer's development, this is a critical study of South African poetry and black fiction in general. Importantly the definition Gordimer gives African literature would also apply to her own writing:
My own definition is that African writing is writing done in any language by Africans themselves and by others of whatever skin colour who share with Africans the experience of having been shaped, mentally and spiritually, by Africa rather than anywhere else in the world. One must look at the world from Africa to be an African writer, not look upon Africa from the world.
Arguably, the work marks the rejection of Gordimer's earlier confidence in a national literature. With the silencing of a generation of South African black writers in the 1960s, Gordimer turned towards African literature, and a deeper re-engagement with African culture followed. Gordimer had lectured on the topic to the University of Cape Town's Public Summer School in 1969, which formed the basis of the critical book. As a result, the lectures have been understood as crucially important to an understanding of A Guest of Honour, which was written over the same period, especially in the distinction Gordimer makes between European and African writing. In the former, she argues, the orthodox social novel has become worn out, as has the experience of psychological exploration. European writers are turning to ever more bizarre forms of experimentation, in which even the experience of communication has become a problem. In Africa, on the other hand, it is external reality that has to be accounted for and social problems that have to be solved. The problem of communication is still “the practical one of roads and telephone wires.” (p. 10) In African fiction, therefore, content may take precedence over form, realism over experimentation, the external world over the internal and subjective world. Gordimer's remarks on European Modernism were influenced by Georg Lukács's arguments in The Meaning of Contemporary Realism, which she was then reading; in The Black Interpreters she claims that “critical realism” represents the most important genre in African writing.
On the Mines. With David Goldblatt. Cape Town: Struik, 1973. Gordimer's first collaboration with David Goldblatt on a photographic essay is most notable for her descriptions of the mining area of her childhood as a man-made landscape. “It was ugly. Rusted iron, a three-day beard of prickly khaki weed, the veld burned off, and the sand blowing in the season that passes for spring, in Africa.” (p. 7) The parallels between external reality and a certain barren bleakness of the spirit do not need to be belabored. The aesthetic ugliness of the surroundings is a correlative to the alienation of the colonial inhabitants, described by Gordimer as “a company of strangers in a place without a past, with nothing to quiet that certain spiritual hunger whose bread is memory.” (p. 2)
The Conservationist. London: Cape, 1974. Where her preceding novel juxtaposed male and female stories, The Conservationist offers a frame tale concerned with white businessman (and weekend farmer) Mehring, and a subtextual story which concerns the events in the lives of Mehring's black workers over the space of one year. Essentially symbolic, and largely proceeding in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness mode, the novel is designed to resist easy plot summary, and to ask the reader to confront warring explanations of events. When a black body is carelessly buried on the farm by the police, it slowly resurfaces, symbolically repossessing the land, just as it begins to take over Mehring's consciousness. The dead man is discovered in a reed bed, in an explicit reference to the Amazulu myth of origins, in which the cult of ancestors is connected to a bed of reeds. In the black story, the attack on Solomon, a farm servant, is connected with the revenge of the ancestor, the fire which follows with Zulu rainmaking practices, and the spirit possession of Phineas's wife, with the belief that ancestors are tormenting the possessed person. Phineas's wife conjures up visions of floods, and an actual flood washes the corpse out of the ground to be reburied with due honor and ceremony.
In contrast, Mehring sees the land largely in material terms, as a reflection of his own profoundly colonialist identity, which also finds expression in his objectifying attitude to women, specifically a young Portuguese girl whom he sexually molests on a plane journey, and his former mistress Antonia, now in exile. Mehring has a sharp and sensuous appreciation of beauty, both of the landscape and of the female form, but it is an appreciation which depends on possession and narcissism. Similarly, enclosed solipsistic worlds recur throughout the novel. Near the farm the neighboring Indians' shop offers an image of a closed world which interacts with black customers only in materialistic and aggressive fashion. In one scene, the shopkeeper Bismillah is rudely dismissive to Dorcas's black husband. The episode dramatizes the lack of consensus in South Africa, the separate existence of different codes and circumscribed worlds. When Mehring's son Terry returns for a visit, the action focuses again on problems of communication. Neither father nor son can engage with the real subjects underlying their conversations, Terry's impending military service, his possible homosexuality, and his clear intention to go into exile abroad. Unlike the Zulu diviners, Terry and his father lack any subtlety in reading the subtexts of human behavior.
At the close of the novel, after the road to the farm has been washed away, the black farm workers simply take over, competently running the farm without white supervision. The ending—often misread as implying Mehring's death—leaves the white center of consciousness entirely isolated from any legitimating external perspective. Mehring picks up a female hitchhiker and takes her to an area of industrial mine dumps, but is interrupted as he is about to possess the woman sexually, by the sight of two male legs in the corner of his field of vision. Mehring may have been lured to his death by a black prostitute, in league with muggers, or he may have been arrested for interracial sexual activity by a policeman. The problems the ending poses for the reader hinge upon the question: What is real? Has a well-meaning white man been murdered by black thugs? Or has he been arrested by a repressive regime? Has he, as an industrialist, been developing and conserving the country? Or has he been guilty of industrial rape and despoilment? These fictional problems are precisely those posed by South Africa, a lack of shared vision, language, or normality. To be true to the political situation, Gordimer resists translating events into the realism of a materialist society.
Selected Stories. London: Cape, 1975 and New York: Viking, 1976. (Also published as No Place Like: Selected Stories. London: Penguin, 1978.) The thirty-one stories were selected from previous collections by Gordimer and comprise “Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?,” “The Soft Voice of the Serpent,” “Ah, Woe Is Me,” “The Catch,” “The Train from Rhodesia,” “A Bit of Young Life,” “Six Feet of the Country,” “Which New Era Would That Be?,” “Enemies,” “Happy Event,” “The Smell of Death and Flowers,” “Friday's Footprint,” “The Night the Favourite Came Home,” “The Bridegroom,” “The Last Kiss,” “The Gentle Art,” “Something for the Time Being,” “A Company of Laughing Faces,” “Not for Publication,” “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” “Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,” “The African Magician,” “Some Monday for Sure,” “Abroad,” “Livingstone's Companions,” “An Intruder,” “Open House,” “Rain Queen,” “No Place Like,” “The Life of the Imagination,” and “Africa Emergent.” A shorter version, Some Monday for Sure, African Writers series No. 177 (London: Heinemann, 1976) published thirteen stories. Gordimer's introduction to the volume allows her to reflect on the changes in herself and in her society over the period in which the stories were composed.
Burger's Daughter. London: Cape, 1979. The novel is set during the teenage and young adult years of Rosa Burger, daughter of Lionel Burger, a white Afrikaner Communist hero, who dies in jail. Rosa is born in May 1948, the date at which the Nationalist Party took power in South Africa, and the novel ends with the Soweto Rising of 1976. In between these two dates, Rosa faces the problems of being her father's daughter and of conforming to the orthodoxy of opposition; “defects” for a short period, to live a purely sensual existence in France; and finally returns to South Africa where the story leaves her, in jail. Rosa's sexuality is a prime force for change. An affair with the mysterious Conrad at first convinces Rosa of the need to put her private existence first, as opposed to her former playmate Clare Terblanche, a dutiful and entirely un-erotic figure, who serves only the revolution. When Rosa sees a donkey beaten to death on the veld, her decision is reinforced: “even animals have the instinct to turn from suffering.” (p. 73) She persuades Brandt Vermeulen, a member of the notorious Broederbond, the powerful Afrikaner brotherhood, to give her a passport. In Europe, however, despite a life of sensual immediacy as the mistress of Bernard Chabalier and the guest of her father's first wife, Katya Bagnelli, Rosa encounters Zwelinzima Vulindlela (“Suffering Land”), whom she knew as a child as “Baasie,” the adopted black brother who lived for a time with her family. Baasie forces her to confront her own complicity as a white South African. In an epiphanic moment, she contemplates the tapestries of “La Dame à la Licorne” in Paris, tapestries which celebrate the five senses, but in the sixth tapestry enjoin their renunciation in favor of the exercise of individual free will. Renouncing a life of sensual individualism, Rosa returns to South Africa to work as a physiotherapist in a black hospital. Sixteen months later she is jailed with other dissidents, including Clare and Marisa Kgosana (modeled on Winnie Mandela), and finds herself in solitary confinement just like her father. She will be charged with aiding and abetting the schoolchildren's revolt.
A Soldier's Embrace. New York: Viking and London: Cape, 1980. Comprises “A Soldier's Embrace,” “A Lion on the Freeway,” “Siblings,” “Time Did,” “A Hunting Accident,” “For Dear Life,” “Town and Country Lovers One and Two,” “A Mad One,” “You Name It,” “The Termitary,” “The Need for Something Sweet,” and “Oral History.”
Town and Country Lovers. Los Angeles: Sylvester and Orphanos, 1980. These two stories were also published as “City Lovers” and “Country Lovers.”
Nadine Gordimer, John Dugard, and Richard Smith, What Happened to Burger's Daughter or How South African Censorship Works. Johannesburg: Taurus, 1980. Gordimer reproduces the comments of the Publications Control Board on the reasons for banning the novel (which included banned material from the Soweto Students Representative Council), and systematically rebuts them.
July's People. London: Cape, 1981. Set in an apocalyptic future, in a period of interregnum between the Republic of South Africa and some future state, July's People focuses on Bam and Maureen Smales, who take refuge with their children from the strife of Johannesburg in their servant July's native village. Maureen discovers just how little she actually knows of July (including his real name, Mwawate) and just how little glue there is to hold her relationship with Bam together, once they have left their comfortable suburban life behind. Defeminized by life in a mud hut, Maureen is also obscurely liberated, abandoning her children in the final scene as she races towards the army helicopter which may contain saviors or killers. Similarly, Bam's masculine role is erased as the props of his masculinity (his gun, his truck) are taken over by July and his people, and as he is summoned to pay respectful homage to the local chief. Aghast, the Smales realize that their imagined liberation war is envisaged by the chief as an intertribal conflict. He has his own agenda to which their ideas are irrelevant. The first of Gordimer's novels to engage with rural African life, the story demythologizes romantic images of the African village, especially in the treatment of the black characters, Daniel and Martha (Mwawate's wife). At the same time the theme of migration is explored. July had a life in the city and a mistress, and the Smales's loss of status is a loss also for him. Who are his “people”—his rural family, his urban friends, or his white family?
Six Feet of the Country. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982. The collection of stories (“Six Feet of the Country,” “Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,” “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” “City Lovers,” “Country Lovers,” “Not for Publication,” and “Oral History”) was published as a result of the making of a television series adapting six of Gordimer's stories.
Something Out There. New York: Viking, London: Cape, and Johannesburg: Ravan/Taurus, 1984. Comprises “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living,” “At the Rendezvous of Victory,” “Letter from His Father,” “Crimes of Conscience,” “Sins of the Third Age,” “Blinder,” “Rags and Bones,” “Terminal,” “A Correspondence Course,” and “Something Out There.” If one theme runs through this landmark collection it is that of betrayal, both in political terms and in intimate human relationships. In “Crimes of Conscience,” the Liberal lover is revealed as a police spy. In “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living,” the black woman betrays the terrorist who has been sharing her domestic intimacy. In “At the Rendezvous of Victory,” the guerrilla leader is sidelined once freedom has been achieved. Looking back over the past, Franz Kafka's father reproaches a son whom he sees as having betrayed and falsified the nature of their relationship. In other stories the betrayal is at the hands of the future. A would-be suicide is revived despite promises originally made to the contrary in “Terminal.” A happy retirement is destroyed by marital infidelity in “Sins of the Third Age.” Attempts to pre-plan the future, to keep emotions and lives in safe compartments, continually break down as “something out there” erupts into the protected inner spaces of relationships, families, and homes. External and internal spaces are drawn together in the controlling metaphor of the territorial imperative, whether in relation to the cramped house of a township dweller, the protected garden of the white Liberal (“A Correspondence Course”), or the homeland from which a migrant worker's widow suddenly appears, in a suburban dining room to claim her rights (“Blinder”). The title story, a novella of some eighty pages, interweaves two plots, that of a group of terrorists planning an attack on a power station, and that concerning a mysterious ape which plunders the suburbs of white Johannesburg. The two plots evolve together, the monkey disappearing from view at the same time as the terrorists, his attack on a white South African juxtaposed with the terrorists' attack on the power station, his death reported coincidentally with the death of a saboteur. Ape and man are identified in a provocative parallel which questions whether the terrorist is merely a brute, and more generally whether man is essentially only and always a naked ape, a territorial creature.
Lifetimes: Under Apartheid. With David Goldblatt. London: Cape, 1986. The book combines extracts from Gordimer's writing with powerful photographs of black dispossession, often juxtaposed with images of triumphant white culture, to polemic purposes. Although some of the images are familiar to any reader following the political history of South Africa—army patrols, political funerals, police wielding sjamboks, tsotsis (gangsters) in Soweto—others give much more of a sense of the familiar daily existence of black and white (a white boy with his black nanny, a “Miss Lovely Legs” contest for white girls in a supermarket, an Afrikaner teenager in her ballet tutu on the stoep of her family home, migrant workers and their deserted rural homes). “Farmer Johannes van der Linde, with his head labourer, Ou Sam, near Bloemfontein, 1965” almost appears to be the model for Mehring's neighbor in The Conservationist or the farmer in “The Moment before the Gun Went Off.” Goldbatt's photographs appear to illustrate the novel extracts most powerfully in the final image of a fifteen-year-old black youth after release from detention, staring wide-eyed at the camera with both his arms in fresh white plaster. On the facing page the extract from Burger's Daughter reads:
No one can defect. I don't know the ideology; It's about suffering. How to end suffering. And it ends in suffering. Yes it's strange to live in a country where there are still heroes.(2)
A Sport of Nature. London: Cape, 1987. Covering a period from the 1950s to a future independent South Africa, and a trajectory which encompasses Tanzania, Ghana, Eastern Europe, and America, A Sport of Nature is the most geographically and historically sweeping of Gordimer's novels, moving its heroine, Hillela Capran, at a dizzying pace through a disrupted childhood, abandonment by her mother at the age of four, expulsion from boarding school, abandonment by her father, adoption by her aunts Olga and Pauline, expulsion from home by Pauline for sleeping with her cousin Sasha, and a series of sexual adventures. The sexual adventures take her to Tanzania as the mistress of a white activist; followed by marriage to a black South African revolutionary, Whaila Kgomani, who is brutally assassinated; a relationship with a white American; and a second marriage to Reuel, a black African general who becomes president of the Organization for African Unity. Together Reuel and Hillela preside at the independence celebrations for the new South Africa, sometime in the future. A cast of thousands includes fictional characters from Gordimer's other novels (Rosa Burger) and such historical figures as Nelson Mandela, Chief Luthuli, and Joshua Nkomo. The novel is narrated by a mysterious biographer, apparently writing the story of Hillela's life using a variety of contradictory sources with their own biases and uncertainties. Hillela's uninhibited sexuality introduces the politics of the body into more orthodox accounts of revolutionary history, often with deeply ironic effects, mixing passion with satire.
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places. With Stephen Clingman. London: Cape, 1988. Gordimer's essays have been a continual accompaniment to her fiction. Clingman's collection offers autobiographical and biographical pieces (Chief Luthuli and Bram Fischer are two of the subjects), speeches, commentary on South African politics and on writing, and a good selection of Gordimer's travel writing, describing visits to Ghana, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, the Congo, Botswana, and the “independent homeland” of Transkei. In her essay on the latter, “A Vision of Two Blood-Red Suns,” she relates the details of the Xhosa cattle-killings of 1857, as a result of which sixty-eight thousand Xhosas starved—material later reworked in A Sport of Nature. Reviewers found Gordimer's travel writing a revelation for its sharp detail and vivid evocation of the sense of place. The testimonial quality of the other pieces tended to raise hackles or at least to suggest to reviewers that she was altogether better as an imaginative writer than when constrained within the limits of public rhetoric. Gordimer recognized the problem. “I have to offer you myself as my most closely observed specimen from the interregnum; yet I remain a writer, not a public speaker: nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction.” (p. 264) Denis Donoghue, writing in The New Republic, detected a tendency to make indelicately high claims for Gordimer's sensibility and high-mindedness, and a touch of vanity in her proclaimed self-abnegation.3 Throughout the collection the question of the future for whites in South Africa, the nature of the transformations which they must undergo to remain, runs as a connecting thread. The core of the collection occurs in the title essay's conclusion, “The transformation of experience remains the writer's basic essential gesture; the lifting out of a limited category something that reveals its full meaning and significance only when the writer's imagination has expanded it.” (p. 298)
My Son's Story. London: Bloomsbury, 1990. My Son's Story has been seen as Gordimer's first unequivocally feminist novel, as the story passes from the control of the father Sonny to that of Aila, the mother. Set in the early 1980s the novel describes the experiences of a respectable coloured schoolteacher, Sonny, who becomes an ANC activist and speechmaker, falls in love with a white revolutionary, Hannah, and sees his son Will alienated, and his daughter Baby a would-be suicide as a result. The surprise of the novel is that the two wordsmiths, Sonny, successively marginalized by the evolution of the political struggle, and Will, his writer son, are left behind by the women, as both Baby and Aila become involved in politics and end up in exile in Zambia. While Sonny and Will have been trying to protect Aila from the truth of Sonny's affair and from Sonny's political involvements, Aila has actually become fully involved with the armed wing of the resistance struggle, a far more dangerous activity.
Crimes of Conscience. London: Heinemann, 1991. Comprises “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living,” “Country Lovers,” “A Soldier's Embrace,” “A Hunting Accident,” “Blinder,” “A Correspondence Course,” “The Termitary,” “Crimes of Conscience,” “Oral History,” “At the Rendezvous of Victory,” and “The Ultimate Safari.”
Jump and Other Stories. Cape Town: Philip and London: Bloomsbury, 1991. Comprises “Jump,” “Once upon a Time,” “The Ultimate Safari,” “A Find,” “My Father Leaves Home,” “Some Are Born to Sweet Delight,” “Comrades,” “Teraloyna,” “The Moment before the Gun Went Off,” “Home,” “A Journey,” “Spoils,” “Safe Houses,” “What Were You Dreaming?,” “Keeping Fit,” and “Amnesty.” Based on the form of oral tale known as a “jump story,” in which the tale ends abruptly in physical contact, usually as the storyteller tickles, grabs, or pounces on a listener, the collection emphasizes predation with its repeated images of the hunt or the sexual chase, of children caught, seized, or abducted, or vulnerable to wild beasts.
Why Haven't You Written? Selected Stories 1950–1972. London: Penguin, 1992. Comprises “The Kindest Thing to Do,” “The Defeated,” “A Watcher of the Dead,” “Treasures of the Sea,” “The Prisoner,” “The Amateurs,” “A Present for a Good Girl,” “La Vie Bohème,” “Another Part of the Sky,” “The Umbilical Cord,” “The Talisman,” “The End of the Tunnel,” “Monday Is Better than Sunday,” “In the Beginning,” “A Third Presence,” “The Credibility Gap,” “Inkalamu's Place,” “The Bride of Christ,” “A Meeting in Space,” “Otherwise Birds Fly In,” “A Satisfactory Settlement,” and “Why Haven't You Written?”
None to Accompany Me. London: Bloomsbury, 1994. Set after Nelson Mandela's release from prison in February 1990, and before the free elections of May 1994, the novel engages directly with historical events such as the assassination of Chris Hane in 1992, and the role of Joe Slovo (Dave in the novel) in the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Two families are the focus for the action. Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma and their daughter Mpho return from exile after twenty years, and find that Didymus, previously an important figure, is now sidelined, while his faithful helpmate Sibongile becomes a power in her own right. Mpho, however, is less easily adaptable. She has never lived in South Africa and after an aborted pregnancy ends up at college in New York, radically deracinated. Vera and Bennet Stark have never left South Africa and have brought up their children Ivan and Annie there, yet Vera, the central protagonist of the novel, slowly shucks off her settled habits, home, and husband, coming to terms with her own past while fighting for the rights of black communities to homes of their own. Vera's developing friendship with her clerk Oupa (murdered by robbers on a visit to his family in their rural village) and with Zeph Rapulana, spokesman for a group of black squatters, exposes her to the full ambiguity of the meaning of “home” for South Africans. Ivan and Ben end up living together in England, while Annie moves into a fashionably decorated designer home in Cape Town with her lesbian lover and their adopted black baby. In a reversal of roles, the daughter is astounded at the mother's claims to free sexual identity and a life of her own. In complex ways, the novel engages with the theme of making a new nation, a home with room for many different individuals and social groups.
Writing and Being: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995. In Writing and Being, Gordimer produced a book-length meditation on the relationship of testimony to imagination. For Gordimer the connection between fiction and auto/biography was initially a vexed one, tending to confirm the popular image of the writer as merely the looter of other people's lives. Instead Gordimer characterizes the writer's relation to real personages as akin to Primo Levi's “metamir”: a metaphysical mirror which does not obey the rules of optics “but reproduces your image as it is seen by the person who stands before you.” (p. 5) Writing Burger's Daughter as an homage (critical as well as hagiographical) to the revolutionary hero Bram Fischer, Gordimer carefully avoided his family to ensure the primacy of invention over facticity. Yet when his daughter read the completed manuscript, she simply declared, “This was our life.” (p. 12) The vision of the novelist rendered a keener truth than could have been provided by the analyst's notebook, diaries, letters, or biographical research. Gordimer nonetheless pays tribute to the moral force of testimony in South Africa, discussing two autobiographies of convicted “terrorists,” Ronnie Kasrils's Armed and Dangerous (a melodramatic account of the adventures of the “red Pimpernel,” the head of Umkhonto we Sizwe) and Carl Niehaus's devoutly Christian Fighting for Hope. For all their strengths, however, in Gordimer's view they pale beside the responses to imprisonment of two other revolutionaries, Wally Serote and Jeremy Cronin, both poets. “The imagination has a longer reach. … When testimony has been filed, out of date, poetry continues to carry the experience from which the narrative has fallen away.” (p. 41) Succeeding chapters consider three writers, Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Oz, for whom the domination of their society by an outside power had made “home” a vexed term, and produced resistance to the occupation of the national personality. For these three writers, their identities at risk of appropriation, or deformation, “The truth is the real definition of ‘home’; it is the final destination of the human spirit beyond national boundaries.” (p. 45)
The House Gun. London: Bloomsbury, 1998. Harald and Claudia Lindgard are horrified when their son Duncan is arrested for the murder of his ex-lover, Carl Jesperson. Duncan (now apparently heterosexual) found his girlfriend Natalie James making love with Carl on the living room couch, and shot him with the “house gun,” left carelessly on a coffee table. The plot is complicated by the fact that Duncan shoots Carl after a day's delay spent waiting for Natalie to return to their garden cottage in the grounds of the large house where Carl lives with a group of gay friends. A black South African defense attorney, Hamilton Motsamai, succeeds in getting Duncan a light sentence of only seven years, partly by uncovering the fact of Natalie's pregnancy (though not the identity of the baby's father). Claudia and Harald see in the unborn child some faint hope for their future. Duncan's black friend Nkululeko Dladla is also a supportive figure. On one level, the novel seems to suggest that human solidarity can grow out of an apparent disaster. Yet it was when Duncan originally saved a distinctly ungrateful Natalie from suicide that he initiated the disastrous sequence of events. Beneath the surface level of detective-story plot and soap opera reconciliation are darker, unacknowledged emotional currents.
Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century. London: Bloomsbury and New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999. The volume collects essays and addresses delivered over four decades, which reflect Gordimer's life as a public figure, including reminiscences of Nelson Mandela and Günter Grass; correspondence with Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe; and reflections on race, globalization, apartheid and its aftermath, and literary criticism, ranging from African fiction to Joseph Roth. It includes Gordimer's 1991 Nobel Prize lecture. The pieces offer a kaleidoscopic view of South Africa from Gordimer's 1959 account of the evils of apartheid through to her view from the queue on the first day that blacks and whites voted together.
Probably the best starting point for the new reader of Gordimer's work is Barbara Temple-Thurston's Nadine Gordimer Revisited (1999), which is thoroughly up to date, meticulously researched and (within the constraints of the Twayne's World Authors Series) consistently challenging. Though this volume does not engage with the shorter fiction, the discussions of A Guest of Honour, A Sport of Nature, and My Son's Story are outstandingly good. A particular strength in the volume is the careful attention to political and historical context, and the judicious evaluation of other critical views.
In The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (1992), Stephen Clingman reads Gordimer's life and work largely in terms of the conditioning force of South Africa, situating her novels in relation to social and ideological codes and charting their response to the history of their society. This is the second edition of a volume originally published in 1986 and immediately identified as the major critical study of Gordimer's novels. It is indispensable, both as a study of the novels, which displays critical acumen, political sophistication, and solid research skills, and for information on the historical and social context of Gordimer's work. Although no history is more mysterious than the history of yesterday (and there are silences of political exigency in accounts of South African history), Clingman relates each novel tellingly to its historical moment. Readers with an interest in any area of South African literature could draw usefully upon the fund of historical detail provided here, including precise descriptions of the cultural renaissance of the 1950s, accounts of the censorship process in action, correspondence between characters and their partial originals, and a helpful identification of the weltering acronyms of the South African political world. This is a work which can only grow in importance as the apartheid era fades into memory. The literary context is also firmly established. Clingman draws intriguing comparisons between Gordimer's works and those of Olive Schreiner, Alan Paton, J. M. Coetzee, and others. Though the major emphasis falls on the relationship of consciousness to class, the analysis brings out the significance of romanticism and realism in the fiction, the contradictions between historical and existential assumptions, and the way in which individual novels offer hypotheses which are then rigorously tested in imaginative recreation. Clingman is also adept at spotting the silences of the novels, such as Gordimer's omission of the African Mineworkers' Strike of 1946 from The Lying Days, and of the Sharpeville atrocity from Occasion for Loving.
Gordimer's early work comes in for special consideration. With characteristic generosity, Gordimer granted free access to her manuscripts and papers and Clingman therefore benefited from consultation of early unpublished novels. The book pays relatively little attention to the short stories, and underplays the importance of gender, but it is nonetheless the most substantial and well-informed study available. In the second edition, Clingman wisely did not revise the original argument, feeling that the book was written from a specific time and setting, with a particular form of vision which should be left inviolate. The reader might wish, however, that Clingman had sullied the historical purity of the index. The browsing reader would assume that there was no mention of A Sport of Nature or My Son's Story, neither of which are found in the index or bibliography. The endnotes also refer only to the original edition. The new material amounts to a prologue of thirty-four pages, offering a discussion of A Sport of Nature and My Son's Story. In the former, Clingman emphasizes the role of physicality as fundamental to resistance against oppression. In My Son's Story, Clingman detects an emphasis on transition and doubleness with politics sexualized as almost all the characters discover that one can be seduced in various ways by politics, and politicized in ambivalent forms by love. The resultant crisis of language produces a persuasive image of the writer as the one who fills gaps and silences, operating between the all-too-sayable and the never said.
In Betrayals of the Body Politic: The Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer (1992), Andrew Vogel Ettin's approach is quite the reverse of Clingman's, yet his largely ahistorical method shares some of Clingman's concerns. For Ettin, Gordimer has always been telling the same story, a tale full of betrayal and deception, revolving around the politics of the family, the ambivalent relation of the individual to home, sensuous experience, and issues of social self identity. The pursuit of patterns of imagery and theme initially appears old-fashioned, but it yields some valuable results. A major strength is the attention paid to the short stories, generally neglected in critical studies. For Ettin, Gordimer sings the body electric, with sexuality as the way out from the white family into social freedom. Her general distaste for feminism is persuasively read as the product of her firm socioeconomic grasp: in the context of South Africa she envisages feminism as elitist, arising from the bourgeois white intellectual's refusal to face up to her true position of power. Feminism becomes a surrogate protest; the racial situation is the real. Ettin highlights the role of the physical and sensuous in the fiction. Inevitably the achronological, thematic range sacrifices a sense of the voice and structure of individual novels. The grand lines are lost, though the detailed close-ups gain in definition. On the other hand the multiple narrators of the later short stories are investigated as denying the privilege of an individual vantage point (excellent readings of “Blinder” and “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living”), and Ettin is good on what the stories do not say, or refuse to articulate (“Crimes of Conscience” and “Rags and Bones”). Although the two horses of political and personal are not kept in perfect pace, the overarching concept of the writer is suggestively elaborated, as an intruder shamelessly prying into our lives, betraying the patterns and structures to which we have become so accustomed that we no longer notice them.
Neither Clingman nor Ettin make much of the vital dimension of narrative voice in the novels. Ettin's speculations on the ending of A Sport of Nature (questioning whether the final ejaculatory images meant to validate black, male sexuality, for example) all depend on who is telling the story. Narrative voice, however, is a distinctive feature of Judie Newman's Nadine Gordimer (1988), a study which respects the precise specificities of narrative structures, arguing that individual novels subvert Eurocentric conventions and pose the question “Whose story is it?” quite variously: by establishing a counterpoint between male and female protagonists, white and black interpreters; by employing double plots which readjust the relation between social context, text and subtext; by the reconstruction of the implied reader; and by interrogating the linguistics of the South African cultural voice. The relation between gender and genre is a particular focus here.
In a more “personal” reading in The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes (1985), John Cooke emphasizes Gordimer's unusual childhood as a decisive influence, noting the recurrent motif of the possessive mother, and suggesting that Gordimer has endowed her private history with public associations, notably in the proposition that liberation from familial restraints requires a challenge to the dominant political order. The theme of landscape is illuminatingly evaluated.
Rose Pettersson (Nadine Gordimer's One Story of a State Apart, 1995) understands the fiction as growing out of two warring imperatives, the deep abhorrence of apartheid, and the resistance to an orthodoxy of opposition. Pettersson operates comparatively, making a persuasive case for close resemblances between such novels as A Guest of Honour and A Sport of Nature (as two novels concerning Africa after independence, which exhibit similar correlations of sexual freedom with political radicalism), and Burger's Daughter and My Son's Story (similar revolutionary, but silent and absent, mother figures), thus undercutting ideas of development across the writing career. All the novels are covered, up to and including My Son's Story.
Kathrin Wagner's study of Nadine Gordimer (Rereading Nadine Gordimer, 1994) should be treated with caution. Wagner is avowedly revisionary, setting out to examine the survival in the novels of cultural and ethnic stereotypes of a conservative, Eurocentric or settler nature, stereotypes which conflict with the intended ideological message, and therefore qualify Gordimer's commitment. Some 250 pages later she concludes that Gordimer encodes at subtextual level the mental perspectives and mindsets which underlie the prejudices she overtly rejects. Along the way Gordimer is convicted of anti-feminism, Liberalism, idealization of blacks, ignoring class realities, emotional coldness, and various forms of “thought crime.” Even allowing for the current fashion of writing books about writers of whom one (rigorously and critically, of course) disapproves, the persistent carping and nitpicking make for depressing reading. Unlike the work of Stephen Clingman, Wagner's “history from the inside” is not so much the response to great men or movements but the product of D. H. Fischer's “furtive fallacy”: the idea that history is the product of submerged guilts, fears, and repressions.4 As a result Wagner's book fails on several counts. Where Wagner argues for a suppressed subtext which Gordimer has “internalised and expressed,” others might well substitute “externalized and satirized.” That Gordimer might actually know what she is doing is suggested by the conscious marking of intertexts in the fiction by the use of precise citation, or unmistakably overt reference. Wagner describes My Son's Story as displaying insistent references to the great icons of Western culture (e.g., Shakespeare) as if that were sufficient to convict Gordimer of Eurocentrism. Julius Nyerere's Mabepari wa Venisi (The Capitalists of Venice) is enough to demonstrate the reverse.
Wagner also concentrates entirely on novels in part because (in her view) the greater complexity of the form allows contradictions and gaps to emerge more clearly than in the more “controlled” form of the short story. In the first place the argument that Gordimer's Freudian slip is more likely to be showing in the novels is dubious. (Repression is repression is repression.) And secondly the stories offer counter-evidence to Wagner's argument. To take one example, Wagner argues that political action in Gordimer's work is always tentative or potential; in “Something Out There,” four saboteurs blow up a power station. For Wagner, Gordimer romanticizes the African connection to the land in terms of pastoral nostalgia; “Something Out There” closes with a depiction of pre-settler African mine-workings, deliberately evoking a complex industrial history. Similarly, Wagner argues that the oppression of servants is elided in the novels—but even a cursory glance at the short stories disproves the point (“Blinder,” for example). Gordimer may well be compromised in many ways by her South African upbringing (as she has candidly admitted herself), but who is not? What Wagner says of Gordimer is true only as far as it is true of all novelists who have lived through interesting times and kept on writing. Wagner seems to be measuring Gordimer against some impossibly pure ideal of uncontaminated literary purity.
Dominic Head (Nadine Gordimer, 1994) offers a useful corrective to Wagner in his emphasis on the politics of textuality, and the “literariness” of Gordimer's writing, which he envisages as a quest for a hybridized cultural expression, fusing African and European literary forms. Throughout, there is a useful focus on ideas of space and of the body. Head covers the novels up to 1990, with a fresh discussion of the earlier fiction, and a chapter on the short stories, which he defends as purposive exploitations of ambiguity. The discussion of intertextual references in the short fiction is both sensitive to literary detail and suggestive in broader terms. The references to Alan Paton in “Another Part of the Sky” (1952), for example, demonstrate that Gordimer was thinking well beyond the Liberal position even this early in her career. One virtue of this study is to reveal the continuities of theme and method which underlie the fiction.
Michael Wade (Nadine Gordimer, 1978) deserves a special mention in any discussion of Gordimer's critics, as offering one of the earliest and also one of the most sustained considerations of her writing. Discussing novels (up to and including The Conservationist) and giving considerable attention to the short stories, Wade explores the motif of “Europe in Africa,” arguing that a major theme of the fiction is the collapse of the romantic hero, as whites in Africa who do not give themselves to Africa are increasingly irrelevant. In his more recent study (White on Black in South Africa, 1993, unfinished at his death in exile), he explores the tendency of the white South African community to discover its own identity in relation to the “Other,” whether Afrikaner or African. Gordimer's writing over a thirty year period marks a major change in the psychic functioning of white South Africa, demonstrating a clearer understanding of its own identity. For Wade there is an unwritten, repressed Jewish theme in Gordimer's writing, which also impacts upon her construction of the “Other.”
Three collections are worthy of note. Rowland Smith (as editor of Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, 1990) offers a spectrum of the most useful scholarship by major critics. The essays cover the period from 1953 to 1986, with contributors from four continents and very different critical perspectives. (They include Robert Green, Stephen Gray, Elaine Fido, John Cooke, Judie Newman, Sheila Roberts, and Stephen Clingman, among others.) Dorothy Driver's essay on the politicization of women in Gordimer's work deserves to be singled out as of special interest. The editor's introduction is a first rate account of Gordimer's historical and artistic development.
Bruce King (editing The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, 1993) has brought together fifteen essays, usefully discussing the later fiction. Though the collection as a whole (and some of the essays) suffers from some lack of focus, it is worth singling out Michael Wade's evaluation of the place of Jewishness in Gordimer's writing, Karen Lazar's essay on the ambiguities of Gordimer's feminism, Graham Huggan on commitment, and Lars Engle on the political uncanny.
Finally, Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour have edited Conversations with Nadine Gordimer (1990), which gathers together almost all of Gordimer's major literary interviews from 1958 to 1989, arranged chronologically. Six of the interviews have never before appeared in print; two of them (with Bernard Sachs in 1961 and Claude Servan-Schreiber in 1979) make it clear that Gordimer is a radical, not a Liberal, and focus closely on political events.
ART IMITATING LIFE
In an interview Gordimer disclaimed a direct connection between her novels and her own life. Asked whether she drew on real people's lives in her writing she responded:
There is an entire literature on this, for instance in the case of D. H. Lawrence: which character was based on Middleton Murray, which on Aldous Huxley and so forth. My feeling has always been, who the hell cares? The answer is … how does any writer know the whole life of a person? You certainly don't, you cannot. You do not know the inner feelings and the secret lives of the people that you live with all your life. You don't know your parents, you don't know your lovers, your husbands, your children. You have little scraps of knowledge here or there, but you cannot know that whole person. So how much less do you know the local doctor, or the local scarlet woman, or whatever. That's what the writer is. You see some little thing, that little window that I was talking about, somebody says something, you observe over months a kind of behaviour pattern in somebody. Then from that you spin a whole invented life, an alternative life. In early work, the range of windows into people's lives is very small … you haven't gone through many experiences. But as time goes by, there's such a huge range of these things. Though the germ of the story may have come from the local doctor who got drunk regularly in the veld, around that little piece of grit has accreted all the other things you know about people, and that forms the character. No character can be said to be based on somebody.5
Gordimer went on to give as an example her recent story, “A Journey,” published in Jump and Other Stories. Gordimer was returning from Europe by plane and across the aisle saw an attractive woman with an equally beautiful adolescent son and a newborn baby. Gordimer became fascinated by the close, loving relationship between son and mother, with the son caring for the baby, arranging things for baby and mother, and fussing over his mother tenderly like a lover. Then, in Nairobi, the little family got off the plane and she never saw them again. In “A Journey,” she describes the actual scene on the plane but then imagination takes over: “they had disappeared. They exist only in the alternate lives I invent, the unknown of what happened to them preceding the journey, and the unknown of what was going to happen at its end.”6 The first part of the story is what really happened; the second and third movements invent a tale from the perspective first of the boy and then of the father, a story of father-son hostility, the father's adulterous relationship, fierce passion, the conception in anger of the baby which may or may not have saved the marriage, and the recent coup in their unidentified home country. Gordimer herself appears in the story only tangentially through the boy's eyes, as a completely uninteresting, grey-haired lady in the window seat across the aisle. Much of the point of the story is its invented nature, the primacy of the imagination over brute facts, together with the risks of imagination, in the hothouse fantasies of the psyche, and the Oedipal hostility between father and son.
In other stories in the same collection, the author's own experiences are clearly an influence, most notably in the relationship between the title story and her meeting with “a man who had defected from a high position in RENAMO out of revulsion.”7 Gordimer had found the man sitting in a Maputo hotel watching a blank television screen, while listening to the music from Apocalypse Now. This is the precise situation in “Jump.” The actual man, a white Portuguese born in Mozambique, recalled to Gordimer how he had represented RENAMO in Europe, with his headquarters in Lisbon and an elaborate telecommunications link to the South African military. At that point he had believed that RENAMO was a just cause, until he visited a RENAMO training camp in Phalaborwa, South Africa, and realized that the atrocities of which RENAMO was accused were true, particularly the rape of young children. As a result he gave himself up to the other side. Gordimer's only comment in her account of their meeting is that she felt an awkward mixture of sympathy and revulsion for him, after which she moves on in the essay to the other sights of her fact-finding tour of the South Africa-Mozambique border, including a visit to right-wing racists, a description of the electrified border fence, and a panoramic view from a hired Russian helicopter of the abandoned villas which were formerly white holiday homes. In the essay her interest is factual and documentary, supplying places, dates, and historical background. In the story, however, the reader never knows where the events are taking place, or when, which societies in Africa or Europe are involved, or whether the defector was left- or right-wing. The reader never knows that the music is from Apocalypse Now or that the hotel is in Maputo. In her fiction Gordimer is concerned to avoid the dangers of a documentary approach, influenced by Njabulo Ndebele's discussion in Rediscovery of the Ordinary of the dangers of the “spectacular,” which concerns itself only with the external, the quasi-journalistic, or the sensational, producing a literature which may inform, but cannot transform its readers.8 In the story the defector has access to knowledge of a public nature, but he is transformed only by the sight of the child, by an inner knowledge and empathy. The story focuses on interiority, the thoughts and emotions of the hidden self of the young man, rather than his observable public role.
There are nevertheless points of correspondence between art and life which are worth highlighting. When A World of Strangers came out, a Johannesburg newspaper report suggested that a “popular party game” at that point was identifying who the characters of the novel really were.9 In some respects they were perhaps not so far wrong. The novel's central character, Toby Hood, has been persuasively identified with Anthony Sampson, the editor from 1951 to 1955 of Drum magazine, founded in the 1950s and deliberately aimed at a township audience. Like Toby, Sampson had come out from England in connection with a publishing venture, and became friendly with Gordimer. Sampson's account of a narrow escape during a police raid on a party at Can Themba's house sounds very like Toby's escape in a similar raid on a shebeen. Sampson also writes in his memoirs of lavish parties in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg and of the contrasts between these different worlds.10 One of his chapters is headed “Two Worlds.” Anna Louw, an Afrikaner activist in the novel, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bettie du Toit, Gordimer's close friend, and Sam Mofokenzazi, who composes a jazz-opera in the novel, seems like a less light-hearted version of Todd Matshikiza, the composer of King Kong. Steven Sitole calls his house the House of Fame. In real life Can Themba called his house in Sophiatown the House of Truth; other houses were called the House of Saints, and the House of Commons. Steven Clingman rightly argues that far from there being clear one-to-one correspondences, there is more of a process of “social quotation” in the novel,11 which draws on historical settings and operates on a plane of typicality. Steven Sitole is a character in whom Gordimer condenses the frustrations of a black, talented, and eventually suppressed aesthetic elite, just as the descriptions of older ANC leaders, monumental and imposing in their greatcoats, draw on several originals, rather than the single figure of Chief Luthuli.
In hindsight, perhaps the tragedy of the parlor game of identity-guessing is that so many originals could now be cited for Gordimer's central black characters. In Occasion for Loving, for example, the character of Gideon owes something to Nat Nakasa with whom Gordimer had worked on the Classic magazine. Like Gideon, Nakasa's application for a passport was turned down. He therefore left South Africa on a one-way ticket to take up a scholarship at Harvard, but later committed suicide in New York, one of many exiles who died in exile in miserable conditions.
In the case of Burger's Daughter, the correspondences between art and life are also close. Lionel Burger is based to a large extent on Bram Fischer, a leader of the South African Communist Party, on whom Gordimer had written two articles at the time of his arrest and trial, clearly admiring his heroism. Fischer was a lawyer (Lionel is a doctor), but the shape of his political career is extremely similar to Lionel's. Fischer had taken a black child into his house, just as Lionel takes in Baasie. When the Communist Party was outlawed and dissolved, he had continued to pursue its activities underground, while maintaining his career as a lawyer, defending people in political trials. He was eventually discovered and lived in hiding for nine months. Betrayed, he received a life sentence. Before being sentenced he made a moving speech describing how he, as a lawyer, had been brought to defy the law by the evils of South African society. Unlike Lionel, who dies in prison, he was released from jail to die (of cancer) with his family.
In Writing and Being, a book-length meditation on the relationship between fiction and auto/biography, Gordimer commented that although Lionel is like Fischer, with a similar background, she did not know Fischer or his family at all well. She purposely did not approach Fischer's daughter while writing the novel, and allowed what little contact she had with the family to lapse. But when the novel was complete, she sent her the completed manuscript. After a delay of some weeks, she walked in through Gordimer's gate with the novel. Gordimer takes up the story.
She said, ‘This was our life.’ And nothing more. I knew this was the best response I should ever have to that novel. Perhaps the best I should ever have in respect of any of my fictions. Something I should never receive again. No critic's laudation could match it; no critic's damning could destroy it. For she was not speaking of verisimilitude, she was not matching mugshots, she knew that facts, events, sequences were not so; she was conceding that while no one can have total access to the lives of others—not even through means of the analyst's casebook, the biographer's research, the subjectively-composed revelations of diaries and letters—by contrast, on her or his vision the novelist may receive, from the ethos those lives give off, a vapour of the truth condensed, in which, a finger tracing upon a window-pane, the story may be written.12
More mundanely the starting point for Gordimer's novels is often a small incident from her life. Gordimer began to write July's People in 1974 and 1975, when refugees were streaming out of Mozambique and Angola into South Africa. She was in town one day and suddenly came across a group of them with their possessions, their enormous televisions, and station wagons, and realized what typical white middle class people they were. The thought came to her: “Good God! This can happen here! It can happen to us if things go on like this. We could be pouring out of Johannesburg, going somewhere else,”13 and the germ of the Smales's flight from a future war-torn city was planted. Similarly, in The Conservationist, Gordimer related the opening image of “Pale freckled eggs” to her own sense of the beauty of the veld and to the sense of “something mysterious and wonderful about walking anywhere in the country and finding some humble and persistent element of life, like birds' eggs: so fragile, but just there.”14 But there was also another beginning to the novel. At the time of writing she was spending a lot of time on a farm, and one day the body of a murdered man was found there. “He was unknown. The police came, but they just dug a shallow little grave and put him in, and that was that. Every time I went to that farm—and I often did—I would walk around and lie down by the stream. I couldn't stop thinking about that man. All the symbolism of the novel came out of his death. … The political aspect was clear too. The police didn't even bother. They didn't even try to find out who murdered him. It's just another black, dig a little hole, push him in.”15 Gordimer then read Henry Callaway's book, The Religious System of the Amazulu, and became obsessed with it and with the question of ownership of the land. “I got to thinking that the body had a kind of claim that nobody else had.”16 Other political events conditioned specific elements in her novels, as she has acknowledged. In My Son's Story the graveyard scenes came from Gordimer's own experience of being tear-gassed at a funeral. Whaila's murder in A Sport of Nature was inspired by the assassination of David Sibeko, whom she had known as an adolescent working on the telephone exchange at Drum, and who later became a Pan-Africanist Congress activist and was assassinated abroad.
Guessing games apart, there are also broader relationships between fiction and life. Gordimer writes directly about her own background in The Lying Days, set in a mining town not unlike Springs, though Helen is a mineworker's daughter rather than a storekeeper's. Gordimer lived in town and knew the world of the mines only through a friendship with the daughter of a mine official. Maureen Smales in July's People shares the same background, and the same love of dancing. Jessie Stilwell in Occasion for Loving has the fictional heart complaint and difficult relationship with her mother which had such an impact on Gordimer's own childhood. In My Son's Story Gordimer returns to the same environment, the East Rand, though the setting is now the 1960s rather than the 1930s, to provide the background of Sonny, the main character. Gordimer had wanted to set Sonny apart from the mainstream of events at the beginning of his life, to contrast with his later involvement in public history, and the changes which that involvement had forced upon him. The small town environment offered a suitable backwater location.
Gordimer's Jewish heritage features only intermittently in her fiction. Antonia Mancebo, Mehring's mistress in The Conservationist, is Jewish, but also entirely absent from the story. A few short stories (“The Defeated,” “A Third Presence”) portray Jewish families. In The Lying Days Joel Aaron is a major character (again, left behind by the heroine for much of the action) who eventually leaves for Israel. Zionism is more the focus than Judaism. A Sport of Nature involves three Jewish sisters, Olga, Pauline, and Ruth, descended from Grandfather Hillel, whose name Hillela adopts. In Jewish tradition Rabbi Hillel was the author of the famous aphorism “If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?,” which becomes the adventurous heroine's motto. Again, Jewishness is left behind, as Hillela embarks on her career as a revolutionary.
One point remains to be made. For much of her writing career Gordimer was operating under circumstances in which underground resistance to a repressive government was operating clandestinely. Identifying the originals of characters, drawing parallels between fiction and real life, could be dangerous, a parlor game which played into the hands of state surveillance. On the other hand, fiction could also be a direct form of political action. In Burger's Daughter, when Duma Dhladhla says that black liberation cannot be divorced from Black Consciousness “because we cannot be conscious of ourselves and at the same time remain slaves,”17 he is quoting directly from the words of Steve Biko. Bram Fischer's speech at his trial is reprised, in the mouth of Lionel Burger, and quotations from the writings of Joe Slovo are spoken by other characters. Most obviously, a handbill from the Soweto Students Representative Council is reproduced verbatim in the text. Biko, Slovo, Fischer, and the SSRC had little chance of being heard in the official world of South Africa, a world of bannings, embargoes, brutal repression, and official censorship. But in the novel they found expression.
GORDIMER'S WORKS IN HISTORY
The verdict of history on Gordimer's works is yet, of course, to come. Indeed that is one of the questions with which much of her work engages, investigating the role of the white writer in Africa, and the relation of the African writer to metropolitan literature. By 1992 Nadine Gordimer's works had been translated in Holland, Sweden, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Poland, France, Finland, Bulgaria, Portugal, Israel, Brazil, Greece, Iceland, Russia, Turkey, Japan, and Czechoslovakia. Her short stories had been widely anthologized. A bibliography of her primary and secondary works ran to 341 pages and included forty-nine theses on her work. Selections of her criticism and nonfiction writing had been assembled and published. And that was before the major effects of the Nobel Prize were felt.
Whatever the later changes in literary fashion, it seems likely that Nadine Gordimer will maintain her reputation as one of the most important novelists of her age. Admiration for The Conservationist, Burger's Daughter, and July's People has remained constant. As the author of more than two hundred short stories, many of them still uncollected and unstudied, she is almost unrivaled in the contemporary period in that genre, and has been compared with Chekhov, Mansfield, and Maupassant for her achievements.
Literary values aside, it is also likely that Gordimer will retain her place in history, if only because of the historical resonance of her works, describing a world which is now gone forever, and frequently basing her fiction on close observation of the political and historical processes of that world. Born when the sun had not set on the British Empire, publishing for the first time before the Second World War, with a chronological range sweeping into the twenty-first century, Gordimer has contributed to the understanding of her times in varied and profound ways.
Gordimer's most important film project, intended to be a full-length Warner Brothers movie of July's People, was abandoned after a decade of rewriting the screenplay, and Gordimer's final rejection of a version by another scriptwriter. Previously A World of Strangers had been adapted under the title Dilemma, directed by Henning Carlsen and released in 1962, as an eighty-eight minute black-and white movie. Only one adaptation of Gordimer's writing is of real significance, the 1982 film Six Feet of the Country, released in the United States as The Nadine Gordimer Stories: Films from South Africa. A series of seven films including an interview with Nadine Gordimer, made by Profile Film Productions (South Africa) and Telepool (Germany), and produced by Chris Davies, Six Feet of the Country was first shown at the Cape Town Film Festival in 1982, subsequently screened in twenty-one different countries, adapted for television by Bavaria TV and Teleculture Inc., and banned in South Africa. The short stories adapted were “Six Feet of the Country,” “City Lovers,” and “Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,” each with a screenplay by Barney Simon, and “Country Lovers,” “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” and “Not for Publication” (retitled “Praise” on screen), each with a screenplay by Nadine Gordimer, plus “Oral History” (which was not shown in South Africa.)
Behind these bare facts lies a more interesting story which illustrates something of the ambiguities and contradictions of artistic activity in South Africa. Gordimer had not been particularly delighted when a young Munich producer of educational films showed up on her doorstep with a plan to film some of her stories. Earnest Westerners with a sudden urge to involve themselves in South African politics are more often the butt of her fictional satire than an occasion for celebration. There had been other approaches which had foundered. She commented, “The thing I dislike about film is the big talk, the hot air.”18 But Gordimer's son was an aspiring movie maker in New York, and her husband's son-in-law had already made a short “no budget” version of “Six Feet of the Country.” Before the filming started, she imposed stringent conditions—that the directors and authors of screenplays would be South Africans of her choosing, and that the series, once finished, would be sold only in its entirety and shown without cuts by any broadcasting company that bought it for television (a condition effectively ruling out any possibility of the series being screened by the state television monopoly in South Africa). Made at low cost (about a million dollars), the series was received as the strongest portrayal of South Africa then available on film. Gordimer had herself selected the material to be filmed. The German producers originally wanted to choose stories which were as overtly political and contemporary as possible, but she held out for a mix of earlier and later tales, in order to reflect the complexity of South African society as demonstrated in stories published over thirty years of her writing career, at different stages of her political evolution. As a result the movies switch between urban and rural, white and black, and from innocence to the entanglements and moral dilemmas of underlying social conflicts.
All but one of the movies were made in South Africa and passed by the censors uncut for showing at film festivals, on a limited number of occasions. The apparent liberality was less generous than it might appear. Although such audiences are multiracial, they are also limited in size. The South African censorship system was then tightened up, making it necessary to reapply to the censors for a permit for each film festival. Under the new system, three of the films (“Country Lovers,” “City Lovers,” and “A Chip of Glass Ruby”) were banned from general release and a considerable struggle ensued. To the South African audience the astonishing question was how the films had been made inside South Africa in the first place, even surreptitiously. The scene in “Country Lovers” in which the white youth kisses his black sweetheart, clearly set on a farm in the Orange Free State, was stunning to an audience still subject to the various forms of the Immorality Act. Indeed filming had been interrupted when the owner of the farm realized what the film was about, and only began again after an entire night of hard argument. The director, Manie van Rensburg, an Afrikaner, finally convinced the farmer that their shared Afrikaner history should be represented accurately. Critics were unanimous in praise of the series as a whole, and particularly of “Country Lovers,” beautifully acted by Ryno Hattingh and Nomse Nene, as the young couple whose innocence is destroyed by the Immorality Act. In the story, the tale ends in low key fashion with the young girl concluding that their love affair was a thing of their childhood. Her lover is acquitted of killing their baby, and life goes on as before in general indifference. In the film, the ending is more dramatic. The girl and her family are bribed to disappear so that the case will be dropped; the young man is dispatched by his father to the army, to die for his country.
In a sense the raw material of the series transcends aesthetic judgment. The films, however well-acted and expertly produced, slip over from art into history, as a mesmerizing record of South Africa under apartheid. The documentary quality of the films, which inevitably had to spell out details which the stories merely suggested, merged with real life in the case of “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” which concerns a community facing the threat of demolition and forced removal under the Group Areas Act, which rigidly enforced residential segregation. No sooner had the first scene been shot than an official bulldozer appeared and the authorities demolished the house where they were filming, providing useful free footage to the director. “Oral History,” dramatizing the horrors of an unidentified bush war, was originally to be shot in Zimbabwe, until the minister of information withdrew prior approval, apparently because the government wanted the film to be tailored to suit its policy of racial reconciliation. An attempted compromise foundered on the conditions set (including the withdrawal of a nude scene, no uniforms resembling those worn in the Zimbabwean guerrilla war, and the toning down of remarks which might offend certain groups in Zimbabwe), which were open to such wide interpretation as to be unacceptable. The movie was eventually shot in Kenya using actors from the theatrical company of Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, with mixed results. Gordimer was reportedly irritated by the addition to the script of hollow political rhetoric.
Gordimer has also collaborated on two other projects. Allan Boesak: Choosing for Justice (shown on television in Britain in 1985) was made with her son Hugo Cassirer, who had read a speech by Boesak, then president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and a prisoner in South Africa. Gordimer had heard him speak on behalf of non-racial democracy, and was impressed, and together they raised the money to make the film on a shoestring, and again surreptitiously. The film is dedicated not only to Boesak but to “the spirit of Black South Africans.” In an interview Gordimer indicated that the movie did not imply any shift away from writing.
In the end, I feel my working life has to be a writer's. In this case the subject was more important than any artistic consideration, than the deeper levels or many-sidedness of fiction. I felt about it rather the way I do about speaking on a public platform. One must, if one has a voice at all.19
One other item is worthy of note. In 1989 Gordimer presented one episode of a BBC documentary series, Frontiers, in which different writers and artists discussed a particular border area (Thailand-Cambodia, Ireland, East and West Germany, for example), her own contribution focusing on the Mozambique-South African border. The experience yielded material which figured prominently in her short story collection, Jump, both in thematic terms (refugees in Mozambique in “The Ultimate Safari,” a RENAMO defector in the title story) and in the volume's interrogation of the relation between the documentary and the imaginative impulses. In a sense the wheel had come full circle, from short stories inspiring cinema, to cinema feeding into the short story.
In South Africa it is not easy to speak of “the public.” In a fractured society, and a society with such a poor literacy rate, public response to Gordimer's writing has often been that of either a white, hostile, pro-government majority, or that of a small, educated, and oppositional elite. Outside South Africa, however, the strength of the international response to her writing may be measured by the reaction when her German publishers reprinted her books. Queues of thousands stretched around the building to obtain copies.
Gordimer is read by ordinary readers all over the world, readers both male and female and from very different political and social groups. Her short stories have been published in Playboy, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Journal, as well as in the more obvious outlets for quality fiction, such as the New Yorker or Granta, and radical magazines such as Mother Jones. Interviews and extracts from her novels regularly appear in daily newspapers. As a champion of freedom of speech, she attracts a large audience whenever and wherever she speaks, and she has appeared on the public platform unstintingly to condemn apartheid and to mobilize world opinion. It is a pity that more of her published interviews do not also record the lively public debates which often form part of the occasion. In 1987 Gordimer was interviewed in public in London. While there were predictable questions on South African politics, feminism, and the role of whites, a Greek member of the audience who had known civil war following wars of independence was fascinated by A Guest of Honour and clearly saw parallels with his own experience. Another questioner was interested in her use of scientific metaphor. Questions flew thick and fast from a public clearly engaged with her writing on many different levels.
Nadine Gordimer, “Johannesburg,” Holiday 18 (1955): 58–9.
Nadine Gordimer, Burger's Daughter (London: Penguin, 1980), p. 332.
Denis Donoghue, “The Essential Posture,” New Republic, 28 November 1988, pp. 28–31.
David H. Fischer, Historians' Fallacies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971).
Eva Hunter and Craig Mackenzie, eds., Between the Lines II (Grahamstown: National English Literary Museum, 1993), pp. 33–4.
Nadine Gordimer, Jump and Other Stories (London: Penguin, 1999), p. 145.
Nadine Gordimer and others, Frontiers (London: BBC Books, 1990), p. 70.
Njabulo Ndebele, Rediscovery of the Ordinary (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991).
The Star, 11 July 1958, p. 15.
Anthony Sampson, Drum: A Venture into the New Africa (London: Collins, 1956), p. 81.
Stephen R. Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986), p. 52.
Nadine Gordimer, Writing and Being, p. 12.
Between the Lines II, p. 47.
Between the Lines II, p. 49.
Mike Nicol, “Nadine Gordimer: An Interview,” South African Literary Review 1, no. 2 (1991): 4.
Mike Nicol, p. 4.
Nadine Gordimer, Burger's Daughter, p. 164.
Joseph Lelyveld, “South Africa on Film As Seen by Nadine Gordimer,” New York Times, 15 May 1983, p. 1.
Hugo Davenport, “Kept Under Wraps,” Observer, 8 September 1985, p. 19.
Nadine Gordimer As Studied
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3313
Gordimer is studied from a very wide variety of perspectives: as a woman writer, as a postcolonial writer, in the context of African, and particularly South African fiction, and in relation to the traditions of the novel and the short story. As a highly intertextual writer, often referring to other writers in her works, she is also intimately connected with many other novelists, poets, and playwrights, and with a variety of nonfiction writers.
Although Gordimer herself memorably described feminism as “piffling,” she has nonetheless been studied in relation to women's writing. Lauretta Ngcobo's Cross of Gold (1981), which takes the Sharpeville massacre as its starting point and then focuses on life in the rural areas, is worth reading in conjunction with July's People, Gordimer's only novel to focus on rural rather than urban blacks. Ngcobo's second novel, And They Didn't Die (1990), continues the examination of country women and especially the problems they face as a result of migrant labor, problems shared by July's wife in Gordimer's novel. Like Ngcobo, Zoe Wicomb is another South African woman who published in exile, with You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town (1990), a sequence of related short stories, before her return to her native country. Miriam Tlali's Muriel at Metropolitan (1975) was the first novel by a black woman published inside the borders of South Africa. The heroine, Muriel, works for a business selling goods at high interest rates to poor customers; Muriel has to check the passes of the black clients and becomes uneasy with her role in the business. Meanwhile, although she is the only non-white employee, the white employees insist on a separate toilet for Muriel. The novel exposes the ridiculous pettiness of apartheid and was banned immediately, as was her second novel, Amandla (1980), concerning the Soweto revolt and the effects of politics on the family. Like Gordimer in Burger's Daughter, Tlali sees women's issues within the overall context of apartheid. The portrayal of township life in the novel (an area with which Gordimer was less well-acquainted) is particularly detailed.
The only southern African black woman writer to have a large international reputation, Bessie Head was born in a mental hospital, the child of a white mother and a black father, and left South Africa as a young woman for Botswana, where she wrote her novels When Rain Clouds Gather (1969), Maru (1971), and A Question of Power (1973), the last a hallucinatory and deeply disturbing account of sexual humiliation and madness. Head's concentration on the psychic and the personal, the interrelations of racial and sexual experience, makes for a powerful fictional achievement, though of a very different type to Gordimer's. Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (1988), a novel from and about Zimbabwe, offers a retrospective of the 1970s in Zimbabwe through a diverse group of women characters, almost equally at risk from the traditions of their society and the emerging modern world.
White women writers in South Africa include Elleke Boehmer (now living abroad), whose novels Screens against the Sky (1990) and An Immaculate Figure (1993) concern, respectively, a mother and daughter relationship set against the background of the political scene of the late 1970s, and in her second novel, questions of female beauty and freedom. Writing in Afrikaans, Elsa Joubert produced a best-seller in 1978, translated into English in 1981 as Poppie Nongena, the story of a black domestic servant, which was also dramatized in English and Afrikaans and became a musical. Menán du Plessis is a younger writer who has produced A State of Fear (1983) and Longlive! (1989). The latter work concerns a day in the lives of group of young housemates against a background of marches, detentions, and a township funeral, and is worth comparing to the rather different group of young people in a different, though also violent, situation in The House Gun.
The equation of the term “postcolonial” with South African literature is not a simple one. Afrikaners might well argue that they became postcolonial in 1948, when the Nationalists took over and ended British domination. Indigenous Africans (who have suffered internal colonization and relegation to “homelands”), Namibians (suffering from external colonization), and the inhabitants of the front line states (exposed to neocolonialism), would certainly not agree. For most South Africans the country did not become postcolonial until after the elections of 1994. In addition the temporality of the term postcolonial is a vexed one. It is possible not to be in a postcolonial state after independence. (A lingering mindset may perpetuate colonial norms of behavior and attitude, for example.) It is equally possible to be postcolonial before any sign of independence is on the horizon—as readers would judge Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, for example, to be an essentially postcolonial work, written well ahead of its time. Nonetheless, within the field of postcolonial writing, Gordimer's fiction can be studied interestingly in relation to writers from very different countries. In her intertextual revisions of Forster, Conrad, Shakespeare, and other canonical masters, she invites comparison with Jean Rhys, rewriting Jane Eyre in Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala rewriting Forster in Heat and Dust (1975), or a whole host of writers who have adapted The Tempest to a postcolonial reading. (Both Burger's Daughter and July's People employ motifs from The Tempest.) One of the common activities of the postcolonial writer is known as “writing back,” contesting the fictions of empire which have appropriated postcolonial reality, and Gordimer is no exception to the consensus in vigorously challenging the sense of “Europe in Africa” conveyed by earlier colonial, African writers. A Guest of Honour, as a novel of independence, invites comparison with Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat (1967) concerning the Kenyan independence struggle. Gordimer's dramatization of the problems of neocolonialism in an unnamed African country in this novel also contrasts with Buchi Emecheta's The Rape of Shavi (1983), similarly set in an imagined African country, but with a female focus. In India, Nayantara Sahgal treats a similarly neocolonialist theme in Rich Like Us (1986). Louise Yelin has written a book-length comparative study of Lessing, Gordimer, and Australian novelist Christina Stead, examining concepts of national identity through these three white writers from “settler” colonies. One question which occupies many postcolonial women writers is the relationship between concepts of the nation—especially a new nation, in the process of creation—and masculinity. The close of A Sport of Nature draws attention to the debate, in its phallic imagery as the new South African flag unfurls.
In the broad context of African literature Gordimer is studied particularly in relation to the historical nature of much African fiction—whether set in the past or reflecting upon history. Like many African novelists she often works in a realist mode, and has defended realism vigorously as appropriate for the African novelist grappling with a world that remains largely unrepresented until the modern period. She has also expressed the view on more than one occasion that “politics is fate,” and has put a premium on politics as subject matter. Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (1969) and Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People (1966) are works which might figure in a program of reading that includes Gordimer's novels.
In South African terms, Gordimer's works are generally studied in relation to other prose fictions, although there is a considerable body of drama in modern South Africa (including the works of Athol Fugard, Zakes Mda, Moise Mapanya and Fatima Dike) and of poetry (including Mongane Serote, Sipho Sepamla, Mafika Gwala, Jeremy Cronin, Mazisi Kunene, and Mike Nicol). The first novel to be published in English by a black South African was Mhudi by Sol Plaatje (written in 1917 but not published until 1930). The novel challenges the dominant view of white history and uses oral history, fables, and proverbs. It is set in the 1830s and demonstrates that the Great Trek was merely one among many migratory movements, and that the whites triumphed only because they were assisted by some black peoples. Plaatje had been heavily involved in fighting the Native Land Act of 1913, which dispossessed Africans of their land, and in the novel the question of land-ownership is of major importance. This is a theme which can be traced through Gordimer's The Conservationist to None to Accompany Me, which centers on questions of social space and land redistribution. The Conservationist, as a farm novel, is also related to Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883). Schreiner's novel became justly celebrated as from the pen of a “New Woman,” and for its attempt to give imaginative vitality to the African landscape and setting. The novel remains nonetheless a settler novel, oriented towards European concerns, and the black characters are largely marginalized (or, worse, described in animal metaphors). Doris Lessing's The Grass Is Singing (1950), set in Rhodesia, is also a farm novel, and like The Conservationist involves an encounter with a repressed reality which comes back to haunt the protagonists. More recently, in J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country, the narrator, Magda, imprisoned in a subjective world of nightmare, bears more than a family resemblance to Mehring, Gordimer's self-absorbed hero. Coetzee's novel is really an anti-pastoral which moves into a rural location in order to subject it to merciless scrutiny. The farm novel is almost a separate genre in South African literature, with Pauline Smith, The Beadle (1926), and Alan Paton also working in the pastoral mode, used critically and socially.
Gordimer's predecessors in dealing with matters of race emerged in the 1920s, notably in the examples of Sarah Gertrude Millin's God's Step-Children (1924) and William Plomer's Turbott Wolfe (1925). Though of historical interest, the former is unlikely to find much favor with the modern reader. The theme of interracial love-relationships, the central focus of Occasion for Loving, is also tackled by Peter Abrahams in The Path of Thunder (1952), Dan Jacobson in The Evidence of Love (1960), and Richard Rive in Emergency (1964), though in these novels the lovers are not destroyed but rendered heroic by state opposition.
Inevitably the theme of revolution, particularly failed revolution, looms large in postcolonial writing. Gordimer's The Late Bourgeois World is worth reading in tandem with V. S. Naipauls's Guerrillas (1975) as two novels about revolutions which failed, each also involving an alienated white hero. Their apocalyptic overtones, shared by July's People, also group them with Waiting for the Barbarians (1981), J. M. Coetzee's haunting novel set outside real time in an unspecified location on the edges of some unnamed empire, as it waits for its end. The role of woman in relation to revolutionary politics is explored in Gordimer's A Sport of Nature in an adaptation of the picaresque mode, using a female hero as adventuress and ebullient survivor. Two other novels that employ the same method and theme are Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine (1990), and J. M. Coetzee's Foe (1986), the latter a rewriting of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe to supply the untold story of Mrs. Crusoe. Inside South Africa, C. J. Driver's Elegy for a Revolutionary (1969), Jack Cope's The Dawn Comes Twice (1969), Mary Benson's At the Still Point (1971), and Alex LaGuma's The Stone Country (1967), all deal with the political underground.
Gordimer is frequently compared with Alan Paton, largely because his Christian Liberal views offer a marked contrast to Gordimer's socialist position. The publication of Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) was a major event in South African writing, reestablishing an English South African literary identity. Paton's second novel, Too Late the Phalarope (1955), probed the depths of the white settler mind, as it remains dominated by Afrikaner history, but had less popular and critical success. Systematic comparisons are also frequently made between Gordimer and two other South African writers: André Brink, the author of fifteen novels since the 1960s and very widely translated, and J. M. Coetzee, with seven acclaimed novels, a memoir, and several nonfiction works to his credit. In Brink's case, one of the significant areas of study involves the topic of existentialism, a major influence on Brink, especially in The Wall of the Plague (1984). The influence of existentialism is detectable in Gordimer's works, to a lesser degree, arguably only in Burger's Daughter, but it was a major influence on a generation of Afrikaner writers, the “Sestigers” or 1960s writers, and on Athol Fugard's plays. Brink's ambiguous critique of pastoralism in Rumours of Rain (1979) reads interestingly beside The Conservationist. The hero, Martin Mynhardt, has roots in South Africa which go back to 1732, though he is now an industrialist (like Gordimer's Mehring) and the action concerns his attempt to sell the family farm for a large profit, as part of an African homeland. There is a disaffected son, as in Gordimer's novel, and a Liberal mistress, and the descriptions of the land are memorable, but the narrative method is much more conventional.
In the case of Coetzee much of the comparative interest lies in his apparent refusal to adopt a historical or socially conscious mode of writing, as opposed to Gordimer's practice. Coetzee has protested vigorously against the colonization of the novel by history, and much of his fiction is devoted to the demystification of history, undercutting its authority, as in Dusklands (1974), with its exposure of South Africa's colonial past. Life and Times of Michael K (1983) refuses to engage with any obvious political solutions, though it is set in a moment of social breakdown which resembles that of July's People. The impact of crime on the family haunts both Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg (1994) and Gordimer's The House Gun, though the one is set in the Russian past, the other in contemporary South Africa. Yet Gordimer and Coetzee have much in common, as critics of apartheid, promoters of black writing, and writers with a common tendency to draw on Russian and European traditions, beyond the British literary canon. Thinking about Coetzee's approach to South African life is often a fruitful way of also thinking about Gordimer's.
In terms of the tradition of the novel, Gordimer is profoundly influenced by the great European modernists of the twentieth century, and her first novel, The Lying Days, a story of a girl growing up in a mining area, discovering sexuality, and clashing with her dominant mother, is usefully studied with D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, with which it shares major themes, though in Gordimer's case it is a young woman not a young man who is the focus. Another novel worth grouping here is Mine Boy (1946) by the first “coloured” South African writer to write in English, Peter Abrahams. As a Bildungsroman, Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out has points of contact with The Lying Days, as does James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The relationship between Gordimer and E. M. Forster is also particularly significant, in the examination of the Liberal belief in the primacy of personal relationships as it clashes with a harsher view of the ability of the races to “only connect.” Forster's Passage to India and Gordimer's A World of Strangers and Occasion for Loving focus on this theme. Joseph Conrad is a continual point of reference, both as a character (Conrad, in Burger's Daughter, an escapist who disappears on a sailing ship and is never seen again) and in broader terms. “The African Magician” has been understood as a commentary on and retelling of Heart of Darkness, and there are links between Conrad and “Inkalamu's Place.” The ending of July's People, as the enormous wings of a helicopter bear whirring down upon the heroine, is deliberately designed to recall Yeats's “Leda and the Swan,” and the theme of historical violence and female suffering.
As a political novelist Gordimer particularly invites comparison, despite the differences of language and culture, with the great Russian writers, whose influence she acknowledges: Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoi, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. A turning point in Burger's Daughter, when Rosa sees a donkey being beaten, explicitly recalls Crime and Punishment. My Son's Story has been persuasively connected with Fathers and Sons, and especially with its main character Bazarov, who was attacked in his own time from both left and right, because Turgenev created him with all his own faults and ambiguities, as a real person rather than a political symbol. Gordimer has also called attention in her own writing to common interests with earlier European writers (Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus), modern political writers (Heinrich Böll, Günter Grass, Amos Oz) and writers who are also associated with the “South” in global terms, such as Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, Alejo Carpentier, Manuel Puig, and other Latin American novelists. Gordimer has described Latin American writing as the most exciting fiction in the world being written today. A glance at the epigraphs to her fiction suggests some of the obvious connections with other writers: W. B. Yeats (The Lying Days), Federico Garcia Lorca (A World of Strangers), Boris Pasternak, Thomas Mann, and Albert Camus (Occasion for Loving), Franz Kafka and Maxim Gorky (The Late Bourgeois World), Ivan Turgenev and Che Guevara (A Guest of Honour), Richard Shelton's poem “The Tattooed Desert” (The Conservationist), Claude Lévi-Strauss (Burger's Daughter), Antonio Gramsci (July's People), the Oxford English Dictionary (A Sport of Nature), William Shakespeare (My Son's Story), Marcel Proust and the seventeenth century Japanese poet BASHO (None to Accompany Me), and Amos Oz (The House Gun).
The short story has had a very honorable history in southern Africa, in both English and Afrikaans, including such frequently anthologized figures as Bessie Head, Doris Lessing, and Pauline Smith, and in the contemporary period, Hennie Aucamp, Herman Charles Bosman, Breyten Breytenbach, Jack Cope, Ahmed Essop, Christopher Hope, Elsa Joubert, Bheki Maseko, Sheila Roberts, and Etienne van Heerden. Gordimer's short stories offer a rich field for comparative study, in connection with a great variety of other writers. Given the Kafkaesque quality of much official South African life in the apartheid era, it is little surprise to see echoes of Kafka throughout Gordimer's work. “Letter from His Father,” an imaginary riposte from Kafka's father to his son, engages specifically with Kafka's “Letter to His Father.” Alan Paton has been connected to the hero of “Another Part of the Sky” (1952). The story concerns a reformatory principal, engaged in reform on a Christian-Liberal basis, which seems to bear strong resemblances to the ideology of Paton's famous novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). Paton was himself a reformatory principal, and his novel involves the quest for a rural black, just as in Gordimer's story. In complete contrast, “The Amateurs” obviously draws on Gordimer's own experience of amateur dramatics in a township, performing Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
Because Gordimer draws upon two of Katherine Mansfield's short stories (“At the Bay” and “The Garden Party”) in composing “A Company of Laughing Faces,” it is well worth considering the two writers together in their reaction to the colonial context. Mansfield's “Prelude” and “Millie” also seem to be the backdrop to “The Gentle Art,” as stories focused on female reactions to violence. As a short-story writer Gordimer is also studied with other postcolonial writers, particularly Alice Munro. Munro's “Princess Ida” and Gordimer's “A Journey” make a fascinating comparative study in their attitudes toward motherhood. Both writers have been read in terms of a difficult relationship with their own mothers, and with the colonial “motherland.” The short stories of Bharati Mukherjee offer similar points of comparison, particularly The Middleman and Other Stories (1988) with its cast of characters which, like those of Gordimer's Jump, extend across the world of the dispossessed, from the Turkish-Jewish middleman of the title story, selling death in Latin America, to the Marcos supporter in exile from the Philippines, an Afghan spending Thanksgiving with his girlfriend's Italian-American family, the middle-class war veteran whose Vietnamese daughter returns to haunt him, Ugandan Asians in Flushing, and a Tamil refugee in Hamburg. More generally the connection between short story and oral tale is best studied in relation to the Jump collection. Bessie Head's short stories in The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977) also engage with oral narrative forms.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 117
Additional coverage of Gordimer's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 39; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 28, 56, 88; Contemporary Novelists, Vol. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 225; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 4; Reference Guide to English Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 17; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 2; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.