Special Commissioned Entry on Nadine Gordimer, Judith Newman - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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About Nadine Gordimer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Nadine Gordimer At Work

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 14283 words.)

Nadine Gordimer's Era

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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Nadine Gordimer's Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

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Nadine Gordimer As Studied

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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;...

(The entire section is 117 words.)