None to Accompany Me

by Nadine Gordimer

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None to Accompany Me

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

Nadine Gordimer’s latest novel of South African political life explores once again relations between politics and the way people conduct their personal lives. Set in the period between the release of Nelson Mandela and the elections that made him South Africa’s president, it parallels two families, the Starks and the Maqomas. Vera Stark, the novel’s central character, is a lawyer for the Legal Foundation, and her success in settling black Africans’ land claims leads to a seat on the important Technical Committee on Constitutional Issues. For her, politics is like art—transcendent—leading to estrangement from her husband, Ben; her lesbian daughter, Annie; and her son, Ivan. Two arresting images, one of Vera dancing alone in an empty house, the other of her gazing into the cold, clear night sky, emphasize the existential isolation she chooses.

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Sibongile Maqoma’s rise to political prominence is even more spectacular than Vera’s, but she remains with her husband, Didymus, in spite of the strains caused by his political eclipse and her rise.

Around these parallel stories, Gordimer weaves the complex, shifting, volatile political fabric of South Africa’s perilous state: terrorist violence by both whites and blacks, crime, competing land claims and the dangers they entail, and the country’s pervasive racial tensions. The most compelling of these are the pictures of the country’s acute housing shortage—the ramshackle villages, overcrowded apartments, and suburban neighborhoods shifting from white to black ownership. Gordimer harbors no illusions about the political and social differences facing the new government. If anything, the personal stories emphasize how complex these problems are, how difficult it is and will be for the new government to keep peace and pursue justice.

In style and form, the novel has the energetic, almost chaotic, fluidity of the situation it describes. There is hardly an aspect of life, from teenage rebellion to nursing the aged, that Gordimer does not touch upon; unifying these elements is her technical triumph. The tension between that unity and her nervous, restless style reinforces the novel’s depiction of this fragile moment in South Africa’s politics and people.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXIV, October, 1994, p. 131.

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Booklist. XC, August, 1994, p. 1989.

Chicago Tribune. September 25, 1994, XIV, p. 1.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 128.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 18, 1994, p. 3.

The New Republic. CCXI, October 24, 1994, p. 34.

New Statesman and Society. VII, September 16, 1994, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 25, 1994, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 11, 1994, p. 61.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 9, 1994, p. 20.

None to Accompany Me

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1644

In A Sport of Nature (1987), Nadine Gordimer imagined an almost magically peaceful end to South Africa’s years of racial and political turmoil. In that novel, she concluded with a massive rally and celebration as power was transferred from whites to blacks, and a freely elected majority president took his oath of office. This was a poetic fancy, not a political prediction, but perhaps it was not far off the mark after all. In spite of last-minute terrorism, brutal intertribal violence, and grisly “necklacing” of “traitors,” the transition to majority rule in South Africa has been surprisingly peaceful and orderly. At a time when North Americans are nastily cynical about politicians and the system they represent, the images of South African blacks waiting patiently in line for hours to cast their ballots in free elections remain a potent reminder of the power of democracy.

None to Accompany Me takes a step backward in time, to the transition between the release of Nelson Mandela and the elections that brought him to power. It is a difficult period, marred by wrenching changes and punctuated by senseless violence—a time when exiled leaders and guerrilla fighters are returning to claim their place in the new regime, when new political alliances are forming and former enemies are learning to trust or at least live with one another. Above all, it is the triumphant time of the diplomat, bureaucrat, and lawyer, those gray and unexciting figures who must actually effect the transition from hostility to peace. Vera Stark, Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma, Oupa Segake, and Zeph Rapulana are among them. Through them, Gordimer once again explores the relationship between the personal and the political, between sexual politics and power politics.

Vera is the novel’s center of consciousness and chief protagonist, the character through whom most events are filtered. When the story begins, she has just found an old photograph, presumed lost, that she had sent to her husband in Egypt during World War II. On it she has circled Bennet Stark’s face, in an attempt to tell her husband that she has found a new man. The reader later learns that she divorced her first husband because he was inept in bed. Ironically, when he returned two years later to reclaim some possessions, they consummated not their marriage, but their divorce, and thus conceived Ivan, the child whom Ben always assumed was his.

Now a respected lawyer and administrator at the Legal Foundation, Vera has found her life’s work in helping blacks reclaim land taken from them by whites. Bennet, in a significant role reversal, has sacrificed his artistic and academic ambitions so that she might pursue her calling. In an attempt to provide for her future, he enters a luggage business. Ben and Vera’s lives are paralleled by those of Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma, returned exiles. Didymus has spent his life abroad and underground, fighting against apartheid and its government, but in the new political alignment it is Sibongile who wins a seat on the board of the Movement; Didymus is passed over, relegated to history, his only role now being to write his memoirs and take over his wife’s chores at home.

The parallels extend to domestic dramas. Ben and Vera are troubled by Ivan’s disintegrating marriage and their daughter Annick’s unmarried state, which they slowly realize is the result of lesbianism. Meanwhile, Mpho upsets her family by becoming pregnant by Oupa—a fact that the Maqomas irrationally blame on Vera, since Oupa is her assistant. Mpho reluctantly agrees to an abortion, recovers from the incident, and accepts a scholarship to New York University. Ivan’s marriage breaks up; his son Adam comes to live with Vera and Ben; Annick openly “marries” Lou, and they adopt a black baby girl.

The paths of the two families diverge, however, in more important ways than they converge. In spite of domestic trials and the strains caused by Sibongile’s spectacular rise to political prominence, the Maqomas’ marriage endures. Vera, by contrast, drifts further and further from her family, and from Ben in particular. Having betrayed her first husband, she regards Ben as more lover than spouse and has always known at some level that she would be unfaithful to him in turn, as she is for two years with Otto Abarbanel. This affair took place years before the novel’s principal action, but it is one step in an apparently inevitable train of events leading to Vera’s voluntary isolation. Other events leading in that same direction include a routine trip for the foundation to Tertius Odendall’s land, her meeting Zeph Rapulana, and an ill-fated detour to Oupa’s home for a brief family reunion that results in a robbery in which he is fatally injured and Vera is wounded. Ivan’s divorce, Annie’s separate existence, Ben’s increasing irrelevance, and Vera’s appointment to the Technical Committee on Constitutional Issues also lead step by step to estrangement. When Ben’s luggage business collapses and he accompanies Ivan to London for a visit, Vera admits in one of their infrequent telephone conversations that she is not lonely. At home, after a long day’s work on the commission, Vera is self-contained. “The evidence of personal life was around her; but her sense was of the personal life as transitory, it is the political life that is transcendent, like art.”

One of the most moving moments in the book is the single glimpse readers are given of Bennet’s inner life. He has known all along of Vera’s infidelity, for he could feel the betrayal, but he cannot live without Vera. By contrast, Vera cannot live with a man who cannot live without her. He regards their marriage as a failure; she sees it as one step along the way. “Everyone ends up moving along towards the self.” At the very end of the book, the reader is left to contemplate a beautiful and frightening scene: Vera, now living in the annex of Zeph Rapulana’s house, looks up into the cold, clear light of the South African sky, “feet planted, on the axis of the night world.”

The progress of Vera’s life roughly parallels South Africa’s development as a country. Although the two stories cannot be compared point by point, Vera’s changing sexual needs and alliances, her movement from a European to an African allegiance, and her drawn-out but final separation from Ben and her family parallel South Africa’s history. Now an independent state, no longer an international pariah, South Africa must, like Vera, find its own way in an indifferent universe. For Vera, the movement of her life from sexual to political being has been one (or so she believes) of liberation. Whether South Africa can achieve her assurance is yet to be seen.

Along the route of Vera’s journey, American readers encounter not only the people of her life but also the conflicts that lie at the heart of her country—and of the United States. These focus, appropriately, on conflicting land claims and the acute problem of housing that faces South Africa’s blacks. A key episode in the novel is Vera’s encounter with Tertius Odendall, a Boer farmer who has decided that he can make more money renting land to blacks than he can by farming. When Vera tries to negotiate with him, he listens briefly and then slams the door. The sound of that door echoes throughout the novel, a symbol of white intransigence and fear and, more widely, a symbol of the doors all over the world that are closing on the dispossessed. There are other such episodes: debates between Vera and Zeph over the role blacks will play in South Africa’s businesses, the sights and sounds of an apartment house turned to squalor by people desperate for housing, a bombing at a country club that inspires a discussion on whether it would be counted as an outrage if the victims were black. Almost every personal episode takes place against a shifting, dangerous, perhaps improving political background.

There is so much going on in the novel that it seems in danger of flying apart. Events occur with the nervous unpredictability of life, and the style has an energetic nervousness to match. That Gordimer can unify all these episodes and tame all this energy is a testament to her technical prowess. The style and the rush of events create a tension between the novel’s structural unity and the apparent calm that Vera reaches in the end. In this tension is the artistic equivalent of the precarious state of South Africa and its people—and the precarious balance in the lives of the novel’s characters.

When historians of the future want to know what it felt like to live in South Africa in the twentieth century, they will turn to the collected fiction of Nadine Gordimer. In her work they will find the crooked by-ways of the twentieth century conscience (and lack of it) that have made this the most bloody century ever. There, too, they will find her characters—real human beings struggling with their personal abilities and limitations, their moments of selfishness and sacrifice, farsightedness and blindness.

None to Accompany Me is certainly not Gordimer’s last word on these times and the people who live them, but a continuation of one of the century’s most remarkable and insightful commentaries.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXIV, October, 1994, p. 131.

Booklist. XC, August, 1994, p. 1989.

Chicago Tribune. September 25, 1994, XIV, p. 1.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 128.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 18, 1994, p. 3.

The New Republic. CCXI, October 24, 1994, p. 34.

New Statesman and Society. VII, September 16, 1994, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, September 25, 1994, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 11, 1994, p. 61.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 9, 1994, p. 20.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

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