For more than thirty years Nadine Gordimer has been writing and publishing short stories (many of them appearing first in English or American magazines and later in book form), and they have been greeted with increasing acclaim as representing some of the finest work being done in the genre of the modern short story. Selected Stories contains thirty-one stories which Gordimer has chosen from five earlier volumes: The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952), Six Feet of the Country (1956), Friday’s Footprint (1960), Not for Publication (1965), and Livingston’s Companions (1971). In a brief introduction, Gordimer comments on the writer’s need for solitude combined with a simultaneous empathy with other people and a detachment from them. “The tension between standing apart and being involved,” she says, “that is what makes a writer.” In this selection of her stories, with their varying points of view and with shifts from author-as-narrator in most of the stories to first-person narration in several, one is struck by Gordimer’s closeness of observation, her wit and brilliance of style, her skill in presenting many characters of several ethnic backgrounds, and her usually firm control over her fictional materials.
Since Miss Gordimer (in private life Mrs. Reinhold Cassirer) is a native of South Africa and has lived there for more than fifty years, it is not surprising that most of her stories concern race relations in one way or another. Yet she does not confine herself to racial themes, though they are present in many stories. Even when her stories contain characters of more than one race, as most of them do, she is usually more concerned with human sympathy and love (or the lack of it) than with skin color or social status. The earlier stories were written before the movement for independence of the native or black majority and other nonwhite groups in South Africa’s multiracial population. Several of the later stories, written after the mid 1950’s, give glimpses of the efforts made by the “coloreds” of various skin hues and ethnic heritage and by white liberals and sympathizers in the South African struggle against the political system of apartheid. Under this system nonwhites are segregated in varying ways and degrees from whites so that the politics and the social structure of the country may continue to be controlled by a white minority government. American readers of Gordimer’s stories need some knowledge of how apartheid operates, especially in regard to the segregating of blacks in slumlike “locations” on the outer edges of cities like Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. The blacks (also called natives or Africans in many of the stories) work for and among whites in the daytime but are expected to return to their locations at night unless they have special passes which they must be ready to show to authorities upon request. The government strongly disapproves of social mixing of whites and nonwhites, and unauthorized whites found in black locations are subject to arrest. Older American readers of Gordimer’s stories, particularly those who live or have lived in the South, will often be reminded of the many restrictions, sometimes state-legalized but more frequently enforced by local custom, which were placed upon American blacks until recent years. A major difference is that American blacks were, and in most cities and other political entities still are, a minority, whereas the South African blacks are a large majority of the total population. The continuance of apartheid in South Africa is complicated by the presence of a large number of Indians (a group originally brought in as a source of cheap labor) and by many other nonwhites who for convenience are all termed “colored” because of their mixed ethnic heritage, some of them being light-skinned enough to pass for white, as they do upon occasion.
As Robert F. Haugh has pointed out in his perceptive study of Nadine Gordimer’s stories and novels, her short fiction derives in content, form, and technique (while still retaining its own originality) from such earlier authors as Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Guy de Maupassant, Joseph Conrad, and Stephen Crane, and from her American contemporary J. D. Salinger, whom she greatly admires. Gordimer usually develops her stories to suggest or emphasize mood, theme, character, or tone rather than dramatic action or plot. The stories and sometimes the titles hint at meanings and leave unanswered questions. In “Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?” a young white woman meets a ragged black on a woods path, struggles to keep him from stealing her handbag and parcel, then runs away, and at last asks herself, “What did I fight for? Why didn’t I give him the money and let him go?” In “The Catch” a young white couple on a seaside vacation see, admire, and later become friendly with an Indian fisherman (“They almost forgot he was an Indian”) whose prize salmon the husband photographs first with his prettily smiling wife and then with the proud fisherman. Later, driving with three white urban friends of their own class, they offer a ride to...
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