Nadine Gordimer has been called South Africa's "First Lady of Letters," and she is perhaps that country's most distinguished living fiction writer. The author of many volumes of collected short stories and novels, in addition to numerous lectures, essays, and other works of nonfiction, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. This international recognition of Gordimer's work not only confirmed her reputation as an artist, but it also stressed the importance of writing about the effects of apartheid on the people of South Africa, The length of Gordimer's career—she published her first story when she was thirteen, her first book at twenty-six—has allowed her to document the changes in South African society over the course of several generations.
Throughout her career, Gordimer has insisted that because politics affect all aspects of life, her writing always deals either directly or indirectly with political matters. Moreover, she believes that only the truth can help a good cause. More directly, she believes that her writing deals with the truth, thus she makes no attempt to espouse specific political views regarding South Africa. Taking this view, Gordimer often sees herself as isolated between the external world of politics and the internal world of the individual. Her work reflects this sense of detachment, and Gordimer has been admires by some and criticized by others for it. Likewise, some critics feel that Gordimer does not take a strong enough stand against racism, and others feel that she goes too far. The South African government, for example, has banned several of her works, and sometimes prevents others from being published in paperback, which is the only way many black South Africans could afford her novels.
Gordimer's fiction has been the subject of much commentary in South Africa over the years. One review of A World of Strangers, Gordimer's second novel, complains that she writes of "the wider and more dangerous pastures of the sociological novel," A reviewer of her next novel, Occasion for Loving, which concerns an affair between a white English woman and a black South African man, insists that "the theme and incidents of the story will seem less important than those stretches of interior writing in which the author's still, small voice is heard above the sounds of ordinary living and the common day." It is not surprising that the most passionate analysis of Gordimer's work and the most hostile reactions generally come from other South Africans or ex-Africans. Gordimer's position, that of the white South African opposing apartheid—a minority within a minority—has led to strong emotions and occasional suppression.
The Atlantic Monthly has called Gordimer "one of the most gifted practitioners of the short story anywhere in English," and it was her short stories that first led critics to consider her a major writer. Her talent for short fiction has been compared to that of the poet, particularly for her interweaving of event, meaning, and symbol in a short amount of space. Martin Trump also points out that Gordimer depicts how women as well as Africans have suffered from the inequality present in South African society. Racial inequality, since it permeates all facets of life, is always present in her stories, despite the race and social class of her characters.
"The Train from Rhodesia," one of Gordimer's early stories, concerns a young couple on a train stopped at a rural station. The young woman is interested in a carved lion an old black man has to sell but claims the price is too high. Her husband bargains with the vendor and obtains the carving for an unfairly low price, causing his wife to feel humiliated and isolated from him. At first, this story may not seem to deal with the racial problems specific to South Africa—after all, oppressed and impoverished people are taken advantage of the world over. But the inequality that permeates South African society is depicted in the shared...
(The entire section is 6,547 words.)