(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The title of this collection of six essays, first delivered as the 1994 Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University, reflects Nadine Gordimer’s belief that the morality of living and the morality of writing are one. Reading her books (she has written nine collections of short fiction and eleven novels and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991), one likes to think that passionately committed writers such as Gordimer, some of whose books were banned in her native land of South Africa, played an essential role in the collapse of the white racist government and the end of apartheid there. Clearly, Gordimer believes that in countries where oppression and absence of basic freedoms are facts, the writer has a responsibility to speak for the oppressed and act against the oppressors, whoever they may be. What has most engaged her imagination is the perilous journey toward tomorrow, the slow stumbling toward human freedom, the fumbling efforts to throw off the shackles (racial and religious hatreds, censorship, injustice) now occurring on a global scale. Four of the essays here are directly concerned with this phenomenon, while the other two deal with more writerly issues.

“Adam’s Rib: Fictions and Realities” is an inquiry into the sources and processes of fiction, particularly in fiction’s relationship to life. Gordimer discusses the vexing problems of what she calls “predatory realism,” readers’ tendency to read fiction as biography or autobiography. She holds that this “prying game” played by readers reveals a naïve attitude toward fiction and the complex, mysterious processes of the writer’s imagination. She acknowledges that fiction has a connection with real life, real persons, but it is not the kind of connection that allows a writer simply to create a clone from Adam’s rib. The writer draws upon fragments, fleeting impressions, shifting intimations and intuitions stored in the unconscious; through imaginative transformation and shaping, a fictional character is created that is both imagined and drawn from life. In fact, in order to seem lifelike, “a character always must be larger than life, more intense, compounded and condensed in essence of personality.”

The complex relationship between fiction and reality is mysterious even to writers themselves—for example, Gordimer’s own experience in writing Burger’s Daughter (1979). Although she had personally known the man (a white hero who died in prison for his anti-apartheid activities) and his daughter who were the inspiration for this story, she had deliberately cut herself off from them during the four years she wrote the novel, partly to avoid any impression that she was “studying” them and partly as a “test of creation.” Because she knew that readers would inevitably connect her fiction with their well-known case, she sent the unpublished manuscript to the daughter to read and apprehensively awaited a response. After several weeks of silence, it came: All the daughter said was, “This was our life.” She meant not that the book was factually true, but that it had a truth of vision, that Gordimer had somehow guessed, intuited, and imagined rightly. For Gordimer, the daughter’s few simple words were the best response, the highest tribute, she could hope for: “No critic’s laudation could match it; no critic’s damning could destroy it.”

“Hanging on a Sunrise: Testimony and Imagination in Revolutionary Writings” records Gordimer’s changing attitude toward the merits of testimonial writings. In the 1970’s, she had believed that in order to avoid debasing the very concept of literature, the same standards and value judgments that apply to imaginative literature must be applied to testimony; she questioned whether testimony should be regarded as literature. Now, in post-apartheid South Africa, reading the memoirs of African National Congress members that bring home the horrifying realities of the struggle against apartheid, she finds such writing a vital record of a past that is missing because of government censorship and terrorism. Such writing is needed to help “reconstruct our country and our lives in unfamiliar freedom.” She is convinced, however, that poetry (and she might have added fiction and drama) has more durability, for after testimony is out of date, poetry can continue “to carry the experience from which the narrative has fallen away.”

Three essays focus on contemporary writers, Naguib Mahfouz from Egypt, Chinua Achebe from Nigeria, and Amos Oz from Israel, whose novels of the postcolonial...

(The entire section is 1870 words.)