Remembering Nadine Gordimer

By Hazlitt

Not Gordimer, by Patrick Flanery

I met Nadine Gordimer when I was 17, or not quite, not really; I did not meet her in person, but was introduced to her as a figure, one of 30 individuals collected together for study in America’s Academic Decathlon under the heading “A Diversity of Achievers.” For the purposes of high-school study she was judged notably “achieving” because she had won the Nobel Prize for Literature the year before, and a symbol of “diversity” because she was South African, or perhaps because she was what then seemed still so exceptional and no doubt teachable: an older white woman who had always been on the side of her country’s liberation struggle, who could be presented as a positive force operating in a country that had not yet arrived at its appointment with democracy. What was odd about this encounter in a dull public-school classroom was that we learned about her life and her achievements but never read a word of her writing, or so I remember. It would be more than 15 years before I opened The Late Bourgeois World, and then The Conservationist and Burger’s Daughter and July’s People and other of her works, prompted by my partner, a South African, who was himself reading the texts that would become my own first novel, Absolution, and who suggested you really ought to read Gordimer.

Why, apart from the fact that she was a Nobel Laureate? Because I had, in a way I now think was more than half instinctual, started writing a novel about an aging white woman novelist in South Africa. I knew—my partner and I both knew—that if the novel was ever published, people would wonder if I was writing about Gordimer, though I was not, quite definitively, for apart from the little I had learned about her life (or perhaps I should say the contexts of her life’s work) in a desegregated high school in the American Midwest, I knew next to nothing about her. In 2010, while I was having lunch with another great South African novelist, Marlene van Niekerk, and telling her about the house invasion that my novelist character, Clare Wald, suffers at her home in Cape Town, Marlene asked me in the nicest possible way whether I knew that Gordimer had lived through something similar at her home in Johannesburg. I did not, and in fact had written those chapters in 2005, before Gordimer’s own experiences in 2006; by 2010 they were so intrinsically part of the world I was describing that it seemed impossible to remove or change them. In any case, I had, I could see, stumbled into writing something that was horribly true, and to change it would, in a very real sense, be to deny the reality of a country where people trying to lead ordinary lives could no longer assume—had they ever been able to do so—that they were safe without perimeter walls and gates and complex security systems.

In Gordimer’s short story, “Gemini,” published in the literary journal Salmagundi in 2000, the disembodied consciousness of a stillborn twin inhabits the minds of others, flitting in and out of lives borrowed briefly such that he begins to draw conclusions about the nature of humanity. It is, of course, a metaphor for the novelist, and the narrator imagines that if he had lived a corporeal life he “would have been a writer—fiction of course, because that’s the closest a corporeal being can get to my knack of living other lives; multiple existences that are not the poor little opportunities of a single existence.”

Gordimer was one of contemporary literature’s great inhabiters of other lives, great not least because the frequent difficulty of her style had an estranging effect on the horribly realistic lives she described, lives that undoubtedly found their inspiration in the people she knew or encountered or in strangers her own quicksilver consciousness could visit unseen, unnoticed, to glean what it might of humanity’s breadth and terror.

Gordimer held it was the writer’s duty to bear witness, though this was distinct from the necessary work of a journalist to report. Writing, rather, in the sense of that which produces the literary, involves transmutation.

The shadow of Gordimer’s life and work—the life I had studied in high school, the work I read in my thirties—did not stop me from creating my character, largely because I knew in the end there would be more of my own self and psychology in Clare Wald than anything I might have borrowed through the inhabiting of a stranger’s mind. Gordimer would, I believe, have recognized how this was possible, the ways in which, as she said in her extraordinary and wide-ranging 1983 essay “Living in the Interregnum,” the writer “hoard[s] … private experience for transmutation into fiction.” I hope, modestly, that my character Clare Wald stands for something in the spirit of Gordimer herself, which is to say a desire to be engaged in the world as a writer speaking about the realities of the ever-unfolding present, its politics and injustices and inequalities and absurdities, the trauma of oppression and derangements of censorship, the barriers thrown up by societies that still want to keep the disenfranchised so strictly apart, all the messy real-life history in which we find ourselves.

Gordimer held it was the writer’s duty to bear witness, though this was distinct from the necessary work of a journalist to report. Writing, rather, in the sense of that which produces the literary, involves transmutation. At the end of “Gemini,” the disembodied consciousness wonders about the fate of his surviving twin, a girl, who might here be read as a stand-in for the writer herself: “When she dies—the one who precociously stole my life, I’d like to know how much value she’s added to it…—I wonder whether my non-existent existence will stop, too: still-born to stop-dead. I doubt it.” There is no question that Gordimer’s many lives, all those identities created and lived out in her incomparable words, will persist long beyond her own earthly existence.

Patrick Flanery is the author of Absolution and, most recently, Fallen Land. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph.

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Me And The Books Of Nadine Gordimer, by Dawn Promislow

It’s difficult to describe just how much it meant to read Nadine Gordimer as a South African living in Johannesburg, at age 13, in 1973. In a place and time where options for thinking, acting, reading, even imagining, freely, were few, encountering the fearless and profound imagination of Nadine Gordimer—her words in books—was subversive, transformative, and then revolutionary. I read Nadine Gordimer from that time, through the dark apartheid years, through the difficult years of South Africa’s emergence from apartheid, and into the present. I read her first with astonishment, then with reverence, and, finally, with love. It was a long reading; a long road; a long love.

In the early years, her books were talismans. One was a hardcover of Selected Stories (Jonathan Cape, 1975) that my mother had bought for my grandmother, who gave it to me. Of course it’s with me still, close at hand, black-and-white photograph of a miner’s cottage on its cover. I carried her books with me, that hardcover one and others, tattered paperbacks, through two, even three, emigrations. I moved continents, yet you might say that those books were the one constant in my life. When I think about it now, it strikes me that her work, those books, represented for me some hope, some possibility of redemption, for the country that I then had left, and did not see again, for 26 years. Her work bore, in its wisdom and prescience, the future we yearned for in South Africa: a future unimaginable, except that she had imagined it.

The books were also, quite simply, a magical door, a magical way, for me to go back home: her vivid and true descriptions of landscapes and people and thoughts, and pain, that I knew so well.

I am not sure if I took the books wherever I went, or if they followed me. My most recent encounter was last year, in New York, where I happened into a used bookstore on Madison Avenue one fall day and found a first edition of her first book, The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952), which the bookseller sold me for a hundred bucks. I didn’t really have a hundred dollars to spend on an old book, but I spent it anyway. It’s her first short story collection, and has stories in it like “The Catch” and “The Train from Rhodesia,” which reveal her gifts in their promise, not in full realization, and her vision in embryo, not in full development. They bear within them the Southern Africa of 1950, colonial, and the gentle liberalism that was Gordimer’s starting point, which developed and changed and radicalized in time, as history moved forward, and as her thoughts did. Those early stories are in that sense both dated, yet timeless. I carried the book with me in a plastic bag for the rest of that day in New York; it banged against my knees as I walked. It was a relic of an old and distant time, and it brought an old, familiar kind of pain.

I think she had a radical vision almost from the beginning, and the rigour of her intellect worked always hand-in-hand with her imaginative gifts as an artist.

Her later short stories became better not only as literary works of art, but better as they moved with history, and became more clear in their vision, more rigorous in their intellectual position. Yet striking is how quickly and profoundly, how ahead of their time, they developed. One story is “Some Monday for Sure,” published as early as 1965, but how radicalized and firm her vision had become, in such a short time. That story presages the Monday that would inevitably come, when South Africa would be free, when the black revolutionary who was in exile in Dar es Salaam would come home to a democratic, transformed country. I have read that story more times than I can count, and despite its age it has not dated, and it will not date

Her books all live now in my house in Toronto, as I do. They, worn paperbacks, a couple of hardcovers with jackets, the first edition in its protective cellophane, and two copies of some, in different editions, are more than they appear. They aren’t arranged in an orderly way in my house, I’d have trouble finding any one at any particular time, and there’s more dust around and between them than I’d like. I probably don’t treat them very well. But I have kept them. They have lit my way, paper and ink that they are; they still light my way. I should also say, in case you ask, that my favourite of her novels has always been My Son’s Story (1990)—it might be among my most favourite of all novels, and has had more of my tears fall on its pages than any other book I can think of. It seems to me that her artistic gifts and her intellectual vision reached their apotheosis in that book, just at the historical moment when apartheid was crumbling, and the tragic past, and possibility of a future, were both visible most clearly, as though from a mountaintop.

Nadine Gordimer was criticized by some, and is criticized occasionally still, for her liberal, “soft” writing, in a South Africa rent historically (and even now) with violence and polarization. I have never agreed. I think she had a radical vision almost from the beginning, and the rigour of her intellect worked always hand-in-hand with her imaginative gifts as an artist. She understood as well as anyone that it was the voices of black South African writers, black African writers, that we needed to hear, not just those of white writers like herself. I read the poems of Oswald Joseph Mtshali, the black Sowetan, which were published in a collection, Sounds of a Cowhide Drum, in 1971, with a foreword by her. (I have that worn paperback with me in Toronto, too.) I discovered and read them because of her. And that was just the beginning.

She wrote in the style and form of a realist, perhaps like the European and Russian realists (Chekhov comes to mind), not an allegorist like her great compatriot JM Coetzee. She illuminated the country, the people, of South Africa by describing them with remarkable accuracy and clarity, and re-imagining them for us all to see and understand and feel. In this way one might say she moved history forward as much as history moved and formed her.

She is most certainly one reason I myself became a writer. She was the best example of how the human spirit can resist injustice, tell truth to power, through works of the imagination. Her long life, and her patient, long life’s work are simply staggering in their reach, they are still reaching, and will reach still.

Dawn Promislow is the author of Jewels and Other Stories (Tsar Publications, 2010), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and was named on the eight best fiction debuts by The Globe and Mail.

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What Gordimer Meant To Me, by Kenneth Bonert

Nadine Gordimer was a particularly inspirational figure to me, artistically and personally. Through her intricate prose, she made the city I grew up in, Johannesburg, a living part of world literature. And, years ago, when I was first trying to write, she took the time to send me a note of encouragement and something more.

Much has been made of Gordimer’s politics, but it’s the writing I most admire. She had what great writers need: a clear sense of her literary mission, and a way of making sentences that could belong to no one else.

Like her hero Balzac, she created a large body of shorter works—fifteen novels, some 200 short stories— that aim in sum to record the fullness of South African society at all levels. Her prose owes much to the modernists, and has a kind of drifting soft-focus quality that is studded with the grit of very precise and correct observations. She goes deep into the minds of her characters, but there is a coolly observing distance always retained.

Thus Gordimer functioned as a kind of poet-journalist, always capturing the present moment in the life around her. For those of us who had left the country, her books were like trusted dispatches from its beating heart. She had no hesitation in occupying characters that apartheid would separate her from; in this way she gave empathetic voice to the silent, but it was always grounded in the actual details of her experience. Reading her, one feels she had it right.

She had what great writers need: a clear sense of her literary mission, and a way of making sentences that could belong to no one else.

To look back now is to find an astonishingly prescient intelligence at work. One of my favourite novels of hers, None to Accompany Me, (a wonderfully skillful adumbration of the psychology of dependency, both personal and political), published in 1994, is about the return of exiled dissidents to South Africa’s new democracy. It is fascinating to see how so many of the problems to come in the New South Africa are already being noted by Gordimer’s calm, X-ray gaze.

When I was first starting to write fiction, maybe a decade ago, I wrote to her. Her address was the same as it had always been, a house I knew, not too far from where I grew up in the Northern Suburbs. It was a fan letter, inspired not only by her work, but by my coming across a photo of her with my late uncle, when both were very young. To my surprise, a letter came back. It had been typed by on an old-fashioned manual typewriter, some of the letters misaligned. “I can tell from your lively, ranging letter,” she wrote, “that you are, indeed, a writer … You may even discover for us a few missed truths; I have limitless faith in the power of the word! Bon Courage.”

Her words were profoundly valuable to me. To a writer, confidence is everything, and what she gave me was more than mere encouragement—it was both the gift of her judgment, and an affirmation of literature’s importance, even sanctity, and for that I’ll always be so grateful.

Kenneth Bonert is a South African-Canadian writer. He’s the author of the 2013 Governor General’s Award shortlisted The Lion Seeker.