Gordimer, Nadine 1923–
Gordimer, Nadine 1923–
PERSONAL: Born November 20, 1923, in Springs, Transvaal, South Africa; daughter of Isidore (a jeweler) and Nan (Myers) Gordimer; married Gerald Gavronsky, March 6, 1949 (divorced, 1952); married Reinhold H. Cassirer (owner and director of art gallery; deceased), January 29, 1954; children: (first marriage) Oriane Taramasco; (second marriage) Hugo, one stepdaughter. Education: Attended private schools and the University of the Witwatersrand.
CAREER: Writer. Ford Foundation visiting professor, under auspices of Institute of Contemporary Arts, Washington, DC, 1961; lecturer, Hopwood Awards, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1970; writer in residence, American Academy in Rome, 1984; has also lectured and taught writing at Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern, Columbia, and Tulane universities; has been goodwill ambassador of the United Nations Development Programme.
MEMBER: International PEN (vice president), Congress of South African Writers, Royal Society of Literature, American Academy of Arts and Sciences (honorary member), American Academy of Literature and Arts (honorary member).
AWARDS, HONORS: W.H. Smith and Son Commonwealth Literary Award, 1961, for short story collection Friday's Footprint and Other Stories; Thomas Pringle Award, English Academy of South Africa, 1969; James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1973, for A Guest of Honour; Booker Prize for Fiction, National Book League, 1974, for The Conservationist; Grand Aigle d'Or, 1975; CNA awards, 1974, 1979, 1981, and 1991; Neil Gunn fellowship, Scottish Arts Council, 1981; Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature, 1981; Modern Language Association of America award, 1982; Nelly Sachs Prize, 1985; Premio Malaparte, 1986; Bennett Award, Hudson Review, 1986; Benson Medal, 1990; Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), 1991; Nobel Prize for literature, Nobel Foundation, 1991; rejected candidacy for Orange Award in 1998 because the award was restricted to women writers; Booker Prize long-list nomination for The Pickup, 2001; Commonwealth Writers Prize, Africa Region, best book category for The Pickup. Awarded honorary degrees from University of Leuven, 1980, Smith College, City College of the City University of New York, and Mount Holyoke College, all 1985, Harvard University, Columbia University, Yale University, and York University, England, 1987, New School for Social Research, 1988, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, University of Cape Town, South Africa, University of Cape Town, South Africa, Cambridge University, 1991, Oxford University, 1994, University of Durban-Westville, and Ben Gurion University, 1996.
The Lying Days, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1953, published with new introduction by Paul Bailey, Virago (New York, NY), 1983.
A World of Strangers, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1958.
Occasion for Loving, Viking (New York, NY), 1963, published with new introduction by Paul Bailey, Virago (New York, NY), 1983.
The Late Bourgeois World, Viking (New York, NY), 1966.
A Guest of Honour, Viking (New York, NY), 1970.
The Conservationist, J. Cape (London, England), 1974, Viking (New York, NY), 1975.
Burger's Daughter, Viking (New York, NY), 1979.
July's People, Viking (New York, NY), 1981.
A Sport of Nature (Book-of-the-Month Club dual selection), Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
My Son's Story, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1990.
None to Accompany Me, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 1994.
Harald, Claudia, and Their Son Duncan, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 1996.
The House Gun, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
The Pickup, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2001.
Get a Life, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2005.
Face to Face (also see below), Silver Leaf Books (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1949.
The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories (contains many stories previously published in Face to Face), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1952.
Six Feet of the Country (also see below), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1956.
Friday's Footprint and Other Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1960.
Not for Publication and Other Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1965.
Livingstone's Companions, Viking (New York, NY), 1971.
Selected Stories (contains stories from previously published collections), Viking (New York, NY), 1975, also published as No Place Like: Selected Stories, Penguin (London, England), 1978.
Some Monday for Sure, Heinemann Educational (London, England), 1976.
A Soldier's Embrace, Viking (New York, NY), 1980.
Town and Country Lovers, Sylvester & Orphanos (Los Angeles, CA), 1980.
Six Feet of the Country (contains stories from previously published collections selected for television series of same title), Penguin (New York, NY), 1982.
Something Out There, Viking (New York, NY), 1984.
Reflections of South Africa: Short Stories, Systime, 1986.
Crimes of Conscience: Selected Short Stories, Heinemann, 1991.
Jump and Other Stories, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.
Why Haven't You Written?: Selected Stories, 1950–1972, Viking (New York, NY), 1993.
Loot: And Other Stories, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2003.
(Compiler and editor, with Lionel Abrahams) South African Writing Today, Penguin (New York, NY), 1967.
African Literature: The Lectures Given on This Theme at the University of Cape Town's Public Summer School, February, 1972, Board of Extra Mural Studies, University of Cape Town (Cape Town, South Africa), 1972.
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing, SproCas/Ravan (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1973.
On the Mines, photographs by David Goldblatt, C. Struik (Cape Town, South Africa), 1973.
(Author of appreciation) Kurt Jobst: Goldsmith and Silversmith; Art Metal Worker, G. Bakker (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1979.
(With others) What Happened to "Burger's Daughter"; or, How South African Censorship Works, Taurus (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1980.
Lifetimes under Apartheid, photographs by David Goldblatt, Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, edited and introduced by Stephen Clingman, Knopf (New York, NY), 1988.
(With Hugo Cassirer) Berlin and Johannesburg: The Wall and The Colour Bar, television documentary film.
Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics, Bennington College (Bennington, VT), 1991.
(With Ruth Weiss) Zimbabwe and the New Elite, Tauris (Johannesburg, South Africa), 1993.
Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1999.
(Editor) Telling Tales, Picador (New York, NY), 2004.
Also author of television plays and documentaries, including A Terrible Chemistry, 1981, Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak, with Hugo Cassirer, 1985, Country Lovers, A Chip of Glass Ruby, Praise, and Oral History, all part of The Gordimer Stories series adapted from stories of the same title, 1985. Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic, Encounter, Granta, Harper's, Holiday, Kenyon Review, Mother Jones, New Yorker, Paris Review, and Playboy. New York Times, syndicated columnist, January, 2003–. Gordimer's novels, short stories, and essays have been translated into twenty-five languages and are available in audio cassette form.
Indiana University, Lilly Library, houses a collection of Gordimer's papers.
ADAPTATIONS: Screenplays for four of the seven television dramas based on her own short stories, collectively titled The Gordimer Stories, 1981–82; City Lovers, based on Gordimer's short story of the same title, was filmed by TeleCulture Inc./TelePool in South Africa in 1982.
SIDELIGHTS: "Nadine Gordimer has become, in the whole solid body of her work, the literary voice and conscience of her society," declared Maxwell Geismar in the Saturday Review. In numerous novels, short stories, and essays, she has written of her South African homeland and its apartheid government—under which its blacks, coloreds, and whites suffered for nearly half a century. "This writer … has made palpable the pernicious, pervasive character of that country's race laws, which not only deny basic rights to most people but poison many relationships," maintained Miriam Berkley in Publishers Weekly. Others, like Judith Chettle of the World and I, were more critical, noting that Gordimer "has adroitly over the years written books that drew world attention to the political situation in South Africa. Never jailed or exiled (though some books were briefly banned in the 1970s), Gordimer came to be regarded as the preeminent recorder of life under apartheid. Books like Burger's Daughter and The Conservationist gained her an international audience," but adding the caveat: "In these books, Gordimer astutely described the liberal politics of white and mostly English-speaking South Africa. She was much less incisive in dealing with those Afrikaners supporting the regime and was least successful in describing the blacks."
However, Gordimer's insight, integrity, and compassion inspire critical admiration among many. "She has mapped out the social, political and emotional geography of that troubled land with extraordinary passion and precision," commented Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, observing in a later essay that "taken chronologically, her work not only reflects her own evolving political consciousness and maturation as an artist—an early lyricism has given way to an increased preoccupation with ideas and social issues—but it also charts changes in South Africa's social climate." One of only nine women so recognized, she was honored with the Nobel Prize in literature for her novels in 1991—a sign of the esteem in which the literary world holds her work.
When she began, Gordimer was only one of a number of novelists working in South Africa after World War II. "Some of the writers, like [Alan] Paton, turned to non-fiction or political work; even more, most notably [Peter] Abrahams and Dan Jacobson, expatriated," explained John Cooke in The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes. "By the early sixties Gordimer was almost the only member of the postwar group to continue producing fiction from within the country. That she should be the survivor was not altogether surprising, for she was in essential ways more a product of South Africa than her contemporaries. She attended university at home, not in England as colonial writers so regularly have; she did not travel abroad until she was thirty."
"Gordimer seemed particularly unsuited to prosper as a writer in her arid land," Cooke continued, "because of the disjunction between her temperament and the situation she confronted. More than any of her contemporaries, Gordimer was initially drawn to private themes." Her novels and short stories are, at bottom, about complicated individuals caught in awkward or impossibly complex situations. "Her writing [is] so subtle that it forces readers to find their way back from her works into her mind," remarked Firdaus Kanga in the Times Literary Supplement; "her characters are powerful precisely because you cannot sum them up in a line or even a page."
Much of Gordimer's fiction focuses upon white middle-class characters. It frequently depicts what Geismar described as "a terrified white consciousness in the midst of a mysterious and ominous sea of black humanity." But the "enduring subject" of her writing has been "the consequences of apartheid on the daily lives of men and women, the distortions it produces in relationships among both blacks and whites," noted Kakutani. Her first novel, The Lying Days, is drawn from her personal experience and tells about a young woman who comes into contact with the effects of apartheid when she has an affair with a social worker. A World of Strangers is about the efforts of a British writer to bring together his white intellectual friends and his black African intellectual friends. In Burger's Daughter, considered by some to be her best novel, Gordimer examines white ambivalence about apartheid in the person of Rosa, who can no longer sustain the antiapartheid cause of her imprisoned Afrikaner father after his death. This work, like several others before it, was banned in South Africa, but the ban was quickly removed due to the critical attention the novel had attracted in the West. The story of the banning and unbanning of Burger's Daughter is related in What Happened to "Burger's Daughter"; or, How South African Censorship Works, published in 1980.
Both The Lying Days and A World of Strangers end with a note of hope for a better future for South Africans. Gordimer's later novels, however, take a more pessimistic tone. A Guest of Honour, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1973, tells of the return of Colonel James Bray to his African homeland. Bray had been exiled by the previous government for his espousal of black revolutionary ideology. Upon his return, however, Bray discovers that the new revolutionary government is just as corrupt and self-interested as the previous government was. When he speaks out publicly against the new government, it targets him for assassination. The Conservationist, awarded the Booker Prize (England's highest literary honor) the following year, tells about the uneasy relationship between a white landowner and black squatters who have settled on his estate, bringing up the question of "whose land is it anyway?" "Beginning with A Guest of Honour," Cooke concluded, "Gordimer's novels are informed by a tension between … two impulses: she at once observes her world from without and envisions it from within. Through this double process, the fruit of her long apprenticeship, Gordimer creates masterful forms and shapes despite the 'low cultural rainfall' of her world."
These forms and shapes also appear in Gordimer's short fiction. Jump and Other Stories—published shortly before the author received the Nobel Prize—contains stories that approach her favorite themes in a variety of ways. She tells about a white man out for a jog, who is caught up in a black gang-killing and is saved by a black woman who shelters him. "A single truth is witnessed," wrote John Edgar Wideman in the New York Times Book Review, "a truth somehow missing in most fiction by white Americans that purports to examine our national life. No matter how removed one feels oneself from the fray, race and race relations lie at the heart of the intimate, perplexing questions we need to ask of ourselves: Where have I been? Where am I going? Who am I?" "Ms. Gordimer can be a merciless judge and jury," Wideman concluded. "Her portraits obtain a Vermeer-like precision, accurate and remorseless, with no room for hope, for self-delusion, no room even for the small vanities of ego and self-regard that allow us to proceed sometimes as if at least our intentions are honorable."
The Swedish Academy had considered Gordimer as a Nobel Prize nominee for years before she finally received the award in 1991. Several commentators, while congratulating her on her accomplishment, noted that the struggle against apartheid remained unfinished. "On the day of the announcement that Nadine Gordimer would receive the 1991 Nobel Prize for literature, a tribute to the complex and intimate stories she has written about racism's toll on people's lives in her native South Africa," wrote Esther B. Fein in the New York Times, "Nelson Mandela still did not have the right to vote." Mandela had been released from his political prison, but the basic tenets of apartheid prevented him from exercising the rights of citizenship. When South African president F.W. De Klerk announced that the policy of separation would end, reviewers wondered where the Nobel laureate would turn her attention. "With apartheid finally ended," Diana Jean Schemo declared in the New York Times, "the novelist waxes exultant over a sense of renewal in her homeland; the urgency is gone, but the turn of mind remains."
"For the whole of her literary career, Gordimer has grappled with the intricacies and distortions of life under a certain political system, a specific regime of oppression," noted Diane Simon in the Nation. With the ending of apartheid and the enfranchisement of South African blacks, critics scanned Gordimer's fiction for evidence of how this supremely political writer's focus would change. Her novel, None to Accompany Me, looks at the fortunes of two families—one black, one white—as they move into the new, postapartheid, era. "The repressions, the curle laws and persecutions, the campaigns of resistance, the exiles, the detentions, the bannings and brutalities—all these horrors of the past are finished," observed Sonya Rudikoff in the book African Writers, continuing: "What remains is the damage done to society and to personal relations." "None to Accompany Me is a sustaining achievement, proving Gordimer once again a lucid witness to her country's transformation and a formidable interpreter of the inner self," Anne Whitehouse commented in Tribune Books. While some viewed this work as a step away from the public themes of her earlier novels and short stories, Simon observed that all of Gordimer's main characters are actively involved in the political life of the new South Africa.
By contrast, Gordimer's second postapartheid novel, The House Gun, while it also explores the relationships between blacks and whites in the newly transformed South Africa, is arguably more concerned with the politicization of her characters' personal lives. The Linde-gards are an affluent white couple who learn that their only son, Duncan, has committed a murder using a gun intended to protect the house from thieves. They hire a black lawyer to represent him, and begin the painful process of emerging out of the sheltered lives they have created. Through these events, Gordimer explores the question, "Does a violent society provoke violence in nonviolent individuals?" "The story deftly brings home a tricky truth," remarked Walter Kirn in Time: "Peace can be as perilous as war, and even more confusing to negotiate," especially when it is a peace that follows bitter internal strife. The novel's other underlying question, which asks if the level of violence in South Africa is higher than in Europe because of its large black population or because of the way blacks have long been treated by racist whites, is the "question that haunts Gordimer's novel," according to Jack Miles in the New York Times Book Review. Miles described House Gun as an "elegantly conceived, flawlessly executed novel." While Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times dubbed the novel "little more than a courtroom thriller, dressed up with some clumsy allusions to apartheid's legacy of violence and the uses and misuses of freedom," Library Journal reviewer Edward B. St. John contended that House Gun is "much more ambitious" than the courtroom dramas of Scott Turow or John Grisham, adding that "Gordimer's trademark prose style … seems especially well suited to capturing the moral ambiguities of South African life." "Gordimer's great fiction has always personalized the political," observed Hazel Rochman in Booklist, but in this novel, the author "moves in the opposite direction, taking the personal intimacy of family, friend, and lover into the glare of the public sphere."
Gordimer's turn of mind reaches out in two directions: politically, she follows the fortunes of other first-class "third-world" writers such as Egyptian Naguib Mah-fouz, Nigerian Chinua Achebe, and Israeli Amos Oz. "Her attention is turned on writers whose work seems most engaged in the questions that have absorbed her for much of her life," Schemo wrote, "how justice, wealth, power and freedom are parceled out in a society, and the repercussions for its people." In the essays collected in Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century, the author addresses politics and morals, writers and culture, and first of all, life as a white liberal in South Africa. Here especially, Gordimer "speaks with the authority of the insider," according to Hazel Rochman in Booklist, "bearing witness to what it has been like, as a white citizen and writer, to live in Johannesburg" during the years of apartheid and through the upheavals that accompanied the transition to a postapartheid regime. Critics noted that Gordimer herself has frequently called her fiction more truthful than her nonfiction, and agreed that, as a reviewer for Publishers Weekly claimed, the pieces found in Living in Hope and History "shouldn't be expected to attain the nuance and depth of Gordimer's best fiction, but some of them are devastating."
Another novel, The Pickup, and a volume of short stories, Loot: and Other Stories, followed, pursuing further the complexity of individual struggles with racial and cultural differences in racist societies. A Booklist reviewer called The Pickup "a compelling, unsentimental exploration of the paradox of privilege." Robert Ross in the World and I praised the novel, which, he noted, was published on the eve of the fall of the Twin Towers in New York: "underneath what might appear a less gloomy treatment of human experience, there lies a muted but strong concern with the dispossessed: those trapped in economic strife, the victims of racism, those affected by official corruption, and those on the move, facing the obstacles of immigration." The setting is that a young, disaffected woman from a wealthy white family meets an illegal Arab immigrant when her car breaks down. She becomes enthralled with the (to her) simplicity and connectedness of the home he is trying to escape, while he longs for the (to him) glittering cosmopolitan ease of the surroundings she is running from. Their love affair could be seen as a lighter side of Gordimer—a cross-cultural romance or a South African Romeo and Juliet, as several critics have observed—or, as Ross suggested, as an exploration of the contradictions that appear when one who has too much material ease and too little meaning in her life intertwines with another yearning towards the life she abhors. Gordon Houser, in the Christian Century, pointed out that in this novel Gordimer again shows that she is looking further into the world for her themes following the end of apartheid. He wrote, Gordimer "moves outward to the complexities of the global community, where people seek refuge from poverty and hopelessness by going to more prosperous countries. She juxtaposes Abdul's desperate desire to escape economic chaos with Julie's desire for stability and a loving family." An Entertainment Weekly reviewer commented, "Gordimer, deploying the finest kind of irony and attuned to the tiniest gestures, spins an eloquent tale about the ways in which romance ratifies self-image."
Loot, includes both "fragments of crystallized insight" and three longer pieces, one almost a novella, according to Chettle. Gordimer, remarked Spectator's Sebastian Smee, "still displays a natural short-story writer's feeling for the intimate moments and quiet epiphanies that can alter people's lives." He also, however, found her writing style to be "lazily allusive and unkempt" and reading the stories "a pleasureless slog" because of her convoluted prose, but he recommended parts of "Karma," "Mission Statement," and "Generation Gap," a tale about the break-up of a marriage from the point of view of the grown-up children. Carmen Callil in the New Statesman, however, argued that "you have to sit up straight to read her, open your mind, extend your understanding, watch every word. It's worth it." She continued, "In 'Mission Statement', a middle-aged Englishwoman, Roberta Blayne, who works for an international aid agency of the Clare Short kind, falls into an affair with the deputy director of land affairs, Glad-well Shadrack Chabruma, in some unnamed African state, the sort of country that has old hospitals 'still known by the name of a deceased English Queen.' Gordimer can capture bodies, black and white, in a word, and sexual attraction in a sentence, as when Roberta sees her lover's torso and its 'gleaming beauty, sweat-painted, of perfectly formed muscle, the double path below pectorals, left and right, of smooth ribbing beneath lithe skin. Black. Simply Black.' The ironic ending of their love affair is perfectly conceived." Callil noted: "In Gordimer's Africa, too much has happened for easy endings. Her Europeans, her whites, are as soulless as their predecessors. What followed apartheid, after all, was AIDS: today's relics of 'imperial compassion' tend what they have produced—the AIDS children, the 'rags of flesh and bone,' 'the new-born-to-die.'" "The Gordimer of these stories inhabits a stern world."
Chettle was one critic who saw Gordimer struggling to find a new voice since the fall of apartheid. She stated: "While Gordimer's [work] will continue to be read as distilled portraits of a particular society that behaved in a particular way at a particular time, her characters have often been more articulate vehicles for ideas than vivid creations who strut their stuff off the pages and into our hearts." This presents, in Chettle's view, a problem: "Gordimer … has valiantly, if with mixed success, been trying to make the necessary adjustments. Her latest book, Loot, a collection of ten short stories, exemplifies these adjustments as it describes moments of transition when lives are changed by insight or action. The stories typically reflect both Gordimer's weaknesses and strengths. She has a reporter's eye for the defining detail, but the characters themselves are often disembodied shades, held hostage to the workings out of the authorial intellect rather than following the wayward devices of their own hearts." She especially found the long story, "Karma" a "long mediation (more an intellectual than spiritual examination)." However, Chettle engagingly described stories whose characters "all share moments of abrupt change, signaled often by the acquisition of what is suddenly, or long, desired." Callil, though, found "Karma" to be "as good as anything she has written. Complex and inventive, it depicts worlds within worlds, yet each life recounted is vividly rooted in family and neighbourhood. The history and stories of her country and ours weave in and out of each episode as a wandering soul is born, again and again, sometimes female, sometimes male (it is always better to be male), reaching eventually a view that seems to be Gordimer's own. For our misdeeds, in whatever human form we take, 'we are condemned to live forever.' And so the villainy continues."
In 2004 Gordimer served as sole editor of the Telling Tales anthology. The collection contains short stories from 21 well-known international writers, and all profits are donated to help fight HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Gordimer contributed "The Ultimate Safari," which is "a searing, unforgettable account of a desperate refugee child hiding … in a famous game park," according to Hazel Rochman in Booklist.
The following year, Gordimer once again focused her attention on novels, publishing Get a Life. In the story, Paul Bannerman, an ecologist fighting the development of a dam and nuclear reactor in South Africa, is diagnosed with throat cancer. He stays with his parents until risks associated with radiation therapy subside. As he recovers, he reflects on his troubled marriage to Berenice, or Benni, an advertising executive who works for companies that thwart his land preservation efforts. "Paul's doubts simply trail off in the novel's second half, when Gordimer shifts her focus to escalating troubles between Paul's parents," noted Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly. Digby Durrant, reviewing the book for Spectator, called it "a difficult read." Durrant continued, "It's as if to write a simple sentence is an error of taste or sloppy thinking. Gordimer strains too hard for an originality a writer of her stature doesn't need" A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt Gordimer's effort was "a lacerating novel, one in which conflicted professional and domestic lives are played for all their contradictory possibility."
Gordimer herself once told interviewer Beth Austin in the Chicago Tribune: "I began to write, I think, out of the real source of all art, and that is out of a sense of wonderment about life, and a sense of trying to make sense out of the mystery of life. That hasn't changed in all the years that I've been writing. That is the starting point of everything that I write."
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BBC Audio Interviews, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour/ (October 18, 1998).
Gifts of Speech, http://gos.sbc.edu/(December 7, 1991), Nobel lecture.
University Scholars Programme, National University of Singaporehttp://www.scholars.nus.edu.sg/ (March 10, 2004), Gordimer page.
South African Review of Books, http://www.uni-ulm.de/ (March 2, 2006), "Nadine Gordimer at 70."
United Nations Development Programme—South Africa, http://www.undp.org.za/ (March 10, 2004), biography of Gordimer.