BORN: 1923, Springs, South Africa
NATIONALITY: South African
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction
A Guest of Honour (1970)
The Conservationist (1974)
July's People (1981)
Jump, and Other Stories (1991)
The House Gun (1998)
Throughout her career, South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer has detailed the corrosive effects of life in the racially segregated state. Gordimer has steered a difficult middle path between the conflicting claims of conservative white readers who resented her relentless analyses of white privilege, and those of other readers—both white and black, and often committed to social change—who regarded as trivial or indulgent her insistence that art should not become propaganda.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Privileged Upbringing in Segregated South Africa Nadine Gordimer, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, was born in Springs, a mining town forty miles outside Johannesburg, in Transvaal, South Africa, on November 20, 1923. A shop-owning family, the Gordimers were part of the white, English-speaking middle class.
Gordimer attended a local Catholic school until the age of eleven. Because of a heart ailment, she was educated privately at home from her eleventh to her sixteenth year. Gordimer began writing in earnest in her teens as a response to the racial divisions she observed. Her early short stories illustrate both Gordimer's sharp
eye for detail and her indirect, ironic manner of commenting on the injustices resulting from racial separation. Three of her best-known stories illustrating this theme were published in 1947, before the victory of the National Party—which systematized white dominance and enforced racial separation in the practice known as “apartheid,” or “apartness.”
Gordimer married Gerald Gavron in 1949; the two divorced in 1952. In 1954 Gordimer married Reinhold Cassirer, a German Jewish refugee from the Nazi regime who had a distinguished career with British Intelligence during World War II.
The Apartheid Era Gordimer's early work focuses on the intrusion of external reality into the comfortable existence of South Africa's middle-class white society. The Lying Days (1953) portrays a sheltered Afrikaner woman who gains political consciousness through her affair with a social worker. Despite autobiographical elements, this novel shows Gordimer's gift for creating individual truths that reflect more general, public truths.
A World of Strangers was published in 1958 at the height of the liberal movement in South Africa, during which time intellectuals and artists of all colors strove to resist the increasingly restrictive codes of official apart-heid. The novel, banned by the South African government, relates a British writer's attempts to unite his white intellectual companions with several black Africans whom he has recently befriended.
The liberalism of the 1950s ended violently with the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when white police shot down sixty-nine blacks protesting laws that forbade non-whites from traveling freely in South Africa. The violence resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency and the subsequent arrest and detention without trial of many political figures. From that point, a police state was established, which silenced organized political opposition and drove into exile many black intellectuals.
The Limits of White Liberalism In her early work Gordimer depicts the ambiguity and compromises of white liberalism; in her writing published between 1960 and 1994 she analyzes its failure to produce any meaningful political changes in South Africa. The novella The Late Bourgeois World (1966), for example, reconstructs events leading to the suicide of a white political activist who had betrayed his compatriots in exchange for leniency. A Guest of Honour (1970) is also the story of white liberal disillusionment.
The apartheid regime appeared to be permanently established in 1974 when The Conservationist appeared. It focuses on a wealthy white industralist's struggle to come to terms with his guilt and sense of displacement as he grows increasingly threatened by the presence of poor black squatters on his estate. The novel marked an important departure for Gordimer: it was the first of her books to hint positively at an ultimate return of South Africa to black majority control.
Burger's Daughter, banned briefly on publication in 1979, details the efforts of Rosa Burger, the daughter of a martyred leader of the South African Communist Party, to pursue an apolitical existence. Gordimer put further pressure on the idea that white liberalism in itself was of any use in South Africa with July's People (1981). The book centers on a liberal white family forced to depend on the providence of a black man who was previously their servant. Through this reversal of roles, the novel reveals deep-rooted feelings of prejudice and racial supremacy in even the most open-minded individuals.
Gordimer felt deeply the need for South African white minority to become active in the cause of justice. She joined the African National Congress (ANC) while it was still an illegal organization because she felt it represented the best hope for the country. She even harbored ANC leaders in her home to protect them from government persecution. In 1986, Gordimer testified on behalf of nearly two dozen antiapartheid activists on trial for treason. She spoke out openly and often against apartheid, and participated in antiapartheid demonstrations within South Africa.
Post-Apartheid Work Antiapartheid activist Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. In 1994 the ANC won the first democratic election in the country. As apartheid ended and South African blacks were granted political power, critics scanned Gordimer's fiction to see how her focus would change. Her novel None to Accompany Me (1994) looks at the fortunes of two families—one black, one white—as they move into the post-apartheid era. She examines the problems of those negotiating the change and returning from exile or underground.
Gordimer's The House Gun (1998) is set in the new South Africa. The new regime, unquestionably in power, is nevertheless beset with the chronic problem of random violence and crime in a society casting off a recognition of civil authority together with the authoritarian trappings of the former era. Gordimer's interest in The House Gun is not so much on the present but on the legacy of the past and how that past has produced the violent contemporary climate.
Recently, Gordimer has turned her attention to another scourge in South African society: the spread of HIV/AIDS. She has been an active fund-raiser for AIDS treatment in South Africa. Gordimer continues to live and write in South Africa.
Works in Literary Context
Gordimer was originally only one of a series of novelists working in South Africa after World War II. “Some of the writers, like [Alan] Paton, turned to nonfiction or
political work; even more, most notably [Peter] Abrahams and Dan Jacobson, expatriated,” explains 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.”
The Tradition of South African Literature Before Gordimer, the most famous white South African novelist of English language literature: Alan Paton, author of the 1948 best seller Cry, the Beloved Country, a moving protest novel about race relations in South Africa. Before Paton, however, white South African Olive Schreiner gained some short-term attention for her The Story of an African Farm (1883). Schreiner's work fell into obscurity for decades until it was recovered by critics in the 1980s. Aside from Gordimer, the white South African author of greatest prominence today is J.M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. Coetzee, author of such works as Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), The Life and Times of Michael K (1983), and Disgrace (1999) focused much of his writing on the complicated social issues facing his racially divided country.
The white population of South Africa comes from both British and Dutch descent, and the descendants of the early Dutch settlers speak a language called Afrikaans. Two prominent writers of Afrikaans literature include André Brink (1935–) and Breyten Breytenbach (1939–) Both were active opponents to the apartheid regime; Breytenbach spent seven years in prison in South Africa for treason as a result of his activities, an experience recounted in his English-language work The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist (1983). Writer Athol Fugard, though of Afrikaner descent, writes in English to reach a wider audience. The author of numerous plays and novels, his most famous works include Blood Knot (1962) and Master Harold … and the Boys (1982).
Black South African writers of the apartheid era faced imprisonment for open criticism of the government, which obviously dampened output by members of those generations, and many fled the country. Peter Abrahams, for example, left South Africa at the age of twenty in 1939. His novel Mine Boy (1946) brought him to critical attention. Alex La Guma stayed in South Africa for much of his adult life, writing such protest novels as 1962's A Walk in the Night before leaving the country for good in 1966. Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has experienced a small renaissance in literature by black South Africans.
White Minority Voice Much of Gordimer's fiction focuses upon white middle-class lives. It frequently depicts what Maxwell Geismar describes 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 apart-heid on the daily lives of men and women, the distortions it produces in relationships among both blacks and whites,” says critic Michiko Kakutani. Much criticism of Gordimer has focused on her position as a white writer in a predominantly black African country. Many have questioned her ability to fully understand the reality of black South African life, or even her moral right to “speak” for black Africans. Christopher Heywood defends Gordimer's vision, seeing her as part of the Western tradition: “The adoption of a point of view approximating to that of the submerged majority in southern Africa calls for no superhuman effort, since there is abundant evidence and experience, and a tradition of writing stemming from the American writer W.E.B. DuBois, and from the English writers such as E.D. Morel and D.H. Lawrence, upon which it can be based.” He notes that her white status allows solutions that affect South Africans differently, depending on their race: “Gordimer's view [is] that the colour-bar … can be best repudiated and destroyed from within ….”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Gordimer's famous contemporaries include:
Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006): Egyptian novelist, screenwriter, and playwright who explored existentialism and modernized Arabic literature; awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.
Nelson Mandela (1918–): Former president of South Africa and 1993 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize; under apartheid, he spent twenty-seven years as a political prisoner.
Chinua Achebe (1930–): Nigerian novelist, poet, and critic who incorporates oral Igbo traditions into his work.
J. M. Coetzee (1940–): South African novelist, essayist, and translator; awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.
Aung San Suu Kyi (1945–): elected prime minister of Burma (Myanmar) in 1990 but placed under house arrest by the ruling military; awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Other critics have argued that Gordimer successfully aligned herself politically with other first-class “third-world” writers such as Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, 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,” critic Diana Jean Schemo writes, “how justice, wealth, power and freedom are parceled out in a society, and the repercussions for its people.” “For the past 40 years,” Anne Whitehouse writes, “Gordimer's fiction has reflected and illuminated her country's troubled history and the passions of individuals with integrity and detachment. 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.”
Works in Critical Context
Declared “the literary voice and conscience of her society” by Maxwell Geismar, Gordimer has been praised for her incisive examination of complex human tensions generated by apartheid.
According to scholars like John Cooke and Stephen Clingman, Gordimer's fiction tells of vast social change through the everyday experiences of individuals. Her fiction abounds with the most closely observed detail, and most critics agree that her insights have been as finely perceptive as her observations.
The volatile racial tensions in South Africa have affected the reception of Gordimer's literature throughout her career. Many critics have attempted to categorize Gordimer as a political writer, though she makes no attempt to promote specific political views in her fiction. A few critics maintain that downplaying the politics of her stories evades her political responsibility.
Because Gordimer has chosen to write about the small moments in people's lives, her writing receives almost a universal warm welcome today, in contrast with the 1950s and 1960s, when such “small moments” were sometimes criticized as both didactic and apolitical. Today, in light of the trend toward minimalism in fiction, “small moments” are almost universally acknowledged to be suitable topics for literature.
Several short stories in Six Feet of the Country (1956) and Friday's Footprint and Other Stories (1960) display the influence of Guy de Maupassant, Honoré de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert in their objectivity, realism, and satiric edge. Gordimer herself has cited Marcel Proust, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky as major influences.
A Guest of Honour A Guest of Honour (1970), for which Gordimer received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, is regarded by many critics as her finest work. John Cooke says that a certain duality appears for the first time in Gordimer's work in this novel: “she at once observes her world from without and envisions it from within.”
Burger's Daughter Burger's Daughter (1979) 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. Judith Chettle noted that it was one of the books that “gained Gordimer an international audience,” but added: “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.”
July's People July's People (1981) focuses on a liberal white family forced to depend on the providence of a black man who was previously their servant. Through this reversal of roles, the novel reveals deep-rooted feelings of prejudice and racial supremacy in even the most open-minded individuals. Anne Tyler commented: “July's People demonstrates with breathtaking clarity the tensions and complex interdependencies between whites and blacks in South Africa. It is so flawlessly written that every one of its events seems chillingly, ominously possible.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many nations throughout the world, even today, have permitted or encouraged barriers between ethnicities, religious groups, or genders. These barriers impose separation, or segregation. Here are some works that examine segregation's effects.
Invisible Man (1952), a novel by Ralph Ellison. The award-winning novel follows the struggles of a bright, promising young African American boy who struggles against the pervasive racism of post–World War II America.
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1996), a book based on a true story by Doris Pilkington. Three adolescent Aboriginal girls defy forced separation from their homeland and relocation to isolated “native settlement stations.”
Biko (1978), a biography by Donald Woods. Biography of Steven Biko, the leader of the nonviolent South African Black Consciousness Movement, who died in 1977 under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.
Princess (1992), a book based on a true story by Jean P. Sasson. This work details how gender segregation within conservative Muslim society affects a contemporary Saudi Arabian princess.
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.”
Responses to Literature
- Gordimer does not “preach” to her readers, but rather lets them draw their own conclusions from the details she presents. Do you think this is an effective literary technique, or do you think it leaves room for misinterpretation, depending on the reader?
- Gordimer has been criticized for refusing to write fiction with an overtly political point of view. As a white woman, she was part of the “ruling class” during apartheid. Would any political solution she proposed be affected by her experiences as part of the privileged white society, or, because of her status, did she have a responsibility to promote specific political solutions in her work?
- Research the definition of the word “propaganda” and find three examples of well-known novels that have been labeled as propaganda. What prompts such labeling? Do you think propaganda can be art?
- Research how Africa and South Africa are portrayed by other writers. Write a paper examining the way African countries are represented. Do the representations differ according to the writer's gender or race? If so, how?
Clingman, Stephen. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Cooke, John. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1985.
King, Bruce, ed. The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Newman, Judie. Nadine Gordimer. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Smith, Rowland, ed. Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer. G.K. Hall, 1990.
Yousaf, Nahem, ed., Apartheid Narratives. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.
Ariel (October 1988).
Salmagundi. (Winter 1984).
Atlantic Online. February 9, 2000, from http://www.theatlantic.com
BBC Audio Interviews. October 18, 1998, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfour
Nobel Lecture Gifts of Speech. December 7, 1991, from http://gos.sbc.edu
Nationality: South African. Born: Springs, Transvaal, 20 November 1923. Education: A convent school, and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Family: Married 1) G. Gavron in 1949; 2) Reinhold Cassirer in 1954; one son and one daughter. Career: Visiting lecturer, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Washington, D.C., 1961, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1969, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1969, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1970; Adjunct Professor of Writing, Columbia University, New York, 1971; presenter, Frontiers television series, 1990. Awards: W.H. Smith Literary award, 1961; Thomas Pringle award, 1969; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1972; Booker prize, 1974; Grand Aigle d'Or prize (France), 1975; CNA award, 1975; Scottish Arts Council Neil Gunn fellowship, 1981; Common Wealth award, 1981; Modern Language Association award (U.S.A.), 1981; Malaparte prize (Italy), 1985; Nelly Sachs prize (Germany), 1985; Bennett award (U.S.A.), 1986; Royal Society of Literature Benson medal, 1990; Nobel prize, 1991, for literature. D. Lit.: University of Leuven, Belgium, 1980; D. Litt.: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1985; City College, New York, 1985; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1985; Harvard University, 1986; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1986; Columbia University, 1987; New School for Social Research, New York, 1987; University of York, 1987. Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1980; Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (U.S.A.), 1985. Agent: A.P. Watt Ltd., 20 John Street, London WC1N 2DR, England; or, Russell and Volkening Inc., 50 West 29th Street, New York, New York 10001, U.S.A.
The Lying Days. London, Gollancz, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1953.
A World of Strangers. London, Gollancz, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1958.
Occasion for Loving. London, Gollancz, and New York, VikingPress, 1963.
The Late Bourgeois World. London, Gollancz, and New York, VikingPress, 1966.
A Guest of Honour. New York, Viking Press, 1970; London, Cape, 1971.
The Conservationist. London, Cape, 1974; New York, Viking Press, 1975.
Burger's Daughter. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1979.
July's People. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1981.
A Sport of Nature. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1987.
My Son's Story. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1990.
None to Accompany Me. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, FarrarStraus, 1994.
Harald, Claudia, and Their Son Duncan. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.
The House Gun. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Face to Face. Johannesburg, Silver Leaf, 1949.
The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1952; London, Gollancz, 1953.
Six Feet of the Country. London, Gollancz, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1956.
Friday's Footprint and Other Stories. London, Gollancz, and NewYork, Viking Press, 1960.
Not for Publication and Other Stories. London, Gollancz, and NewYork, Viking Press, 1965.
Penguin Modern Stories 4, with others. London, Penguin, 1970.
Livingstone's Companions. New York, Viking Press, 1971; London, Cape, 1972.
Selected Stories. London, Cape, 1975; New York, Viking Press, 1976; as No Place Like, London, Penguin, 1978.
Some Monday for Sure. London, Heinemann, 1976.
A Soldier's Embrace. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1980.
Town and Country Lovers. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphanos, 1980.
Something Out There. London, Cape, and New York, Viking, 1984.
Crimes of Conscience. London, Heinemann, 1991.
Television Plays and Documentaries:
A Terrible Chemistry (Writers and Places series), 1981 (UK); Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak, with Hugo Cassirer, 1985 (USA and UK); Country Lovers, A Chip of Glass Ruby, Praise, and Oral History (all in The Gordimer Stories series), 1985 (USA); Frontiers series, 1990 (UK).
African Lit. (lectures). Cape Town, University of Cape Town, 1972.
On the Mines, photographs by David Goldblatt. Cape Town, Struik, 1973.
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing. Johannesburg, Spro-Cas Ravan, 1973.
What Happened to Burger's Daughter; or, How South African Censorship Works, with others. Johannesburg, Taurus, 1980.
Lifetimes: Under Apartheid, photographs by David Goldblatt. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1986.
Reflections of South Africa, edited by Kirsten Egebjerg and GillianStead Eilersen. Herning, Denmark, Systime, 1986.
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places, edited byStephen Clingman. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1988.
Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, edited by Nancy ToppingBazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Writing and Being. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1995.
Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Editor, with Lionel Abrahams, South African Writing Today. London, Penguin, 1967.*
Nadine Gordimer, Novelist and Short Story Writer: A Bibliography of Her Works by Racilia Jilian Neil, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, 1964.
Nadine Gordimer by Robert F. Haugh, New York, Twayne, 1974; Nadine Gordimer by Michael Wade, London, Evans, 1978; Nadine Gordimer by Christopher Heywood, Windsor, Berkshire, Profile, 1983; The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes by John Cooke, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1985; The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside by Stephen Clingman, London, Allen and Unwin, 1986; Nadine Gordimer by Judie Newman, London, Macmillan, 1988; Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer edited by Rowland Smith, Boston, Hall, 1990; Rereading Nadine Gordimer by Kathrin Wagner. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994; Nadine Gordimer by Dominic Head. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994; From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer by Louise Yelin. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1998; A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer, edited by Andries Walter Oliphant. London and New York, Viking, 1998; Nadine Gordimer Revisited by Barbara Temple-Thurston. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1999; This Is No Place for a Woman: Nadine Gordimer, Nayantara Sahgal, Buchi Emecheta, and the Politics of Gender by Joya Uraizee. Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1999.
Director: Television —Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak, with Hugo Cassirer, 1985.* * *
Nadine Gordimer, through her courageous and probing search for understanding and insight, has achieved international status as one of the finest living writers in English. Despite this international status, her work has been firmly rooted in her native country, South Africa, where she has remained throughout her career. Her position within the tumultuous social structure of this diverse and divided country—confined within the white, liberal, English, middle class—has been a source of both strength and weakness in her writing. On the one hand, she has been able to effectively make sense of the inextricably intertwined factors of South African social existence—political, sociological, and sexual—focusing on the apartheid regime's excessive intrusion into the realm of the individual. On the other hand, many of her characters, while exposing the limitations of Western, liberal humanism as a way of life, have been unable to escape these very limitations.
Most of Gordimer's main characters are involved in the very serious business of finding suitable moral apparatus to cope with the excruciating mental difficulties of living white—with a conscience—in a minority within a greater South African minority. Viewed as a group, Gordimer's male and female protagonists show a parallel development of consciousness towards a point at which most moral options appear to be exhausted (two of her later heroes end up running away, blindly, to nowhere).
In Helen Shaw, Jessie Stilwell, and Liz van den Sandt, the heroines of The Lying Days, Occasion for Loving, and The Late Bourgeois World, respectively, Gordimer charts the development from the racially exclusive confines of a white childhood in South Africa, to the discovery of—and disillusion with—the "freedom" of adult liberal thinking, and from there to the point where personal sacrifice becomes necessary for the sake of political integrity. In The Lying Days, Helen Shaw triumphs against the provincial narrowness and racial bigotry of her parents' mining village existence, yet she discovers that she, too, is sealed within her social limitations when she watches, from behind the windscreen of a car, a riot in a black township in which a man is shot dead by the police. As is the case with a number of Gordimer's characters, Helen Shaw's sense of moral failure is realized within and suggested by the failure of a love relationship in which certain moral suppositions function as a way of life. She goes away, to Europe, aware of a need for new sustenance, but essentially disillusioned. She is succeeded by Jessie Stilwell, an older version of Helen, back from Europe, now married and running a family, and committed to a makeshift liberal ideology, because the general (white) South African way of life is unacceptable. Yet the action of the novel shows this ideology to be vulnerable and in danger of hypocrisy—Jessie's world is "invaded" by an illicit love affair between a black artist and a young woman from England who, with her white musicologist husband, is a guest in the Stilwell home. The liberal idea of openness is belied by Jessie's wish to be left to her own kind of semi-romantic isolation, and all legitimate human reactions to the situation are bedeviled by a factor the Stilwells profess not to take undue account of—skin color. In The Late Bourgeois World, the developments in The Lying Days and Occasion for Loving find a conclusion. For Liz van den Sandt, the old liberal "way of life" is already dead when the book opens—her liberal-activist former husband has just committed suicide—while her present existence is nothing more than a kind of helpless withdrawal, reflected by a particularly pallid love affair she is conducting. She faces her moment of truth when a black friend, and activist, challenges her to step outside the sealed area of sensibility and conscience, and do something to help, at considerable personal risk. Thirteen years later, in Burger's Daughter, Rosa Burger appears: she is the daughter of the generation that did in fact take the struggle further from where Liz van den Sandt was poised at the end of The Late Bourgeois World. But now the process is inverted: Rosa's father dies while in prison for Marxist "subversion," and Rosa finds herself unable simply to go on from where her father and his kind were stopped by politically repressive authority. She is heir to the failure of left-wing activism among whites in South Africa, and she settles for an occupation as a physiotherapist at a black hospital (treating Soweto riot victims), before she too is detained and committed to trial, merely on the basis of her connections with the nether-world of political dissent.
Gordimer's other major female protagonist, Hillela in A Sport of Nature, encapsulates and transcends all her predecessors. Hillela's story, told in a dingy factual and documentary manner, encompasses an upbringing in a liberal South African household, political activity in exile, and marriages to an ANC activist as well as to the leader of an African State. But the novel awkwardly mixes documentary style with picaresque form (Hillela's travels and adventures). Although Hillela completely breaks free of the barriers that had constrained her predecessors, the novel comes across as stodgy and contrived.
Gordimer's male heroes differ in that they either come in from the outside, or they represent a significantly non-liberal approach to life in South Africa. A World of Strangers, in which the new post-1948 apartheid is anatomized with great clarity, shows the rapid disillusionment of a young Englishman, Toby Hood, who comes to South Africa, determined to live a "private life." An altogether different kind of disillusionment faces the more mature and intellectually well-equipped figure of Colonel Evelyn James Bray, hero of A Guest of Honour. He returns to the newly independent African state to witness the realization of ideals of freedom for which, as a colonial civil servant, he was deported. The political situation gradually slips out of control, and Bray is killed as a result of a misunderstanding that underscores the ambiguity of any European's role in Africa.
It is as though all illusions of a meaningful political existence for whites have been stripped bare when Mehring the technologist appears in Gordimer's Booker prize-winning masterpiece, The Conservationist. This is a novel of immense symbolic power and great descriptive beauty. For once, Gordimer's main protagonist is representative of far more than just the white English liberal: he is simply white, South African, of ambiguous European heritage, rich, and politically conservative. His symbolic struggle in the book is a struggle for possession of the land against its black inheritors. Mehring (and by implication the whole of white South Africa) loses the struggle. It is thus not surprising that the protagonists of July's People find themselves being run off the land. They escape revolution by running away with, and becoming captives of, their lifelong black servant, July.
One of Gordimer's most recent male creations, Sonny in My Son's Story, is a "coloured" activist whose extramarital love affair with a white woman is reconstructed by his writer-son, Will. This is a highly readable and unusual novel for Gordimer, although the parameters of love and politics, of public commitment and personal betrayal, are shown to invade each other tellingly, as often happens in Gordimer's fiction.
Gordimer's novel The House Gun is unique in that it is her first novelistic attempt to delve into the issues—social, political, and emotional—of post-apartheid South Africa. In this work, Gordimer moves beyond the intense political engagement found in her earlier novels to the earnest attempt to expand the cultural interchange in this "new" South Africa. Through the struggles of Duncan Lindgard—on trial for murdering a gay ex-lover—and his parents, Gordimer both interrogates the persistent violence in modern society and offers a careful observation of the potential oppression that may occur as South Africa asserts its new nationhood. Gordimer's fiction may seem to be shifting its focus here, but the message it conveys is essentially unchanged: interrogate the ills and prejudices of society in an attempt to create a hybrid social blend of cultures and goodwill.
—Leon de Kock,
updated by Rima Abunasser
Nationality: South African. Born: Springs, Transvaal, 20 November 1923. Education: A convent school, and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Family: Married 1) G. Gavron in 1949; 2) Reinhold Cassirer in 1954; one son and one daughter. Career: Visiting lecturer, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Washington, D.C., 1961, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1969, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1969, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1970; adjunct professor of writing, Columbia University, New York, 1971; presenter, Frontiers television series, 1990. Lives in Johannesburg. Awards: W. H. Smith literary award, 1961; Thomas Pringle award, 1969; James Tait Black memorial prize, 1972; Booker prize, 1974; Grand Aigle d'Or prize (France), 1975; CNA award, 1975; Scottish Arts Council Neil Gunn fellowship, 1981; Common Wealth award, 1981; Modern Language Association award (U.S.), 1981; Malaparte prize (Italy), 1985; Nelly Sachs prize (Germany), 1985; Bennett award (U.S.), 1986; Royal Society of Literature Benson medal, 1990; Nobel prize for literature, 1991. D.Lit.: University of Leuven, Belgium, 1980. D.Litt.: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1985; City College, New York, 1985; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1985. Member: Honorary member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1980; honorary fellow, Modern Language Association (U.S.), 1985.
Face to Face: Short Stories. 1949.
The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories. 1952.
Six Feet of the Country. 1956.
Friday's Footprint and Other Stories. 1960.
Not for Publication and Other Stories. 1965.
Livingstone's Companions. 1971.
Selected Stories. 1975; as No Place Like, 1978.
Some Monday for Sure. 1976.
A Soldier's Embrace. 1980.
Town and Country Lovers (story). 1980.
Something Out There. 1984.
Crimes of Conscience. 1991.
Jump and Other Stories. 1991.
The Lying Days. 1953.
A World of Strangers. 1958.
Occasion for Loving. 1963.
The Late Bourgeois World. 1966.
A Guest of Honour. 1970.
The Conservationist. 1974.
Burger's Daughter. 1979.
July's People. 1981.
A Sport of Nature. 1987.
My Son's Story. 1990.
None to Accompany Me. 1995.
Harold, Claudia and Their Son Duncan. 1996.
The House Gun. 1998.
Television Plays and Documentaries:
A Terrible Chemistry (Writers and Places series), 1981; Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak, with Hugo Cassirer, 1985; Country Lovers, A Chip of Glass Ruby, Praise, and Oral History (all in The Gordimer Stories series), 1985 (U.S.); Frontier series, 1990 (U.K.).
African Lit. (lectures). 1972.
On the Mines, photographs by David Goldblatt. 1973.
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing. 1973.
What Happened to Burger's Daughter; or, How South African Censorship Works, with others. 1980.
Lifetimes: Under Apartheid, photographs by David Goldblatt. 1986.
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places, edited by Stephen Clingman. 1988.
Conversations with Gordimer, edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour. 1990.
Writing and Being. 1995.
Our Century. 1996.
Editor, with Lionel Abrahams, South African Writing Today. 1967.*
Gordimer, Novelist and Short Story Writer: A Bibliography of Her Works by Racilia Jilian Nell, 1964; Nadine Gordimer: A Bibliography edited by Dorothy Driver, 1993.
Gordimer by Robert F. Haugh, 1974; Gordimer by Michael Wade, 1978; Gordimer by Christopher Heywood, 1983; The Novels of Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes by John Cooke, 1985; Gordimer by Judie Newman, 1988; Critical Essays on Gordimer edited by Rowland Smith, 1990; "Feminism as 'Piffling'? Ambiguities in Some of Gordimer's Short Stories," in Current Writing 2, 1990, and "Something Out There/Some-thing in There: Gender and Politics in Gordimer's Novella," in English in Africa 19, May 1992, both by Karen Lazar; The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside by Stephen Clingman, 1993; The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer edited by Bruce Alvin King, 1993; Rereading Nadine Gordimer by Kathrin M. Wagner, 1994; Nadine Gordimer's One Story of a State Apart by Rose Pettersson, 1995; Nadine Gordimer by Dominic Head, 1995.* * *
Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, is well known as a novelist. Her first published books, however, were short story collections, and she has continued to produce internationally acclaimed short fiction. Gordimer's short stories constitute a detailed guide to her development as a writer. Many of the broad themes of her novels received their first airing in short story form, as in the case of the relationship between "Six Feet of the Country" and The Conservationist. The evolution of the social and political content of Gordimer's writings in particular may be seen taking place in the successive volumes of her short stories. In addition, although Gordimer has remained a somewhat conventional novelist, relying to a considerable extent on the assumptions of nineteenth-century realism, this is not quite the case in her short fiction. Later collections like A Soldier's Embrace and Jump reveal a greater imaginative and formal range than her longer works.
Gordimer's sense of the short story as an articulation of the art of the present moment has been visible from her earliest efforts in the form. Inevitably and invariably, the present moment consists of the vicious ironies of life among and between the races in South Africa. Technically accomplished from the first, Gordimer's early stories such as "Is There Nowhere Else We Can Meet?" and "Ah, Woe Is Me" tend to take place at points of intersection between the races and to rely on the juxtaposition of the issues and ironies arising out of the muffled collisions of such meetings. What is underdeveloped in, for instance, The Soft Voice of the Serpent is a sense of the characters' social and cultural identity within the context of South Africa as a whole.
It is precisely this social component that Gordimer's later short stories develop. One of the ways the author goes about the task of enlarging her imaginative territory is to convey the intensely bureaucratized nature of South African society, an instance of which informs one level of "Six Feet of the Country," as well as the human, or dehumanizing, costs of such a system. Narratives that not merely identify barriers between citizens but that also represent attempts to dismantle or override them are not only obviously political. In a more fundamental sense they provide for both the author and her creations a keen sense of moral engagement with reality. And moral energy is frequently allied to being imaginative. The white couple in "Six Feet of the Country" ultimately fail to imagine what the family of the dead African must go through in order to reclaim his body. This inescapable intersection of the moral and the imaginative in the author's mind functions as a reproach to her society for legislating against the degree of humanity that such a coalition of psychological and cultural forces might potentiate.
A further development in Gordimer's embattled anatomy of her country's ills is the increasingly multiracial cast of characters in her stories. This broadening of range is consistent with stories that deal more directly with political struggle and with public engagement with the apparatus of apartheid. While continuing to dissect the mentality of white South Africans in such stories as "The Night the Winner Came Home" and "The Bridegroom," her short fiction begins to focus with increasing complexity on her nonwhite fellow countrymen and on issues of consciousness, purpose, and action under oppressive conditions. "Not for Publication" is a particular case in point. Gordimer is also careful to caution, as in, for instance, "The Smell of Death and Flowers," against a facile identification on the part of naive whites with the black struggle. By writing stories with a multiracial group of characters, Gordimer herself engages in a political act, at least on the cultural level, since she confers on her nonwhite characters a visibility, significance, and presumption of equality that apartheid denied them.
The politically radical dimensions of the enlarged world of Gordimer's stories are confronted in such works as "Some Monday for Sure" and the title story of Livingstone's Companions. In the latter story an emergent black African state remains prisoner to a tenacious, meretricious white economic presence that thereby reveals the new regime to be the ineffectual heir to colonialism. The title novella of Something Is Out There is a comparable, though more elaborate, account of colonialism's fate in a South African context. Taken together, "Something Is Out There" and "Livingstone's Companions" offer a comprehensive view of Gordimer's efforts to install large themes of geopolitics and social destiny in her short fiction.
In A Soldier's Embrace and the two collections of stories that succeeded it, Something Is Out There and Jump, Gordimer's tone and perspective changes again. Consistent throughout her career for the probing nature of her prose, she now begins to use it not merely to represent the legislative theory and social practice of apartheid but also to explore its spirit and the ways in which that spirit insinuated itself into the intimacies of existence. Stories such as "Town and Country Lovers" and "A Journey," though exhibiting the author's keen grasp of texture and located within a clearly defined moment, also have a spareness and objectivity that gives them an air of allegory, an air that occurs in the far-reaching "Teraloyna." Gordimer's restatement of her abiding themes by means of an intensification of her formal practices is a considerable achievement. As a result, the late collections of stories possess a depth and searching intelligence that give them the kind of standing that chamber music has in a composer's body of work.
Gordimer's short fiction as a whole is distinguished by sharp characterization, attentive and patient description of the natural world, and a sophisticated moral awareness of the elaborate workings of South African society, particularly as observed in Johannesburg, where the author has spent her working life. In addition to its obvious courage, her work is notable for the objectivity of its intelligence. This latter quality is evident not merely in the interest Gordimer exhibits in the nature of ideas and their impact on the lives of her characters. More fundamentally, through her intelligence she brings a sense of impassioned cerebration to her confrontations with the anomalies, vicissitudes, challenges, and heartbreak synonymous with her time and place.
See the essays on "Something Out There" and "The Ultimate Safari."
Nadine Gordimer (born 1923) was the Nobel Prize winning author of short stories and novels reflecting the disintegration of South African society. While her early works were in the tradition of liberal South African whites opposed to apartheid, her later works reflect a move toward more radical political and literary formulations.
Nadine Gordimer was born on November 20, 1923, in Springs, a mining town on the Eastern Witwatersrand, South Africa. Of Jewish heritage, her mother was from England and her father, from Russia. He worked in the gold mines, first as a mining engineer and later as secretary. Most of Nadine's life, apart from a brief period in Zambia in the middle 1960s, was spent in South Africa and the Witwatersrand, and it was here that she received her education, first as a day scholar at a convent and later as a student at the University of the Witwatersrand.
From the time her first short story, entitled "Come Again Tomorrow," was published in the Johannesburg magazine The Forum in November 1939, Gordimer became a prolific author of short stories and nearly a dozen novels. Firmly opposed to notions of racial segregation and apartheid, she wrote in an increasingly polarized and isolated society. This resulted in innovative attempts at developing the South African English novel beyond its conventional tradition of realist literary depiction by exploring the isolated consciousness and experience in what she perceived as a progressively disintegrating society.
In 1953 Gordimer wrote her first novel, The Lying Days, which depicts the adolescent awakening of a white South African girl, Helen Shaw. This was followed in 1958 by the more complex portrait of the Johannesburg world of the middle 1950s seen from the standpoint of a young English newspaperman, Toby Hood, called A World of Strangers. The novel is an important historical portrayal of the short-lived era of multi-racial parties and social contact before the government clampdown on opposition politics after the Sharpeville shooting in 1960 and the resulting banning of Black nationalist movements.
In the early 1960s Gordimer felt increasingly isolated as a white writer in South Africa, and this was especially reflected in The Late Bourgeois World in 1966 in which her central character, Elizabeth Van Den Sandt, sought to forge a new identity for herself after the suicide of her husband, who had been an unsuccessful political activist. The controlled use of time in this novel also indicated a search for an alternative to the conventional novel form as "the bourgeois world" that lay behind this novel tradition appeared to be coming apart.
A short period spent in Zambia with her husband formed the backdrop to her next novel, A Guest of Honour, which was distinctive in being set in a fictitious African country outside South Africa. Her central character, Jeremy Bray, was also a former British colonial official, and the novel embraced a wider set of themes involving the counterpoising of the dead and static society of post-imperial Britain with the vital landscape of Africa in the era after independence.
In The Conservationist (1974), however, Gordimer returned to more conventional South African themes, though the technical virtuosity of its writing led some critics to see this as the finest of her novels. Dealing with the estrangement of an industrialist turned part-time farmer, the novel focuses on the estrangement of South African whites from the African landscape and so takes up a theme that can be traced back to Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm.
By the 1970s Gordimer had moved out of the mainstream liberalism of most South African whites opposed to apartheid and had begun moving toward more radical political and literary formulations. The wide scope of her next novel, Burger's Daughter (1979), set in France and England as well as South Africa, reflected a desire to internationalize many of the political issues in South Africa, which were seen as less ones simply of "race" but also of "class" and class conflict. This central character is a jailed white South African communist whose name evokes the memory of Rosa Luxemburg. The novel was for a period banned in South Africa, as had been the case previously with Occasion for Loving (1965), banned for its depiction of a sexual relationship between white women and black men, and The Late Bourgeois World.
In July's People (1981) Gordimer departed from the question of anchoring the white identity in the South African past and confronted the question of the future as a white couple flee Johannesburg after a rocket attack and hide in the African bush where they become increasingly beholden to their former servant, July. As a penetrating study of the element of power that underpins Black-White relations in South Africa the novel links the private realm of the personal with the wider dimension of political institutions and structures.
A collection of her short stories, Something Out There, was published in 1984, another insightful novel of South Africa's people, A Sport of Nature was published in 1987 and Gordimer's look at post-apartheid South Africa, None to Accompany Me in 1994. Nadine Gordimer received the Alfred B. Nobel Prize for literature in 1991.
A bibliography of Nadine Gordimer's work up to 1964 was complied by Racilia Jillian Nell and can be obtained from the Department of Bibliography, Librarianship and Typography, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. For a study of Nadine Gordimer's work see Michael Wade, Nadine Gordimer (1978). Further discussion can be found in Kenneth Parker (editor), The South African Novel in English (1978); Stephen Gray, Southern African Literature: An Introduction (1979); and Landeg White and Tim Couzens (editors), Literature and Society in South Africa (1984). See also Richard Peck's, "Nadine Gordimer: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources 1938-1992," Research in African Literatures (March 1, 1995). □
GORDIMER, NADINE (1923– ), South African novelist, Nobel Prize laureate. Gordimer occupied a preeminent position in South African letters, was internationally acclaimed, and was the first South African writer to receive a Nobel Prize (1991). She was born in Springs, near Johannesburg, and published her first volume of short stories, Face to Face, in 1949. During her long writing career she published over 200 short stories, among the finest in South African writing, and 14 novels. The Lying Days (1953), her first novel, established her as a realist, a genre in which she is best known. Her unerring eye for detail is apparent in all her work, but her realism also charts an inner landscape and constitutes a mirror of the intensity of feeling, suffering, and conflict during the troubled situation under apartheid. Together with her fiction, her numerous essays and studies on culture and politics contribute a general social critique, and all her writing reflects her own commitment to the liberation movement and to social transformation. She has been hailed as a courageous and authoritative voice of conscience during the years of silence and repression, her work sometimes being banned in her own country. A Guest of Honour (1970) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1973. The Conservationist (1974) won the Booker Prize for Fiction. Her numerous other awards include the Modern Language Association Award, the Commonwealth Prize for distinguished service to literature, and the Royal Society of Literature Medal. She insisted that she did not regard herself as a feminist but as a "white African." Many readers and critics are either unaware of her Jewish background or disregard it. She herself asserts that she had no sense of identity with the Jewish community, and that being Jewish has not influenced her thinking or writing in any way. The central character of A Sport of Nature (1987) is a Jewish girl who marries two black revolutionaries, but generally there are few Jewish characters in her work and those are presented in stereotypical fashion. Her vigorous anti-racial stance is not always clearly evident in the presentation of Jewish storekeepers on the mines in her early work.
In a story of 1991, "My Father Leaves Home," a Jew (seemingly largely based on the history of her own father, a Lithuanian immigrant) is stigmatized on racial grounds and becomes himself a racist. Perhaps this illustrates her awareness of one facet of the fractured identity of some South African Jews. She continued to chronicle South African life after apartheid. She has been the subject of deep admiration and scrutiny from leading critics and has been translated into several languages, including Hebrew. The intense focus of her vision of the complex and troubled situation of a country beset by seemingly insoluble racial and political problems and gradually undergoing transformation is universally valued. Some detractors see her apparent detachment and coldness as a fault. None, however, deny her immaculate craftsmanship or underestimate her incomparable contribution to South African letters.
N.T. Bazin and M.D. Seymour (eds.), Conversations with Nadine Gordimer (1990); S. Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (1986); J. Cooke, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives, Public Landscapes (1985); D. Driver et al., Nadine Gordimer: A Bibliography (1993), A.V. Ettin, Betrayals of the Body Politic: The Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer (1993); N. Gordimer, "A South African Childhood: Allusions in a Landscape," New Yorker (16 October 1954); S. Gray, Indaba: Interviews with South African Writers (2005); R.F. Haugh, Nadine Gordimer (1974); D. Head, Nadine Gordimer (1994); R.J. Nell, Nadine Gordimer, Novelist and Short Story Writer: A Bibliography of her Works and Selected Literary Criticism (1964); J. Newman, Nadine Gordimer (1988); A.W. Oliphant (ed.), A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer (1998); R. Pettersson, Nadine Gordimer's One Story of a State Apart (1995); R. Smith (ed.), Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, (1990); P. Stein and R. Jacobson, Sophiatown Speaks (1986); B. Temple-Thurston, Nadine Gordimer Revisited (1999); M. Wade, Nadine Gordimer (1978); K.M. Wagner, Rereading Nadine Gordimer: Text and Subtext in the Novels (1994).
[Marcia Leveson (2nd ed.)]
GORDIMER, Nadine. South African, b. 1923. Genres: Novels, Novellas/Short stories, Literary criticism and history. Career: Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1991. Publications: NOVELS: The Lying Days, 1953; A World of Strangers, 1958; Occasion for Loving, 1963; The Late Bourgeois World, 1966; A Guest of Honour, 1970; The Conservationist, 1974; Burger's Daughter, 1979; July's People, 1981; A Sport of Nature, 1987; My Son's Story, 1990; None to Accompany Me, 1994; Harald, Claudia and their son, Duncan, 1996; The House Gun, 1998; The Pickup, 2001. SHORT STORIES: Face to Face: Short Stories, 1949; The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories, 1952; Six Feet of the Country, 1956, 1982; Friday's Footprint and Other Stories, 1960; Not for Publication and Other Stories, 1965; Livingstone's Companions: Stories, 1971; Selected Stories, 1975; Some Monday for Sure, 1976; A Soldier's Embrace, 1980; Town and Country Lovers, 1980; Something Out There, 1984; Reflections of South Africa: Short Stories, 1986; Crimes of Conscience: Selected Short Stories, 1991; Jump and Other Stories, 1991; Why Haven't You Written?: Selected Stories, 1950-1972, 1993; Loot, 2003. TELEVISION PLAYS AND DOCUMENTARIES: A Terrible Chemistry, 1981; (with H. Cassirer) Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak, 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. OTHER: (comp and ed. with L. Abrahams) South African Writing Today, 1967; African Literature: The Lectures Given on This Theme at the University of Cape Town's Public Summer School, February, 1972, 1972; The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing, 1973; On the Mines, 1973; (With others) What Happened to Burger's Daughter; or, How South African Censorship Works, 1980; Lifetimes under Apartheid, 1986; The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, 1988; Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics, 1991; (With R. Weiss) Zimbabwe and the New Elite, 1993; Writing and Being: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1995; Living in Hope & History: Notes from Our Century (essays), 1999. Contributor to periodicals.