South African, 1923–
A native of South Africa, Nadine Gordimer began her writing career as the white Nationalist Party assumed power in Pretoria, and she has taken as her primary subject the personal lives of those who have lived under the weight or off the fat of racist politics.
Each of Gordimer’s 11 novels, several collections of short fiction, and four volumes of essays deals with relations between the races, but she did not begin writing in order to express her abhorrence of apartheid. In an early autobiographical essay, “A Bolter and the Invincible Summer” (1963), Gordimer remembers her simple delight at producing rhythm and rhyme for a patriotic school assignment. She began to publish in newspapers as an adolescent and, though young and essentially self-taught, found that writing required her to “chip” away at “ready-made concepts” and make her “own sense of the world.” Consequently, as she explains, “…the ‘problems’ of my country did not set me writing; on the contrary, it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of ‘the South African way of life’.”
The importance of Gordimer’s essays lies not in innovations of form (as in her novels The Conservationist, 1974; Burger’s Daughter, 1979; July’s People, 1981), nor in prose so precise, details so telling that the narrative itself gives off a poetic intensity (as in her finest short fiction, particularly stories in A Soldier’s Embrace, 1980), for Gordimer is not among the great essayists of her day. What commands our attention in her nonfiction is her continued effort to fulfill Chekhov’s demand “to describe a situation so truthfully… that the reader can no longer evade it” (“The Essential Gesture,” 1985). No reader of Gordimer’s essays can avoid seeing what it has meant to this white, middle-class woman to go “home to quiet streets …and secure shelter” while in the black township just eight miles from her home “children no longer go to school, fathers and sons disappear into police vans or lie shot in the dark streets, social gatherings are around coffins and social intercourse is confined to mourning” (“Letter from Johannesburg, 1985”).
A central subject of the essays is writing as the means of discovering and recovering what is concealed by political force and the unconscious extension of such force into everyday habit: “The expression in art of what really exists beneath the surface is part of the transformation of a society. What is written, painted, sung, cannot remain ignored” (“That Other World That Was the World,” 1995). Grown more radical with age and increased exposure to lives crushed under and set against racist rule, Gordimer allies herself with writers who know, with Proust, that they must “not be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond” (Writing and Being, 1995). Like Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Oz (to whom she devotes a trilogy of essays, originally delivered in 1994 as Harvard lectures), Gordimer goes too far: “Too far for the accepted norms of loyalty to the regimes, the societies, the mores, the politics of the countries whose earth, nevertheless, they feel between bare toes, flesh of the flesh” (“Zaabalawi: The Concealed Side,” 1995).
From the start, Gordimer’s audience has been largely overseas, in Britain and America; not only has her work been banned several times in her own country (at one point occasioning a book she wrote with others, What Happened to Burger’s Daughter; or, How South African Censorship Works, 1980), but she writes as a “minority within a minority… A white; a dissident white; a white writer,” as she puts it in her most important essay, “Living in the Interregnum” (1983). To that audience, far from Africa, an audience mostly white with tastes toward “literature” rather than “popular fiction,” she has seemed its best interpreter of the machinations of apartheid’s white minority rule.
Many of her essays were written expressly for overseas publications, and hers is the voice of the teacher explaining—with wonder as well as repugnance—events as they unfold in her homeland.
The publication of The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing (1973) allowed Gordimer to use her significant status as an interpreter of South African affairs to introduce her overseas audience to little-known works by black writers. She has continued to write about African authors, and though her criticism lacks the rare genius of her fiction, it creates a community-in-print of gifted writers buried beneath—or confined to the edges of—the canon.
The subtitle of Gordimer’s 1988 essay collection, The Essential Gesture, summarizes her interests: “writing, politics, and places,” foregrounding the work of putting words down, the effort of “getting it all straight” (as a character describes storytelling in Jump and Other Stories, 1991). Several essays analyze the “tension” that “makes a writer”: the “tension between standing apart and being fully involved” (“Selecting My Stories,”
1975), or, as it is framed in a later essay, the strain between commitment to one’s art and responsibility to one’s society (“The Essential Gesture”).
For Gordimer, politics is never abstract theory, but always an account of the force of power in people’s lives, including, in her essays, both profiles of the powerful (Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, white communist Bram Fischer) and guarded glimpses into the writer’s own well-protected privacy. In Gordimer’s essays about places, she explores Africa itself, at times in prose as beautiful as any she has written. Seen through her eyes, Abidjan in the Ivory Coast “verges knee-deep in delicate lilies like just-struck match flames” (“Merci Dieu, It Changes,” 1971); out of the night noise of the Congo’s banks she hears the cry of the tree hyrax, “Greek and immortal in its desperate passion, gathering up echoes from all the private wailing walls of the human soul” (“The Congo River,” 1961).
Introducing her 1975 Selected Stories, Gordimer argues “that in a certain sense a writer is ‘selected’ by his subject– his subject being the consciousness of his own era.” Nadine Gordimer’s essays stand alongside her novels and stories as keen, clear testimony to her willingness to bring “the writer’s questioning concentration” (from “That Other World That Was the World”) to bear on the passions and politics that have defined her time and place.
Born in Springs, Transvaal, 20 November 1923. Educated at home between ages 11–16; studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Married G.Gavron, 1949; married Reinhold Cassirer, 1954: one son, one daughter, and one stepdaughter. Visiting lecturer at various American institutes and universities, 1961–71; presenter, Frontiers television series, 1990. Awards: many, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1972; Booker Prize, 1974; Grand Aigle d’Or Prize (France), 1975; Commonwealth Award, 1981; Malaparte Prize (Italy), 1985; Nelly Sachs Prize (Germany), 1985; Royal Society of Literature Benson Medal, 1990; Nobel Prize for Literature, 1991; honorary degrees from ten universities and institutes.
Essays and Related Prose
African Literature (lectures), 1972
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing, 1973
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places, edited by Stephen Clingman, 1988
Writing and Being (Charles Eliot Norton lectures), 1995
Other writings: II 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) and eight collections of short stories.
Driver, Dorothy, and others, Nadine Gordimer: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, Grahamstown, South Africa: National English Literary Museum, 1993; London: Zell, 1994
Berthoud, Jacques, “Writing Under Apartheid,” Current Writing: Text and Reception in South Africa 1, no. 1 (October 1989): 77–87
Ettin, Andrew V., Betrayals of the Body Politic: The Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993
Head, Dominic, Nadine Gordimer, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994
Smith, Rowland, editor, Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, Boston: Hall, 1990
Subbarao, C., “The Writer’s Conscience: A Reading of Nadine Gordimer’s The Essential Gesture,” in Indian Response to African Writing, New Delhi: Prestige, 1993:113–18
Wagner, Kathrin, Rereading Nadine Gordimer, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994
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