My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nadine Gordimer was a South African author, of a generation before me. I had read one of her novels, of which I could remember little, and a couple of her short stories. I had heard of her, and even met her once, but wasn't particularly drawn to her books. I picked up this one, a collection of essays, and a couple of others in the library in haste, and thought I'd read a couple of the essays and bring it back a week or two later.
When I started to read it, however, I found that it was the story of my life. Well not quite, but it dealt with times I lived through and remembered. And Nadine Gordimer's memories were much the same as mine. The 23 essays were collected and annotated by Stephen Clingman. His introductions and explanatory notes also tell it like it was. The introductions give enough of the historical background to each piece to enable the reader to place it in context, and the explanatory notes give information about people and events mentioned in the text of each piece.
The essays are arranged roughly in chronological order, with the first group dealing with events and people up to the schoolchildren's revolt of 1976, There follow some articles about travels elsewhere in Africa and Madagascar, and finally more pieces on South Africa between 1976 and 1985, which Gordimer felt was like living in an interregnum.
The penultimate article, the eponymous "essential gesture" deals with the responsibility of a writer to society, something which South African writers find hard to escape. Several of the articles are diatribes against censorship, which Gordimer fiercely opposed, and one point she makes in that connection is worth repeating:
Art is on the side of the oppressed. Think before you shudder at the simplistic dictum and the heretical definition of the freedom of art. For if art is freedom of the spirit, how can it exist within the oppressors? And there is some evidence that is ceases to. What writer of any literary worth defends fascism, totalitarianism, racism, in an age when these are still pandemic? Ezra Pound is dead. In Poland, where are the poets who sing the epic of the men who broke Solidarity? In South Africa, where are the writers who produce brilliant defences of apartheid?
I can't recall a single work of fiction, whether of any literary merit or none, that extolled the virtues and glories of apartheid, though there were plenty that attacked and criticised it.
In many of the essays, letters and speeches, however, Nadine Gordimer emphasised that she saw herself primarily as a writer of fiction. " I have to offer you myself as my most closely-observed specimen from the interregnum; yet I remain a writer, not a public speaker. Nothing I say here will be as true as my fiction."
So I thought I should read some more of her fiction, and read this:
It feels strange for me to say that, because someone quite recently criticised my own writing on that ground, using that very word. By that they meant (I think) that there was too much detail extraneous to the story, and in the one example given I agreed with them. I probably tend to err in giving too much detail, partly because I am concerned that readers not familiar with the setting or social and political background might not follow the story because of that, and that forms part of the story. So when I say Nadine Gordimer's writing is too expository, I feel like the pot calling the kettle black.
Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A book about a white middle-class family living in Johannesburg in the early 21st century. Paul Bannerman is an ecologist, an environmentalist, with a wife, Berenice, who works in an advertising agency, and a small pre-school son.
Paul has cancer, and has to have radiation treatment that makes him temporarily radioactive and a danger to others with whom he comes into contact, so he has to live in quarantine, and does so in the house of his parents, Adrian, a businessman, and Lyndsey, a lawyer.
The family responds to various internal and external crises, the first of which is Paul's cancer and enforced isolation. Berenice has two personas. At work she is Berenice, at home she is Benni, and there are hints of a conflict between the interests of the clients of her agency whose business can be a threat to the environment that Paul is trying to protect.
When Paul recovers, he returns to work, and his parents go on an extended holiday to Mexico, where his father, beginning retirement, can indulge in his interest in archaeology. The family relations change in various unexpected ways as a result of subsequent events.
I found it a difficult book to read. Nadine Gordimer's prose, which was lucid and flowing in her essays, letters and speeches, which I had just read, was awkward and jerky. I had to go back and re-read passages because I either couldn't understand them, or because they seemed to change their meaning halfway through a sentence. Eventually I attributed this to bad punctuation. Commas were missing, or in the wrong places. Perhaps Gordimer's writing had slipped badly in the 20 years since the book of essays I had just read, or else she had been very badly served by an editor who had decided to mangle her sentences and had no feeling for language.
Another problem with Get a life was that it was too expository.
Nevertheless I think Nadine Gordimer does this to excess, giving excessively repeated details of plans to build a toll road or mine the dunes of the Wild Coast, and build dams in the Okavango Delta, in ways that go way beyond the needs of the story, even if one of the aims of the story is to raise awareness of these things among readers. And this is not an early work by a novice writer, it is a late work of a much-respected writer with a long career. Were it not for these faults, I might have given it 5 stars on GoodReads, and there was a time, in the early chapters when I was thinking of giving it 3.
So what can I say about Nadine Gordimer as a writer, and as a person?read about the background to this here.
This was something of a media sensation in the apartheid era, and the Anglican Bishop, Colin Winter, with whom the judge was staying, held a sort of open house for the press and black leaders to meet the judge. Nadine Gordimer was there. Some of the journalists present seemed disappointed that, as a black visitor from the USA, Judge Booth had not provoked a racial incident, and had been well received by white people he had met. Nadine Gordimer suggested that that that might be because he was very light-skinned himself, and though he might be regarded as black in America, in South Africa he could pass for white, or as a very light-skinned coloured.
That struck me at the time as being very colour-conscious, something that the South African government, which ruled Namibia at the time, was trying to instill into all the people it ruled. The first thing one had to know about a person, that would determine your relationship towards them, was their racial classification by the South African government. For one opposed to apartheid, Nadine Gordimer, struck me as overly colour-conscious, and that comes out in her essays, letters and speeches too.
On the other hand, one could not ignore such things entirely. Being "colourblind" was not a solution. Skin colour mattered, partly because the government made it matter, and Gordimer had useful things to say about white privilege, which perhaps still need to be said in a time when many white people deny that such a thing exists or ever existed.
As of now (1986), the power structure remains the same: the whites make the law, and the blacks must direct their lives in accordance...The Essential Gesture is a pretty good introduction to South African history between 1956 and 1986, and a good guide to South African writers and writing in that period as well.Contrary to what she suggests, I think I like her non-fiction better than her fiction.
Of course there always has been some recognition that the privileged whites are not quite so privileged as they like to think, that while the Dorian Grey reflected in the swimming pool remains eternally bronzed and fit, fear, guilt, shame of that coarsening and blunting of the spirit that is the price of indifference, presents a different picture when he is alone with himself. Many psychological studies have pointed out that segregation is harmful both to those who impose it and those who submit to it. Yet we who live here see around us that any white man, whatever the state of his soul, lives the dolce vita in comparison with the black man bulldozed out of his home by resettlement, or the Indian banished from his livelihood by the Group Areas Act.