Writers

Add to researchNadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer

Bloomsbury

Born
Springs, Transvaal, South Africa
Genre
Short Stories, Non-Fiction, Fiction, Drama
 
 
Biography
Nadine Gordimer was born in Springs, Transvaal, South Africa in 1923.

She has remained in South Africa, having lived in Johannesburg since 1948. She was educated at a convent school and spent a year at Witwaterstrand University. Since then, her life has been devoted to her writing.

She has  travelled extensively, has written non-fiction on South African subjects and made TV documentaries, collaborating with her son Hugo Cassirer on the television film Choosing Justice: Allan Boesak. She was responsible for the script of the 1989 BBC film, Frontiers, and for four of the seven screenplays for a television drama based on her own short stories, entitled The Gordimer Stories 1981-82. She has also published, in forty languages, thirteen novels and ten short story collections.

Her first short story was published at the age of fifteen in the liberal Johannesburg magazine, Forum, and during her twenties, her stories appeared in many local magazines. In 1951 the New Yorker took one of her short stories.  Her short story collections include A Soldier's Embrace (1980); Something Out There (1984); and Jump and Other Stories (1991).  Loot (2003), is a collection of ten short stories widely varied in theme and place.


Nadine Gordimer's subject matter in the past has been the effect of apartheid on the lives of South Africans and the moral and psychological tensions of life in a racially-divided country, which she often wrote about by focusing on oppressed non-white characters. She was an ardent opponent of apartheid and refused to accommodate the system, despite growing up in a community in which it was accepted as normal. Her work has therefore served to chart, over a number of years, the changing response to apartheid in South Africa. Her first novel, The Lying Days (1953), was based largely on her own life and set in her home town. Her next three novels, A World of Strangers (1958); Occasion for Loving (1963), which focuses on an illicit love affair between a black man and a white woman; and The Late Bourgeois World (1966) deal with master-servant relations in South African life. In 1974, her novel The Conservationist, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction. Burger's Daughter (1979) was written during the aftermath of the Soweto uprising, and was banned, along with other books she has written. The House Gun (1998), explores, through a murder trial, the complexities of violence-ridden post-apartheid South Africa.  The Pickup (2001), is set in South Africa and Saudi Arabia, and its theme is the tragedy of forced emigration.

Her latest book is the collection of short stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (2007).

Nadine Gordimer has been awarded fifteen honorary degrees from universities in USA, Belgium, South Africa, and from York, Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the UK. She was made a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), and is Vice President of International PEN and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was also a founder of the Congress of South African Writers.

In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and in 2007, the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (France).

Critical Perspective

Nadine Gordimer is a towering figure of world literature.

She exemplifies a belief, now seemingly forgotten in a literary culture which has been under attack by the ubiquity of the superficial, that a writer can be the mouthpiece of a time, a spokesperson for a crusade, and a tireless examiner of moral and psychological truth. She has been a fervent campaigner against racism in South Africa and has long held an iconic status there as a champion of tolerance, free speech and understanding. She has also displayed great conviction and self-belief in refusing to become an exile, despite the banning of three of her works by the South African regime.

‘Learning to write sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life,’ Gordimer has said. In her work there is affection for her homeland, its people, epic landscapes and potent past. This is juxtaposed with an examination of the devastating psychological effects of political persecution on the lives of ordinary South Africans; and it is this which gives her work its moral force and imaginative richness. Like compatriots Alan Paton and J.M. Coetzee, Gordimer has dramatised the history of her country. She has addressed the violence of Apartheid, the duplicity, physic tension and perversion of normalcy of the totalitarian state. In novels such as The Conservationist (1974) and Burger’s Daughter (1979) her characters deal with exile, compromise, exploitation and alienation - themes Gordimer explores against the growth of black consciousness. She examines the complexity of white privilege, inviting us to see the weakness of the liberal response to Apartheid. She also investigates its attempts at self-justification and finds that even in benevolence, there can be an ugly egotism.

Like Alice Munro, Gordimer has a detached, fractured, concise style. At its best this is compelling and affecting, although there are moments when her pushing against the constraints of grammar threatens to undermine her sentences. In her most recent collection of short fiction, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (2007), her increasing sparseness can frustrate, but there are many stories here that surprise with their depth of feeling and cool irony. ‘Allesverloren,’ the stand out story, which means ‘everything lost’ in Afrikaans, is about a widow who goes looking for the gay lover of her former husband. It begins: ‘Whom to talk to? Grief is boring after a while, burdensome even to close confidants. After a very short while, for them. The long whole continues. A cord that won’t come full circle, doesn’t know how to tie a knot in a resolution. So whom to talk to. Speak.’ This story, with so little wasted, so with such a controlled, precise tone, is a beautiful meditation on bereavement. What is lost in death? And what is now possible?


Gordimer is a writer of extraordinary power and acuity. Her voice is remarkably controlled and restrained, in contrast with the subject matter of much of her work: the way people go about their daily lives and interactions with one another in the myriad tensions of a brutal police state. Like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, Gordimer is adept at delineating the relationship between the personal and the political. In her long career she has charted each stage of South Africa’s history with a daring refusal to compromise. She deals with the problem of belonging in a segregated society. She shows us place as prison. How do you feel a part of a society which is founded upon the wilful mistreatment of millions of its citizens? What do you do when your very country has been stolen from you? Nadine Gordimer’s stories are testament to her belief in the redemptive power of humanity; its ability to overcome what she has called ‘the violence of pain,’ even if that pain is inflicted by the state. The individual, if brave and willing enough, is able to triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. The only hope available to humanity is to have hope. While Gordimer shares Kafka’s interest in abandonment and metaphysical confusion, she finds space for the possibility of optimism. ‘Art defies defeat by its very existence,’ she has said, ‘representing the celebration of life, in spite of all attempts to degrade and destroy it.’


Gordimer has been criticised for writing from a position of privilege, of suffering from what she has described as ‘the languid evasions of liberal guilt.’ This is unfair. You are not denied a voice and a perspective simply because you have not suffered for your skin colour. Furthermore, this form of criticism negates Gordimer’s position as a staunch defender of a free South Africa, and of her right to be a literary witness to her country’s tragedies. Some it would seem are frustrated that the writing career of Nadine Gordimer has outlived Apartheid. In the mid 1990s several critics questioned whether there was a place for her after the fall of the regime. These were the sort of people who saw her as a ‘protest’ writer, whose work was done the moment Nelson Mandela was elected. This is an absurd attempt to reduce Gordimer as a writer. Gordimer has, with great wit, skill and formal control, explored the attenuation of morality in political systems which distort human interaction. Her work explores intimacies, the depths of yearning, the multiple betrayals of human relationship, and the many ways people learn to cope in a world which has lost its head. She has always been more than a purveyor of fictional objections to the many distortions of repressive governments. In her recent fiction she has demonstrated that her powers are undiminished. She is more than able to meet the challenges of documenting a troubled post-Apartheid society. In The Pickup (2001), a chance encounter between the privileged daughter of an investment banker and a mechanic from an unnamed Arab-African state allows the author to examine immigration, cultural conflict and – an ever popular Gordimer theme – redemption. The House Gun (1998) deals with the emotional and legal consequences of a murder committed by the son of elite white parents; it examines the bonds of familial love, and asks whether they are capable of withstanding even the most powerful of tests. These novels recall July’s People (1981), one of Gordimer’s finest works, in which a family of white liberals flee a violence stricken Johannesburg for the country, where they seek refuge with their African servant. They are also reminiscent of the Burger’s Daughter (1979), written during the aftermath of the Soweto uprising, in which a daughter examines her relationship with her father, one of the many martyrs to the anti-Apartheid movement.

Gordimer’s recent work has been as controlled, powerful and affecting as anything she has written. Get A Life (2005), written after the death of Gordimer’s partner, is the story of Paul Bannerman, an ecologist who becomes strangely radioactive after receiving treatment for thyroid cancer. Forced to move back in with his parents, a move which will force his mother to confront her past, Bannerman, with sudden distance from his wife and child, comes to question his own life, marriage and beliefs. This is a novel about the fragility of many different types of environment: Gordimer juxtaposes the cancerous attack on Bannerman’s body with the rabid exploitation of the South African ecosystem.

Garan Holcombe, 2008


 

Bibliography

2007
Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, Bloomsbury
2005
Get A Life, Bloomsbury
2004
Telling Tales, editor, Bloomsbury
2003
Loot, Bloomsbury
2001
The Pickup, Bloomsbury
1999
Living in Hope and History: Notes On Our Century, Bloomsbury
1998
The House Gun, Bloomsbury
1996
Harald, Claudia and Their Son Duncan, Bloomsbury Birthday Quid, Bloomsbury
1994
Writing and Being, Harvard University Press
1994
None to Accompany Me, Bloomsbury
1992
Why Haven't You Written?: Selected Stories 1950-1972, Penguin
1991
Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals and Politics, Bennington College (USA)
1991
Jump and Other Stories, Bloomsbury
1991
Crimes of Conscience: Selected Short Stories, Heinemann
1990
My Son's Story, Bloomsbury
1988
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, Cape
1987
A Sport of Nature, Cape
1986
Reflections of South Africa: Short Stories, Systime (USA)
1986
Lifetimes: Under Apartheid, with David Goldblatt, Cape
1986
A Correspondence Course and Other Stories, Eurographica (Iceland)
1985
The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Cambridge University Press
1984
Something Out There, Cape
1981
July's People, Cape
1980
What Happened to Burger's Daughter Or How South African Censorship Works, Taurus (South Africa)
1980
Town and Country Lovers, Collectors Edition, Sylvester and Orphanos (USA)
1980
A Soldier's Embrace, Cape
1979
Burger's Daughter, Cape
1975
Some Monday for Sure, Cape
1975
Selected Stories, reissued as "No Place Like: Selected Stories", Penguin, 1975, Cape
1974
The Conservationist, Cape
1973
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing, Spro-Cas/Ravan (South Africa)
1973
On the Mines, with David Goldblatt, C. Struik (South Africa)
1972
Livingstone's Companions: Stories, Cape
1972
African Literature: The Lectures Given on This Theme at the University of Cape Town's Public Summer School, February 1972, University of Cape Town (South Africa)
1971
A Guest of Honour, Cape
1970
Penguin Modern Stories, contributor, Penguin
1967
South African Writing Today, co-editor with L. Abrahams, Penguin
1966
The Late Bourgeois World, Gollancz
1965
Not for Publication, Gollancz
1963
Occasion for Loving, Gollancz
1960
Friday's Footprint, Gollancz
1958
A World of Strangers, Gollancz
1956
Six Feet of the Country: Short Stories, Gollancz
1953
The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories, Gollancz
1953
The Lying Days, Gollancz
1949
Face to Face: Short Stories, Silver Leaf Books (South Africa)

Awards

2008
Best of the Booker, The Conservationist, shortlist
2007
Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (France)
2003
Mary McCarthy Award (USA)
2002
International Primo Levi Literary Award
1991
Nobel Prize for Literature
1986
Nelly Sachs Prize (Germany)
1985
Premio Malaparte (Italy)
1981
Scottish Arts Council Neil M. Gunn Fellowship
1974
Booker Prize for Fiction, The Conservationist, joint winner
1971
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), A Guest of Honour
1961
WH Smith Literary Award, Friday's Footprint