Nadine Gordimer

  • Springs, Transvaal, South Africa


Nadine Gordimer was born in Springs, Transvaal, South Africa in 1923.

She remained in South Africa, living in Johannesburg from 1948 onwards. She was educated at a convent school and spent a year at Witwaterstrand University. Since then, her life was devoted to her writing. She travelled extensively, wrote 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 also published, in forty languages, fifteen novels and many 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 last novel to appear in her lifetime was No Time Like the Present (2012). Nadine Gordimer died in 2014.

Nadine Gordimer has been awarded 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), 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, 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 a later 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, 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



No Time Like the Present
Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black
Get A Life
Telling Tales
The Pickup
Living in Hope and History: Notes On Our Century
The House Gun
Harald, Claudia and Their Son Duncan
None to Accompany Me
Writing and Being
Why Haven't You Written?: Selected Stories 1950-1972
Jump and Other Stories
Crimes of Conscience: Selected Short Stories
Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals and Politics
My Son's Story
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places
A Sport of Nature
A Correspondence Course and Other Stories
Lifetimes: Under Apartheid
Reflections of South Africa: Short Stories
The Tanner Lectures on Human Values
Something Out There
July's People
A Soldier's Embrace
Town and Country Lovers
What Happened to Burger's Daughter Or How South African Censorship Works
Burger's Daughter
Some Monday for Sure
The Conservationist
On the Mines
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing
Livingstone's Companions: Stories
African Literature: The Lectures Given on This Theme at the University of Cape Town's Public Summer School, February 1972
A Guest of Honour
Penguin Modern Stories
South African Writing Today
The Late Bourgeois World
Not for Publication
Occasion for Loving
Friday's Footprint
A World of Strangers
Six Feet of the Country: Short Stories
The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories
The Lying Days
Face to Face: Short Stories


Best of the Booker (shortlist)
Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (France)
Mary McCarthy Award (USA)
International Primo Levi Literary Award
Nobel Prize for Literature
Nelly Sachs Prize (Germany)
Premio Malaparte (Italy)
Scottish Arts Council Neil M. Gunn Fellowship
Booker Prize for Fiction
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction)
WH Smith Literary Award