A mixture of ice and fulfilled desire

At the very grand Friedman house, Tall Trees, on First Avenue in Johannesburg, Lulu Friedman ran a salon with her able co-host and husband, Barn Friedman, a United Party parliamentarian. It was there that Gordimer met Alan Paton in 1951, during the still reverberating success of Cry, the Beloved Country, a book that mobilised international political awareness of apartheid as no other South African novel, before or after, ever did. Paton admired Gordimer’s single-minded focus on her writing, whereas he felt he was always divided between writing and the quest for public office — ending up like Disraeli minus the premierships (a considerable minus). Paton’s profound Christianity was set off against ”a very dry sense of humour — very funny and very male. He was a passionate man,” Gordimer told me, ”which was a very nice part of his character and lightened this very tight-jawed Christian correctness that he had.”

At one Friedman soirée, Paton — whose politics had a pronounced retributive streak — told a story about a boy who had escaped from a reformatory, a development that threatened to discredit the relaxed custodial regime that was in place there …

Hearing Paton’s reformatory anecdote, Gordimer felt that Paton had to make a story of it, but instead he said, ”I give it to you.” In the end they each made fiction of the same facts. Paton’s was called The Worst Thing of His Life and it explored the febrile aspects of authoritarian personality: the principal of the relaxed reformatory quivers vulnerably in private over the implications of this escape, while putting on bluster and confidence in public. Meanwhile Gordimer’s story, Another Part of the Sky, looked ironically at the simple idealist who ”pulled down prison walls and grew geraniums”. Probing the same dinner-party anecdote in a kind of fictional equivalent of the controlled experiment, Paton, the disciplinarian, interrogated discipline, while Gordimer, the stubborn optimist, interrogated optimism.

Inevitably, as Gordimer’s own stature grew, people compared the two writers. But these comparisons have tended, rather disappointingly, to stop with finding Paton a ”warm” writer or else a ”sentimental” writer (depending upon whether an admirer or detractor speaks), while Gordimer is generally said to be either ”shrewd” (among admirers) or ”cold” (among detractors). Repeatedly in the letters between them, which are not frequent but recur across the decades, Paton praised the ”warmth” of Gordimer’s writing while always calling for more of it, sometimes implicitly criticising the lack of it. For her part, Gordimer always found the criterion of ”warmth” bemusing:

”I must tell you I’ve never understood this business of warmth. And I’m curious about it. I am myself a person of strong feelings — no hates, really, but deep loves … [But] I can’t see warmth/lack of warmth as a literary quality. In fact, I want to present my people so that the reader knows them so well the response of warmth, if they call it forth, will come from him.”

… Michael Wood excellently summarises the ”mixture of ice and fulfilled desire” in Gordimer’s sensibility. These seem far more arresting than ”warmth”. It certainly serves to make the point that the Dichter‘s function, as outlined by Elias Canetti, is not a mere call for sentimental human solidarity … Gordimer’s friend Sara Lidman wrote to her in 1963: ”But you have a courage I lack, you know that love has nothing to do with charity — and that kindness, be it ever so pleasant in life[,] kills art.”

This is an edited extract from No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer by Ronald Suresh Roberts (STE)

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