There are different voices for different stories
Gregor is the smallest of space invaders, disporting himself on the thin display strip of a writer’s electronic typewriter. Out of this curious circumstance, Nadine Gordimer weaves a tale contemplating causation, choice and mortality, one of 13 short stories in her new collection.
Gordimer has such a machine and typewriters have been her amanuenses, her literary assistants, since she was young.
“When I was 12 I saved up all my present money and bought a Swiss typewriter,” she says, adding that it was probably a Hermes Baby. She went on to larger and more sophisticated devices, but she draws the line at computers: “They are too invasive. I want a machine that can take down my words.”
The revisions, deletions and additions of a typescript—adorned also with Gordimer’s handwritten interjections and notes—are far removed from the morass of tracking changes offered by word-processing programs on PCs which, she says, “are fine no doubt for writing letters and journalism”.
Gordimer minds not a jot being considered “fuddy-duddy”, aside from which, she is in exalted company. In a paper she regards highly, the French Le Nouvel Observateur, interviews with 25 to 30 writers disclosed that “two-thirds simply did not use PCs”. She says, “I felt elated.”
We speak about other externals of her art. What, for instance, is the best environment for a writer? Instantly, she replies: “A small room with a table or desk facing a blank wall. Nothing else but books in the room; maybe a flower if you pick one, to give you a smell. You are in the world you are creating.”
That world, submerging and submerged, evolves from “the tension between what is changing inside you emotionally, intellectually, interactionally. You are enclosed by family, school and the values and ethics of friends and community. You branch out into the realisation of other ethics, values.”
Beyond that, you are “enclosed by the law. We in South Africa know more than anyone how the law encloses.”
Ultimately, it is a matter of dealing with the “integument of the human being”: the covering to which flesh is subject. “The tension between inside and outside—it is out of that that the work comes. All this informs the way you create your characters and the situations you visualise them in.”
Many of the characters in Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black are intent on gathering information, uncovering the past, pinning down self. The pitfalls of such accumulations and the insufficiency of what in some instances becomes knowledge are shown in brilliantly concentrated prose.
“It comes of long experience of writing,” says Gordimer. “You have learned to write what you want to write; to convey what you want to. You learn to condense.”
Here I mention Gordimer’s great confrére, the late Edward Said, who features with other eminent shades in the story Dreaming of the Dead. It’s the notion of Late Style—also the title of Said’s final work—that I ask about.
“At the beginning, you cannot be a writer without being a reader. There is only one school: read, read, read. See what the possibilities of the word are.”
Thereafter, it is not a question of style, but of voice. “I have no style. Any writer who has, is very limited.
“It’s not style. There are different voices for different stories. Who is the narrator? What is the educational level of the characters? Age? Is it a barroom setting? I have to obey that voice.”
Voice ranges from choices and challenges of first person, third person, the authorial (“a third of a third, so to speak”) to age and gender (she mentions her novel The Conservationist).
She is as clear on how a writer “becomes” a serious novelist.
“It’s not a choice. Being an opera singer is not a choice; you need those vocal chords. For someone with the innate opportunity of being a writer, you need unusual powers of observation and the ability to take on another identity.”
Later on she mentions that it is James Joyce, in creating Molly Bloom in Ulysses, who is “the best example of the ability to take on an identity”.
Gordimer’s considerable oeuvre—14 novels, 11 short-story collections, half a dozen books of essays—takes on multiple voices, if not identities, in translations into 48 languages. She says she can read only French versions of her work and that she sometimes receives letters from people “who say this or that is bad”.
I suggest that of all her novels it is perhaps The Pickup that is most vulnerable to curious connotations in translation. She agrees, mentioning Le Homme de la Rue (literally, The Man of the Street), singularly devoid of the duality of a pickup in a bar and a pickup truck.
Still, she is happy to be read by people in other countries. And if it weren’t for translations, she wouldn’t have discovered Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Grass, Sartre, Camus, Mahfouz, Kenzaburo Oe, Calvino, Primo Levi and Saramago, all richly admired.
Other favourites, writing in English, are Philip Roth, Andre Brink, Zakes Mda, Es’kia Mphahlele, Nja-bulo Ndebele and Wole Soyinka.
We turn to her preferred short fiction. Chekhov rifles out. Then Hemingway, although her opinion of him has declined over the years; Guy de Maupassant; the authors of the stories in the collection she edited, Telling Tales; and James Baldwin—a “marvellous writer of short stories”.
Last, a potentially invidious inquiry: favourites among her own novels.
“It’s a good question. It changes from time to time with my own harsh eye looking at it from a distance to see if I did what I intended to do or not.”
Two titles emerge: Burger’s Daughter and The Conservationist.
“It was a crazy thing to write,” she says of the first. “I knew it would be banned. I had three books banned before but that one: there was no question it would be. I waited a long time for someone deep in the revolutionary core to write it. No one did. In the end I wrote it. Did what needed to be done.”
That necessary investigation was of “political ideology and how it comes to resemble religious faith; the balance between parental law and respect of the political; faith and family responsibility and political responsibility”.
The Conservationist was the fruition of her long-held awareness of land issues: “In my first two short-story collections I was conscious of the importance of the land. The story, Six Feet of the Country, is symbolic of return. That idea of land was working in me for years and years.”
Commenting on various appeals made to her not to attend a literary festival in Israel this month, Gordimer said she was considering her position.