During a panel discussion that I was trying to conduct with Nadine Gordimer and Mongane Serote at the 2012 M&G Literary Festival, I was distracted by a comment Gordimer made towards the end. I had just remarked that at the end of her most recent novel, No Time Like the Present (2012), one of her central characters, after lengthy deliberation, ultimately decides not to emigrate to Australia after all, but to remain in South Africa. I asked her about the significance of this, and, half under her breath (I’m not sure that the audience caught it), Gordimer muttered something like: “Well, he would have gone had I been writing the novel now.”
The discussion frequently strayed off literary topics and was instead hijacked by the “present”, which makes Gordimer’s novel so aptly named: the present, not to put too fine a point on it, is a period of profound disillusionment, and much of the conversation between Gordimer and Serote (with the audience contributing later) was about corruption in government, nepotism, mismanagement, and the squandering of resources and people’s goodwill.
The thought that distracted me was: “What price now all of that noble literature of the struggle” This literature typically depicted characters struggling against the oppression inflicted by the apartheid state, and portrayed this struggle as a heroic and noble one. What if the ultimate consequence of the struggle were the permanent ensconcing of a kleptocratic elite and the unashamed plundering of state resources for personal enrichment? How then would we (re)read the literature of the struggle period?
This is why Nadine Gordimer’s novelistic career is so interesting to look back on: not only has it been long and illustrious, it has also been one that has astutely and creatively interpreted the rapidly changing tenor of our times and turned this into the absorbing stuff of fiction.
Gordimer grew up in the East Rand mining town of Springs, which provides the setting for her first novel, The Lying Days (1953). This was followed by A World of Strangers (1958), which was banned in South Africa until 1970, Occasion for Loving (1963), The Late Bourgeois World (1966) and A Guest of Honour (1970).
These early works are an acute examination of the peculiarly South African forms of master–servant relationships, and the kinds of mind-sets and attitudes espoused by privileged white people in a neocolonial situation.
Views on politics
The novels also reveal an increasingly sophisticated political outlook, which is especially evident in A Guest of Honour (winner of the CNA Prize), about a central African state struggling to throw off its colonial legacy and secure independence.
This cluster of work, then, took in the heady days of the wider African struggle for independence.
The period of the mid-1970s, which saw the apartheid state becoming steadily more repressive but also vulnerable, saw the appearance of Gordimer’s classic, The Conservationist (1974), winner of the CNA Prize and joint winner of the Booker Prize.
The Conservationist is the story of Mehring, a tycoon who buys a plot on the outskirts of Johannesburg and indulges his fantasies about “returning to the land”. His successful initial attempts take a turn for the worse when a dead black man is discovered on his farm, is summarily (and irregularly) buried there by the inept police, and is then disinterred by flooding. This harrowing tale about the moral and psychic disintegration of a man (and, by implication, of his race and class) is made all the more powerful by the modernist stream-of-consciousness narrative style Gordimer uses.
The Conservationist has often been taken to mark Gordimer’s transition from her “liberal” to her “radical” phase, the latter characterised by highly politicised works such as Burger’s Daughter (1979), which won the CNA Prize, July’s People (1981), and the novella and short-story collection Something Out There (1984).
Burger’s Daughter, set in the turbulent years after the Soweto uprisings of 1976, is narrated by Rosa Burger, daughter of Lionel Burger, a fictional version of the political activist Bram Fischer, jailed for life for “subversive activities” against the state. Rosa initially moves away from her father’s political views and goes in search of personal freedom in Europe, but returns to take up the cause he espoused and ends up incarcerated in the same cell that he occupied.
July’s People is set in an imaginary future South Africa torn apart by civil war. Maureen Smales flees war-ravaged Johannesburg with her husband and two children and seeks refuge in the countryside at the home of her long-standing servant, July. The end of the novel sees Maureen fleeing once again, this time towards a helicopter, the occupants of which represent either saviours or avengers, an ambivalence that suggests something about the uncertainty of South Africa’s future.
A Sport of Nature (1987), set from the 1950s to a future post-liberation South Africa, also has a predictive dimension. The uncertain 1980s, then, prompted Gordimer to contemplate South Africa’s falling into the abyss. South Africa post-1994 didn’t turn apocalyptic, but July’s People remains a haunting depiction of what might have been.
In My Son’s Story (1990), a schoolboy playing truant encounters his father emerging from a cinema with a woman. The father, a coloured man, is a teacher-turned-political activist and has been detained; while in detention he strikes up a relationship with a white woman who represents an international human rights organisation. The son encountering them is the catalyst to an anguished reappraisal by the teenage boy – the “son” of the novel’s title – of himself, his father, his father’s relationship to his family, and political activism, with its corrosive effects on family life.
Post- liberation novels
The novel shows Gordimer at her prescient best: the price families of “strugglistas” paid for their commitment is something that has resonated well beyond the transitional period of the early 1990s.
Gordimer’s post-liberation-era work includes two novels with rather different concerns. None to Accompany Me (1994) is an analysis of the “new” South Africa, with a particular focus on a black family of “returnees”, and it also explores the interior life of 60-year-old Vera Stark, a leftist white lawyer, as she reflects on a life of failed marriages and personal defeats.
In both cases, life in an evolving new society proves to be difficult. The House Gun (1998), for its part, moves away from the explicitly political to examine the lives of Harald and Claudia Lindgard, whose son and only child, Duncan, is arrested and charged with murder.
The Pickup (2001) again deals with current issues in South African society, this time love across race, class and religious lines: the white South African female protagonist falls in love with an illegal immigrant from an unnamed Arab country, and, when his application for a visa is turned down, she returns with him to his home country, in turn becoming the alien and outsider.
This novel is one of the high points of Gordimer’s post-2000 output, and duly won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book from Africa.
What of Gordimer’s legacy What will endure and what pass away with the rapid changes in our society, our collective amnesia and our increasing philistinism
For my money, The Conservationist remains a compelling commentary on South African society: rights to the ownership of land and the accumulation of wealth through the extraction of South Africa’s abundant minerals by a minority remain contentious issues and will be with us for many years to come.
Interestingly, readers of the novel have tended to dwell on Gordimer’s acerbic depiction of the central character Mehring. It is testament to the subtlety of her understanding, though, that she can see him as, like most of us, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but caught in the cleft of the stark divisions and competing ideologies of our complex South African society.
This is the vision of an insightful and nuanced writer rather than a propagandist.
Nadine Gordimer is rightly celebrated for her extraordinarily acute depictions of human beings of all classes, types and colours. It is the accomplished artist’s function to catch us in the round – at our best and also in our inglorious moments. Her astute depiction of human relationships and how these are complicated by larger social tension is her legacy to us. Throughout, she has achieved this vision humanely but unflinchingly.
Craig MacKenzie is professor of English at the University of Johannesburg. He co-compiled a bibliography of Nadine Gordimer’s work (Hans Zell, 1994) and conducted a video interview with her for a University of California, Irvine, tribute to Ngugi wa Thiong’o in August 2013″Lauded abroad but too sharp for whites in SA”