Jump and Other Stories
Playing the Game
In the 1970s I had lunch one memorable day with the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute. It was a year or two after Samuel Beckett had been awarded the Nobel Prize. I knew that Mme. Sarraute had known Beckett since before the war, and I brought up his name in the not very honorable hope of hearing some gossip about the great man. When I mentioned the prize, Mme. Sarraute said, Yes, in Paris we say he deserved it. Though her English is fluent, I assumed this somewhat peculiar phrase was a Gallicism, and I merely nodded solemnly in agreement. What I did not know, however, was that there had been a serious falling out between the two writers. Immediately, this kindly and most gentle of women flashed at me a sour look and with what for her was almost harshness said, No, we say: he deserved it.
Is the Nobel laurel wreath a fitting recognition of a great artist, or merely the international establishment’s way of turning a living writer into a monument? The prize committee has made some strange choices in the past, and there have been even stranger omissions: Joyce, Nabokov, Borges, Greene…. Of these four, Graham Greene would have seemed the most suitable candidate, since much of his work is set along that shifting boundary where literature and politics meet uneasily. The committee has always appeared distinctly chary of anything that smacks of art for art’s sake, preferring its literature well salted with political or social concerns; in this it is at one with most Western liberal intellectuals, who tend to have a bad conscience when it comes to literature—fiction especially—confusing as they do the ethical with the moral, expecting not works of art but handbooks on how to live.
If Nadine Gordimer had not existed she would have had to be invented. She is the ideal Nobel laureate for these times: an Olympian yet totally “committed” writer with ten novels and countless short stories to her credit; a white South African who has spent a lifetime fighting apartheid; a member of the ANC; and, as an added bonus, a woman. That the gentlemen in Stockholm, as Beckett restrainedly called them, should have waited until this year to give her the prize is a testament less to their acuity than to their caution. She should have had it years ago. She richly deserves it.
If there is a touch of Sarrauthian harshness here, it is because I have always had reservations about Nadine Gordimer’s work. There are some novels which are important but which have scant artistic value, and there are novels which are artistically successful and supremely unimportant, in the political sense. In the former category one thinks of 1984, in the latter, Lolita. Like all such distinctions, this one is clumsy, and much too dependent on personal taste to be of any real critical moment, and many great books (Mann’s Doctor Faustus, for instance) will elude its categorizations. All the same, it is handy. Nadine Gordimer’s books are undeniably important; not all of them are artistic successes.
Ms. Gordimer would probably dismiss such discriminations as quibbling. She has made the choice of commitment to a great cause, and this choice and this commitment constitute her artistic creed. Orwell himself observed that his decision to be a political writer, far from hindering him, brought him a sudden and almost blessed freedom: his program was set, his way clear, no longer would he spend his energies searching for the bon mot or the elegant aperçu. Ms. Gordimer is not so brisk as this; she can write with elegance and she makes fine discriminations, but at the same time wishes to eat the cake of commitment. This leads to some odd conjunctions. Here, for instance, from one of her earlier (1966) novels, The Late Bourgeois World, is a mother talking to her young son after she has broken to him the news of the suicide of his father. The boy ventures that “We’ve had a lot of trouble through politics, haven’t we,” and she replies:
“Well, we can’t really blame this on politics. I mean, Max suffered a lot for his political views, but I don’t suppose this—what he did now—is a direct result of something political. I mean—Max was in a mess, he somehow couldn’t deal with what happened to him, largely, yes, because of his political actions, but also because…in general, he wasn’t equal to the demands he…he took upon himself.” I added lamely, “As if you insisted on playing in the first team when you were only good enough—strong enough for the third.”
Even allowing that dialogue is not Ms. Gordimer’s strength as a novelist, this simply is bad writing. No mother would talk to a child like this; in life, perhaps, she might, but not in fiction. This is something Ms. Gordimer appears not to see, or at least to acknowledge: that truth to life is not always truth to art.
Directly after that little speech, however, comes this:
As he followed what I was saying his head moved slightly in the current from the adult world, the way I have sometimes noticed a plant do in a breath of air I couldn’t see.
It is a splendid recovery, as the polemicist, the journalist, steps back and allows the artist with her disinterested passion to take over.
There are moments, though, when even the artist’s touch fails. In “Some Are Born to Sweet Delight,” which is perhaps the weakest of the sixteen stories collected in Jump, an English working-class girl is taking the first, tentative steps toward an affair with her parents’ lodger, a young Arab:
She set him to cut the gingerbread:—Go on, try it, it’s my mother’s homemade.—She watched with an anxious smile, curiosity, while his beautiful teeth broke into its crumbling softness. He nodded, granting grave approval with a full mouth. She mimicked him, nodding and smiling; and, like a doe approaching a leaf, she took from his hand the fragrant slice with the semicircle marked by his teeth, and took a bite out of it.
This is a magical little moment, beautifully observed and rendered (despite the awkwardness of that “curiosity”); a few pages later, however, when the couple make love for the first time, the writer blunts the effect by repeating the image: “Now she had the lips from which, like a doe, she had taken a morsel touched with his saliva.”
Is this quibbling on my part? Well, a writer has only words out of which to make a world; the fiercest commitment, to the grandest of grand themes, is no guarantee of artistic success—and that is the kind of success Ms. Gordimer seeks when she sits down to work in the unique solitude of the writer. Too often in this collection she lets the words go dead on the page; too often she is content merely to state, as if what is stated (the grand theme?) will infuse the material with energy and light. Things—people, artifacts, ideas—are nothing in art until they are passed through the transfiguring fire of the imagination. Nabokov remarked that one of his difficulties in writing Lolita was that, after having spent his time up to then inventing Europe, he now had to invent America. Ms. Gordimer, in these stories at least, is too much the reporter and not enough of an inventor.
The story quoted from above shows her at her weakest. The girl falls in love with the young Arab, who makes her pregnant, and sends her off to visit his family, first placing in her handbag a bomb that will destroy the American airliner on which she is traveling, killing her and her unborn child and all the others aboard. We know nothing of the Arab, seeing him only through the girl’s eyes.
Then there was another disaster of the same nature, and a statement from a group with an apocalyptic name representing a faction of the world’s wronged, claiming the destruction of both planes in some complication of vengeance for holy wars, land annexations, invasions, imprisonment, cross-border raids, territorial disputes, bombings, sinkings, kidnappings no one outside the initiated could understand.
This is too easy. A piece of good, factual journalism on the same subject—such an incident happened a couple of years ago at Heathrow, though luckily the bomb was discovered before the young woman boarded the plane—tells us more about the issues and even the people involved, and probably would move us more, also.
There are three fine stories in Jump, and all three succeed precisely because the author insists on her authorial rights, as it were, and concentrates on the personal, on the predicament of human beings caught in a bad place at a bad time. “The Ultimate Safari,” in which a black girl describes a terrible journey from war to relative peace, fairly quivers with angry polemic, yet achieves an almost biblical force through the simplicity and specificity of the narrative voice.
We were tired, so tired. My first-born brother and the man had to lift our grandfather from stone to stone where we found places to cross the rivers. Our grandmother is strong but her feet were bleeding. We could not carry the basket on our heads any longer, we couldn’t carry anything except my little brother. We left our things under a bush. As long as our bodies get there, our grandmother said.
“Home” is a frightening study of the way in which a marriage between a Swedish scientist and the South African daughter of a politically active family is poisoned by the woman’s commitment to her mother and brothers when they are detained by the police. The husband, unable fully to identify with the fierce loyalties of the family, wonders if his wife has taken a lover; in the end, however, he recognizes the truth.
Perhaps there was no lover? He saw it was true that she had left him, but it was for them, that house, the dark family of which he was not a member, her country to which he did not belong.
The finest story here is “A Journey.” The narrator, a writer whom we are invited to identify as Ms. Gordimer herself, flying home to Africa from Europe, sits across the aisle from “a beautiful woman with a very small baby and a son of about thirteen” and makes up a life for them, involving love, infidelity, and the son’s first step across the threshold of adult-hood; it is a superb little piece, which could have been set anywhere, at any time: it is, in other words, universal. Here, as she does too seldom elsewhere in the collection, the author trusts her artistic energy, and makes up a plausible world. We can see the writer sitting in her plane seat, engaging in that pure and extraordinary form of play which is art. First the boy speaks: