Waiting for Revolution

Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer; drawing by David Levine

Nadine Gordimer, like many of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, lives in two worlds at the same time. She lives, as the Russians did, in a police state, and she also lives, as they did, in the wider culture of the West, receiving the reflections of the kinds of freedom that the West has enjoyed over two centuries or more. But it is more than a question of living under a police state. A whole analogous social structure is involved. Whites in South Africa, in relation to blacks, have much in common with the nobility in tsarist Russia in relation to the serfs. Turgenev and Tolstoy rejected serfdom but were nonetheless themselves distinctive products of a leisured serf-owning society. South African whites constitute an aristocracy of pigmentation, and even if they do not want to belong to it, they still do belong. A great writer in South Africa—and I believe Nadine Gordimer is a great writer—is living and working in a culture that is closer to nineteenth-century Russia than it is to the contemporary West.

Of all the great Russians, it is Turgenev whom she most brings to mind. Like him, she is alienated from the society which produced her and, as in his case also, that society, at work within her, makes her something of a stranger in the wider world. These conditions produce detachment, strange angles of insight, and a kind of stereoscopic lucidity. There is also in their works—by reason of the kind of world these writers willy-nilly share—an inherent aristocratic sense of leisure, of time to wait and to watch. In Nadine Gordimer’s writings, the conditions of South African life have produced a glorious anachronism.

The style of Burger’s Daughter is elegant, fastidious: a high style belonging to a cultivated upper class. Superficially, there is an opposition between this style and the subject matter of the book. Burger’s Daughter is the story of Rosa, the daughter of a revolutionary, the communist doctor Lionel Burger, who dies in a South African jail. The style is appropriate, none the less, and not just because Lionel and Rosa belong to the white, educated middle class—important though their so belonging is, and is shown to be. It is appropriate because the revolutionary’s daughter is an aristocrat of the revolution, feels herself to be such, and is used to being seen as such. Nadine Gordimer knows revolutionaries and knows them to feel themselves as being, not struggling underdogs, but patricians of a present underworld, and of a future society. Rosa is the daughter of a revolution only just beginning, yet her style has already something in common with a Daughter of the South African Revolution, in the American sense of such a daughterhood: “She didn’t understand the shame of the need to please, as royalty never carries money.” And again, as she talks to a friend from outside the…

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