Living Legends

A Sport of Nature

by Nadine Gordimer
Knopf, 341 pp., $18.95

One comes to Nadine Gordimer’s new novel, A Sport of Nature, conscious of a certain critical division about it. On the one hand it is called by Maureen Howard in The New York Times Book Review “the perfect equation” between talent and experience, a grand act of the imagination. On the other hand, to Jennifer Krauss in The New Republic it is a “deeply cynical novel” in the realm of “popular, blockbuster, Book-of-the-Month Club fiction,” and to Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times a “glib encapsulation of recent history” whose form has something in common with Judith Krantz or Sidney Sheldon. Indeed the tone of the novel is elusive, the narrative method susceptible to either interpretation.

To this reader, it seems to boil down to how much credit Gordimer has built up for the vigor and courage of her antiapartheid politics over the years, and the beauty and power of much of her other recent writing, for this book seems compounded of mythic and modernist elements too resistant quite to work as a novel. It may be that an American reader, owing to the different rhythms of his history, has certain disadvantages. Since there is no defense on apartheid, it can seem that something obvious is being advanced with great righteousness here. In another Gordimer novel, Burger’s Daughter, someone says, “Yes, it’s strange to live in a country where there are still heroes.” What that’s like is something hard for an American to remember. The South African world, in its turmoil, in the accelerating pace of its changes, has, perhaps, a greater need for saints’ legends and inspirational fairy tales, while the disaffected American can no longer believe in them.

Gone is the spare, meditated manner of July’s People; here Gordimer returns to certain themes and episodes found in her earliest, seemingly autobiographical, and often somewhat tendentious works, fitting them almost at random into a romantic political newsreel. No doubt there are moments in history when the idea of art for art’s sake is offensive; that old debate has ever only arisen in those moments of calm between wars. Liking it or not, Gordimer was born into interesting times, and has reported and judged them. Twenty-five years ago, in The Late Bourgeois World and A Guest of Honour, Gordimer captured the secret meetings, the clandestine intrigues, the secret dreams of the politically forward-thinking. She has pointed out that the voice of a “politically devout” life is always addressing “the human mass.” Her early work was reminiscent of old Marxist novels reset (quotations from Fanon and so on—the sort of novels the heroine in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook doesn’t want to write).

But in her finest work—her superb short stories, for instance—Gordimer’s polemics are only implicit, and her ability vividly to present people caught in the moral dilemmas and actual peril of a foundering society is consummate and, we are bound to feel, so correct that what it lacks in charm and humor—there are no jokes in Gordimer,…

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