Prisons have opened, exiles have returned, the notion of apartheid is in ruins. Blacks have moved into white suburbs, a new constitution is being drafted, the old opposition is practicing for new habits of rule. But there are hit lists, muggings, murders; violent rearguard actions; there is a housing shortage, there are land disputes, squatters risking their lives to reverse old patterns of settlement. There are unheeded warnings that corruption doesn’t vanish easily, and isn’t a respecter of race or class or political and tribal boundaries. This is the last year of the old South Africa, or as Nadine Gordimer puts it in her new novel, “this is the year when the old life comes to an end.” The year, as she says later in the same book, “of the last white parliament that would ever sit,” but also of the rise of the swastika “from bunker to blazon.”
History has moved on since then, and many things have changed (utterly) in a very short time. Other things, reports suggest, have changed less than we might have thought, former structures and familiar faces looking to linger well into the foreseeable future; and of course the moment just before change, that last old year, would in any case be a gift to any novelist who cared about times and places, and was ready for the formidable challenge the moment presents. But what sort of gift would it be?
Nadine Gordimer is interested in what history does to particular people, both those who embrace it and those who seek to ignore it, and also in what history forgets, or cannot afford to remember. The end of the old life, as a setting and a story, allows her to weave personal and political destinies into an inconclusive but disturbing question about solitude. “Perhaps the passing away of the old regime makes the abandonment of an old personal life also possible.” Perhaps. But wouldn’t you then just be exploiting the public moment, making a false equation between your needs and the country’s? Or would you be saying that history really has written itself into your most intimate assumptions, that the end of public lying may be a start of private truth?
Vera Stark, the person around whom these questions circle in the novel, abandons everything except a certain kind of public life, her work on the new constitution and at the Legal Foundation, but what does she find? She gives up her property, the house that came to her with her divorce long ago, and becomes the tenant of a black landlord, ironically miming in white, so to speak, the insecurity of the black lives she has been trying to protect. She is fond of her children and her second husband, but has slipped away from them into a kind of anonymity, because her children don’t need her and her husband does. The final straw, after an incident in which she has been wounded by casual assailants, is her husband’s saying, after forty-five years of marriage, that he couldn’t live without her. “What am I to do with this love?” she thinks; and to her daughter she formulates a riddling answer: “I cannot live with someone who can’t live without me.”
So what she has found is a form of privacy, an edgy kind of independence, something she used to seek, perhaps, in sex and infidelity, and has probably always sought in her work. She is free, let us say, but she has locked herself out of most of the things other people want freedom for. Her closest associate at the end of the novel is the man whose tenant she is, a former schoolmaster and representative of squatters’ rights who is now “a director on the boards of several finance companies, a development foundation, two banks.” There is no sexual activity between them—“sex had no part in their perception of each other except that it recognized that each came from a base of sexual and familial relations to a meeting that had nothing to do with any of these”—but Vera is disturbed and attracted by the echoes of sex in their friendship, an old “chemistry of human contact” turned to new uses.
Vera has gone too far, as one of the epigraphs to the novel suggests (“We must never be afraid to go too far, for truth lies beyond”—Proust) but her truth, if that is what it is, is pretty icy. The other epigraph, a haiku by the Japanese poet Basho—
None to accompany me on this path:
Nightfall in Autumn
—acquires, in the context of the novel, an oddly positive ring. It’s only at the end of stories (days and seasons and lives), maybe, that you get to shake off all that company, and find the solitude you wanted all along. The difficulty of this novel, which makes it, in spite of the smoothness of its writing and a certain ready-made quality in a number of its characters, one of Gordimer’s most ambitious, arises from this mixture of ice and fulfilled desire. You can’t tell whether Vera is wonderful or repellent; you certainly can’t feel sorry for her. “Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self.” That is what Vera thinks, and she enacts the thought. But is it an uncomfortable truth or a simple withdrawal into egotism? If it were true, would it be so even in times of great change? Especially in times of great change?
Here is our last glimpse of Vera. She has just bumped, during the night, into the girl her friend and landlord is sleeping with; a sign that sex really is over for her, that she is outside all that too. She steps into the garden.
Cold seared her lips and eyelids; frosted the arrangement of two chairs and table; everything stripped. Not a leaf on the scoured smooth limbs of the trees, and the bushes like tangled wire; dried palm fronds stiff as her fingers. A thick trail of smashed ice crackling light, stars blinded her as she let her head dip back; under the swing of the sky she stood, feet planted, on the axis of the night world. Vera walked there, for a while. And then took up her way, breath scrolling out; a signature before her.
This is courageous writing, because it gives so much away. It ends on an upbeat, and perhaps even wants to celebrate the cold as a kind of clarity. Vera has her wish, she has no regrets, she is free of the bad old world, part of the new one. She has done a lot of good in her life, she has rarely deceived herself, and she doesn’t condescend to anyone. She makes a pause in the night and she takes up her way; she still has a signature. But she is also blinded and freezing; the necessary fate, perhaps, of those who can’t live with those who can’t live without them.
The plot of the novel is quite slight, although it’s not all about Vera. Her black friends Didymus and Sibongile Maqoma have returned from secrecy and exile to open politics at home, except that Sibongile, the former waiting wife, is the figure of tomorrow, while Didymus, once the man of action, is the sidelined hero. This situation causes them difficulties, but they handle them with grace. Their daughter, Mpho, half Zulu, half Xhosa, but mostly a teen-age Londoner, brings out the mild gush that black beauties tend to provoke in Gordimer:
This schoolgirl combined the style of Vogue with the assertion of Africa. She was a mutation achieving happy appropriation of the aesthetics of opposing species.
Mpho gets pregnant and is forced to have an abortion. Later she takes off to study drama at NYU. Just the child of important people: not the future for South Africa. One of Vera’s employees at the Legal Foundation is shot and appears to survive, but later dies of internal leakage from his wounds. Vera’s son Ivan, who lives in London, gets divorced and sends his faintly delinquent son to live for a while with his grandparents in Johannesburg. Vera’s daughter Annick turns out to be a lesbian who lives with a loving friend and adopts a baby. This is all very decent, but a bit perfunctory, as if Gordimer’s mind were not entirely on it, as if the charm of Vera’s austerity and the fine offhand intelligence of the prose had taken up all her interest. “No doubt every divorce is a soap opera,” Ivan writes to his mother. No doubt: if you can’t concentrate on the details, and if you are surprised to find you are like everyone else.
What is striking in this book is its array of apparently casual insights: the sense of how much an old photograph reveals and conceals (“There’s always someone nobody remembers”); the effect of old faces returning from clandestinity or dispersion (“the weight their lives had was the weight of the past, out of storage and delivered to those who stayed behind”); of a shantytown with an eager, unmanageable ambition to be a suburb (“The assertion of this half-built house is so undeniable…the sudden illusion of suburbia, dropped here and there, standing up stranded on the veld between the vast undergrowth of tin and sacking and plastic and cardboard that was the natural terrain, was something still to be placed”).
There are sensitive discussions of violence, of moments when outrage gives way to a murky understanding (“If they killed that good man, why not deal back death to them—she understood with all her impatient angry flesh the violence that, like others, she called mindless”); and hauntingly, through this book dedicated to a moment on the edge of an extraordinary future, runs the refrain of a complicated loyalty to the past: not nostalgia, not guilt, but an acknowledgment of what Gordimer calls “uninterpreted life”; a belated and continuing attempt to see who we were. And who they were; and what “we” and “they” have meant. “Does the past return because one can rid oneself of it only slowly, or is the freedom actually the slow process of loss?”
Kathrin Wagner’s book is an intelligent and informed account of her “deep-seated discomfort with the claim that [Gordimer] should be seen as the spokesperson for white South Africa.” Given this angle, Wagner can hardly be generous, but she doesn’t explore her discomfort as she might. It’s not enough to say that domestic audiences “may find merely banal what the outsider finds illuminating” or may think Gordimer’s depictions of South African conditions “tired or clichéd.” Wagner and the domestic audiences could be right, but we need to know what’s banal or tired in the writing; we need to know that the natives are not just blasé or envious. We do know that fans are often as silly as they seem (“If one were never to read any other literature about South Africa, Gordimer’s work would be enough”—Penny Perrick, quoted by Wagner); but that doesn’t mean what they are seeing is silly. Wagner says South Africans share “an unease with the quality of Gordimer’s vision, a sense…that there is something fundamentally unsatisfying and even misleading about her interpretation of the South African experience,” but this is a strangely foggy claim. Interpretation scarcely ever sets out to satisfy, and Gordimer’s fiction can be “misleading” only if we forget the partiality of all fiction, and also assume she is our only source of news. Similarly, it seems perverse on Wagner’s part to assume that only liberals feel queasy about violence, and to attribute Gordimer’s complex and courageous views on this subject to a “pre-feminist” construction of femininity (“such as the expectation that women function as the civilising, nurturing, all-giving and all-sacrificing power which would redeem the crude excesses of the male world”).
It’s true, though, that there is a certain “thematic predictability” in Gordimer’s work, and that, like Vera escaping her family, we could long to be freed from the sheer political decency of what she is doing. Wagner finds at the end of A Sport of Nature, in the young woman who is allowed “to disappear into the political irrelevance of a private life,” a “small but potent symbol of hope for a New World whose hall-marks will be not only a non-racial community of men, but also, perhaps more significantly, a society in which the individual will be liberated from the stranglehold of the imperative to radical political action.” The trouble is that this sounds like a travesty of the liberal dream of ease (“Everyone ends up moving alone towards the self”), and I was only halfway through typing it out when I wanted to go back to politics.
None to Accompany Me is a novel about the deep politics of the unpolitical person, as well as about the intricate politics of political people. The solitude it projects is not a refuge but a zone of peace in an intensely contested place. Vera says she distrusts power because she has “belonged to a people who used it horribly.” Her black friend Zeph says her work on the new constitution will mean “real empowerment for our people,” and this delicate linguistic reflection follows:
It was accepted tacitly that when he spoke of “our” people it was a black speaking for blacks, subtly different from when he used “we” or “us” and this meant an empathy between him and her. They continued to accept one another for exactly what they were, no sense of one intruding upon the private territory behind the other. It had come to her that this was the basis that ought to have existed between a man and a woman in general, where it was a question not of a difference of ancestry but of sex.
Ought to have. There is a poignancy in the tense, as if only a historical nightmare could bring us, and even then bring us too late, anywhere near this understanding.
Gordimer is quoted by Wagner as saying she has been interested “all my life” in the “oblique picture of the narrator himself, emerging from the story he tells and the way he tells it; an unconscious revelation.” The narrator of None to Accompany Me is sprightly and personal, full of reflections, but doesn’t give much away. Yet I can’t help thinking that the figure of Vera, distinguished, lonely, admirable, a little forbidding, must have something of an autobiographical edge. When Vera steps out into the garden, Gordimer is not picturing the coldness she is often accused of, and she is not claiming for herself the warmth Vera lacks. She is saying: Don’t think I haven’t thought about this, don’t think I’m not still thinking.
December 1, 1994