Dominique Nabokov

Nadine Gordimer, New York City, 1986

There is a moment in Nadine Gordimer’s novel The Late Bourgeois World when the narrator, a white woman in South Africa in the years of apartheid, is driving behind a truck and notices a group of black men who are laughing and joking. She wants for a moment to be part of them and smiles at the main joker. “But when he caught my smile he looked right through me as though I wasn’t there at all.” The idea of white guilt and white invisibility is dramatized against the urge to belong and the need to be circumspect in a number of masterpieces that Gordimer created—mostly notably The Late Bourgeois World (1966), The Conservationist (1975), Burger’s Daughter (1979), and A Sport of Nature (1987).

In the years when she wrote these novels, Gordimer also wrote political essays and made speeches, and was deeply concerned with the idea that apartheid was evil and must end. She also began to examine her own conscience and that of other writers to see what power fiction should have in a dark time. She set about discovering what a commitment to the word and to the life of the imagination might mean under the pressures of a regime such as that which ruled South Africa. It is clear from the two books under review—a selection of her essays and of her stories—and from her novels that out of her argument with others she made rhetoric of considerable and persuasive force, filled with anger and fire, and rippled also with contradictions, anxieties, and self-questioning. But she made her fiction out of a set of more complex, mysterious, and tender arguments.

While she insisted in some of her essays that the imagination lived in a political sphere whether it liked to or not, as an artist, most of the time, she managed, in the way she allowed the figures in her novels and stories to live and breathe, to offer the political sphere considerable amplitude. And indeed, on occasions, she managed to break her own rules and let individual feelings and experiences have a sort of primacy that soared above the time she wrote about, or the political setting.

Gordimer’s fiction may easily be read as the story of her country seen from a certain perspective, but at its best it explores another territory, a more restless and uncertain place. Her art dramatizes freedom and restriction, the impulse dictated by conscience versus the need to evade and avoid such dictates; she writes with painterly relish and considerable sensuousness and subtlety about sunshine and travel, food and sex; she also writes about alienation and the need to belong to a community, and what this can do to a complex and torn personality.

She writes too about the urge not to belong, not to commit, about moments in which the public realm is seen as the “something out there” from which the private world seeks to protect itself. In The Late Bourgeois World, the narrator is unsure whether she is willing actively to assist the movement to destroy apartheid and thus endanger herself. The last six words of the book are: “afraid, alive, afraid, alive, afraid, alive…” In Burger’s Daughter, Rosa Burger’s longing to get a passport and go to France, and thus escape her fate, is presented as both ironic and pressing. In A Sport of Nature, Hillela’s journey is picaresque and her personality wayward, even if her destiny finally becomes political. In The Conservationist, Mehring’s odyssey is offered as sensuous, if inauthetic, rather than political.

The difference between Gordimer’s work as an activist and chronicler and her approach as a fiction writer can be easily found in Life Times and Telling Times. In an essay from 1994, “Rising to the Ballot,” she writes about the pass laws that restricted movement in South Africa:

One of the most successful campaigns against apartheid…was that of refusing to carry the pass. The hated dossier that blacks had to exhibit, like a shackle, on demand, and for which they went to prison on failure to do so, was the document that restricted their freedom of domicile and their right to seek work in one area rather than another.

In a story that dramatizes the same issue, “Through Time and Distance,” the pass laws are handled much more indirectly. Phillip is black, a boy accompanying a commercial traveler all over South Africa:

When the men in the location came to the door to urge him to destroy his pass, he was away on the road, and only his wife was at home to assure them that he had done so; when some policeman in a dorp stopped him to see it, there it was, in the inner pocket of the rayon lining of his jacket.

As he tours the country, Phillip brings news that the pass laws are going to end; the campaign will be successful. All the time, however, he surreptitiously carries his own pass. Instead of being indignant at his hypocrisy, the author treats him gently, lightly, ironically, with sympathy and understanding. In “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” the story focuses on the baffled husband of the woman who prints leaflets against the law.


In her nonfiction, Gordimer knows who the heroes and villains are; in her best stories, she allows her characters to be puzzled, to be caught between forces. She allows her best creations a full life that can be poisoned or damaged by apartheid but not fully foretold or controlled by the system.

In Telling Times, some names come up again and again, figures who have inspired her, among them the writers Edward Said and Susan Sontag and the journalist Anthony Sampson. She writes moving memorials to both Said and Sontag, who were friends. She writes also about Sampson as a friend and associate in South Africa. In one of her best stories, “Dreaming of the Dead,” from her recent collection Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (2007), Gordimer takes an extraordinary risk. She becomes less interested in the opinions of her three friends Said, Sontag, and Sampson, or the arguments they made or the causes they supported, and more interested in their existence as ghosts:

Suddenly she was there, sitting at the head of the table as if she had been with us all along or because there was no time we hadn’t remarked when it was she’d joined us. Susan. Susan Sontag.

She meets all three of them in a dream Chinese restaurant, describing them, conjuring up the conversation they might have, the food they would order. She is always alert to the idea that they have come back from the dead. Thus the talk between them is both real and unreal; the scene is pure fantasy and also straight from memory.

But throughout the story there is a sharp and palpable absence. One person has not joined the company. She is watching out for him. His nonappearance is there from the first sentences: “Did you come back last night? I try to dream you into materialisation but you don’t appear. I keep expecting you.” The “you” is clearly a dead love, and, as the dream conversation between the four old friends proceeds, the narrator keeps looking, searching in case he will come to the table, another ghost, the lover much-missed. The story ends: “You will not come. Never.”

This is Gordimer far away from her image as political activist or chronicler of the struggle against apartheid; now, she is activated by something as simple as sorrow. She is a witness to her own life. (Her essays also include a number of autobiographical pieces.) Her stories make clear, however, that such emotions have been urgently available to her from the beginning. In “Friday’s Footprint,” for example, published in a collection of the same name in 1960, Rita Cunningham, who runs a hotel by a river, manages to avoid grieving for her drowned husband until the powerful end of the story:

She tried with all her being to conjure up once again out of the water something; the ghost of comfort, of support. But that boat, silent and unbidden, that she had so often seen before, would not come again.

Gordimer’s fiction can move from illustration of a moment in history, then, to explorations of states of mind. Some of these stories were written in the precise heat of what was happening, and have the feel of moral fables. At other times, in the best stories, she allows moments and images a shimmering power and has an extraordinary ability to notice the world in all its complexity.

In one of the longest stories, “Something Out There,” she offers a snapshot of the preparation for a terrorist attack, told from the side of the terrorists. What comes from the story rather than the larger political questions, which she places in the background, are the tense personal politics, what Charles, one of the attackers, feels like, for example, when he comes into a room and senses “that he had been talked about in his absence.” She also manages to capture the vague but palpable menace and paranoia in the air in the wider society as the attack is prepared.

In “Letter from His Father,” she allows Kafka’s father to reply to his son in a tone aggravated, puzzled, belligerent. The story is playful and literary, but there is a moment when she seems to be teasing out something that concerns her deeply as an artist in both her essays and her fiction—the difficult and abiding question of what a writer’s proper subject should be. “You were never interested in what was happening to your own people,” Kafka’s father says.


The hooligans’ attacks on Jews in the streets, on houses and shops, that took place while you were growing up—I don’t see a word about them in your diaries, your notebooks. You were only imagining Jews. Imagining them tortured in places like your Penal Colony, maybe. I don’t want to think about what that means.

In an essay from 2006 Gordimer describes her own work as a kind of “witness literature,” and it is true that in her stories, and in her fiction generally, there is no recourse to allegory, or finding in the past a story whose echoes might reverberate. The stories she tells are not metaphors for what happened in South Africa during her life; they earnestly inhabit the real world. They are rescued from mere reportage because her fictional characters and her style are allowed what she calls “aesthetic liberty.” She insists in an essay called “The Essential Gesture” that “the creative act is not pure.”

She is ready to argue, however, including with other writers in these essays, about degrees of impurity. In her fiction and her statements she has mostly been direct and has written from an essential optimism, shared by the African National Congress, of which she is a member. It is clear from Telling Times that Gordimer has not merely written her essays and speeches to speak to her world, however divided it may be, but to speak to herself. She lived in a time when it was almost impossible to maintain a simple, single position, for example, on what black writers, who were emerging from silence and poverty into violence and dispossession, should write about, or who they should use as models. Such a position would have to shift with the light, especially for someone as engaged with daily life as Gordimer was.


Ian Berry/Magnum Photos

Supporters of Nelson Mandela waiting for his arrival in a Natal township, 1994

It is interesting that in the very last essay in this book, written in 2006, she can write an impassioned plea for “young black readers” to pay attention to the literature of the outside world, including Shakespeare:

To find writings from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Arab countries, India, the Far East, etc. “irrelevant” is to re-enter—voluntarily, this time!—a cultural isolation formerly imposed by the arrogance of imperialism.

In an essay from 1982 she quotes the Australian writer Patrick White approvingly when he referred to the “cast of contradictory characters of which the writer is composed,” and part of the value of her essays of fifty years is watching her position move, change, and refine itself.

In reading Gordimer’s essays now that apartheid has disappeared, it is hard not to be reminded of the position of Lady Gregory in Ireland in the early years of the twentieth century under similar pressures. Almost from the moment when she threw in her lot with nationalist Ireland, Lady Gregory, like Gordimer, operated with steely determination and optimism. She used what she could from her own privileged heritage to work for the culture of those who were not of her class, collecting folklore, attempting as she wrote “to add dignity to Ireland,” and founding the Abbey Theatre, where only Irish plays could be performed. She was working, she said, not for Home Rule, but for the time after Home Rule; and she was proud to live in the new Irish state when it came into being.

But in a new country an artist is under even greater pressure than in a country coming into being. In this context, Gordimer’s essays are fascinating. Some of the changes in her position can almost be explained by the contradictions between the country she saw when she looked out of the window or turned on the television or spoke to her friends—a country filled with vicious discrimination, with dispossession and chaos—and the one she saw as a reader, as a connoisseur of the silent country of the printed page. When she opened a book or looked into her own well-stocked and discriminating mind, the same passion is apparent as in her politics, but she is alert to poetry and privacy as much as to the literature of change.

Her essays here are as much the record of an alert and attentive reader as a writer. She has searched the African and Middle Eastern past for models as much as Europe or America. Thus she analyzes the politics and fictional systems of figures such as Olive Schreiner, William Plomer, Alan Paton, Wole Soyinka, Breyten Breytenbach, Chinua Achebe, and Naguib Mahfouz as much as she does Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust, Conrad, Joseph Roth, Patrick White, Octavio Paz, Kenzaburo Oe, Philip Roth, and Salman Rushdie. What is on display here is a lifelong and passionate belief in the power of the word. When she quotes “A picture is worth a thousand words,” she makes clear that she does not believe that for a single moment. Her withering rejoinder is: “For how long?”

It would be too crude to suggest that Gordimer is lucky to have lived in interesting times; more useful, perhaps, to suggest that as an essayist she is lucky that the time she lived through has a narrative that is almost satisfying. The fifty-four years these essays cover move from the beginnings of her awareness that something was rotten in her country to the release of Nelson Mandela and the taking of power by the ANC. In an autobiographical essay from 1954 she writes about growing up in South Africa:

For me, one of the confusing things…was the strange shift—every year or two when I was small, and then weekly, daily almost, when I was adolescent—in my consciousness of, and attitude towards, the Africans around me.

Five years later, she writes about being white in South Africa:

We do not suffer, but we are coarsened. Even to continue to live here is to acquiesce in some measure to apartheid—to a sealing off of responses, the cauterisation of the human heart.

Two years later, she is predicting the end of white power: “The white man, as a power, is fast becoming extinct in Africa.”

Then there are elegies for those who have been destroyed by the system, including as essay written about the black journalist Nat Nakasa in 1966:

He did not calculate the population as thirteen million or three million, but as sixteen. He belonged not between two worlds, but to both. And in him one could see the hope of one world. He has left that hope behind; there will be others to take it up.

Then there is a note of exasperation in an essay ten years later:

With unprecedentedly strong criticism of the government coming from its own newspapers and prominent Afrikaners as well as the opposition, it is baffling to read that at the same time 60 per cent of whites…support Mr. Vorster’s National Party.

In 1981, she writes about censorship: “I am one who has always believed and still believes we shall never be rid of censorship until we are rid of apartheid.” In 1999, with apartheid over, she describes how it is to live under the new freedom:

I am aware now, every day, in so many ways, big and small, happy and troubling, that I can speak of “our country.” If the air of taking possession can be palpable, I feel it when I walk out of my gate. I hear it in the volume of traffic….It is that indefinable quality called confidence.

The eighteen years in between and the years after give her the opportunity to write about the new world as it struggled out of its chrysalis, and figures such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. An essay from 1990 begins:

I have just come home from the rally that welcomed Nelson Mandela back to Soweto. It was the occasion of a lifetime for everyone there; including the dot in the crowd that was myself, as one of the whites who have identified with the African National Congress through the years when it was a crime to do so.

This, it could be argued, was one of the high points of Gordimer’s life, and indeed her work. Sixteen years later she will assert that Thomas Mann’s edict “In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms” “cannot be washed off” the walls of the twentieth century. For the reader of W.B. Yeats, a figure who shared Gordimer’s eloquent involvement in the daily life of a turbulent country (and also managed a nourishing distance from it), that quote, however, jumps out. Yeats used it as the epigraph for one of his last poems, “Politics.” Having referred first to seeing a “girl standing there,” he wrote, “maybe what they say is true,” about Mann’s statement. And then concluded, referring to the girl again: “But O that I were young again/And held her in my arms.”

Reading these two books together, it is possible to wonder about the difference between a thousand words of Gordimer’s essays and a thousand of her fiction, between her arguments over politics, things fixed in time that did not last, and the explorations of a more enduring and poetic terrain. It is possible to read with relish, almost with relief, her writing in 1999 about Hemingway and her engagement with him as a stylist:

From Ernest Hemingway’s stories I learned to listen, within myself, when writing, for what went unsaid by my characters; what can be, must be conveyed in other ways, and not alone by body-language but also in the breathing space of syntax: the necessity to create silences which the reader can interpret from these signs.

And it is with relish, too, that a reader can turn then to one of her great, mysterious stories, “Livingstone’s Companions,” reprinted in Life Times, and realize that Gordimer’s lifetime of paying close attention to the world, her steely loyalty to the cause, also allowed space for silences and style, allowed her to write shivery, uncertain sentences and create characters whose motives and auras were complex and strange, and whose dilemma could not be easily or simply solved.

“Livingstone’s Companions” opens with one of those deceptively simple sentences that Chekhov or Hemingway could have used: “In the House that afternoon the Minister of Foreign Affairs was giving his report on the President’s visit to Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania.” Slowly the focus moves toward the journalist Carl Church, through whose eyes the story is seen; away from the parliament building he receives a message saying that it is one hundred years since the Royal Geographical Society had sent a party in search of David Livingstone and that Church should retrace Livingstone’s last journey and write three thousand words.

There are skills that Gordimer is now in full possession of; she can give Church a rage against his employers and thoughts of how he might respond to their demand, and then she can let this rage subside, a sharply felt private grievance that doesn’t quite become a tantrum. And then she can get him to the airport where he is wait-listed for a flight and she can capture his determination to get on the flight using whatever male charm he can muster: “He tried to catch the girl’s eye now and then to see how it was going. She gave no sign, except, once, a beautiful airline smile….”

It is unclear where Gordimer is going with this story. It seems at first that it will be some attempt to look at the history of the colonization of Africa, but, oddly enough, Gordimer, even though she is alert to history as shadow and menace, has no real interest, either as a writer of fiction or as an essayist, in attempting to evoke the past. Her time is the present, with an eye fixed on the future. By coincidence now, Church meets a woman, also wait-listed, who owns Gough’s Bay Hotel, and on this property, he discovers, “are the graves, the graves of Livingstone’s companions.” He mentions that he might drop by and she promises him that he will be looked after.

In a desultory way, as he travels, Church reads Livingstone’s journals, and then he gets lost. Still it is unclear what the kernel of the story will be. It is possible that Church will find some epiphany, some moment of pure truth that will tell him something about the soul of Africa, some way in which its past and future will bond in a single image. But Gordimer now is as interested in Church as she is in Africa, his maleness, his solitude, his frustration:

He took another road, any road, and after a mile or two of hesitancy and obstinacy—turn back or go on?—he saw a signpost ahead. This time it was not a dead tree. A sagging wooden finger drooped down a turn-off: GOUGH’S BAY LAZITI PASS.

And then in a single paragraph, two words: “The lake.”

Gordimer now could take Church into a Platonic Africa, filled with features that could include wildlife or some intensity or clarity that will bewilder him, or change him in some way. Or indeed she could allow him to venture into some heart of darkness, Africa at its most alarming. It is a measure of her patient talent and tact that she will do neither. There are moments, however, where she describes things with a breathtaking clarity. The eagles Church sees, for example, “carried the remoteness of the upper air with them in the long-sighted gaze of their hooded eyes.” But the purity of nature will be tempered by the human element. The hotel is down a long dirt track; it is dingy and there is nothing much there; the people who run the place are casual in their manners. Gordimer is holding back, and it is unclear what form the core of the story will take now.

Slowly she starts to play the provisional nature of the present, the casual dialogue, the moments of pleasure and ease against the ghosts of history. The idea that “twenty thousand slaves a year had passed this way, up the water” is followed soon by: “He would have a beer and go, changing nothing, claiming nothing.” Entries from Livingstone’s journals begin to appear in quotation marks and around them a sense of Church himself as one of those lost figures from Hemingway, a man alone, gaining comfort from water and from fishing and swimming. Some of the sentences have that same suggestive ease that appears in the best of Hemingway; they seem, by withholding so much, to imply a great deal more than they say.

In the last paragraph of the story, Gordimer insists that the cadences remain calm and under control, and yet there are moments of pure and grave emotion in her phrasing, in the muted music of her prose. She holds on to a sense of the physical, trying to register now exactly what it was like, exactly where Church was, when he found the graves. There is a mixture of awe and fierce precision in the tone as she moves the perspective from the minute to the panoramic. In the last sentence, Church faces the lake, as the graves of Livingstone’s companions do,

the lake that, from here, was seen to stretch much farther than one could tell, down there on the shore or at the hotel: stretching still—even from up here—as far as one could see, flat and shining; a long way up Africa.