The Mysterious Powers of the Word

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.