Until 1991, when the last of South Africa’s apartheid laws was repealed, to be personally liberated and to be South African was to be doomed to a continuing struggle between the desire for further freedom and development for oneself and the desire for the liberation of the country’s oppressed masses. The question was whether one could pursue both effectually. South Africa was a nation in which a white legislature promulgated laws that made it impossible for the overwhelming majority of nonwhite persons to advance themselves. Apartheid, which in Afrikaans means “apartness,” was the law of the land. It became codified after the Nationalists came to power in 1948.
In her novels, Nadine Gordimer (1923 – 2014) is engaged in an ongoing examination of the possible combinations of the private life and the public life. She creates a gallery of characters ranging from pure hedonists concerned only with their own pleasure to those who have committed their lives to bringing liberty, equality, and solidarity to South Africa. Her most interesting characters are those who are wracked and torn by the struggle, those who want to be themselves and yet find it impossible to take personal goals seriously in a society built on the exploitation of blacks.
Some great writers—such as James Joyce and Thomas Mann—believe that to write freely one must live in a free country. During the 1920’s, numerous American writers disgusted with American values chose to become expatriates. Other writers, such as the great Russians Fyodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoy, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, believe that nothing could be more oppressive to them than to be separated from their fellow citizens, however oppressive the government of their country might be. With some of her books banned, with some charge or other always dangling over her head, with her passport liable to be lifted at any time, Gordimer undoubtedly was tempted to go into exile and live in a free country. She always, however, returned to Johannesburg. To her, the accident of being born in a particular place imposed obligations, and having become a writer with an international reputation imposed special obligations. At the cost of the personal freedom and the very air of freedom that could be hers elsewhere, she remained in South Africa during the apartheid years, living with frustration and danger, a witness to the power of compassion and hope.
The Lying Days
A first novel is often a thinly veiled autobiography of the writer’s childhood, adolescence, and coming-of-age. Gordimer’s The Lying Days is of this type, but it is nevertheless special. Full of innocence, tenderness, courage, and joy, it is an unusually mature celebration of a woman’s coming-of-age. It is the story of Helen Shaw’s growing up in a mining town not far from Johannesburg, the intoxication of her first love affairs, her days at the university, her immersion in the city’s bohemian and radical circles, and finally her drawing back to protect herself from being swamped by values, attitudes, and goals that are not her own.
In her life at home, Helen Shaw is under the thumb of a mother who commands and dominates in the name of all that is conventional and trivial. The motivating force in the mother’s life is her desire to guide her family through all the planned stops on the middle-class timetable: tea parties and dances, husband’s promotions, the big vacation to Europe, and, most important, the molding of offspring to fit the community’s notion of success. To celebrate these achievements and in all else to maintain an unruffled surface—such are the goals of Mrs. Shaw and the placid Mr. Shaw, who, important as he may be to the success of the gold-mining company, is completely submissive at home. As Helen comes to realize, both mother and father, their circle of acquaintances, and those in other similar circles are “insensitive to the real flow of life.”
The whites of the mining town have blacks in their midst as servants and are surrounded by “locations” where the black mine workers and their families are housed. Helen chooses a lover, Paul Clark, who has committed his professional and personal life to ameliorating the misery of blacks in the townships on the periphery of Johannesburg, on weekdays through his position in the government office dealing with native housing, on weekends through work for the black African National Congress.
Paul meets with frustration at every turn. His inability to get anything done that will have a lasting impact affects the quality of his relationship with Helen. He torments her in small ways, and she reciprocates. He feels ashamed and she feels ashamed, and they become aware of “a burned-out loneliness in the very center of one’s love for the other.” Helen, who had come to believe that the only way for a man to fulfill himself in South Africa was “to pit himself against the oppression of the Africans” and who had wanted to live with Paul “in the greatest possible intimacy,” is compelled to leave him. His political commitments, which made him so attractive to Helen in the first place, have damaged their love irretrievably.
Helen decides to go to Europe. During the few days she spends at the port city, she meets Joel Aron, with whom she had become good friends in Atherton, the town where they grew up. Joel is off to try to make a life for himself in Israel. At first, Helen is envious of Joel; he is headed for a new life in a new country. She feels homeless. South Africa is like a battleground; she cannot join the whites, and the blacks do not want her. She does not want to end up like Paul, “with a leg and arm nailed to each side.” In the course of her conversations with Joel, however, she succeeds in coming to a better understanding of her situation. She is not going to be tempted by exile and a new beginning. She accepts South Africa as home and the place to which she must return.
A World of Strangers
Toby Hood, the protagonist of AWorld of Strangers, has grown up in England in a family quite different from Helen Shaw’s. Had Toby been a bolter from school and a rebel against bourgeois values, his parents would have loved him all the more. His parents do not care about what other members of the upper middle class think about them; they care about justice. Through his home goes a constant procession of victims of injustice who have come for aid from the Hoods. Thus, there have been bred into Toby “a horror of the freedom that is freedom only to be free” and a consciousness of the need to make every activity in which one engages an act of conscience. Toby, however, is not persuaded. His parents have not been successful in making him into a reformer and protester like themselves. Abstractions such as justice and socialism do not thrill him. Toby wants to live a life oblivious to the suffering in the world; what he feels most inclined to do is enjoy whatever is left of privilege.
Toby is sent to take over temporarily the management of the South African branch of the family-owned publishing company. Arriving in Johannesburg, he is determined to find his own interests and amusements, and not be channeled by the reformers back in England or distracted by the examples of humanity’s cruelty to others that will occur before his eyes. Indeed, it seems to Toby that those who would live private lives have become a hunted species, and he resents being hunted. Toby is confirmed in his desire to avoid being a dogooder by his discovery of a talented black man who also insists on living his own life, regardless of the condition of his people and his country. Toby marvels at the spirit and vitality of Steven Sitole. Steven refuses to allow the chaos and filth of the black townships and the hovels in which he sleeps either to deaden his spirit or to inflame it to rage. He does what he does, seeking pleasure, satisfaction, or quick delight. He has no time for sorrow, pity, guilt, or even anger. He makes his money running an insurance racket, he gets into debt, he gets drunk, he laughs. He fleeces his own people and outwits whites. He is a new kind of man in the black townships; he is of them and not of them. The blacks who know him love him, and Toby Hood loves him as well.
Toby sees in Steven a brother. Drawn to him as if by a magnet at their first meeting, Toby goes into the townships with Steven, meets Steven’s friends, gets drunk with him, and sleeps in the same hovels with him. What Steven can do with his life is so severely limited by white authority that he must live without hope or dignity; his life can only be a succession of gestures. That recognition by Toby illumines his own predicament. Steven was born into a South Africa that would not permit him “to come into his own; and what I believed should have been my own was destroyed before I was born heir to it.”
Toby undergoes a transformation in the course of the novel. He has had the unusual experience of being able to enter alternately both black township life and the life of upper-crust Johannesburg. As much as he had thought that the privileged life was his natural base, he finds that life—for all its varied forms of recreation, luxury, freedom, and the outward good health of the rich—an empty, superficial existence. The rich, like Helen Shaw’s middleclass mining-town family, are out of touch with “the real flow of life.” Toby attempts a love affair with the most beautiful available woman among his circle of rich acquaintances. Primarily because the woman, Cecil Rowe, is incapable of expanding her concerns beyond herself, the affair comes to nothing more than a few perfunctory sexual encounters. On the other hand, Toby’s relationship with Anna Louw, who is so different, is no more satisfying. She is a lawyer who is a former Communist and whose professional life is devoted to aiding blacks. Hers is anything but the self-centered life of Steven Sitole or Cecil Rowe; always sober, without embarrassment, she is unresponsive to the lure of euphoria. At the end of the novel, Cecil has accepted the marriage proposal of a wealthy businessman. Anna, too, is to begin a new phase—she has been arrested and is to be tried for treason. Anna is a prototype of the committed woman, the full development of whom in Gordimer’s fiction does not occur until twenty years later, in Burger’s Daughter.
Toby decides to stay in South Africa for a second year. His experiences with Cecil and the rich have made him reassess his conception of himself. As different as Steven and Anna are in character and personality, Toby has been greatly affected by both of them, and the effect has been to make him care about the people of the townships. One of Gordimer’s great accomplishments in this novel, as it is in her later work, is her rendering of township life. Toby also undergoes his transformation because of what he has seen of township life on his sojourns with Steven. Life in the townships is more real than life among whites. In the townships, the demands of life cannot be evaded through distractions; reality is right on the surface as well as below: “There is nothing for the frustrated man to do but grumble in the street; there was nothing for the deserted girl to do but sit on the step and wait for her bastard to be born; there was nothing to be done with the drunk but let him lie in the yard until he’d got over it.” Among the whites, it is different. Frustrations can be forgotten through golf or horse racing, and trips to Europe take away the pain of broken love affairs. In AWorld of Strangers, Gordimer attempts to show a young man wholly bent on pursuing private concerns who, in the very process of pursuing those concerns, is changed into someone who cannot remain oblivious to South African injustice and unreason. To the extent that the reader can accept the change in Toby, the novel is successful.
Occasion for Loving
Jessie Stilwell, the protagonist of Occasion for Loving, is a well-educated, freethinking socialist of the most enlightened, undogmatic kind. She might well have been arrested and tried for treason, but that would be in a different life from the one that fate has bestowed on her. Her reality is her life as the mother of four children and a helpmate to Tom, a liberal history professor. She could be Helen Shaw fifteen years later, domesticated.
Jessie is content. Her husband, children, and home give continuity to her life; she is in touch with her past, and the future, in five-year blocks at least, seems predictable. She has room to develop; she can pick and choose goals for herself and pursue them to their conclusion. She is a total realist; she knows what is possible and what is not. She is at a point in her life when she will do nothing that is “wild and counter to herself.” When someone else in the family causes discord, she will deal with it.
Jessie has a son by a previous marriage who, in his adolescence, has become mildly disruptive. The task she wishes to devote herself to is repairing her relationship with him. Jessie cannot become absorbed in this duty, however, because there are two new presences in her home. Against her better judgment, she has allowed her husband to invite to live with them a colleague and his young wife, Boaz and Ann Cohen. Boaz is a musicologist and is frequently away from Johannesburg to study the music and instruments of tribes. Ann is free to occupy her time as she wishes. What comes to dominate Ann’s life is a love affair with a married black man, Gideon Shibalo. The difficulties and dangers of an interracial love affair are such that the lovers necessarily need the help of others; thus the affair between Ann and Gideon, whom Jessie and Tom like, intrudes on the life of the Stilwells, and Jessie resents it.
Even when Jessie goes off with three of her children for a vacation by the sea, she must deal with Ann and Gideon, for they turn up at the remote cottage. Boaz has learned about his wife’s affair, and Ann and Gideon decide to be with each other day and night; given South Africa’s race laws, that means they must live an underground life. They appeal to Jessie to let them stay. Again, she resents the intrusion, but she yields to their need.
Boaz will not disavow Ann. His freedom to act in response to his wife’s adultery is limited by his unwillingness to do anything that would harm a black man. Indeed, the affair itself may owe its birth to its interracial difficulties: “The basis of an exciting sympathy between two people is often some obstacle that lies long submerged in the life of one.” After leading Gideon to believe that she was ready to go to Europe or some other African country with him, Ann leaves him and returns to Boaz; the two, reunited, quickly leave South Africa. This action plunges Gideon into alcoholism.
Jessie’s meditation on the affair makes clear the meaning Gordimer wants to convey. Race is a force even between lovers; personal lives are affected by society and politics. In South Africa, white privilege is a ubiquitous force; it provides Ann the freedom to go, denying Gideon the same freedom. White privilege is “a silver spoon clamped between your jaws and you might choke on it for all the chance there was of dislodging it.” So long as there is no change in South Africa, “nothing could bring integrity to personal relationships.” If Jessie were more involved in the plot of the novel or even at the heart of its interest, Occasion for Loving would be more satisfying. Jessie, however, remains an objective observer and commentator. It is she with whom the reader identifies, yet not much happens to her; the events belong to Ann and Gideon. The Late Bourgeois World
Gordimer’s fourth novel, The Late Bourgeois World, is her least successful. Brief and unconvincing, it is something of a parable, but it does not hit with the impact of the well-told parable. Too much has to be deduced. Without a knowledge of Gordimer’s interests from her other works, the reader is hard-pressed to see the meaning and coherence in this work. The Late Bourgeois World tells the story, with a great deal of indirection, of a Johannesburg woman whose marriage has broken up and who has responsibility for a teenage son at boarding school. Elizabeth’s having to bring her son the news that his father is dead by suicide is what gives the plot its impetus
Max Van Den Sandt is the scion of one of Johannesburg’s best families, but he rejects his heritage and white privilege. He marries Elizabeth, the medical-lab technician whom he has made pregnant. He joins the Communist Party, he participates in marches against the government, and, in the climax to his rebellion, he is arrested on a charge of sabotage. How much of what Max has done is gesture, however, and how much is the result of conviction? After serving fifteen months in prison, Max turns state’s evidence and betrays his former colleagues. In return, he is released from prison. Then comes the suicide, which for Elizabeth provides the final answer: Her former husband was a hollow man. It is possible to be a revolutionary without real conviction.
While allowing herself to indulge her contempt for Max, Elizabeth herself turns out to be unwilling to risk very much for the cause. She has the opportunity to respond positively to the plea of a young, handsome black activist for money to help pay for the defense of some of his friends who have been arrested, but Elizabeth equivocates and puts him off. The participation of whites from the middle class in the black revolution, Gordimer seems to suggest, is very unreliable. No matter how strong their sympathies appear to be, for whites the political struggle is not the imperative it is for blacks. The novel’s title suggests another, complementary theme. Despite its staunch defense of its own privileges, the bourgeois world is falling apart. Families rupture too easily, and commitments do not count. Elizabeth and Max are case histories.
A Guest of Honour
Set in an invented nation in central Africa for which she provides a detailed history and geography, A Guest of Honour is Gordimer’s only novel that does not deal with South Africa. Still, the kinds of events depicted in this novel could very well occur in South Africa at some future time. With independence gained and a native government functioning in the place of the former British colonial administration, there are expectations of dramatic changes: Civil rights will be respected, greater care will be taken in the administration of justice, natural resources will be used for the benefit of the people, the standard of living of the masses will improve. President Mweta believes that these legitimate expectations are being fulfilled in an orderly way and at a satisfactory rate. Edward Shinza, without whom independence might not yet have come, is dissatisfied. He believes that the country is no better off than it would have been under colonial rule. He is seeking a way to have an impact on the course of events. He may even be conspiring with the nation across the border. To Mweta, his former comrade Shinza is “a cobra in the house.”
The novel’s protagonist is Colonel James Bray, an Englishman who has been a district officer in the colonial administration. Bray is likable and loyal, a wholly sympathetic character. During the struggle for independence, he was of significant assistance to Mweta and Shinza. Now Mweta has invited Bray back to be an honored guest at Independence Day celebrations. Much to his chagrin, Bray discovers that while Mweta is covered with glory as the new nation’s leader, Shinza, every bit Mweta’s equal if not his better, has no role in governing the country and has not been invited to the celebrations; indeed, Shinza is living in obscurity in the bush. To Bray, this is an ominous sign.
President Mweta sends Colonel Bray on a mission to Gala, the district Bray formerly administered. He is to survey the district’s educational needs. With Gala, Gordimer gives the first demonstration of her formidable knowledge of the life and people of rural Africa, of which she gives further demonstrations in July’s People and, to a lesser extent, in The Conservationist. With Gala, she has the opportunity to do a canvas of a whole province. She makes Bray pleased to be back in Gala and curious about what has happened in his absence. He knows the language, he likes the people, and he resonates sympathetically with the daily round of life. While in Gala, Bray will track down Shinza and get his viewpoint on the progress of the nation.
Shinza believes Mweta’s principal concern is to consolidate his own power. He has no tolerance for dissent and is quite willing to use the police and torture to stifle it. Mweta allows foreign corporations to extract raw materials and export them rather than finding opportunities to make use of the country’s natural wealth at home. Mweta will not allow any changes in the country that might give pause to these foreign interests. Shinza believes that Mweta’s actions, taken together, make up a pattern of betrayal. While Shinza is trying to reassert himself by becoming a force within the trade-union movement, he also may be gathering a counterrevolutionary army, but his present intention is to attack Mweta through the unions and strikes.
Shinza comes onto center stage for the length of his impassioned speech on the ideals of the revolution at the congress of the People’s Independent Party (P.I.P.), which has its factions but is still the only political party. Bray, who attends, cannot help but prefer the ideals of Shinza to the charisma and policies of accommodation of Mweta. In presenting the milieu of the party congress and in revealing the subtleties of motivations, alliances, and positions, Gordimer demonstrates a first-rate political intelligence. She has Shinza make use of his union support as the first phase in his scheme to dislodge Mweta; she has Mweta in turn capitalize on the nationalistic fervor of the youth group within the P.I.P. to get the group to attack strongholds of union supporters. Violence breaks out in Gala, and Bray is an accidental victim.
Bray, Shinza, and Mweta are new characters in Gordimer’s gallery. She knows them and their social and political contexts exceedingly well. A Guest of Honour shows a prescience and knowledge that carry it to the top rank of political novels.
With The Conservationist, Gordimer turns back to South Africa. Again, she chooses a male protagonist, Mehring, who bears no resemblance to anyone in her previous novels. Although this novel is of far larger scope, it is perhaps most similar to The Late Bourgeois World, for in both novels Gordimer attempts to delineate the lifestyle of a particular rung of white Johannesburg society. Mehring is a forty-nine-year-old industrialist and financier; he serves on several boards of directors. Given no other name, Mehring is admired and respected by everyone in his business and social circles, but it is clear that his life is essentially without meaning. He is deeply committed to nothing—not to ideology, country, or class, not to a sport, not to a single human being. He is quite the opposite of Colonel Bray.
Mehring has much more money than he needs. On impulse, he decides to buy a farm, very conveniently located only twenty-five miles from the city. Owning a farm will give him a feeling of being in contact with the land; it is something that is expected of a man of his station and wealth. The farm, however, complicates Mehring’s life. He is unable to enjoy simple ownership; he must try to make the farm productive. He will practice conservation; he will see to it that buildings are repaired, fences mended, firebreaks cleared. The farm comes to occupy much more of his time and thought than he had intended. Nothing about the land, the weather, or the black people who live and work on the farm can be taken for granted. Something unexpected and unwanted is always occurring.
A dead man is found on the property. The man is black, and so the white police are not particularly concerned. Mehring expects them to remove the body and conduct an investigation, but they do neither. The unidentified body remains in a shallow, unmarked grave on Mehring’s property. The presence of that body in the third pasture is troubling both to Mehring and to his black workers, although Mehring is never moved to do anything about it.
Much of the novel consists of Mehring’s stream of consciousness. Along with the black man’s body, another frequent presence in Mehring’s consciousness is the woman with whom he has been having an affair. An attractive white liberal whose husband is away doing linguistic research in Australia, she has been drawn to Mehring because of his power; she is daring enough to taunt him and make light of that power. She is convinced that the reign of the whites in South Africa is nearing its end, yet she is a dilettante. When she gets into trouble with the authorities because of her associations with blacks, she wants to flee the country. She is humbled into asking Mehring to use his connections so that she can leave, and she sets herself up in London. Mehring, however, continues to think about her long after she has gone.
Mehring’s relationship with this woman has been entirely superficial; when she is gone he thinks about her but does not really long for her. His relationships with his colleagues and their families are also superficial. These connections are so meaningless to him that he reaches a point where he does not want either their invitations or their concern. On the few occasions each year when he has the company of his son, he has no real interest in overcoming the barriers between them. His son, like his lover, does not believe that apartheid and white privilege can survive for long. The son is contemptuous of what his father represents. He leaves South Africa to join his mother in New York rather than serve his term in the army. In his self-willed isolation, Mehring spends more of his time at the farm. Despite himself, as he discusses routine farm business with his black foreman, Jacobus, and as they deal with the emergencies caused by drought, fire, and flooding, Mehring finds himself feeling more and more respect for Jacobus.
Mehring spends New Year’s Eve alone at the farm. As the new year approaches, he wanders across his moonlit field and settles with his bottle against the wall of a roofless stone storehouse. He carries on a convivial conversation with old Jacobus. They talk about their children, the farm, cattle. They laugh a lot. They get along well. Jacobus, however, is not there. For Mehring, such easy, honest talk with a black man can take place only in fantasy.
In the final chapter of the novel, the unidentified body in the third pasture is brought to the surface by flooding. The black workers, under Jacobus’s direction, make a coffin, at last giving the man a proper burial. Mehring, in the meantime, is engaged in another of his faceless sexual encounters. He could be killed. If he is killed, where will he be buried? Who are the real owners of the land to which he has title? Gordimer is suggesting that the unknown black man has more of a claim to the land than Mehring has. Mehring and his kind are going to meet ignoble ends. Their claim to the land of South Africa is so tenuous that their bodies will not even deserve burial.
There is little that is sympathetic about Mehring, which leaves Gordimer with the difficult task of keeping the reader interested in his activities. Once he begins to spend more time on the farm, his activities inevitably involve his black workers. Gordimer seizes the opportunity to render in some detail the life of their community. A few of them become minor characters of substance. Gordimer juxtaposes the flow of vital life in the black community with Mehring’s isolation and decadence and thereby saves the novel from being utterly unappealing.
Burger’s Daughter is Gordimer’s best novel. It is set between 1975 and 1977, as important changes are taking place in southern Africa but not yet in South Africa. The independence movements in Angola and Mozambique have succeeded. The Portuguese are in retreat, their colonial rule to be replaced by native governments. South Africa, however, remains firmly in the grip of the white minority. The white South African government will relinquish nothing.
Rosa Burger, the protagonist, is Gordimer’s most fully achieved character. The hero of the novel, however, is Rosa’s father, Lionel Burger. Just before he is to be sentenced to life imprisonment, Lionel Burger has the opportunity to address the court. He speaks for almost two hours. He explains why he and the Communist Party, of which he is a leader, have been driven to engage in the acts of sabotage for which he has been on trial. For thirty years, to no avail, he and South African Communists had struggled without resort to violence to gain civil rights and the franchise for the country’s black majority. The great mass movement that is the African National Congress has been outlawed. In desperation, selected symbolic targets have been sabotaged. If such symbolic actions fail to move the white ruling class, there will be no further careful consideration of tactics. The only way to a new society will be through massive, cataclysmic violence.
Lionel Burger, in his childhood, was already sensitive to the unjust treatment of blacks. Later, as a medical student and doctor, he found it easier to accustom himself to the physical suffering of patients than to the subjection and humiliation forced upon blacks. He could not be silent and simply accept. He joined the Communist Party because he saw white and black members working side by side; there were people who practiced what they preached; there were white South Africans who did not deny the humanity of black South Africans. As a Communist, Lionel Burger came to accept the Marxist view of the dominance of economic relationships; thus, he perceived the oppression of blacks to be rooted in white South Africans’ desire to maintain their economic advantages. Burger made a covenant with the victims.
Rosa Burger is very different from her father. She is also different from her mother, who was familiar with prison and who from young womanhood was known as a “real revolutionary.” Both her father and her mother regard the family as totally united in their dedication to the struggle. Rosa, who was named in tribute to Rosa Luxemburg, the German revolutionary Marxist, knows that the family is not united. While her parents are free and active, she has no choice but to be an extension of them. Her mother has died, however, and, after three years of his life term, her father dies. When they are gone, Rosa does not take up their work. She is twentyseven years old and has been in her parents’ revolutionary circle since childhood. She has carried out numerous secret missions. Recently, she has pretended to be the fiancé of a prisoner in order to bring him messages. With the death of her father, she cannot deny that she is tired of such a life. She does not want to have anything more to do with the endangered and the maimed, with conspiracies and fugitives, with courts and prisons.
Much more pointedly, Burger’s Daughter deals with questions first considered in A World of Strangers and Occasion for Loving: To what extent must individual lives be governed by the dictates of time and place and circumstances not of the individual’s choosing? Can a person ignore the facts and conditions that circumscribe his or her life and still live fully, or must a meaningful life necessarily be one that is integrated with the “real flow of life”? Despite his wealth and station, Mehring leads a dismal life, because it has no such integration. Rosa Burger is not devoid of redeeming qualities, however. She already has given much of herself.
Rosa chooses to escape. At first she escapes within the city of Johannesburg, in the tiny cottage of a rootless young white man, a graduate student of Italian literature who survives by working as a clerk to a bookmaker. Rosa and Conrad start out as lovers; after a while they are more like siblings. Conrad, too, is struggling to be free, not of a revolutionary heritage but of his bourgeois heritage. Even after she is no longer with him, Rosa continues to talk to Conrad, silently.
Rosa decides to leave South Africa, but she cannot get a passport because she is the daughter of Lionel Burger. Brandt Vermeulen is a cosmopolitan Boer, a new Afrikaner of a distinguished old Afrikaner family. He has studied politics at Leyden and Princeton and has spent time in Paris andNewYork. Vermeulen resembles Mehring, but he is rooted, more cultured, and more committed to the status quo. His solution for South Africa is to create separate nations for whites and blacks. Rosa goes to see him because he has friends in the Ministry of the Interior, which issues passports. Playing on the fact that he and Lionel Burger emerged from very similar backgrounds, Rosa succeeds in persuading him to use his influence to get her a passport.
The second part of this three-part novel takes place in Europe. Rosa goes to the French Riviera and looks up the woman who had been Lionel Burger’s wife before he met Rosa’s mother. The woman, who used to be known as Katya and now is known as Madame Bagnelli, is delighted that Burger’s daughter has come to stay with her. Rosa is welcomed by Madame Bagnelli’s circle, which consists of unmarried couples, émigrés, homosexuals, persons formerly prominent in Paris—rootless persons for the most part. On the Riviera, life is easy, difference is distinction. Survival is not an issue. Politics seems a waste of time, revolution a form of craziness.
There is great empathy between Rosa and Madame Bagnelli. As Katya, the latter, years before, found it a relief to give up the role of revolutionary that was required of her as Burger’s wife. She had not always been able to put private concerns aside; she had been considered a bourgeois or even a traitor and was subjected to party discipline. She has no regrets about leaving that part of her life. Rosa is encouraged about her own course. She allows herself the luxury of a love affair.
After a summer of love, Rosa and Bernard Chabalier make plans to live together in Paris, where he is a teacher at a lycée. Rosa visits London while Bernard makes arrangements in Paris. She attends a party for South African exiles and is filled with joy at meeting her black “brother,” Baasie, who as a child had been taken into the Burger home but whom Rosa has not seen for twenty years. Rosa is shocked by Baasie’s attitude; he is hostile and sullen.
That night in London, Rosa’s sleep is broken by a phone call from Baasie. He is angry. He wants her to know that he did not have the life Burger’s daughter had. He had been pushed back to the mud huts and tin shanties. His father was a revolutionary who also died in prison, driven to hang himself. No one knows of Isaac Vulindlela, but everyone talks about Lionel Burger. He hates hearing about Burger, the great man who suffered for the blacks. He knows plenty of blacks who have done as much as Burger, but they go unknown. He does not want to be her black brother, he tells Rosa.
Rosa goes back to South Africa. She does not want the soft life Bernard will provide for her in Paris. Defection is not possible. Suffering cannot be evaded. Back in Johannesburg, Rosa takes up the occupation for which she trained, physiotherapy. She also works for the revolution. As the novel ends late in 1977, Rosa is in prison. The authorities have solid evidence that she has committed unlawful acts.
In the brief July’s People the end has come. Civil war rages; blacks are fighting whites. The whites have discipline, organization, knowledge, and equipment. The blacks have will and numbers. They have the support of the rest of the continent, and the Russians and their Cuban allies are close at hand. Thousands of lives will be lost, but there can be no doubt about the eventual outcome. The artificial society based on apartheid is finished.
Bamford Smales is an architect, an upper-middleclass professional. His wife, Maureen, is, like Jessie Stilwell, an excellent helpmate, a strong, compassionate, intelligent woman. Before the uprisings, Bam and Maureen knew that unless whites, of their own volition, made significant reforms, a conflagration was inevitable. They tried to show the way among their friends and neighbors, treating their male servant, July, with the utmost consideration. They did not, however, go so far as to break their ties with their community. They lived their lives within the pattern they found for their race and their class. Their liberal attitudes had no impact.
When the uprisings begin, the Smaleses flee their Johannesburg suburb. With their three young children, they drive six hundred kilometers in their recreational pickup truck to July’s home village. Even though blackwhite relations are being turned upside down, July is still willing to oblige them; for fifteen years obliging the Smales family has been his life’s purpose. Even after their dependence on him is clear, July continues to address Bam Smales as “master.” He even moves his mother from her own hut so that the Smales family can settle in it.
When they arrive in the village, the Smaleses are July’s people. Over the course of a few weeks, relations change. July has been reunited with his wife and children, whom for fifteen years he has seen only on his vacations every other year. July becomes a presence among the people of his village. They become July’s people, and his loyalty to the white family is eroded. That erosion occurs slowly through a number of ambiguous situations, for July has no political sensibility. As the relationship between the black servant and the white family loses its structure, July becomes less and less the servant and more and more the master of the family’s fate.
When the Smaleses’ vehicle, the yellow “bakkie,” first pulls in to the village, there is no doubt concerning its ownership, but as July runs errands to the locked bakkie, he comes to be the possessor of the keys to the vehicle. He does not know how to drive, but his young protégé Daniel does. July turns the keys over to Daniel, and they drive off to a store. After this, it is difficult for BamSmales to claim sole ownership, and it is even more difficult once Daniel has taught July how to drive. Bam Smales has a shotgun. Although he tries to keep its hiding place a secret, the whole village seems to know where the gun is kept. When Bam discovers that the gun is gone, he is beside himself. The loss of the gun emasculates him. On his way to join the freedom fighters, Daniel has helped himself to the gun.
The family’s future is completely uncertain. As the villagers begin to break the habit of deference to white skins, the Smaleses become nervous about their safety. They would leave, but they have nowhere to go. The predicament proves too much for Maureen. Sensing an opportunity to save herself, she runs off, frantically, leaving her husband and children. The Smaleses are victims of apartheid. When the tables are turned, as they surely must be, only a miracle will save whites from suffering what they made others suffer.
A Sport of Nature
A Sport of Nature combines elements from several of Gordimer’s earlier works. Like Helen in The Lying Days, Hillela Capran is a bolter, though not out of obvious rebelliousness. Rather, she is moved by the spirit of the moment in a more unthinking way. The family with whom she lives during her adolescence—her aunt Pauline, uncle Joe, and cousins Sasha and Carole—are similar to the Hoods ofAWorld of Strangers, for they also are white liberals, trying ever to be ruled by acts of conscience rather than convenience, as Hillela’s Aunt Olga and Uncle Arthur are.
Gordimer’s early habit of distancing the reader from her characters is echoed in her treatment of Hillela. The first half of the book has Hillela spoken of mostly in the third person; she does not really come alive until after she meets Whaila Kgomani, a black revolutionary who becomes her first husband and the father of her child. His assassination changes the course of Hillela’s life as she inherits his revolution.
Many readers have regarded Hillela’s character as amoral and shocking, and even Gordimer has admitted that this creation fascinates her probably as much as anyone else. She does not, however, back down from her portrayal of a revolutionary who accomplishes most of her goals through the use of her feminine wiles. A Sport of Nature may not be Gordimer’s best book, but it is as thought-provoking as any of her earlier works. Its portrayal of the future, which includes a black African state installed in place of South Africa, has caused some critics to label the work weak and unbelievable.
My Son’s Story
Gordimer’s novels of the 1990’s cover the years from the closing days of apartheid to the new democracy in South Africa. In My Son’s Story the struggle for freedom is ongoing. Gordimer’s recurrent theme of the balance between public and private life is again central. In this novel, the private is sacrificed to the political. Sonny initially seems destined to live under the restrictions of apartheid, but he changes and sacrifices his teaching career to align his life with, and help, those he thinks of as the “real blacks.” Sonny moves his family illegally to a white suburb of Johannesburg, one poor enough to ignore the settling of a family of mixed ancestry.
The movement claims first Sonny, then his daughter Baby, and finally his wife Aila. Will, the son named for William Shakespeare, remains aloof from political involvement but chronicles the struggle by narrating the disintegration of his family. Before detention and exile claim the three family members and a bomb destroys their home, the family is already disintegrating from Sonny’s liaison with Hannah Plowman, a white human rights worker who visited Sonny the first time he was jailed.
Although Gordimer has used such narrators in her short stories, this is her first novel narrated by a young male character from one of the disenfranchised groups in South Africa. The novel fluctuates between the firstperson narration by Will and a seemingly third-person account of information the young Will could not possibly know, such as Sonny’s thoughts and the details of his intimacy with Hannah. The last chapter of the novel unites the dual point of view, with Will claiming authorship of the whole. He has created—out of his own frustration, experience, and knowledge of the participants— the scenes and thoughts he could not know firsthand. Thrust by the times and by his family into the role of a writer, Will plans to hone his writing skills by chronicling the struggle for freedom in South Africa.
None to Accompany Me
None to Accompany Me reveals the life of Vera Stark, a lawyer who heads a foundation that during apartheid works to minimize the removal of blacks to crowded, inferior land and after apartheid works to reclaim for them the land they have lost. With some reluctance, Vera leaves the foundation temporarily to join the commission that is drafting a new constitution for South Africa. The novel emphasizes how all aspects of her personal life—her home, children, and husband—become secondary to her work. True to her name, Vera Stark whittles all excess from her life, striving to find her true center through social responsibility.
The House Gun
In The House Gun, Claudia and Harald Lindgard, privileged South Africans who neither supported nor demonstrated against apartheid, are thrust out of their private lives into the public sphere. Their twenty-seven year- old son Duncan has killed a man. The parents keep their pledge, made to Duncan in childhood, that no matter the difficulty, he can always come to them for support. Reconciling themselves to his action is no easy matter, however, and dealing with that truth causes them to question their own attitudes about justice. Suddenly, whether South Africa’s new constitution outlaws capital punishment is a vital personal issue.
Duncan’s is a personal, not a political, crime, but the novel connects his crime to the violence the country has known and still knows. Both the easy access to a gun and the climate of violence in which Duncan grew up play a part in an appeal for a lenient sentence. Even though the novel makes no overt mention of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, after facing the truth, the Lindgards must search for reconciliation just as all South Africans are doing the same under the new democracy. Time must determine whether any of the three Lindgards become reconciled to the brutal truth of the murder.
Gordimer’s thirteenth novel, The Pickup, focuses on the issues of immigration and discrimination. Like her 2005 novel Get a Life, The Pickup begins in South Africa but moves to other settings, suggesting that the problems faced by individuals in South Africa are of global concern. The Pickup opens with reminders of South Africa’s apartheid past: Julie Summers has separated herself from her privileged parents’ lifestyle. She rents a small cottage apartment, the type inhabited by black workers during apartheid. She begins a relationship with Abdu, a mechanic who works on her car. She soon learns that Abdu is an alias, a name used to shield him from government officials; Ibrahim ibn Musa is an illegal immigrant, a man who has overstayed his permit.
Through the couple’s struggle to find a life together, Gordimer reveals that doors that are automatically open to Julie, a white South African, are closed tight to Ibrahim, an Arab immigrant. His university degree in economics provides no practical help, as Ibrahim comes from a country (which remains unnamed) of no prestige, a country rampant with poverty and corruption. Julie wants to abandon what Ibrahim wishes to acquire. Julie’s experience in South Africa has taught her that wealth and success are sometimes based on the exploitation of a population; to Ibrahim, wealth and success are a means to live free, to have choices in life.
Forced out of South Africa, Ibrahim marries Julie and takes her to his home village, where they are welcomed by his extended Muslim family. Ibrahim continues his applications to emigrate to some country where he can improve his life; Julie, his opposite in so many ways, surprisingly finds fulfillment in the village. Through meaningful work and the support of a family she respects, she finds a sense of her place in the universe—something she could not have achieved while working in public relations in Johannesburg.
Get a Life
Get a Life centers on a family unit similar to that in The House Gun—parents and an adult son. Paul Bannerman is quarantined at his parents’ house for a few weeks after having radioactive iodine treatment to combat thyroid cancer. Adrian and Lyndsay Bannerman care for him to protect Paul’s wife and young son from possible contamination. Paul’s brush with early death and his enforced time in near solitude lead the adults to reevaluate their lives. Paul, a member of an independent research team, spends time thinking about his work as an ecologist and about his marriage to Berenice, a successful advertising executive who at times promotes companies that threaten the South African environment. One of Paul’s current concerns, ironically, is to stop the construction of a nuclear reactor.
When Paul returns to his family and research, he has changed internally, but not outwardly. His parents change their lives radically: Adrian, a retired businessman, spends time visiting archaeology sites, an avocation he had let lie dormant as he devoted himself to providing for his family; Lyndsay, a civil rights lawyer, adopts a young orphan who was born HIV-positive. The novel ends optimistically, with projects that Paul’s research team viewed as dangerous halted and with a new child born healthy to Berenice and Paul.Ahaunting suggestion remains, however, that while the child is fine and the projects are halted for now, the future comes with no guarantees.
From her first, somewhat autobiographical novel, The Lying Days, Gordimer has probed moral and political questions with honesty and unfailing courage, never being dogmatic or predetermining outcomes, allowing vividly imagined characters and communities lives of their own. Her work does more than shed light on the predicament of South Africa; it deals in depth with the problems of individual identity, commitment and obligation, and justice. Gordimer is a novelist who clearly has a place in the great tradition of George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevski, Joseph Conrad, and Thomas Mann.
Other major works
Short fiction: Face to Face: Short Stories, 1949; The Soft Voice of the Serpent, and Other Stories, 1952; Six Feet of the Country, 1956; Friday’s Footprint, and Other Stories, 1960; Not for Publication, and Other Stories, 1965; Livingstone’s Companions: Stories, 1971; Selected Stories, 1975; A Soldier’s Embrace, 1980; Something Out There, 1984; Reflections of South Africa, 1986; Crimes of Conscience, 1991; Jump, and Other Stories, 1991; Why Haven’t You Written? Selected Stories, 1950-1972, 1992; Loot, and Other Stories, 2003; Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, and Other Stories, 2007.
Teleplays: A Chip of Glass Ruby, 1985; Country Lovers, 1985; Oral History, 1985; Praise, 1985.
Nonfiction: The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing, 1973; On the Mines, 1973 (with David Goldblatt); Lifetimes Under Apartheid, 1986 (with Goldblatt); The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places, 1988 (Stephen Clingman, editor); Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, 1990 (Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour, editors); Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics, 1991; Writing and Being, 1995; Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century, 1999; A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer, 1999 (Andries Walter Oliphant, editor).
Edited texts: South African Writing Today, 1967 (with Lionel Abrahams); Telling Tales, 2004.
Bazin, Nancy Topping, and Marilyn Dallman Seymour, eds. Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Clingman, Stephen. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside. 2d ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992.
Ettin, Andre Vogel. Betrayals of the Body Politic: The Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Head, Dominic. Nadine Gordimer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
King, Bruce, ed. The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer. NewYork: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Smith, Rowland, ed. Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Uraizee, Joya. This Is No Place for a Woman: Nadine Gordimer, Nayantara Saghal, Buchi Emecheta, and the Politics of Gender. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2000.