Nadine Gordimer (20 November 1923 – 13 July 2014) is a distinguished novelist and short-story writer. About Selected Stories, drawn from her earlier volumes of stories, a reviewer said that the stories “are marked by the courage of moral vision and the beauty of artistic complexity. Gordimer examines, with passionate precision, the intricacies both of individual lives and of the wide-ranging political and historical forces that contain them.” About the stories in A Soldier’s Embrace, a reviewer wrote, “Their themes are universal: love and change, political transition, family, memory, madness and infidelity, to name a few. . . . What makes Nadine Gordimer such a valuable—and increasingly valued— novelist and short-story writer is her ability to meet the demands of her political conscience without becoming a propagandist and the challenges of her literary commitment without becoming a disengaged esthete.” Over the course of her career, three of her books were banned in South Africa.
It would be easy for Gordimer to declare self-exile. Unlike James Joyce, however, she chose not to abandon the inhospitable country of her birth, accepting the obligation of citizenship to help make her country better. She did this by practicing her art, for it is an art that enables her diverse compatriots to understand better themselves and one another.
The settings and characters in Gordimer’s stories cut across the whole spectrum of South African life. She writes about black village life and black urban experiences. She writes about the Afrikaans-speaking whites, English-speaking whites, Indians, and others. Her protagonists are as likely to be male as female, and reviewers have commented on her uncanny ability to make her male characters fully realized. In The House Gun, Gordimer ponders the deeply personal question of whether parents can even trust their own child not to commit murder. With amazing range and knowledge, she reveals the intricacies of individual lives and of the historical and political forces that shape them.
Reading one of Gordimer’s stories is always exciting, because one does not know what will have caught her interest—urban or rural blacks, urban or rural Afrikaners, leisured or working or revolutionary whites, an African or a European setting. It is a great surprise, for example, to discover a story in the form of a letter from a dead Prague father to the son who predeceased him. It is a made-up letter in which Hermann Kafka tells off ungrateful, congenitally unhappy Franz.
As she has demonstrated again and again during more than thirty years of writing, Gordimer does not restrict her focus to people and scenes that are the most familiar. One marvels in reading “A City of the Dead, a City of the Living,” for example, at what the author, a well-off white woman, knows of black-township life, at the total credibility of characters Samson Moreke and his wife, Nanike. Gordimer’s knowledge and credibility are characteristic of all of her short fiction. “A City of the Dead, a City of the Living,” “Sins of the Third Age,” and “Blinder” could easily be included among the twenty best short stories of the twentieth century.
Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?
Among Gordimer’s most gripping stories are those in which blacks and whites are at cross-purposes. “Is There Nowhere Else WhereWe Can Meet?” from The Soft Voice of the Serpent, and Other Stories is one of the simplest and best of this group. On a country road, a young white woman’s handbag is torn from her by a passing local, whose bedraggled condition had evoked the woman’s pity. The day is very cold, yet he is shoeless and dressed in rags. When she attains safety and has brought her fear under control, she decides not to seek aid or inform the police. “What did I fight for” she thinks. “Why didn’t I give him the money and let him go? His red eyes, and the smell and those cracks in his feet, fissures, erosion.”
Six Feet of the Country
The title piece of Gordimer’s 1956 collection, Six Feet of the Country, is another exceptional story. A young black laborer walks from Rhodesia to find work in South Africa, where he has family who are employed on a weekend farm of a white Johannesburg couple. When he arrives at the farm, the illegal immigrant becomes ill and dies. There ensues a prolonged entanglement with the authorities, who insist on having the body so that it can be examined and the bureaucratic requirement for a statement of the cause of death can be fulfilled. With great reluctance, the family surrenders the body. When at last the casket is returned to the farm for burial, they discover that the body in it is that of a stranger. In the course of spinning out a plot about the fate of a corpse, Gordimer provides great insight into the lives of the farmlaborers, the proprietors, and the police official, and she also reveals the relative inability of the laborers to deal with illness and the bureaucracy.
A Chip of Glass Ruby
“A Chip of Glass Ruby,” in Not for Publication, and Other Stories, is about an Indian family in the Transvaal. The wife and mother is loving and unassuming and a very competent manager of a household that includes nine children. To the chagrin of her husband, Bamjee, she is also a political activist. It makes no sense to him that she takes grave risks for blacks, who are regarded as lower even than Indians. During the course of the story, she is arrested and imprisoned and participates in a prison hunger strike. Bamjee, a poor, small-time fruit and vegetable dealer, cannot understand any of this: He asks, “‘What for?’ Again and again: ‘What for?’” His birthday comes, and he himself does not even remember. The eldest daughter brings word from her mother, in the prison, however, that his birthday must not be forgotten. Bamjee is moved and begins to have a glimmer of understanding of the wonderful woman who is his wife. As the daughter explains: “It’s because she always remembers; remembers everything—people without somewhere to live, hungry kids, boys who can’t get educated—remembers all the time. That’s how Ma is.”
“The Intruder,” which appears in Livingstone’s Companions, focuses on the decadence of an upper-class man of English descent. After shedding his last wife, hard-drinking, stay-out-late James Seago takes up with the beautiful teenage daughter of Mrs. Clegg, a woman of his age who affects a bohemian morality. Seago refers to the daughter, Marie, whom he uses sexually and enjoys having in his lap as he drinks, as his teenage doll, his marmoset, his rabbit. Because he has financial problems, Seago is plausibly able to postpone committing himself to her in marriage. Once they are married, Seago’s irresponsible life of nightly partying does not change. Having married his pet, however, he must live with her, and so they set up housekeeping in an unpleasant flat. Marie becomes pregnant. The arrival of a child will force changes in Seago’s way of life: For one thing, they will have to find living quarters more suitable for a child; for another, his wife-pet will have to give her primary attention to the child, not him. Arriving home early one morning after a night of partying, they fall into bed exhausted. A few hours later, Marie awakens hungry. She wanders out of the bedroom and finds the rest of the flat a wreck. All the kitchen staples have been spilled or thrown about; toothpaste is smeared about the bathroom. In the living room, on one of the sofa cushions, is “a slime of contraceptive jelly with haircombings—hers.” Gordimer only hints at the perpetrator. It seems more than likely, though, that it is James Seago, who again is rebelling at the prospect of being forced into a responsible mode of life.
In “Abroad,” the main character is an Afrikaner. Manie Swemmer is a likable, middle-aged widower who has worked hard his entire life at construction and with cars. His grown sons have moved to neighboring black-run Zambia, known as Northern Rhodesia while still a British colony. Manie decides to take the train up to Zambia and visit his sons. Arriving in Lusaka, the capital, Manie is met by his younger son, Willie. Having expected to stay with Willie, Manie is surprised to learn that Willie does not have quarters of his own but is staying at a friend’s, where there is no room for his father. To his dismay, Manie learns that all the local hotels are booked. The irrepressible Manie, though, manages to talk the manager of the Regent into placing him in a room that already has been rented as a single. The problem is that it is rented to an Indian, although an educated Indian. Although Manie has been given a key to the room and has placed his belongings inside, when he returns later, the Indian, from the inside, has bolted the door and locked out the Afrikaner. Manie then is offered a bed in a room intended for black guests. The blacks have not yet arrived, and Manie uses the door bolt to lock them out. “Abroad” is a beautiful story about a well-meaning Afrikaner who is excited by the racial mixing of the new nation and who wants to stretch himself to his liberal limit. His feelings toward blacks, though, are still conditioned by his South African base, where all blacks are automatically regarded as inferior. “I’ve only just got here, give me a bit of time,” Manie tells the desk clerk. “You can’t expect to put me in with a native, right away, first thing.”
A Soldier’s Embrace
Upon gaining its independence from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique became another black-ruled neighbor of South Africa. “A Soldier’s Embrace,” the title story of Gordimer’s 1980 collection, is about the changeover, the exultation, and the disillusionment of a liberal white couple. The story begins with a brilliant scene of the celebration of the victory of the guerrillas who have been fighting the colonial power. Swept up by the street crowd, the woman finds herself embraced by two soldiers, one a white peasant youth, the other a black guerrilla. She puts an armaround each and kisses each on the cheek. Under the new regime, one is certain, a human being will be a human being; all groups will be treated equally. Although many whites take flight to Europe, the woman and her husband, a lawyer, are eager to participate in building the new nation. Weeks and months pass, however, and, despite the friends the lawyer has among highly placed blacks, the government does not ask the lawyer for his services. There is an atmosphere of hostility toward whites. There is looting and violence. When a friend in nearby Rhodesia, soon to be Zimbabwe, offers the lawyer a position in that country, with reluctance and relief he and his wife pack and go. The couple have wanted the country in which they have spent their adult years to be black-run; when that comes about, they find that there is no role for them.
Something Out There
In the novella that provides the title for Gordimer’s volume of short fiction Something Out There, a race war looms but has not yet erupted. Acts of violence are taking place; any one of them might well precipitate such a war. In the novella, the “something out there” is a baboon. Gordimer’s intention is to suggest that the response of white South Africans to the baboon corresponds to the irrational way they have been responding to the carefully planned symbolic acts of violence by guerrillas. Those acts of violence are handwriting on the wall announcing the coming of race war, which still could be prevented if the writing were read intelligently.
All that the whites want, however, is to be left alone. They want the animal “to be confined in its appropriate place, that’s all, zoo or even circus.” They want South African blacks to be confined to their appropriate places—locations and townships, black homelands, villages in the bush. As the baboon is “canny about where it was possible somehow to exist off the pickings of plenty,” so, too, is the South African black majority, before the cataclysm, somehow able to exist off pickings of white wealth. That wealth will not be shared, only protected, “while charity does not move those who have everything to spare, fear will”—the fear of the baboon, the fear of the guerrilla.
What is the fate of the baboon? It is finally shot and slowly bleeds to death from its wounds. The implication is clear: A similar fate awaits the guerrillas. Gordimer’s prime minister speaks: “This government will not stand by and see the peace of mind of its peoples destroyed. . . . We shall not hesitate to strike with all our might at those who harbour terrorists. . . .” The four guerrillas who are the novella’s human protagonists, in counterpoint to the movements of the baboon, succeed in blowing up a power station; three escape and it is made clear that they will carry out further attacks. The meaning in this plot—though not in all Gordimer plots on this subject—is that a ruthless government will be a match for those attempting to destroy it.
The fact that the white population is greatly outnumbered makes no difference. They have the education, the technology, the will to defend to the death what they have. Racial justice is an idea with which only a few whites—the man and woman on the power-station mission—are concerned. Protecting privilege and property is what most whites care most about. They cannot understand the few who act from disinterested motives. A minor character in “Something Out There” is a decent white police sergeant. He is totally mystified by the white guerrillas whom he interrogates:
“There’s something wrong with all these people who become enemies of their own country. . . . They’re enemies because they can’t enjoy their lives the way a normal white person in South Africa does.”
One of the black guerrillas is dispassionate, determined, fearless Vusi, whose life is dedicated to bringing about black majority rule. Vusi says. “They can’t stop us because we can’t stop. Never. Every time, when I’m waiting, I know I’m coming nearer.” A Vusi, however, is rare. “At the Rendezvous of Victory,” another story in this volume, looks ahead to the ultimate black victory. It is about the man who served as commander in chief of the liberation army, known as General Giant. As a warrior, he was invaluable; as a cabinet minister after victory, he is a great burden to his prime minister. He led his people to victory and freedom; in freedom, his chief interest is women.
A City of the Dead, a City of the Living
In “A City of the Dead, a City of the Living,” a young black man who has committed illegal acts for his people’s liberation and who is on the run from the police is given shelter by a township family.With their small house already overcrowded, the family is inconvenienced, but the husband knows his duty. His wife, nursing her fifth child, does not like the idea of taking in a stranger, but the man is pleasant and helpful, and she softens. She softens and begins to feel attracted to him. Frightened, she goes to the police to informon him, thus betraying the cause of her people’s liberation.
Sins of the Third Age
“Sins of the Third Age,” surprisingly, is not a political story. It is about a couple who survived World War II as displaced persons. Nothing remained of their pasts. They met and in a strange country began to build their lives together. Gordimer is wonderfully evocative as she suggests the passing of years and the deepening of their love. The wife’s job as an interpreter takes her on frequent trips, many times to Rome and Milan. On one of her trips, she gets the idea that they should buy a home in Italy for their retirement, near a Piedmontese village. He retires first and goes to Italy to prepare the house. After several months, he appears suddenly and announces, “I’ve met somebody.” His affair eventually ends, but the betrayal destroys the vitality of the marriage. To have done otherwise than to take her husband for granted would have been betrayal on her part. She trusted, and she loses.
“Blinder” is still another fine story in the 1984 volume. It is about an aging servant woman’s loss of her lover, a man who was the main consolation of her life. Ephraim’s first loyalty, however, was to his wife and children in his home village; the wife got his earnings, and after his death, her children get his bicycle. When Ephraim suddenly dies, Rose’s white family expected her to increase her drinking, to go on a “blinder.” Instead, she plays hostess to Ephraim’s wife, who has come to the city to see about a pension.
“The Defeated” was originally published in the collection Why Haven’t You Written? Selected Stories, 1950-1972 and was reprinted in 1993. It is a firstperson narrative concerning a European Jewish family that runs a concession store for black South Africans in a forbidden, filthy part of town. The narrator, a young girl, befriends Miriam Saiyetovitz, whose immigrant parents work long hours selling goods to indecisive customers. The shop they live above is across from an eating establishment teeming with the smells of slaughtered animals. Mrs. Saiyetovitz, “ugly, with the blunt ugliness of a toad; the ugliness not entirely at home in any element— as if the earth were the wrong place, too heavy and magnetic for a creature already blunt,” and her dull husband devote their lives to giving their daughter everythingthey possibly can. When Miriam describes all the birthday gifts her friend received, her mother assures her they will throw her a huge party. As the two girls grow up together and it comes time for university, Miriam’s parents labor to send her to a good college. Miriam grows further apart from them, moving into the upper classes as she attends pool parties and eventually marries a doctor. Ultimately, she abandons the two people who made her comfortable life possible. When the narrator, now a grown woman, goes to visit Mr. and Mrs. Saiyetovitz, she learns that they hardly see their daughter or her baby son at all.
In “The Defeated,” Gordimer conjures up an evocative variety of discordant but powerful moments: the sweaty smell of the black Africans mingling with the odor of bloodied meat, the toadlike mother juxtaposed with her blossoming daughter, the quietly rage-filled father who takes terrible advantage of his status as a white man to humiliate his black customers. Also noticeable is the contrast between the narrator’s relatively benign home life and the concession area where black South Africans are forced to shop among the refuse. “The Defeated” deftly envelops in its fold class differences, the burgeoning of female sexuality, and the tragedy of wasted lives, both of immigrants and of dispossessed indigenous peoples. Gordimer does not openly judge Miriam, but it is clear through the telling of her growing alienation that Miriam is only one of the upwardly mobile Afrikaners whose sights are set on material gain and not on remaining true to those who sacrificed happiness for them.
Novels: The Lying Days, 1953; A World of Strangers, 1958; Occasion for Loving, 1963; The Late Bourgeois World, 1966; A Guest of Honour, 1970; The Conservationist, 1974; Burger’s Daughter, 1979; July’s People, 1981; A Sport of Nature, 1987; My Son’s Story, 1990; None to Accompany Me, 1994; The House Gun, 1998; The Pickup, 2001; Get a Life, 2005.
Teleplays: A Chip of Glass Ruby, 1985; Country Lovers, 1985; Oral History, 1985; Praise, 1985.
Nonfiction: On the Mines, 1973 (with David Goldblatt); The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing, 1973; 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; A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer, 1999 (AndriesWalter Oliphant, editor); Living in Hope and History: Note from Our Century, 1999.
Anthologies: South African Writing Today, 1967 (with Lionel Abrahams); Telling Tales, 2004.
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.
Bazin, Nancy Topping, and Marilyn Dallman Seymour, eds. Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Driver, Dorothy, Ann Dry, Craig MacKenzie, and John Read, comps. Nadine Gordimer: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, 1937-1992. London: Hans Zell, 1994.
Ettin, Andre Vogel. Betrayals of the Body Politic: The Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
Head, Dominic. Nadine Gordimer. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
King, Bruce, ed. The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Lazar, Karen. “Feminism as ‘Piffling’? Ambiguities in Nadine Gordimer’s Short Stories.” In The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
Lomberg, Alan R. “Once More into the Burrows: Nadine Gordimer’s Later Short Fiction.” In The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Smith, Rowland, ed. Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Temple-Thurston, Barbara. Nadine Gordimer Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1999.
Trump, Martin. “The Short Fiction of Nadine Gordimer.” Research in African Literatures 17 (Spring, 1986): 341-369.