Obituary – Nadine Gordimer: Laureate exposed toll of South Africa’s apartheid

Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer

Nobel prize-winning South African writer who spoke out against apartheid and racial inequality.

SOUTH Africa has produced several writers of stature in the past half century, but few have approached the achievement of Nadine Gordimer, who has died aged 90. Born November 20 1923; Gordimer, a significant figure in world literature died July 13 2014. She plumbed the depths of human interaction in a society of racial tension, political oppression and sexual unease. The connection between the intimate and the public lay at the heart of her work, an apparently inexhaustible stream of novels, short stories and essays.

An outspoken voice against the evils of apartheid, Gordimer continued to express forthright views after its collapse and the emergence of a multiracial democracy. Promoting even as she questioned white liberal values in her early work, she went on to espouse an increasingly radical position in the essays and fiction of the mid-1970s and later, openly supporting the liberation movement and associated cultural bodies such as the Congress of South African Writers. This led to her being for many years more widely acclaimed abroad than at home — where several of her novels were banned — until she became in 1991 the country’s first winner of the Nobel prize for literature.

When the Swedish academy made its award, it announced that it was for her “great, epic writings centring on the effects of race relations in her country”. While it is true to suggest that the focus of her work was on relationships between the races, her careful probing of what happens to people under the pressures created by the prevailing structures of power represents a larger achievement, that of a writer in touch with the broad movements of history and their impact upon society.

The force of Gordimer’s work comes from its testimony to the quality of life in South Africa. It was, she said, “learning to write”, rather than waking up to “the shameful enormity of the colour bar” through joining any political party in her youth, that sent her “falling, falling through the surface of ‘the South African way of life’”. As she once remarked, every white South African needs to be born twice: the second time into an awareness of the profound racism in which they first found themselves.

Gordimer’s writing career took off during the late 40s and early 50s with the publication of short stories in South African liberal and literary magazines, followed by international journals such as, crucially, the New Yorker, whose continued support from 1951 provided much encouragement for the young writer, while helping to create a wider public for her work. These early stories, clever and perceptive as they were, did little more than display the inner thoughts of white middle-class characters trapped in a world about which they feel guilty, but that they do not understand.

She went on to write more than 200 stories, expanding her range while concentrating her focus in a truly remarkable series of collections, from Not for Publication (1965) and Livingstone’s Companions (1971) to Jump (1991), Loot (2003) and Life Times (2011, a collection spanning 55 years of writing). She experimented towards the end, not always successfully, with symbol and allegory, and but for her success as a novelist would have been remembered as a great master of the short-story genre, which she always defended for its concentration, integrity and lack of compromise.

Her first published novel, The Lying Days (1953), a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, did little more than hint at a more challenging awareness of her fragmented colonial background. The succeeding novels, A World of Strangers (1958), Occasion for Loving (1963) and The Late Bourgeois World (1966), however, cemented her reputation as a novelist able to chart with a new immediacy and depth the failures of love and morality in the corrupting and limited world of colonial relations.

At times, Gordimer seemed to feel that she was forging her literary path alone, and that the novelist in South Africa “does not live in a community and has begun to write from scratch at the wrong time”. Despite the influential work of her compatriots Olive Schreiner, Alan Paton and Dan Jacobson, and the first novel in English by a black South African, Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi, Gordimer always looked towards the novels of her European predecessors, from George Eliot to Henry James, DH Lawrence and Proust.

She gradually developed an aesthetic of her own, developing beyond the predominantly social realist, liberal-conservative fiction of her early works, to the more radically modern, indeed modernist writing of The Conservationist (1974), joint winner of the Booker prize and perhaps her greatest achievement. With The Late Bourgeois World, A Guest of Honour (1970) and Burger’s Daughter (1979), it had become became clear that whatever the limitations of her chosen setting and focus, Gordimer was one of the great political novelists of the time.

For all South Africans, 1960 and the Sharpeville massacre marked a watershed; for Gordimer, the arrest of her best friend, Bettie du Toit, led to a more active involvement in politics. She joined the ANC while it was still illegal to do so, having befriended two of the lawyers defending Nelson Mandela, George Bizos and Bram Fischer, to whom Burger’s Daughter was a “coded homage”.

She went on to assist the movement, often in secret.
As resistance was being crushed by an increasingly vicious state, Gordimer’s exploration of the impact upon the lives around her deepened her writing, leading to a more complex interweaving of narrative voices so as to include political speeches and documents as well as the secret interior thoughts of her characters — notably Mehring, the wealthy white industrialist and “conservationist” of that novel’s title. Mehring’s consciousness is at the centre of the novel, which reveals in precise and haunting detail his struggles to keep change at bay, while exploiting everyone in his power, from the young Portuguese girl beside him on a flight to the workers on his farm.

A tissue of allusions to the indigenous African culture he unconsciously seeks to destroy while avoiding his own complicity undermines his attempts to conserve his wealth and his sense of himself, implicitly anticipating the collapse of white supremacy.

The increasingly polarised situation in South Africa after the 70s led to the semi-allegorical and strained July’s People (1981), a revisiting of the master-servant relationship upon which so much of her work dwelt.

But with the demise of apartheid, Gordimer once more showed her strength, challenging the supposed anxiety for writers in her country that they now lacked a subject, with The House Gun (1997) and her award-winning 2001 novel The Pickup, which exposed the new issues of migration, corruption, and continuing alienation. Her more recent work, such as Get a Life (2005) and No Time Like the Present (2012), although deft and assured, was increasingly impersonal, while continuing to pursue the dilemmas of a post-apartheid generation trying to come to terms with the present.

Gordimer is survived by her daughter, Oriane, and son, Hugo. — The Guardian.

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  • Inini

    Rest in peace, giant of a human