In numerous novels, short stories, and essays, Nadine Gordimer has written of her South African homeland and its former apartheid government, under which its black population suffered for nearly half a century. "This writer ... has made palpable the pernicious, pervasive character of that country's race laws, which not only deny basic rights to most people but poison many relationships," maintained Miriam Berkley in Publishers Weekly. Others, like Judith Chettle in World and I, were more critical. Chettle acknowledged that Gordimer "has adroitly over the years written books that drew world attention to the political situation in South Africa. Never jailed or exiled (though some books were briefly banned in the 1970s), Gordimer came to be regarded as the preeminent recorder of life under apartheid. Books like Burger's Daughter and The Conservationist gained her an international audience." But Chettle added the caveat: "In these books, Gordimer astutely described the liberal politics of white and mostly English-speaking South Africa. She was much less incisive in dealing with those Afrikaners supporting the regime and was least successful in describing the blacks."
However, Gordimer's insight, integrity, and compassion inspire critical admiration among many. "She has mapped out the social, political and emotional geography of that troubled land with extraordinary passion and precision," commented Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, observing in a later essay that "taken chronologically, her work not only reflects her own evolving political consciousness and maturation as an artist--an early lyricism has given way to an increased preoccupation with ideas and social issues--but it also charts changes in South Africa's social climate." One of only nine women so recognized, she was honored with the Nobel Prize in literature for her novels in 1991--a sign of the esteem in which the literary world holds her work.
When she began, Gordimer was one of a number of novelists working in South Africa after World War II. "Some of the writers, like [Alan] Paton, turned to nonfiction or political work; even more, most notably [Peter] Abrahams and Dan Jacobson, expatriated," explained John Cooke in The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes. "By the early sixties Gordimer was almost the only member of the postwar group to continue producing fiction from within the country. That she should be the survivor was not altogether surprising, for she was in essential ways more a product of South Africa than her contemporaries. She attended university at home, not in England as colonial writers so regularly have; she did not travel abroad until she was thirty."
"Gordimer seemed particularly unsuited to prosper as a writer in her arid land," Cooke continued, "because of the disjunction between her temperament and the situation she confronted. More than any of her contemporaries, Gordimer was initially drawn to private themes." Her novels and short stories are, at bottom, about complicated individuals caught in awkward or impossibly complex situations. "Her writing [is] so subtle that it forces readers to find their way back from her works into her mind," remarked Firdaus Kanga in the London Times Literary Supplement; "her characters are powerful precisely because you cannot sum them up in a line or even a page."
Much of Gordimer's fiction focuses upon white middle-class characters. Yet the "enduring subject" of her writing has been "the consequences of apartheid on the daily lives of men and women, the distortions it produces in relationships among both blacks and whites," noted Kakutani. Her first novel, The Lying Days, is drawn from her personal experience and tells about a young woman who comes into contact with the effects of apartheid when she has an affair with a social worker. A World of Strangers is about the efforts of a British writer to bring together his white intellectual friends and his black African intellectual friends. In Burger's Daughter, considered by some to be her best novel, Gordimer examines white ambivalence about apartheid in the person of Rosa, who can no longer sustain the antiapartheid cause of her imprisoned Afrikaner father after his death. This work, like several others before it, was banned in South Africa, but the ban was quickly removed due to the critical attention the novel had attracted in the West. The story of the banning and unbanning of Burger's Daughter is related in What Happened to "Burger's Daughter"; or, How South African Censorship Works, published in 1980.
Both The Lying Days and A World of Strangers end with a note of hope for a better future for South Africans. Gordimer's later novels, however, take a more pessimistic tone. A Guest of Honour, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1973, tells of the return of Colonel James Bray to his African homeland. Bray had been exiled by the previous government for his espousal of black revolutionary ideology. Upon his return, however, Bray discovers that the new revolutionary government is just as corrupt and self-interested as the previous government was. When he speaks out publicly against the new government, it targets him for assassination. The Conservationist, awarded the Booker Prize (England's highest literary honor) the following year, tells about the uneasy relationship between a white landowner and black squatters who have settled on his estate, bringing up the question of whose land it actually is. "Beginning with A Guest of Honour, " Cooke concluded, "Gordimer's novels are informed by a tension between ... two impulses: she at once observes her world from without and envisions it from within. Through this double process, the fruit of her long apprenticeship, Gordimer creates masterful forms and shapes despite the 'low cultural rainfall' of her world."
These forms and shapes also appear in Gordimer's short fiction. Jump and Other Stories --published shortly before the author received the Nobel Prize--contains stories that approach her favorite themes in a variety of ways. She tells about a white man out for a jog, who is caught up in a black gang-killing and is saved by a black woman who shelters him. "A single truth is witnessed," wrote John Edgar Wideman in the New York Times Book Review, "a truth somehow missing in most fiction by white Americans that purports to examine our national life. No matter how removed one feels oneself from the fray, race and race relations lie at the heart of the intimate, perplexing questions we need to ask of ourselves: Where have I been? Where am I going? Who am I?" "Ms. Gordimer can be a merciless judge and jury," Wideman concluded. "Her portraits obtain a Vermeer-like precision, accurate and remorseless, with no room for hope, for self-delusion, no room even for the small vanities of ego and self-regard that allow us to proceed sometimes as if at least our intentions are honorable."
The Swedish Academy had considered Gordimer as a Nobel Prize nominee for years before she finally received the award in 1991. Several commentators, while congratulating her on her accomplishment, noted that the struggle against apartheid remained unfinished. "On the day of the announcement that Nadine Gordimer would receive the 1991 Nobel Prize for literature, a tribute to the complex and intimate stories she has written about racism's toll on people's lives in her native South Africa," wrote Esther B. Fein in the New York Times, "Nelson Mandela still did not have the right to vote." Mandela had been released from his political prison, but the basic tenets of apartheid prevented him from exercising the rights of citizenship. When South African president F.W. De Klerk announced that the policy of separation would end, reviewers wondered where the Nobel laureate would turn her attention. "With apartheid finally ended," Diana Jean Schemo declared in the New York Times, "the novelist waxes exultant over a sense of renewal in her homeland; the urgency is gone, but the turn of mind remains."
"For the whole of her literary career, Gordimer has grappled with the intricacies and distortions of life under a certain political system, a specific regime of oppression," noted Diane Simon in the Nation. With the ending of apartheid and the enfranchisement of South African blacks, critics scanned Gordimer's fiction for evidence of how this supremely political writer's focus would change. Her novel None to Accompany Me looks at the fortunes of two families--one black, one white--as they move into the new, postapartheid, era. "The repressions, the curle laws and persecutions, the campaigns of resistance, the exiles, the detentions, the banning and brutalities--all these horrors of the past are finished," observed Sonya Rudikoff in the book African Writers, continuing: "What remains is the damage done to society and to personal relations." "None to Accompany Me is a sustaining achievement, proving Gordimer once again a lucid witness to her country's transformation and a formidable interpreter of the inner self," commented a contributor to Tribune Books. While some viewed this work as a step away from the public themes of her earlier novels and short stories, Simon observed that all of Gordimer's main characters are actively involved in the political life of the new South Africa.
By contrast, Gordimer's second postapartheid novel, The House Gun, while it also explores the relationships between blacks and whites in the newly transformed South Africa, is arguably more concerned with the politicization of her characters' personal lives. The Lindegards are an affluent white couple who learn that their only son, Duncan, has committed a murder using a gun intended to protect the house from thieves. They hire a black lawyer to represent him and begin the painful process of emerging out of the sheltered lives they have created. Through these events, Gordimer explores the question of whether a violent society provokes violence in nonviolent individuals. "The story deftly brings home a tricky truth," remarked Walter Kirn in Time: "Peace can be as perilous as war, and even more confusing to negotiate," especially when it is a peace that follows bitter internal strife. The novel's other underlying question, which asks if the level of violence in South Africa is higher than in Europe because of its large black population or because of the way blacks have long been treated by racist whites, is the "question that haunts Gordimer's novel," according to Jack Miles in the New York Times Book Review. Miles described The House Gun as an "elegantly conceived, flawlessly executed novel." While Kakutani in the New York Times dubbed the novel "little more than a courtroom thriller, dressed up with some clumsy allusions to apartheid's legacy of violence and the uses and misuses of freedom," Library Journal reviewer Edward B. St. John contended that The House Gun is "much more ambitious" than the courtroom dramas of Scott Turow or John Grisham. St. John added that "Gordimer's trademark prose style ... seems especially well suited to capturing the moral ambiguities of South African life." "Gordimer's great fiction has always personalized the political," observed Hazel Rochman in Booklist, but in this novel, the author "moves in the opposite direction, taking the personal intimacy of family, friend, and lover into the glare of the public sphere."
Gordimer's turn of mind reaches out in two directions: politically, she follows the fortunes of other first-class "third-world" writers such as Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz, Nigerian Chinua Achebe, and Israeli Amos Oz. "Her attention is turned on writers whose work seems most engaged in the questions that have absorbed her for much of her life," Schemo wrote, "how justice, wealth, power and freedom are parceled out in a society, and the repercussions for its people." In the essays collected in Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century, the author addresses politics and morals, writers and culture, and first of all, life as a white liberal in South Africa. Here especially, Gordimer "speaks with the authority of the insider," according to Rochman in Booklist, "bearing witness to what it has been like, as a white citizen and writer, to live in Johannesburg" during the years of apartheid and through the upheavals that accompanied the transition to a postapartheid regime. Critics noted that Gordimer herself has frequently called her fiction more truthful than her nonfiction, and agreed that, as a reviewer in Publishers Weekly claimed, the pieces found in Living in Hope and History "shouldn't be expected to attain the nuance and depth of Gordimer's best fiction, but some of them are devastating."
Another novel, The Pickup, and a volume of short stories, Loot: And Other Stories, followed, pursuing further the complexity of individual struggles with racial and cultural differences in racist societies. A Booklist reviewer called The Pickup "a compelling, unsentimental exploration of the paradox of privilege." In World and I, Robert Ross praised the novel, which, he noted, was published on the eve of the fall of the Twin Towers in New York: "Underneath what might appear a less gloomy treatment of human experience, there lies a muted but strong concern with the dispossessed: those trapped in economic strife, the victims of racism, those affected by official corruption, and those on the move, facing the obstacles of immigration." In the novel a young, disaffected woman from a wealthy white family meets an illegal Arab immigrant when her car breaks down. She becomes enthralled with the (to her) simplicity and connectedness of the home he is trying to escape, while he longs for the (to him) glittering cosmopolitan ease of the surroundings she is running from. Their love affair could be seen as a lighter side of Gordimer--a crosscultural romance or a South African Romeo and Juliet, as several critics have observed--or, as Ross suggested, as an exploration of the contradictions that appear when one who has too much material ease and too little meaning in her life intertwines with another yearning for the life she abhors. Gordon Houser, in the Christian Century, pointed out that in this novel Gordimer again shows that she is looking further into the world for her themes following the end of apartheid. He wrote that Gordimer "moves outward to the complexities of the global community, where people seek refuge from poverty and hopelessness by going to more prosperous countries. She juxtaposes Abdul's desperate desire to escape economic chaos with Julie's desire for stability and a loving family." An Entertainment Weekly reviewer commented: "Gordimer, deploying the finest kind of irony and attuned to the tiniest gestures, spins an eloquent tale about the ways in which romance ratifies self-image."
Loot includes both "fragments of crystallized insight" and three longer pieces, one almost a novella, Chettle stated in World and I. Gordimer, remarked Spectator reviewer Sebastian Smee, "still displays a natural short-story writer's feeling for the intimate moments and quiet epiphanies that can alter people's lives." He also, however, found her writing style to be "lazily allusive and unkempt" and reading the stories "a pleasureless slog" because of her convoluted prose, but he recommended parts of "Karma," "Mission Statement," and "Generation Gap," a tale about the breakup of a marriage from the point of view of the grown-up children. Carmen Callil in the New Statesman, however, argued that "you have to sit up straight to read her, open your mind, extend your understanding, watch every word. It's worth it." Callil continued: "In 'Mission Statement,' a middle-aged Englishwoman, Roberta Blayne, who works for an international aid agency of the Clare Short kind, falls into an affair with the deputy director of land affairs, Gladwell Shadrack Chabruma, in some unnamed African state, the sort of country that has old hospitals 'still known by the name of a deceased English Queen.' Gordimer can capture bodies, black and white, in a word, and sexual attraction in a sentence, as when Roberta sees her lover's torso and its 'gleaming beauty, sweat-painted, of perfectly formed muscle, the double path below pectorals, left and right, of smooth ribbing beneath lithe skin. Black. Simply Black.' The ironic ending of their love affair is perfectly conceived." Callil noted: "In Gordimer's Africa, too much has happened for easy endings. Her Europeans, her whites, are as soulless as their predecessors. What followed apartheid, after all, was AIDS: today's relics of 'imperial compassion' tend what they have produced--the AIDS children, the 'rags of flesh and bone,' 'the new-born-to-die.'" Callil concluded: "The Gordimer of these stories inhabits a stern world."
Chettle saw Gordimer struggling to find a new voice since the fall of apartheid, stating: "While Gordimer's [work] will continue to be read as distilled portraits of a particular society that behaved in a particular way at a particular time, her characters have often been more articulate vehicles for ideas than vivid creations who strut their stuff off the pages and into our hearts." This presents, Chettle commented, a problem: "Gordimer ... has valiantly, if with mixed success, been trying to make the necessary adjustments. Her latest book, Loot, a collection of ten short stories, exemplifies these adjustments as it describes moments of transition when lives are changed by insight or action. The stories typically reflect both Gordimer's weaknesses and strengths. She has a reporter's eye for the defining detail, but the characters themselves are often disembodied shades, held hostage to the workings out of the authorial intellect rather than following the wayward devices of their own hearts." She especially found the long story, "Karma," a "long mediation (more an intellectual than spiritual examination)." However, Chettle engagingly described stories whose characters "all share moments of abrupt change, signaled often by the acquisition of what is suddenly, or long, desired." Callil, though, found "Karma" to be "as good as anything she has written. Complex and inventive, it depicts worlds within worlds, yet each life recounted is vividly rooted in family and neighbourhood. The history and stories of her country and ours weave in and out of each episode as a wandering soul is born, again and again, sometimes female, sometimes male (it is always better to be male), reaching eventually a view that seems to be Gordimer's own. For our misdeeds, in whatever human form we take, 'we are condemned to live forever.' And so the villainy continues."
In 2004, Gordimer served as sole editor of the Telling Tales anthology. The collection contains short stories from twenty-one well-known international writers, and all profits are donated to help fight HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Gordimer contributed "The Ultimate Safari," which is "a searing, unforgettable account of a desperate refugee child hiding ... in a famous game park," stated Rochman in Booklist.
The following year, Gordimer once again focused her attention on novels, publishing Get a Life. In the story, Paul Bannerman, an ecologist fighting the development of a dam and nuclear reactor in South Africa, is diagnosed with throat cancer. He stays with his parents until risks associated with radiation therapy subside. As he recovers, he reflects on his troubled marriage to Berenice, or Benni, an advertising executive who works for companies that thwart his land preservation efforts. "Paul's doubts simply trail off in the novel's second half, when Gordimer shifts her focus to escalating troubles between Paul's parents," noted Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly. Digby Durrant, reviewing the book in Spectator, called it "a difficult read." Durrant continued: "It's as if to write a simple sentence is an error of taste or sloppy thinking. Gordimer strains too hard for an originality a writer of her stature doesn't need." A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt Gordimer's effort was "a lacerating novel, one in which conflicted professional and domestic lives are played for all their contradictory possibility."
In 2007, Gordimer released another volume of short stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories. The book reaffirms the fact that, despite her success as a political writer and her savvy regarding the nuances of apartheid, which includes a well-honed ability to delve deeply into all of the moral issues that surround that particular political policy, Gordimer is also adept at looking into the far more delicate and often intimate parts of the human soul and psyche in terms of how people form, maintain, and sometimes irreparably ruin relationships. Her novels illustrate this beautifully, particularly works such as The Conservationist or July's People, where she effectively combines her astute eye for how people react to one another with her foundation in the political realm. However, in those novels and others, Gordimer has focused on a family, using that as the core structure and building out from there. With short stories, she takes a very different approach. These shorter works are no less charged or politically attuned than her novels or nonfiction, nor are they the types of work where she might take short cuts or eliminate controversy in order to adapt to the more condensed word length. Instead, she packs as much as she can into the slender framework of the short story, layering the intensity of the relationships, making creative choices regarding the people populating her tales, and stressing the importance of those individual identities that stand alone in the story while also serving the plot. The result is generally a short, tight piece of fiction that immediately jumps to the heart of the situation without any long, drawn-out, wasted narrative.
The stories included in Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, while addressing important subjects, show an evolution in Gordimer's style. Some are far less fleshed out than her earlier works, with a few coming across as no more than mere sketches rather than fully realized stories. Gordimer uses language that is much tighter and less descriptive than in the stories included in earlier collections. Still, she continues to look at her characters in new and penetrating ways. In the story "Allesverloren," Gordimer recounts the experiences of a widow in South Africa. The woman remembers her husband and the pleasure of his company and their life together, thoughts that are extremely painful now that he is gone, not just because she has lost her husband but because they had each been married and divorced prior to their own marriage, and that loss of the first spouse and the brutal pain of the process of ending the relationship made the new marriage feel that much more vital and successful, and therefore the ultimate loss that much worse. Gordimer uses the story as a meditation on the act of mourning, considering the different attitudes that different people have to the process, and even the ways in which one person's attitudes and reactions to death might shift, both over the course of their own life, and as they lose someone dear to them and find themselves forced to adapt as their grief rises and falls over time. The woman in Gordimer's tale will do virtually anything to maintain her connection to her deceased husband, including things that might cause her pain, just so that she can continue to feel something at all. Prior to their marriage, shortly after he married his first wife, the woman's husband had a brief homosexual affair. Because all she has left of her husband are her memories, the woman attempts to add to those memories and make them more vibrant by traveling to London and attempting to locate the man who was once her husband's lover. She takes a bottle of wine with her, for which the story is named, and the meaning of which is "everything lost," suitable to her mood and her situation.
In a subsection of the collection, Gordimer includes three stories that fall under the heading "Alternate Endings." Each of the stories revolves around the same theme, but as the heading indicates, ends in a different way. In one story a woman, whose husband is a talented cellist, allows him to shine all the more by putting her own talents on the shelf. In the second story, a couple living in South Africa suffer from an ever-widening gap in their relationship as she becomes more and more successful while he works in a dead-end job and never puts his education or skills to use. The third features a woman who is struggling to hold her life together even as her husband, who used all their money to start an airline, has them on the verge of bankruptcy and is, she suspects, having an affair. A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that the stories are "mostly finger exercises (think Mozart's shorter works), but the best of them are executed with finesse and power." Siddhartha Deb, writing in the New York Times Book Review, remarked that "it is Gordimer's special skill that she can both make us feel the distinct yearnings of these characters, where nothing else matters, and allow us to stand back and perceive the parts they play in a larger collective pattern. As she always has, Gordimer offers her readers a rare combination of intimacy and transcendence."
In 2010, Gordimer's short stories and nonfiction were collected in two separate volumes, Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007, and Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008. The former contains over thirty-six stories that span over fifty years of Gordimer's writing career. The stories also represent a wide range of styles and themes, ranging from her experimental tales to her longer, more realistic works. For the most part, critics praised Life Times as a welcome addition to Gordimer's oeuvre, and Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, commented: "Nobel laureate Gordimer is a literary giant, and this milestone volume will draw readers familiar with and new to her fiction." Alan Cheuse, reviewing the collection in All Things Considered, found that Gordimer "gives us a series of masterly drawn glimpses into the story-making art of one of Africa's great modern literary geniuses." Raising an objection in his Spectator assessment, Justin Cartwright observed: "Sometimes I think she has done herself a disservice by tying her fiction too closely to the big themes of her times ... there is occasionally a sense in Gordimer's work of trying to hammer home a point that is blindingly obvious." Yet, he also acknowledged that "the short stories, particularly those of the middle period ... demonstrate that Gordimer has always been a writer of great ability, equipped with a deep understanding of humanity, both in its rational and its sensual modes."
The selections in Telling Times include Gordimer's essays, speeches, and letters, many of which touch upon the themes that have dominated her life and work. Like her stories and novels, Gordimer's nonfiction reflects her struggles to define herself as a white South African, her thoughts on apartheid and its aftermath, and the nature of being a writer and dealing with censorship. Other topics addressed in the book include gold mining in South Africa, coal dumps, and the way that AIDS has affected African society. Reviewers predominantly applauded the collection as an important work by an important writer, and a Publishers Weekly critic remarked that "at its best, Gordimer's writing is both consummately artful and deeply engaged." Adam Kirsch, writing in the New York Times Book Review made a nearly identical statement, commenting that "at its best ... Gordimer's writing reveals the power of 'engagement.'" Kirsch then added that her work is engaged "in the broad and humane sense in which she defined it." He went on to state that "in the essays, lectures and articles gathered in Telling Times, it is mainly Gordimer the public figure whose voice we hear."
According to Kirsch, Gordimer's writing portrays "the difficulty of reconciling duty with happiness--or, to put it another way, the exigencies of politics with the unaccountability of inspiration--is one of several subjects that recur throughout the material in Telling Tales." However, he wrote that "the later essays show a decline in literary energy and even, sometimes, in moral clarity. The leftist convictions that fueled Gordimer's protest for decades begin to sound feebly doctrinaire." Although Library Journal contributor Kathryn R. Bartelt, wished the book had included an introduction by the author, she noted that "Gordimer fans as well as readers interested in literature, literary criticism, and South Africa will still value this collection." A Kirkus Reviews writer was also impressed, declaring that this "massive collection" is "a much-deserved tribute to Gordimer and a firm reminder of her country's difficult path to liberation." Seaman, again writing in Booklist, proffered additional praise, asserting that Telling Tales is a "landmark collection" that is "at once personal and magisterial."
In Gordimer's 2012 novel No Time Like the Present, she explores what it means to survive a political struggle and adjust to a more peaceful life, with memories of incarceration and torture still fresh. The story follows the marriage of a white man and a black woman in post-apartheid South Africa. Once their union was illegal, and now they are considered respectable members of society. Steve is an industrial chemist who made explosives during the Struggle and now has a job teaching at the university. Jabulile, a teacher who had been tortured during the Struggle, goes back to school to study law so she can help the poor and the increasing number of women who have been raped. Although Steve and Jabu seem to be at peace in their diverse community outside Johannesburg, the struggle continues in the form of poverty, unemployment, government scandals, and brutal home invasions and other crimes. Steve decides he wants to move his family to Australia where they can be safe.
Claiming that new novels by Gordimer are always popular, Donna Seaman assured in Booklist: "The subject of this towering novel, the long aftermath of a liberation movement, is exceedingly timely in the wake of the Arab spring." Seaman called the book a delving work of acrobatic stream-of-consciousness as Gordimer oscillates the narration between Steve and Jabu. This intensely reflective novel dramatizes the combination of guilt and conviction for freedom-fighting with wit and sympathy, said Seaman.
Francine Prose in New York Times Book Review complained about the author's disorientingly convoluted syntax and murky metaphors. These problems aside, Prose remarked that Gordimer offers sharp and affecting views of human interaction that let the reader contemplate and explore. Gordimer "remind[s] us of the highly specific ways that politics shape the private lives of unique individuals, people not unlike ourselves. Only a novelist with Gordimer's gifts can offer so much information, at such depth, about the cataclysmic battles ... that she and her characters have witnessed, a war she survived to report on to us," said Prose. Justin Cartwright wrote in London Telegraph that No Time Like the Present is "closely entwined with current issues in South Africa and reflects [Gordimer's] new and profound disillusionment [in the government]. The mixed marriage and activist couple at the centre of her story are aware that freedom demanded everything, including the downgrading of the nuclear family. There is plenty of discussion of 'the normal life, the one that never was'--a life where the personal comes first."
From: "Nadine Gordimer." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2014.