Finding Wisdom — Four novels by Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer passed away this year on July 14, 2014.  Rarely is there an opportunity for a gifted writer to be both brave and essential.  She was both of these throughout her 90 years.  Gordimer, of course, was a South African novelist and short story writer.  Her fiction dealt with the issues regarding race and the racial apartheid that defined South African society during a time when writing and openly speaking about such issues was forbidden.  She addressed these issues when similar regimes of apartheid, white supremacy, and racial segregation were in force elsewhere, most notably in the American South and in Rhodesia, thus her words spoke to millions beyond the borders of her native country, where many of her books were banned.  But she went beyond just writing, placing herself in jeopardy by joining the African National Congress (ANC) in support of overturning apartheid during a time when membership in that organization was illegal, participating in anti-apartheid demonstrations, and hiding ANC members in her home from the police who were sought for arrest.  She was close friends with the attorneys of Nelson Mandela’s defense team during his trial, helping him prepare his “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, which he gave during his defense in 1964.  Years later, after his release from prison, Gordimer was one of the first people Mandela sought out.

Gordimer’s fiction explores the society around her in a progression of discovery that I suspect very much traces her own intellectual and emotional progression.  She had begun writing when she was 15 years old, a largely isolated only-child of nurturing and protective parents.  By the time she was married for the first time and had her first child in her mid-twenties, she submitted one of her stories to The New Yorker and was published there for the first time in 1951.  Additional stories–which she continued to believe was the most essential fictional form for her time–and novels ensued; quite a number of them.

In her first novel, The Lying Days, which she published in 1953, we follow the growing awareness of a twenty-four year old woman by the name of Helen Shaw to the realities of both apartheid and the small town life–with its other prejudices and taboos–in which she lives.  It is in this novel that Gordmer’s keen eye for the essential truth of a matter and her ability to communicate it in her fiction was first revealed.  The vultures of South Africa hover everywhere, she wrote, over both the veld and the cities, and in doing so they look down on all of the people of the plain and the cities, both the rich and the poor.  In the city of Johannesburg and its outskirts where poverty tends to collect, as in all cities, there is that thing called charity.  But, she wrote, ”in South Africa there is one difference, a difference so great that the whole conception of charity must be changed.  The people…were not the normal human wastage of a big industrial city but…the entire black-skinned population on whose labor the city rested…too poor to maintain themselves decently because no matter what their energy, their skill, their labor was not allowed value above subsistence level.”  But if this were her only insight it would be slight indeed, but Gordimer plumbs the society around her with a keen eye for detail: the brute labor and hopelessness in working in the local mine, the Jewish boy who dare not talk of his identity or declare his love for Helen, the black girl with whom Helen befriends in university who cannot come to Helen’s home, and who would be turned away in any event by Helen’s parents.  Helen’s lover as young woman, Paul, works to provide some measure of human kindness to the poor of the city and is frustrated at every turn.  Through the eyes of Helen and the other characters in the novel we see a panorama of the conflicts and frustration that makes up South African society under its strictures and oppressive taboos regarding race, ethnicity, and religion.  From the outside–and now with the benefit of history–we can see that this is a regime that cannot hold.  But beyond a novel of ideas, the greatest sin that Gordimer committed as a member of that society in this first novel is what is essential to making a great writer, it is in humanizing her characters and bringing them forth as three dimensional, communicating to the reader that these people in their interactions have an internal life like our own, regardless of their skin color or their background.  To those conservatives and defenders of the social order in her own time, this was just the first of many sins should would commit.

In the story Occasion for Loving, which was published in 1963, is told by the observant third party.  In this novel Jessie and Tom Stilwell are part of the liberal intellectual class of South Africa, leading a comfortable suburban existence.  It is through Jessie that the story is told.  The Stilwells supplement their income by renting out extra space and in this case it is to newly married Ann and Boaz Davis.  Boaz is a composer but he has been suffering writer’s block and so is busy collecting and transcribing the native tribal music of Africa before it disappears.  He is also Jewish in a land hostile to Jews.  Ann, for her part, is open to experience and challenges convention at every turn.  She is a young English woman used to getting her way.  Into the picture enters Gideon Shibalo, a talented and passionate young African man who has received a fellowship to study painting in Rome, but who is denied a passport by the South African authorities.  The Stilwells and Davises feel for Gideon’s injustice.  The Stilwells, in particular, given their status live in a world where normal social convention doesn’t seem to touch them. They travel to the townships at will and have contact with the Africans in defiance of the authorities, supporting organizations to overturn apartheid.  Along the way Ann falls in with Gideon.  But this is not some esoteric societal transgression.  The relationship between Ann and Gideon is a political crime with serious consequences if they are found out.  It is hard to tell Ann’s motivation when she and her lover decide to run away together, whether her personal “occasion for loving” is due to her true feelings or some other high minded motivation to save the young man’s dreams.  And so it is with all of the characters and the tragedy which this story becomes.  They try to insulate themselves from their actions through intellectualizing their actions, refusing to see that “…Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.”  In the end Ann is convinced by Jessie, who faces her own conflicts regarding her former first marriage, the child from that marriage, and her three children with Tom, to end the affair and return to Boaz.  In the end she is a realist regarding the difference between familial love and sexual love.  But Ms. Gordimer is not going to let her characters off the hook that easily, lest the book become another trivial potboiler.  She uses this form to explore the other aspects of the characters, the affair, and the larger context in which they occur.  Jesse may be a realist in matters of the heart, but can she really understand the motivation for the basic freedoms that Gideon is denied?  In the story’s “occasion for loving,” how complicit are the Stilwells and Davises, for all of their liberalism and moderation, in the oppressive and racist system that was South Africa?

A Guest of Honour published in 1970 garnered her the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which was her first major literary award.  It tells the story of a British colonial administrator by the name of Evelyn James Bray.  Mr. Bray is a pariah among the white settlers of the colony that he serves because of his activism in favor of the black freedom movement, and is forced to flee as a result.  A while after these events, however, the colony is granted its independence and Mr. Bray is invited back to the new republic by its chosen president.  The president is Adamson Mwete, a popular and gregarious man who lives in poverty one day only to be propelled to the head of a new country the next.  His closest friend and advisor has been Edward Shinza, both an intellectual man and one who can turn thought into action.  The two men–Mwete and Shinza–completed one another, were opposite sides of the same coin, but when Bray returns he notices that Shinza has fled to the bush.  Bray, who initially takes a passive role in celebrating the newly independent state, is pulled into the events that now take on a life of their own.  For the differing visions of Mwete and Shinza play out across the country in real time.  Mwete believes that the state first and foremost must benefit in order for everyone to benefit, while Shinza sees the benefits of freedom needing to play out in practicality, changing the lives of the people for the better.  Mwete is the more adept politician and so overwhelms his old friend and ally.  In implementing his program, he outsources the country’s mines to foreign interests, with the state sharing in the profits.  The hitch is that the workers must accept lower wages and poor working conditions.  The unions are thus co-opted to enforce the will of the state, as is the former independence party apparatus.  The workers, who had been the vanguard of the independence movement, are suppressed.  As popular discontent grows Mwete enforces ever increasingly oppressive measures, creating a police state not so different from the one that existed prior to independence, tying himself closer to the empire from which the country fled.  Foreign interests are invited in to bolster the regime and the rich are allowed to keep their fortunes and rule over the wage earners, subsistence farmers, and the poor; tied as they are to the largesse of the state and foreign economic interests.  Soon the old revolution returns, the president flees to England, and foreign troops arrive to restore order.  The storyline in A Guest of Honour seems all too familiar today with the benefit of 44 years hindsight since its publication; similar stories having been played out across Africa and Asia.  It is the story of a revolution gone bad, of ideals betrayed to expediency, of greed, of human stupidity and ignorance borne of the desire to do good but without the tools or the knowledge to know how to go about it.  It is an indictment of paternalism, of colonialism, of economic imperialism, and the savage cruelty of the strong over the weak.  For Gordimer writing from the perspective of 1970, it is a warning–a cautionary tale–of how things could turn out in the wake of apartheid’s removal.  But it is not simply a didactic exploration of philosophies or politics or consequences.  The characters live and breath and–all too frequently–err, as those in all great literature do.

Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist won her the Booker Prize, the most prestigious literary award in England, the equivalent to the National Book Award in this country.  To many it is considered her masterpiece, though there are many candidates for that title.  The novel’s lyrical telling is much like an impressionist painting, allowing the reader to see details that are only faintly described, the colors and overall effect communicating more than the misleading simplicity of the subject matter.  The main character is a wealthy white industrialist from Johannesburg by the name of Mehring, and it is through his perspective that the story is told.  He buys a 400 acre farm less than an hour from his work as a meeting place for his mistress, Antonia, and because the losses from the farm’s operations is a tax write-off.  In his mind he loves the land, but treats it as any other investment, viewing the productiveness of the cattle and cornfields as the ultimate measure of his stewardship while, at the same time, dismissing the concerns and well-being of the Zulu caretakers who run the farm.  The same can be said for all of the people in his life–he is disconnected from them and sees them only in terms of his holdings or what they offer him, in particular the need for young women to feed his sexual appetite.  The farm’s foreman, Jacobus, finds a dead body on the farm.  The police are called but the deceased man is black, and so the circumstances of his death are of little official concern.  The police bury the body where it is found.  This knowledge haunts Mehring throughout the novel.  The story, of course, is allegory, but one that contains a great deal of psychological wisdom and human insight.  It deals with the immediate issue of apartheid but it reveals much about human nature.  In the mind of Mehring we find a man whose self-image is driven by wanting to be seen as doing the “right” thing, of being a “proper” human being (one cannot characterize the self-interest he seeks and which is his central defining characteristic as “good”), at least in his mind’s eye.  That the language and perceptions of a racist and materialist worldview color his perspectives does not in the least come to mind.  For all of his wealth and internal drive there is little self-reflection or self-awareness.  It is only when the body of the unidentified black man is exhumed by a flood and he witnesses the black farm hands burying the man as if a relative that he feels his own isolation.  But that is the condition of all who would be rulers of a kingdom, even the petty ones of our own times.

In her overall body of work, for which she received the Nobel Prize in 1991, Nadine Gordimer challenged in her writing not only apartheid but all forms of oppression.  Her books are both cleared-eyed and brutally honest.  The wisdom to be learned from her body of work sits not in the polemics of freedom, but into the insights of how people come to terms with a great evil.

There are other works that I could have chose aside from these four.  There are her works that were famously banned in her native country:   A World of Strangers (1958)which tells the story of a white South African man who witnesses the brutality of apartheid and is force by conscience to join an organization like the ANC.  The novella, The Late Bourgeois World (1966), which was banned for a decade, directly attacks the privileged white suburban life upon which the slavery and repression of the black majority is based.  Burger’s Daughter (1979) about the daughter of a Communist activist in South Africa in the wake of her father’s death.  July’s People (1981) banned during the apartheid and post-apartheid period, in which she imagines a black revolution turned oppressive against white people, an upside down apartheid.

There are also the more recent novels.  A Sport of Nature (1987) about an angry young woman without a cause who is caught up in the politics of South Africa without being emotionally touched by them,  The House Gun (1998) explores the psychology of seemingly reasonable people who are forced to face the reality of their lives from a single act of violence.  The Pickup (2001), about the challenges of two lovers from different cultures without a country.  No Time Like the Present (2012), which chronicles the struggle of life in South Africa after the struggle.

In all of Ms. Gordimer’s works there are connections that tie people together even under a system of forced separation, though the psychological barriers of separation are just as real.  In the end, no matter what kind of justifications are built to separate people or that people use to insulate themselves or their tribe or their identify, the fact is that we are all connected in some way for what happens in the world around us.  Her writing attacks prejudice wherever it tries to hide, whether it be in others or in ourselves.

In thinking about the significant body of work left by Nadine Gordimer–for the short stories and short story collections, which I haven’t addressed here, are significant–I am struck by the fact that the American South never produced an author of the same stature in dealing with the defining evils of segregated southern society.  Certainly no one that combined Gordimer’s bravery, conviction, and writing talent.  Instead, we are left with only the alcohol-infused paternalist voice of William Faulkner, who dealt with issues of “miscegenation” early, but the oppression he witnessed is chronicled only obliquely, writing directly about what went on as a matter of course only once:  in his excellent Intruder in the Dust.  There are fairy tale stories and domestic concerns of Eudora Welty, the southern gothic of Carson McCullers, and the apologists like Robert Penn Warren (later reformed),  and Elizabeth Spencer.  Harper Lee, a southern expatriate, gave us To Kill a Mockingbird and nothing else.

This is not an indictment, necessarily, of American southern literature.  Certainly the effects of Jim Crow and the Black Codes have been told by African American authors (James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and others) and the occasional works of white southerners (such as William Styron) to great effect–and there are certainly other aspects of living in the American south.  But I find it interesting that the one voice during a significant period in our own history that consistently spoke against racial prejudice and oppression and the blind spot that societies construct to mask its effects and beneficiaries–and which appeared regularly in publications like The New Yorker–came from a South African author.  For this we owe a great deal of thanks to Nadine Gordimer.

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