Monday, 22 March 2010

Ethics and Aesthetics in Nadine Gordimer's Fiction

Nadine Gordimer seems to have reconciled the conflicting demands of ethics and aesthetics "in an age when any transcendental basis for ethics (as for aesthetics) is being denied in the name of politics", as John Coetzee has stated. Is an ethics possible without such a transcendental basis in view of deconstruction's premise that the text produces its own meanings in an endless play of the signifier?
The moral agency of the author is elided in the act of writing, so that the text reveals contradictions and silences that the author is not aware of. Whereas the author's conscious statements may be assigned to a rational subject, his/her silences form part of the collective unconscious of a class. This renders the idea of the moral responsibility of the author meaningless. The writer constructs "reality" from the vantage point of the subject which has been constituted by social texts. It is the critic's role to tease out these contradictions and silences.
Writing cannot be seen as a "natural" act, free from all social and political constraints. It is bound up with the social matrix of the writer as subject. His/her attempt to free the text from these constraints expresses a desire to change the social and political conditions underlying it. The author could be seen as an intersection of contradictory texts (an inter-text) which s/he does not fully control, yet for which s/he has to accept responsibility. One could distinguish an aesthetic freedom that affirms the dominant value system from one that questions it. The writer's choice between these options is both moral and political in nature. If the writer does not conform to the "truth" as defined by the norms of the ruling class, his/her construction of the "truth" will nevertheless bear the distortions of society, as Gordimer points out in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "(T)his aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist's rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him, then the writer's themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society."
If ethics involves a choice between two mutually exclusive options, then aesthetics suspends the law of necessity. It establishes the rules of its own game that allow the artist to say things which can neither be expressed in everyday speech nor in scientific discourse. Art extends and shifts the boundaries of language. This flux is triggered by the unconscious which manifests itself in metaphors, symbols, sounds, rhythm, the combination of opposites, contradictions, and the incommensurate. Although she checks the playful aspect of language by a sense of moral responsibility, Gordimer recognises the effect of the unconscious on her language. In her novels she often lets a protagonist re-examine his/her most deeply held beliefs through a confrontation with the repressed. The major social and political pressure on the writer in South Africa over the past forty years was apartheid. Gordimer wonders whether she would have become a writer at all, if she had been born "black", as she acquired her real education through reading. This presupposes access to a library, but even then she would only have had a choice between English literature and translations of European writers which would have confined her imagination to late 19th and early 20th century Europe and America. In The Lying Days, Helen Shaw reflects: "I had never read a book in which I myself was recognizable; in which there was a 'girl' like Anna who did the housework and the cooking and called the mother and father Missus and Baas; in which the children ate and lived closely with their parents and played in the lounge and went to the bioscope."
Gordimer is referring to the reality as experienced by a "white" South African girl in a small mining-town. Her position within the relations of class, race and gender imposes restrictions on Helen, which she becomes aware of in the course of the novel. In order to break out of these constraints she has to come to terms with the world of the "black" people in her town and, in a wider sense, South Africa. This confrontation forces her to make a moral decision. Helen becomes involved in the liberal politics of the forties and early fifties, but she has to admit its ineffectiveness in the light of the rise to power of Afrikaner nationalism in 1948. The system of apartheid imposes limits on Gordimer's imagination which are manifested in the split between her "actual" and "virtual" audience. Although her novels are implicitly addressed to a "black" revolutionary class, it is predominantly an overseas and local "white" élite that reads them. Her own social position excludes her from "the repressed black world that her writing cannot really be part of and from which [...] it cannot directly speak." Thus a "whole domain of South African life belongs to the 'unconscious' of her fiction". Despite her efforts to cross the boundary between "blacks" and "whites", the "black" becomes the Other in Gordimer's writing, for whom she must speak. The responsibility of articulating the historic demands of the "black" majority, who have been denied access to the means of cultural representation, became a moral injunction for "white" writers in the apartheid era. Instead of delivering moral sermons, Gordimer poses the major social and political questions of her time in such a way that demand an ethical response from her readers. She appeals to the author's and the reader's honesty: "My novels are anti-apartheid, not because of my personal abhorrence of apartheid, but because the society that is the very stuff of my work reveals itself ... if you write honestly about life in South Africa, apartheid damns itself."
Helen Shaw's journey of self-realization begins when she disobeys her parents' injunction orders not to go to the mining town alone. By defying their authority she overcomes the fear that inscribes their rules onto her body. The transgression of the familiar opens the possibility of self-knowledge. The recurrent image of the mirror reinforces this. It invokes the split between illusion and reality. The unfamiliar forces the subject to reassess its perception of reality. The mark of "reality" is its ugliness, that which lies beneath the thin veneer of "civilization" or which has been discarded by it. Dust and dirt are associated with the bodily functions, which in the absence of public toilets are performed on the street: "Even though it was winter there were flies here ... , and above the gusts of strong sweet putrescence enveloping suddenly from the eating house, the smoke of burned mealies and the rotten sweetness of discarded oranges squashed everywhere underfoot, there was the high, strong, nostril-burning smell of stale urine." This triggers a feeling of nausea and disgust in Helen: "I felt suddenly that I wanted to bat at my clothes and brush myself down and feel over my hair in case something had settled on me - some horrible dirt, something alive, perhaps." The obsession with smells and contagious diseases has strong racial overtones: "I looked at these dark brown faces - [...] ; wondering, receptive, unthinking, taking in with their eyes as earth takes water; close-eyed, sullen with the defensive sullenness of the defenceless; noisy and merry with the glee of the innocent." The "black" workers threaten the order of the "white" middle class. The stench and noise of the town is contrasted with the tennis party at home. Helen escapes the confines of her family only to reinforce her bonds with the "white" high society of Atherton.
The theme of putrefaction recurs in The Conservationist: The corpse of an anonymous "black" man on Mehring's farm is denied his proper burial rights by the "white" policemen . The body haunts both Mehring and the farm-labourers until it is returned to the land, closing the disruption of the continuity between the ancestors and the living. The main narrative, which changes between Mehring's and Jacobus' perspectives, is interspersed with fragments of Zulu mythology. Mehring's acquires the farm as a retreat from the business world of the city, although he wants a measure of profit from it. This stands in marked contrast to the relationship of his Afrikaans neighbours to their land. They are fiercely possessive of "their land" as it is their only means of survival, though in both cases the "black" labourers cultivate the land. Their knowledge of the land is belittled: They are "lazy" and lack the know-how of the "white" commercial farmer, but they are held responsible when anything goes wrong. Dispossessed of their land and the products of their labour, they have to produce a profit for their "white" employers. Despite its centrality to the novel, the question of land-ownership is never foregrounded. It remains a silence both in the narratives of Mehring and Jacobus, the "black" foreman. It is displaced by the question whether land-ownership should be hereditary or based on profit. Underlying this is the assumption that the land can be exploited infinitely. Mehring's utilitarian ideology is paralleled by his relationship to "blacks" and women: They can be bought and disposed of just like a piece of land. In their association with chaos and nature they pose a threat to the order of the intellect.
Mehring's view of the land and the elements as a threat carries political overtones, "as if the invader [i.e. the fire] were reconnoitring a place to cross - which eventually it did by leaping from reeds to reeds and burning down towards the hidden islands." Inorganic nature seems to possess an unfathomable force which encompasses both destruction and regeneration. After the fire everything seems dead except the "glancing river": "The river is extraordinarily strong, slithering and shining, already it seems to be making the new paths possible for it through the weakened foothold of destroyed reeds." The descriptions of nature have a distinctive sensual, even erotic quality.
In Burger's Daughter, Gordimer tests the collective values of a leading communist's family in the liberation movement against the virtues of individualism through the characters of Rosa Burger and Conrad. He sets in motion her self-questioning and it is to him that her memoirs in prison are addressed, although he might already be dead. She comments: "One is never talking to oneself, always one is addressed to someone. Suddenly, without knowing the reason, at different stages in one's life, one is addressing this person or that all the time, even dreams are performed before an audience." Through her exploration of her own desires which leads her to France and England, she redefines her role in the struggle for a society free of exploitation. When she is imprisoned on her return to South Africa, this is as a result of her own choice and not of a restriction imposed by her family. Her process of self-realization - including her moments of ecstasy and despair - is contained in this complex decision.
July's People anticipates the rupture of "white" society in what JanMohamed terms the "hypothetical, but really inevitable black rebellion which seems to have turned into a race war". Gordimer explores the effects of the civil war on an ordinary "white" family who seek refuge from it with the family of their "black" servant in one of the "homelands". In a reversal of the master-servant relationship, the "white" family has to unlearn its privileges and learn what it means to be dependant on a "benefactor". The novel does not reflect on the industrial workers who are potentially more revolutionary than the servant class, because of their ability to organize in the work-place. This is borne out by the powerful trade-union movement which emerged in the seventies.
In her latest novel My Son's Story, Nadine Gordimer adopts the persona of the son of a "black" activist, who is writing his first autobiographical novel. The protagonist, Will (named after William Shakespeare), records the story of his father's involvement in the struggle of the eighties, and how he is personally disillusioned when he finds out about his father's affair with a "white" woman. He becomes his father's reluctant confidante when he accidentally meets him at the cinema while he himself is playing truant. This discovery of his father's sexual infidelity, which suggests to him that his involvement in the liberation struggle is not merely altruistic, gives Will a sense of power. In retrospect he says: "What he did - my father - made me a writer." He sees his contribution to the politics of his country as that of a writer, distinct from his father's contribution as an activist. He explains this as follows: "I'm going to be the one to record, someday, what he and my mother/Aila and Baby and the others did, what it really was like to live a life determined by the struggle to be free, as desert dwellers' days are determined by the struggle against thirst and those of dwellers amid snow and ice by the struggle against the numbing of cold. That's what the struggle really is, not a platform slogan repeated like a TV jingle." Gordimer thus asserts the key role of literature in the reconstruction of society in the post-apartheid era. It intervenes at precisely that point where the slogan ends by exploring the relationship between individuals and society in depth and developing a new value system in that process. Nadine Gordimer received various international awards, culminating in the Nobel Prize in 1991. International acclaim brought her recognition in South Africa. This indicates a colonial relationship between South African literature and publishers in London and New York: Once a writer from the Third World has made it in the metropolis, s/he is re-exported into the Third World and celebrated as a "great" writer. A reviewer who does not wish to reinforce this form of colonialism needs to re-appropriate Gordimer's work within the South African context, from which it has been expropriated by the metropolis. This, I believe, can only be done by re-thinking the relationship of a writer to his/her community and its ethics.
Per Wästberg, Member of the Nobel Committee for Literature of the Swedish Academy states Nadine Gordimer’s South African Experience as Warrior of the Imagination (First published April 26, 2001).
Nadine Gordimer, born in 1923 and, in Seamus Heaney's words, one of "the guerrillas of the imagination," became the first South African and the seventh woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
Over half a century, Gordimer has written thirteen novels, over two hundred short stories, and several volumes of essays. Ten books are devoted to her works, and about two hundred critical essays appear in her bibliography. Few living authors have kept so many academics occupied. The best study, in my view, is Stephen Clingman's The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (London: Bloomsbury, 1993).
Gordimer's works have been translated into more than thirty languages. She herself has been awarded fifteen honorary doctorates and received major literary prizes. And she has given much personal support to individual writers.

Geiger Counter of Apartheid
Through the years, visitors have come to her house to inform, plead, and confess. She has been so deeply involved in the anti-apartheid struggle that one wonders how she managed to keep her integrity and observe South African society with such a discerning eye in her stories. In spite of her taking part in demonstrations, giving speeches, and travelling around the world supporting good causes, Gordimer is intensely private and guards her study, staying there through the mornings up to a late lunch. She does not make friends easily, says her oldest friend Anthony Sampson, but when she does she often retains them for life.
Gordimer endured the bleak decades, refusing to move abroad as so many others did. Her husband, Reinhold Cassirer, is a refugee from Nazi Germany, who served in the British Army in World War II. Her daughter settled in France, her son in New York; but she kept her lines open inside South Africa, out of commitment to black liberation and also for the sake of her own creativity and that of black South African writers who were silenced, for whom she had to speak.
Gordimer's Nobel Prize put the searchlight on a country in painful transition from an oppressive racism to a turbulent democracy. South Africa's literature is rich. But beyond doubt, Nadine Gordimer is the writer that most stubbornly has kept the true face of racism in front of us, in all its human complexities.
For fifty years, Gordimer has been the Geiger counter of apartheid and of the movements of people across the crust of South Africa. Her work reflects the psychic vibrations within that country, the road from passivity and blindness to resistance and struggle, the forbidden friendships, the censored soul, and the underground networks. She has outlined a free zone where it was possible to try out, in imagination, what life beyond apartheid might be like. She wrote as if censorship did not exist and as if there were readers willing to listen. In her characters, the major currents of contemporary history intersect.
Gordimer has created individuals who make their moral choices behind private doors and in the public sphere. She has painted a social background subtler than anything presented by political scientists, thus providing an insight into the roots of the struggle and the mechanisms of change that no historian could have matched.

Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress
Early in her career, before other white writers, Gordimer saw the inventive buoyancy and playful courage of Sophiatown's and Soweto's black intellectuals and politicians, the circles where young Nelson Mandela moved. Nadine's best friend, Bettie du Toit, was arrested in 1960, the year of Sharpeville, and so the political struggle entered her life. When Mandela and his colleagues were on trial for their lives, she became a close friend of their defence lawyers, Bram Fischer (the subject of Burger's Daughter) and George Bizos. Indeed, her proudest day, she says, was not when she was awarded the Nobel Prize (of which she gave a portion to the South African Congress of Writers) but when she testified at the Delmas trial in 1986, to save the lives of twenty-two ANC members, all of them accused of treason.
When Mandela was freed, Nadine Gordimer was one of the first he wished to see. "Strange to live in a country where there are still heroes." (Burger's Daughter)
Asked what she would write about when apartheid was over, Gordimer replied, "Life didn't end with apartheid; new life began." With her novels of the mid-1990's, None to Accompany Me and The House Gun, Gordimer proved that there is literary life after apartheid. In fact, her imagination was unbound; her books catch the social ambiguities of her time. She has not suffered the fate of some of her East European colleagues.
Gordimer endured the bleak decades, refusing to move abroad as so many others did. Her husband, Reinhold Cassirer, is a refugee from Nazi Germany, who served in the British Army in World War II. Her daughter settled in France, her son in New York; but she kept her lines open inside South Africa, out of commitment to black liberation and also for the sake of her own creativity and that of black South African writers who were silenced, for whom she had to speak.
Gordimer's Nobel Prize put the searchlight on a country in painful transition from an oppressive racism to a turbulent democracy. South Africa's literature is rich. But beyond doubt, Nadine Gordimer is the writer that most stubbornly has kept the true face of racism in front of us, in all its human complexities.
For fifty years, Gordimer has been the Geiger counter of apartheid and of the movements of people across the crust of South Africa. Her work reflects the psychic vibrations within that country, the road from passivity and blindness to resistance and struggle, the forbidden friendships, the censored soul, and the underground networks. She has outlined a free zone where it was possible to try out, in imagination, what life beyond apartheid might be like. She wrote as if censorship did not exist and as if there were readers willing to listen. In her characters, the major currents of contemporary history intersect.
Gordimer has created individuals who make their moral choices behind private doors and in the public sphere. She has painted a social background subtler than anything presented by political scientists, thus providing an insight into the roots of the struggle and the mechanisms of change that no historian could have matched.

Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress
Early in her career, before other white writers, Gordimer saw the inventive buoyancy and playful courage of Sophiatown's and Soweto's black intellectuals and politicians, the circles where young Nelson Mandela moved. Nadine's best friend, Bettie du Toit, was arrested in 1960, the year of Sharpeville, and so the political struggle entered her life. When Mandela and his colleagues were on trial for their lives, she became a close friend of their defence lawyers, Bram Fischer (the subject of Burger's Daughter) and George Bizos. Indeed, her proudest day, she says, was not when she was awarded the Nobel Prize (of which she gave a portion to the South African Congress of Writers) but when she testified at the Delmas trial in 1986, to save the lives of twenty-two ANC members, all of them accused of treason.
When Mandela was freed, Nadine Gordimer was one of the first he wished to see. "Strange to live in a country where there are still heroes." (Burger's Daughter)
Asked what she would write about when apartheid was over, Gordimer replied, "Life didn't end with apartheid; new life began." With her novels of the mid-1990's, None to Accompany Me and The House Gun, Gordimer proved that there is literary life after apartheid. In fact, her imagination was unbound; her books catch the social ambiguities of her time. She has not suffered the fate of some of her East European colleagues.
Race and Gender
The writer's task is to transform experience, to enter into the existence of others, whether they be black or white, men or women, and to use the tension in both participating and standing at the side. With her restless energy and prodigious discipline, Gordimer is able to put herself not only in the mind, but also in the body of criminal and saint, male or female, black or white. She herself contains many persons in one body: she grew up speaking English in the African mining town of Springs, was a Jewish girl in a Catholic convent school, and then was educated at home. Lonely, with a domineering mother, she wrote from an early age and published her first adult story at 15.
Her father was a Jewish watchmaker from the border between Latvia and Lithuania. He opened a jeweller's shop in Springs in Transvaal and sold trophy cups to shooting clubs, as well as engagement rings. He read nothing. Her mother, a transplanted Londoner, read aloud to her daughters. Troubled by the way blacks were treated, she founded a crèche, a nursery school for black children. Gordimer's father, on the other hand, to avoid being conspicuous, turned a blind eye to any reminder of the oppression he had himself been subjected to in czarist Russia. This is the world of The Lying Days. Without the library in her small town, Nadine may not have become a writer; she was well aware that blacks were not permitted to use the local library.
The Novel as History
Her first published volume appeared in 1949, the short-story collection Face to Face. The Lying Days, published in 1953, is about waking up from the naivete of a small colonial town. Gordimer wrote of "having a picnic in a beautiful cemetery where people were buried alive." South Africa is seen as a whites-only annex of European society, with middle-class suburbs, Sunday outings, and a blindness about anything lurking below the surface. The vast black population is regarded as if it was there only to serve whites in industry and at home.
The novel as history is something other than a historical novel," Nadine Gordimer has remarked. Her protagonists and their points of view are constantly shifting. It may be Hillela, the sexual rebel, amoral and intuitive, demolishing apartheid in her personal sphere; or Bray in A Guest of Honour, a good man, a fragile liberal, betrayed by the old empire that found him too radical and by the new that tramples him down in passing. Through the novels, Gordimer's historical consciousness grows. In A World of Strangers (1958), we find the dilemma of well-meaning liberalism, while in Occasion for Loving (1963), it is the insight of the humanist that apartheid cannot be reformed by pious words. The Late Bourgeois World (1966) reflects Nelson Mandela's decision to switch from passive resistance to sabotage.
Gordimer joined the ANC before it was legal to do so and was impatient with whites who accused the ANC of autocratic tendencies instead of influencing it by joining. She has herself been both loyal and critical, all the time safeguarding the integrity of her imagination. Her inspiration, rather than her cause for despair, are the dangerous but rewarding contradictions of South African society today.

Love and Politics
When I first met Nadine Gordimer in early 1959, she had just published A World of Strangers and moved from the exploration of her upbringing in The Lying Days (1953) to her first attempt to focus on the growing anti-apartheid movement and the multiracialism of the Drum set of Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi, and others. Her third novel, Occasion for Loving (1963) deals with the failure of tolerance and humanism; the increasing absurdity of the race laws brought friendship and love across the colour bar to a halt. In her fourth novel, The Late Bourgeois World (1966), the choice is between the naive idealism of saboteurs or the well-meaning cynicism of passive liberals.
In 1971, Gordimer published A Guest of Honour, a huge novel about the birth pangs of the new Africa. Individual history and great ideological perspectives are woven into a chronicle whose protagonists embody the social, political, and moral problems arising when a victorious liberation front splits up into factions. Idealism and good will are almost drowned by a new brutality and a corruption similar to that under colonial rule. It deals with policy formulation and backroom bargaining and uses trade union jargon, local language transposed into English, settler ironies, and nationalist slogans. It is a Henry Jamesian enterprise where society and marriage, politics and landscapes, mix without obscuring the pattern.
The novel as history is something other than a historical novel," Nadine Gordimer has remarked. Her protagonists and their points of view are constantly shifting. It may be Hillela, the sexual rebel, amoral and intuitive, demolishing apartheid in her personal sphere; or Bray in A Guest of Honour, a good man, a fragile liberal, betrayed by the old empire that found him too radical and by the new that tramples him down in passing. Through the novels, Gordimer's historical consciousness grows. In A World of Strangers (1958), we find the dilemma of well-meaning liberalism, while in Occasion for Loving (1963), it is the insight of the humanist that apartheid cannot be reformed by pious words. The Late Bourgeois World (1966) reflects Nelson Mandela's decision to switch from passive resistance to sabotage.
Gordimer joined the ANC before it was legal to do so and was impatient with whites who accused the ANC of autocratic tendencies instead of influencing it by joining. She has herself been both loyal and critical, all the time safeguarding the integrity of her imagination. Her inspiration, rather than her cause for despair, are the dangerous but rewarding contradictions of South African society today.

Love and Politics
When I first met Nadine Gordimer in early 1959, she had just published A World of Strangers and moved from the exploration of her upbringing in The Lying Days (1953) to her first attempt to focus on the growing anti-apartheid movement and the multiracialism of the Drum set of Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi, and others. Her third novel, Occasion for Loving (1963) deals with the failure of tolerance and humanism; the increasing absurdity of the race laws brought friendship and love across the colour bar to a halt. In her fourth novel, The Late Bourgeois World (1966), the choice is between the naive idealism of saboteurs or the well-meaning cynicism of passive liberals.
In 1971, Gordimer published A Guest of Honour, a huge novel about the birth pangs of the new Africa. Individual history and great ideological perspectives are woven into a chronicle whose protagonists embody the social, political, and moral problems arising when a victorious liberation front splits up into factions. Idealism and good will are almost drowned by a new brutality and a corruption similar to that under colonial rule. It deals with policy formulation and backroom bargaining and uses trade union jargon, local language transposed into English, settler ironies, and nationalist slogans. It is a Henry Jamesian enterprise where society and marriage, politics and landscapes, mix without obscuring the pattern.
The Conservationist, which won the Booker Prize for 1974, evokes the sterility of the white community. This novel is a kind of sequel to the first classic of South African literature, Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883), which can also be said of another remarkable novel centered on a farm, J M Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country (1977). Mehring, the Afrikaner antihero whose farm is as barren as his life, conserves both nature and the apartheid system, the one to keep the other at bay. He likes to preserve nature's variety but is in fact its exploiter; nor does nature return his sentimental love. In his moral vacuum, Mehring sees Africa returning to the possession of the blacks. Gordimer's powerful landscape descriptions become metaphors of the soul. Using Zulu creation myths, she looks in a new way at nature in South Africa, leaving her white predecessors in art and literature behind.
The Conservationist is a novel of ironies. Mehring is not a male chauvinist Boer; he is tolerant but no liberal, a financier using his farm as a tax-deductible expense. His leftist mistress travels round the world on his money. He likes to be seen as a country gentleman, but sexually he is a colonialist as we see when he picks up a coloured girl and takes her to an old mine property, only to be surprised by the mine guards.
The corpse of an unknown African is found on the farm, silently disputing Mehring's claim to his own clean soil. He identifies with the nameless black man under the reeds, burying him in a coffin. Yet the corpse haunting Mehring and his house (a symbol of South Africa) is the claim on Africa by those who possess no land at all.
The Conservationist is Gordimer's densest and most poetical novel. Its minute details and documentary precision form an intricate web of meanings where each stone, egg, and piece of marble carry symbolic implications. Here, as in July's People, Gordimer finds a fertile blend of narrative interest, rich language, and high moral seriousness, as well as rounded characters. She avoids explanations and leaves the reader free to interpret.

A Dialogue with the Future
Burger's Daughter (1979) is, in her own words, "a coded homage" to Bram Fischer, the communist lawyer who was sentenced to life in prison and whose name nobody was allowed to mention. Gordimer never claimed to portray him - although his daughter recognised their lives - but to convey the hidden truth behind a public person. The challenge to the writer is to penetrate official lies and facades, to see beyond and behind, with an intuition and insight unhampered by social conventions or family discretion. She intended, she said, "to bring to a broad canvas the position of the white Left in South Africa, and the extraordinary dynasty of belief and struggle in these families."
Two of her major works, July's People (1981) and My Son's Story (1990), deal, on several symbolic levels, with individual fates and the terrible choices forced upon people by an inhuman ideology. In the latter, Gordimer catches both the unexpected moment when the revolutionary spark ignites and the daily routine when internal dissension rocks the upper reaches of the anti-apartheid movement. The novel's central character, a mixed race man named Sonny, is trapped between being a teacher and a politician, a father and a husband. About to enter a political collective struggle, he is caught between one state and another to come; he is himself the transition. Through him, and others, Gordimer enters into a dialogue with the future, with the absent forces that are to rule our lives in years ahead.
Gordimer reveals situations when reality suddenly takes another course and we are caught in our roles and expectations, in the traps of skin colour, class, family, and the body itself. She is drawn to those who try to escape from the trap: What makes the suburban housewife become an underground agent, the lawyer to sacrifice his life for a future not his, the young architect to hide a black freedom fighter? How do faithfulness and betrayal interact in an erotic and political context?
July's People are Maureen and Bamford Smales, he an architect, she a housewife and former dancer, with three children, a nice suburban house, and a servant named July. It is a parable of the future: the servant hides his master's family to protect them from catastrophe. July has been their "boy" for fifteen years, and "his people" are his educated, good, white South African employers, as well as his own people, his black family and villagers deep in the country. In July's People, Gordimer portrays a future bloody South African revolution, which happily never took place. Instead there was the free election of 1994, the country narrowly drawing back from the brink of civil war.
Having stayed with Nadine Gordimer and her husband for several weeks at that time, I remember the joy, the laughter, and the hunger to see all and hear all of the miracles around us. "To have lived to see the end coming, and to have had some tiny part in it has been extraordinary and wonderful," she said in 1994. "It's like birth. As the baby's head is moulded by its passage down the birth canal so in South Africa your head, your mentality, your spirit, [are] forced into strange shapes by those extraordinary laws."
A Sport of Nature (1987) is Gordimer's most hazardous undertaking. Like A Guest of Honour, it is novel as history. Hillela runs off from an idyllic childhood to prove her sexuality and dive into the mess of the world's variety. Gordimer's empathy and affection are again with the blacks. It is a Cinderella tale summing up Africa's postcolonial history. Hillela is a despised daughter who enters palaces and presidencies through her political and sexual alliances. She marries an unscrupulous West African politician who becomes president of an African country and so attends the installation of the first South African black president (a thinly disguised Nelson Mandela). The finale is a vision of the future, but the focus is on Hillela as an honoured guest of a country where she was once a rebellious little white nobody. With Hillela, the intelligent, sensual heroine of a political picaresque, "Gordimer has met a fictional character she almost entirely loves," says her biographer Stephen Clingman. Gordimer took political and literary risks in this brutal fairy-tale of the dreadful year 1987, but she was right in predicting that liberation was only a few years away.

The Search for Identity
Nadine Gordimer's great themes are love and politics. Behind the most intimate relations, as well as the most public, there is the same search for an identity, a self-confirmation, and a wish to belong and exist. For Gordimer, the novel and the short story are instruments to penetrate a society that defends itself against scrutiny, hides in censorship and hypocrisy, refuses to recognise its history, and thus produces a grammar of lies where capitalism, liberalism, and Marxism mean the same thing: an onslaught on the volk. She enters people's most intimate regions to show how private life is violated by informers and race registers. To write from within the personal sphere and make it public is the contrary to the police method of crashing into houses to confiscate letters and diaries, an act the teenaged Gordimer herself witnessed when the police raided a servant's room in her family's house.
Her characters live in the shadow of violence, threatened by unpredictable brutality. Races and classes, conventions and codes ferment in a decoction of final showdowns and a mysteriously glimmering hope of unexpected mergers and elective affinities outlined in the sands of the future. Through her language and fearless characterisation, Gordimer became a counterweight to the regime's propaganda. Unsentimental and diagnostic, she reports from the heart of darkness.
In a country that for so long feared new thoughts and orientations, Gordimer has scraped away the many layers of prejudice and egoism; she has dug out the fragile roots of a common fate and made us glimpse the brilliant colours of a world untainted by apartheid.

Characters
Her novel The House Gun (1998) is a morally complex, moving story from the liberated South Africa. A white murderer may now be defended by a black lawyer; in fact, it is this highly educated black man on whom two intelligent, well-read parents depend for the survival and sanity of their souls and for the redefinition of meaning in their lives. Their son has killed a man he loves, out of jealousy. Natalie, the mistress who is the impetus for the murder, is self-destructive and rebels against every form of personal dependence. It is a fable of violence and the search for new forms of freedom; it is also courtroom reportage. Had not the house gun been around, as it generally is in white families, no murder would have happened. This, in turn, evokes reflection on the fact of the general rise of violence in the world. The gun bought like any commodity in many countries – in the United States, Great Britain, France, or Japan – serves domestic violence and often falls into the hands of a child, with tragic consequences.
Gordimer's style and perspective, more complex in the two latest novels, reflect on her words about the writer's dialectic: the tension between "excessive preoccupation and identification with the lives of others" and a "monstrous detachment." The House Gun has a definite voice of its own. Like The Conservationist, it stands stylistically apart from many of her other works. Who is the subject of this tragedy? Where are our edges? Where do the boundaries of self overlap, making each one responsible for the other's reality in a time of swift flux?
Gordimer is not afraid to present women of extraordinary intelligence and utmost delicacy of feeling as well as their vulgar counterparts. Take the human rights lawyer, Vera Stark, in None to Accompany Me. She is tormented by her husband Bennet's love, which remains the same without taking in what has happened around them. Vera wants someone who is committed to matters she thinks are important. She finds in work a defiant independence, which earlier she has experienced in her erotic life. Her foremost responsibility is with the liberation struggle and with her own sense of self.
Becoming free, Vera locks herself out from most of what other people want their freedom for. In the end, she persuades herself that only without Bennet can she become a genuine human being. She suffers pangs of conscience because, in his uninvolved innocence, he cannot understand her rebellion. It is the solitariness – none to accompany me – in the midst of her community activism and her work for victims of persecution that is the paradox of Vera's life. She is looking for a combat-free zone on a battlefield. In her comradeship with those who are risking their lives, Vera gets closer to her black colleagues than she does to her husband.
Gordimer's strength, here and elsewhere, is that she confronts bold and dangerous questions and gives them form without offering a ready answer. How can one keep one's hands clean while working against a dirty regime that does not shrink from using any means at its disposal? Does freedom consist in losing the past bit by bit? Why is there always someone who cannot afford to remember and others who are incapable of forgetting, however much they want to?
The Truth of Fiction
Nadine Gordimer has never written an autobiography or produced testimonies. She works in the imaginative dimension, always on an expedition into the mysteries of human experience. She does not appear "armed and dangerous," as her friend Ronnie Kasrils, one-time terrorist, later cabinet minister, was described by the police as late as 1992; but, in fact, she is, for hardly anyone has so vividly alerted the world to how apartheid undermined relations between people and made innocence criminal.
"Nothing I say in essays and articles will be as true as my fiction," she stated in an interview in Transition (no. 56, 1992). Because fiction is a disguise, it can "encompass all the things that go unsaid among other people and in yourself... There is always, subconsciously, some kind of self-censorship in nonfiction." She added that, in a certain sense, a writer is selected by her subject, which is the consciousness of her own era.
Today, Nadine Gordimer lives and writes in a half-formed society of a kind almost never before seen on earth. Black and white have agreed to bring about a multiracial democracy by their faith as much as by their work. But the present stems from the past, and apartheid's contempt for human life now expresses itself in street killings, gang massacres, and armed robbery.
Gordimer's territory has always been the border between private emotions and external forces. There are no neutral zones where people can rest unobserved. In a land of lies, everyone lives a double life. Only love, the erotic dimension, stands for a sort of liberty, the glimpse of a more truthful existence. Outside the lovers' chamber, there is a society, greedy, immoral where empathy and responsibility for others, whatever skin colour, are rare. Thus, every meeting becomes instrumental or absurd. In many of her stories, Gordimer reminds us that the future of South Africa is not only a question of votes for all but one that requires immense effort to create a civil spirit, allowing people to look each other in the eye.
The responsibility of love and the loss of understanding, the loss of a grip on the world that comes with the end of love, are central themes in all of Gordimer's books. She is a moralist of a kind Alfred Nobel would have approved. She finds an uncommitted life not worth living. Her revolutionaries or human rights lawyers may have agonising personal problems, but they do not give up. In her later novels, there are people with energy and vision, as well as those who see nothing clearly – the former women, the latter often men. Gordimer seems to keep her characters at a distance in order to maintain a sense of the unknowable. Then one may discover, as André Brink says, "that one's very attempt at understanding or confronting the mystery opens up spaces of awareness one has not suspected before." Her true concerns reach beyond issues of the time to test the limits of human relationships and of language itself.

The Writer's MissionThanks to Nadine's and Reinhold's hospitality and our friendship of more than forty years, I have stayed in their house, built around 1910, longer than in anyone's house. It has hardly changed; I know every corner of it – her books, the paintings and the African handicraft she and Reinhold have collected over the years, the smells, the way to move in the kitchen and in the garden. The house is like the childhood retreat where I spent my summer holidays. A tree planted just before I visited the house for the first time is now huge. The police has never raided the house, although she has hidden some ANC fighters during a national alert for their seizure.

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