Nadine Gordimer is now in her mid-eighties. For as long as I have been alive, she has been the towering figure of South African literature, a fact recognised in l991 by the Nobel committee. This is a collection of her non-fiction over 60 years, running to nearly 800 pages.
There is a belief, prevalent in South Africa, that she received the Nobel more for her politics than her literature. The distinction between politics and literature is to her absurd; she quotes with approval a maxim, ‘Once I am no more than a writer I will stop writing’.
No writer, she says, should be required to separate the inner life from a perception of the outer world. A writer, in her view, is someone who is deeply engaged with, and uniquely equipped to understand, the political and cultural life of his country, and of course in no country has the cultural and political life been more pressing or more present than in South Africa. These white matrons were advised to avoid ‘politics’ at all costs. Black people were from a world apart; no one even knew the full names of their servants and had no inkling of their real lives. Whites had a very comfortable life, but it came at a hidden cost; as the young Gordimer put it, ‘We do not suffer, but we are coarsened.’
From young adulthood, Gordimer was one of a very small band of whites who saw all too clearly the iniquity of apartheid and were active in their opposition. Most whites were perfectly happy to live with this iniquity. Apartheid laws anyway made it very difficult for whites to know black people intimately, but in the late Fifties, Gordimer became close to many of the leading black activists, including Chief Albert Luthuli, President of the ANC; she helped the ANC, which she joined, in potentially dangerous ways.
She refers in an early piece to Luthuli as ‘Chief’ as a sort of endearing, and hero-worshipping, nickname. I have the impression that what she envisaged then was an enlightened multi-racial government, peopled by statesmanlike Africans who would embrace liberal whites. Touchingly, after his release, Mandela, who is from the same mould as Luthuli, would invite himself to supper when he was lonely in his nearby mansion. There is an odd triangulation in this part of Johannesburg — the 50-acre estate of the Oppenheimers, the Mandela mansion, and the more modest, but nonetheless gracious Herbert Baker house of Nadine Gordimer. Her second husband was an art dealer and collector of great taste.
Among many other fascinating pieces, this book includes a fine account of her childhood in Springs, a dreary mining town near Johannesburg, and of her development as a writer. She had problems with schools, and often wanted to absent herself. This wasn’t from a dread of school, but a desire to be alone; she was always busy writing, although she was encouraged to think of herself only as a potential housewife. Writing was very far from the minds of her immigrant Jewish parents, her father from Lithuania, and her mother from Manchester.
She went to university in Johannesburg for a year only, but it opened her mind, she says. It also seems to have produced a certain angst, because there is something of the autodidact about her, and name- checking of the giants of literature is one of her trademarks. It’s perfectly understandable to me, too; I was brought up just two streets from Gordimer, and the international world of literature is infinitely appealing to someone from the sticks. Anyway, the girl from Springs found her short stories published round the world and she became a favourite of the New Yorker. Her short stories, I think, have been her finest achievement. As her career progressed, she was able to rub shoulders with literary giants from Octavio Paz to Salman Rushdie.
A clear pattern emerges from this collection: that serious writers tackle demonstrably weighty themes. She doesn’t seem to have much time for the Philip Roths of this world. Her own books are quite closely tied to the big political events of life in South Africa. She has latterly tried to deal with the rise of violence there, which she once told me was ‘the revenge of the repressed’. And she has had her own problems with the new dispensation: one of her books was placed, albeit only temporarily, on a list of reactionary works which should be removed from the school syllabus, and she describes with some pain the ignorance among young blacks of world literature, including, presumably, her own books. She has also been the victim of a terrifying robbery,when she was locked, with a servant, in the store-room of her house.
But she has an utterly admirable determination: in an appreciation of Paz she is really describing her credo:
Octavio Paz was one of those superb poets whose brilliance makes nonsense of the notion that taking on the turmoil and conflict in one’s society corrupts and destroys true creativity.
In this one sentence you have both the essence of Gordimer and you see her sensitivity to the idea that she is somehow tied to a political party, for better or for worse. She prefers to think of ‘values that are beyond history.’