Justin Cartwright

Positively Kafkaesque

This is a companion to a collection published earlier this year of Nadine Gordimer’s non-fiction, called Telling Times.

Positively Kafkaesque
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Life and Times: Stories 1952-2007

Nadine Gordimer

Bloomsbury, pp. 549, £

This is a companion to a collection published earlier this year of Nadine Gordimer’s non-fiction, called Telling Times.

This is a companion to a collection published earlier this year of Nadine Gordimer’s non-fiction, called Telling Times. Short stories are, of all her endeavours, the most successful. Their heyday was in the Seventies, when they perfectly realised the awful but fascinating contrasts of South African life.

As a boy I lived in Johannesburg just two streets away from Gordimer. She was a towering figure, known to be very close to the ANC. Her presence cast a certain penumbra over our modest house. She had run, it was said, certain missions for the ANC, although when I asked her about this a few years ago, she suggested that she had just helped leading figures like Albert Luthuli pass messages to others. It was extraordinarily difficult for black activists to move safely or convene under the constant threat of arrest. Whatever her protestations, the consequences would have been terrible if she had been caught. She has never been one to flinch.

Now, here’s an oddity. A few years ago I wrote a short story for this magazine, which imagined the bitter letter Franz Kafka’s father, Hermann, would have written in reply to the famous letter — Brief an den Vater— that his son wrote to him, but never posted. In it Kafka Jnr explains in effect how his father sucked all the life out of him. To my astonishment Gordimer has a story, ‘Letter from his Father’, also imagining Hermann’s answer to his neurasthenic son. Her letter is written from beyond the grave, but otherwise deals with much the same matter.

I wondered if I had, unconsciously, borrowed it from her, but I am sure I have never read it or seen the title. My own interest in Kafka’s letter came about when I was writing an article on Peter Ginz, the boy novelist held in Terezin, not far from Prague, and exterminated in Auschwitz by the Nazis. The Ginz family were from more or less the same milieu as the Kafkas. The only possible connection I can see is that anyone brought up in apartheid South Africa finds Kafka absolutely seminal. There is nothing more disturbing than a society in which rationality has been discontinued.

Because of the arrangement of this book it is easy to see the change over the years in Gordimer’s writing style. She has developed a number of tics, of repetition and ellipsis. Take this sentence from a late story, when Gordimer imagines meeting her dead friends, including Edward Said whom she revered:

I don’t know why it was a Chinese restaurant — ah, no, the choice is going to come clear later when a particular one of the guests arrives. Guests? Whose invitation is it. Who hosts. Such causation doesn’t apply; left behind. Look up and there’s Edward, the coin-clear profile of Edward Said that is aware how masculinely beautiful it still exists in photography, he’s turning this way and that to find where the table is that expects him. It’s his decision it’s this one.

I am not entirely sure what this extract means, nor what the point of the fractured syntax is. You know what she’s getting at, but you can’t help wondering why she’s dressing it up in this way. Compare this with an utterly limpid and beautiful piece from her much earlier ‘Town and Country Lovers’, the story of a white boy and his love and affection for a black girl whose family worked on his farm. In his holidays from boarding school they meet clandestinely:

It had always been a good spot for children’s games, down there hidden by the mesh of old, ant-eaten trees held in place by vigorous ones, wild asparagus bushing up between the trunks and here and there prickly pear cactus sunken-skinned and bristly, like an old man’s face, keeping alive sapless until the next rainy season . . . . One summer afternoon when there was water flowing there and it was very hot she waded in as they used to do when they were children, her dress bunched modestly and tucked into the legs of her pants.

This story — which is obviously going to end tragically — so accurately captures the mystery and humanity of the racial experience in South Africa, the fascination and the taboo that all South Africans know, that it doesn’t need its wider, more universal, context to be semaphored, as some of Gordimer’s later fiction does. Gordimer is thought of as a political writer, and it is true that she does not believe that she can be just a writer, withdrawn from the events around her. But sometimes I think she has done herself a disservice by tying her fiction too closely to the big themes of her times. By this I don’t mean that fiction should exclude big political issues — no sane person could believe that — but there is occasionally a sense in Gordimer’s work of trying to hammer home a point that is blindingly obvious.

The short stories, particularly those of the middle period — ‘The Diamond Mine’, for example, which details a young girl’s first sexual experience — 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.