Her bet­ter judg­ment

Na­dine Gordimer’s read­ing list as a Man Booker judge has helped her evolve, writes John Free­man

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

NA­DINE Gordimer has been do­ing some reread­ing lately. Since last Novem­ber, when the 83- year- old No­bel lau­re­ate first got to­gether with Colm Toibin and Elaine Showal­ter, her fel­low judges on the sec­ond Man Booker In­ter­na­tional Prize com­mit­tee, she has read through a small li­brary of work by the 15 fi­nal­ists, from Peter Carey and Doris Less­ing to Car­los Fuentes and Alice Munro. The win­ner will be an­nounced this month. ‘‘ I made a plan to read, say, the first two books by each au­thor, one a bit fur­ther on, and then the book I thought was the work,’’ says Gordimer of her judg­ing strat­egy. ‘‘ Then I’d catch up to the mod­ern day. So I could see a pro­gres­sion.’’ It was a labour of love, she says, but it led to a mi­nor dis­cov­ery.

‘‘ In two cases, the book I thought was the book turned out to be even more ex­tra­or­di­nary than I re­mem­bered be­cause I had changed,’’ says Gordimer, sit­ting in a ho­tel suite in New York, where she has trav­elled from South Africa for the PEN World Voices fes­ti­val. ‘‘ I had lived more, I had ex­pe­ri­enced more. And there were things in those books that I un­der­stood now that I didn’t then. If you read a book at your age now, read it again in 20 years and you’ll get some­thing else.’’

Gordimer has stub­bornly re­fused to stop evolv­ing. Born in 1923 in Springs, Transvaal, she read her way into po­lit­i­cal aware­ness. Not much later, she wrote her way into anti- racist ac­tivism, win­ning the Booker Prize for her 1974 novel The Con­ser­va­tion­ist . When apartheid fell apart, it was spec­u­lated that her work would lose a cer­tain vi­tal­ity. Yet since South Africa’s first free elec­tions in 1994, she has pub­lished eight books, adapt­ing her fo­cus as the coun­try’s prob­lems shifted to the AIDS epi­demic, poverty and crime.

Dressed in el­e­gant shades of cream and grey, her hair ex­pertly coiffed, Gordimer hardly presents the por­trait of such a flexible artist. She has per­fect pos­ture and a sharp ear. To hear her speak is to ex­pe­ri­ence a gen­er­a­tional dis­so­nance: the clipped dic­tion and per­fect sen­tence struc­ture are a thing of the past, but her con­cerns — guns, the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings, the war in Iraq, South Africa’s creak­ing moves for­ward — could be ripped right out of the head­lines.

‘‘ Gra­ham Greene said, ‘ Wher­ever you live, what­ever the form of vi­o­lence is there, it be­comes sim­ply part of your life and the way you live,’ ’’ Gordimer says. And so it has been with her and the gun. She was spooked to dis­cover res­o­nances be­tween the Vir­ginia Tech mas­sacre and her 1998 novel The House Gun, in which a young man is driven to a crime of pas­sion. What she doesn’t say is that in other fiction — Get a Life ( 2005) — she pre­dicted some­thing else. Last year she was at­tacked in her home by three un­armed in­trud­ers who robbed her of cash. ‘‘ Th­ese men should have some­thing bet­ter to do than to rob two old ladies,’’ she said at the time.

Gordimer seems to take that episode in her stride, re­fus­ing to al­low it to spoil her no­tion of her coun­try.

‘‘ I think we were a lit­tle sur­prised by how much would have to hap­pen af­ter the change,’’ she says of life af­ter apartheid. ‘‘ We had the apartheid walls com­ing down and we had par­ties, and then we had to face each other, and I must say it was with a lot of courage and de­ter­mi­na­tion. Many things are wrong, but a great many things have been done to over­come the past in South Africa. But we now have the headache of the morn­ing af­ter.’’

Among the more promis­ing de­vel­op­ments is the emer­gence of voices that were al­most si­lenced by apartheid. At the PEN fes­ti­val, Gordimer cham­pi­oned the work of poet and nov­el­ist Mon­gane Wally Serote. Dur­ing his youth, be­sides writ­ing po­etry and fiction, he was a mil­i­tant ac­tive in the African Na­tional Congress. Ac­cord­ing to Gordimer, he had sev­eral brushes with death. Serote spent some time in the US, then re­turned to South Africa to join the first freely elected gov­ern­ment. Re­cently he took an­other step. He re­signed his po­si­tion and went into Zu­l­u­land to be­come a san­goma , a tra­di­tional healer or witch­doc­tor. Gordimer caught up with him not long ago and re­ceived a brief re- ed­u­ca­tion. ‘‘ I said, ‘ Do you mean you are mak­ing love po­tions and hate po­tions?’ And he said, ‘ No, no, no.’ I said, ‘ If some­one seems to be re­ally sick, if they’ve got symp­toms of HIV, do you give them holy wa­ter?’ He said, ‘ No, no, no.’ He said, ‘ Na­dine, you are so ig­no­rant!’ So I said, ‘ OK, Wally, I want to be in­formed.’ So he did.’’

One sub­ject on which Gordimer re­fuses to be re- ed­u­cated is Gunter Grass. The furore over rev­e­la­tions last year in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that he was a teenage sol­dier in the SS has not moved her to re­assess her friend. She finds the con­tro­versy symp­to­matic of a cul­ture ad­dicted to scan­dal but lack­ing con­text. ‘‘ If Gunter Grass in 1944, when Hitler knew he was los­ing the war, if he said: ‘ I won’t go’, he sim­ply would have been killed,’’ she says, her eyes fierce. ‘‘ And why did he keep quiet about it? Well, he didn’t keep quiet . . . If you read his books, the won­der­ful knowl­edge of what hap­pened to peo­ple, he never would have had it if he hadn’t gone through that ex­pe­ri­ence . . . I can­not feel any blame is due to him for what cir­cum­stance un­avoid­ably pressed upon him.’’

Un­like fel­low No­bel lau­re­ates such as Grass, Wole Soyinka and Dario Fo, Gordimer has no in­ten­tion of pub­lish­ing mem­oirs that re­visit her po­lit­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion. ‘‘ I don’t like to talk of things that my hus­band and I did as ac­tivists,’’ she says, her face crin­kling into a frown. ‘‘ As a writer, three of my books were banned. But I lacked that fi­nal courage to go to the front line. So for me to write such a book, it would re­quire ex­am­in­ing my private life and re­veal­ing it, and I feel that has got noth­ing to do with any­body else.’’

Aside from this dif­fer­ence, it’s clear that Gordimer sees in Grass some­thing of a kins­man, a man who warned that Ger­many’s re­uni­fi­ca­tion would be harder than any­one was will­ing to ad­mit. Gordimer recog­nises her coun­try is deal­ing with a sim­i­lar prob­lem. Sol­diers out of work af­ter the fall of apartheid got into con­tract­ing, so many mer­ce­nar­ies in Iraq come from South Africa. The coun­try is also awash with guns left over from sur­round­ing wars.

‘‘ A gun is now like the house cat,’’ Gordimer says. ‘‘ It’s sit­ting there on a shelf . . . and it can’t be locked up, since if some­one comes into your home you have to get it quickly. So it be­comes an or­di­nary ob­ject. And you get cases, we had one re­cently: a pupil, an­gry with his teacher, took the house gun and shot the teacher.’’

Ques­tions of race re­main, too, and they will be part of her forth­com­ing col­lec­tion of sto­ries, Beethoven was One- Six­teenth Black ( to be pub­lished by Blooms­bury in Novem­ber). The ti­tle comes from some­thing she heard on the ra­dio. ‘‘ Some­times the ravens feed you,’’ she says, flash­ing a smile. ‘‘ I was lis­ten­ing to a classical mu­sic sta­tion and there are th­ese peo­ple who do that old disc- jockey thing and ex­plain. In­tro­duc­ing one of his works, the an­nouncer said, ‘ By the way, Beethoven was one- six­teenth black.’ This fact, this DNA fact, re­ally in­trigued me.’’

Gordimer will pub­lish her 18th work of fiction a neat 70 years af­ter her de­but in the Sun­day pages of a South African news­pa­per. She’s hardly cel­e­brat­ing. Right now, her fo­cus is on push­ing an­other writer for­ward for the Man Booker In­ter­na­tional. ‘‘ We’ve got one more meet­ing. It will be in Dublin, where it’ll re­ally come down to the nitty- gritty. Each of us three judges . . . will have a par­tic­u­lar favourite. One of the good things about this is it’s been a monumental task of read­ing. We had to do our home­work.’’ John Free­man is pres­i­dent of the US Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle.

A flexible artist: Na­dine Gordimer with fel­low writer Salman Rushdie

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