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