Na­dine Gordimer

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -


AFAN once way­laid the No­bel prizewin­ning writer Na­dine Gordimer at a PEN con­fer­ence, and mis­tak­enly ad­dressed her as Dame Na­dine. “I hate the ti­tle Dame. It’s like some­thing from Mother Goose”. Gordimer told me when I in­ter­viewed her for the JC af­ter the con­fer­ence..

But the mis­take was not dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand. A quiet, al­most mag­is­te­rial ra­di­ance seemed to em­anate from the South African au­thor of 15 nov­els, in­clud­ing The Late Bour­geois World, A Guest of Hon­our (1970) The Con­ser­va­tion­ist, (1974), Burger’s Daugh­ter (1979) and July’s Peo­ple (1981).

By the time I met her, she had al­ready won sev­eral lit­er­ary awards, in­clud­ing The James Tait Black Memo­rial Prize and Booker Prize and she be­came South Africa’s first win­ner of the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in 1991. Some crit­ics have com­pared her to Tur­genev.

It was an ironic pe­riod for writ­ers. As Gordimer grap­pled with apartheid and the emer­gent force of black peo­ple in South Africa, the po­lit­i­cal strug­gles faced by writ­ers in places like Eastern Europe ap­peared to be over. Her com­pul­sion was to present both the surge of African na­tion­al­ism and a more pri­vate, hu­man des­tiny.

Gordimer was in Lon­don to re­ceive the Ben­son Medal from the Royal So­ci­ety of Lit­er­a­ture and to at­tend a con­fer­ence at the Ox­ford Cen­tre for African Stud­ies. I could imag­ine her in the role of Burger’s Daugh­ter – the pro­tag­o­nist named af­ter Rosa Lux­em­bourg who lives un­der the shadow of her anti-apartheid ac­tivist fa­ther. The dif­fer­ence of course was that Gordimer’s Lon­don-born sec­u­lar Jewish, mid­dle-class mother Han­nah, and Lat­vian fa­ther Isi­dore, a jew­eller, were busi­ness peo­ple on whom the aware­ness of apartheid had barely dawned.

Their Jewish im­mi­grant sta­tus fil­ters through her work. She was tem­po­rar­ily ed­u­cated at a Catholic con­vent but her mother mys­te­ri­ously re­moved her and she be­gan writ­ing at the age of nine, be­cause she “loved show­ing off – danc­ing, act­ing, etc – the whole ba­sis of imag­i­na­tion stems from child­hood”. But it soon dawned on her that all her priv­i­leges were white; school, entertainment and – the trig­ger to her po­lit­i­cal aware­ness – the li­brary.

“I re­alised that if I had been a black child I would not have been a writer”. Gordimer pub­lished her first sto­ries at the age of 15. Her year at the Wit­wa­ter­srand Univer­sity in­tro­duced her to black writ­ers and in­tel­lec­tu­als of the stature of Es’kia Mpha­halele, Nat Nakasa, Todd Mat­shik­iza and Lewis Nkosi.

She moved to Jo­han­nes­burg in 1948 from where she launched her lit­er­ary ca­reer, first in South African mag­a­zines and later in in­ter­na­tional jour­nals like the New Yorker. She mar­ried twice – both hus­bands were Jewish – first to Jo­han­nes­burg art gallery owner Ger­ald Gavron with whom she had a daugh­ter Ori­ane and af­ter they di­vorced, to Rein­hold Cassier, an art dealer, in 1954. They had a son, Hugo.

She was much con­cerned with the role of writ­ers en­joy­ing lit­er­ary free­doms for the first time. So while re­joic­ing in the post-glas­nost lib­er­a­tion for East Euro­pean writ­ers she be­lieved writ­ers were never free of the past. Some feared what to write next, hav­ing al­ways used al­le­gory and sim­i­lar lit­er­ary de­vices to con­ceal the true na­ture of their writ­ing, she said. It was a dif­fer­ent case with South African writ­ers, who rarely used al­le­gory, be­cause they were not con­sid­ered im­por­tant as a group who op­posed the sys­tem. Books were rarely banned be­cause they sim­ply did not reach the masses. No-one, she said, was ever imprisoned for what he wrote.

“Changes af­fect fic­tion writ­ers slowly. Many writ­ers may jump on band­wag­ons in to­day’s cli­mate of sud­den po­lit­i­cal change, but real writ­ers take longer to di­gest events”.

Like many South African writ­ers of her era, Gordimer pub­lished most of her nov­els abroad , first Si­mon & Schus­ter then Vic­tor Gol­lancz and Cape, but she grad­u­ally un­der­stood she was sup-


No­bel Prize-win­ner Na­dine Gordimer: writ­ers are never free of the past

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