BORN SPRINGS, SOUTH AFRICA, NOVEMBER 20, 1923. DIED SOUTH AFRICA, JULY 13, 2014 AGED 90
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