Nadine Gordimer, 1923–2014
July 14, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Nadine Gordimer died yesterday in Johannesburg; she was ninety. Jannika Hurwitt described her, in an Art of Fiction interview published in our Summer 1983 issue, as “a petite, birdlike, soft-spoken woman”:
Gordimer manages to combine a fluidity and gentleness with the seemingly restrained and highly structured workings of her mind. It was as if the forty-odd years that she had devoted to writing had trained her to distill passion—and as a South African writer she is necessarily aware of being surrounded by passion on all sides—into form, whether of the written or spoken word.
As the Times obituary notes, Gordimer’s oeuvre constitutes “a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it … But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.”
The Paris Review published three of Gordimer’s stories. The first, from 1956, is “Face from Atlantis” which appeared in our thirteenth issue, revealing her striking gifts as a portraitist:
Eileen had a favorite among the photographs of her, too … The photograph was taken in Austria, on one of Waldeck’s skiing holidays. It was a clear print and the snow was blindingly white. In the middle of the whiteness stood a young girl, laughing away from the camera in the direction of something or someone outside the picture. Her little face, burnished by the sun, shone dark against the snow. There was a highlight on each firm, round cheekbone, accentuated in laughter.
“Children with the House to Themselves” appeared in 1986, as part of our hundredth issue, and “Across the Veld,” from our Winter 1989 issue, is full of the carefully observed, intricately drawn tensions that animate Gordimer’s work—as in this paragraph below, in which Hannah, the protagonist, ventures, in a bus full of whites, through a black township:
An avenue of black faces looked into the windows, pressing close, so that the combis had to slow to these people’s walking pace in order not to crush them under the wheels. No picnic party; the whites surrounded by, gazed at, gazing into the faces of these blacks who had stoned white drivers on a main road, who had taken control of this township out of the hands of white authority, who had refused to pay for the right to exist in the decaying ruins of the war against their presence too close across the veld; these people who killed police collaborators in their impotence to stop the police killing their children. One thing to read about these people, empathize with them, across the veld. Hannah, in her hide, felt the fear in her companions like a rise in temperature inside the vehicle. She slid open the window beside her. Instead of stones, black hands reached in, met and touched first hers and then those of all inside who reached out to them. The passengers jostled one another for the blessing of the hands, the healing touch. Some never saw the faces of those whose fingers they held for a moment before the combi’s progress broke the grasp. From the crush outside there were the cries “AMANDLA! VIVA!,” and joy when these were taken up by the whites. In the smiling haze of weekend drunks this procession of white people was part of the illusions that softened the realities of the week’s labour and made the improbable appear possible. The crowd began to sing, of course, and toi-toi in a half-dance, half-procession alongside the convoy, bringing, among the raised fists of some in the combis, a kind of embarrassed papal or royal weighing-of-air-in-the-hand as a gracious response from some others.
“I would like to say something about how I feel in general about what a novel, or any story, ought to be,” Gordimer said to end her Art of Fiction interview. “It’s a quotation from Kafka. He said, ‘A book ought to be an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.’ ”