What is lost when Nadine Gordimer’s personal library accidentally winds up in boxes on the street?
I was a student in the University of Cape Town’s English department when the Ransom Center acquired J. M. Coetzee’s papers. This was in 2012, when to be a student in the English department at UCT was to be required to hold a strong, fluently expressed opinion on J. M. Coetzee, his life, his work, the position he held within the South African academy, and whether or not there was a “fascinating contrast” between that position and the one he held overseas. Extra points if you could get all this off while referring to him at least once as “John Maxwell Coetzee” in an ironic and weary tone of voice. I never really got to the bottom of why people liked that so much, saying “John Maxwell Coetzee” and then looking around proudly, sometimes with the nostrils a bit flared. I’d managed to discharge the obligation to have an opinion on Coetzee by having a strident opinion on Nadine Gordimer instead, and so never learned why it was hilarious to refer to him by something other than his initials.
I did learn to smile knowingly when it happened, which was very often. No smiling about the Ransom Center acquisition though, a subject that was discussed with such bitterness that for a while I thought “Ransom Center” was departmental shorthand for American rapaciousness, something to do with rich U.S. institutions holding the rest of the world to ransom, riding roughshod over questions of legacy and snatching up bits of history to which they had no rightful claim. The Harry Ransom Center is of course a real place, situated on the University of Texas campus, containing one of the most extensive and valuable archival collections in the world. One million books, five million photographs, a hundred thousand works of art, and forty-two million literary manuscripts. Highlights of the collection, according to the center’s unusually user-friendly website, include a complete copy of the Gutenberg Bible, a First Folio, and the manuscript collections of Capote, Carrington, Coetzee, Coleridge, Conrad, Crane, Crowley, Cummings, and Cusk, looking at just the c’s. James Joyce’s personal library from when he lived in Trieste is in there, as well as the personal libraries of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Don DeLillo, and Evelyn Waugh.
A friend who went to UT told me that the Ransom Center is an ordinary-looking building, big and brown, and that it would be easy to walk past and have no idea what was in there. She said that undergraduates do it every day. I have confirmed this description by looking at photos online, but it doesn’t sit right with me on a symbolic level. It should be bigger, surely, resembling more of a compound or fortress. It should emit some kind of low humming sound, or glow. Forty-two million manuscripts! A million books! Kilometers of archival holdings in climate-controlled rooms, all wrapped up in sheaves and purpose-built cardboard boxes, lovingly tended to by armies of well-compensated grad students. This same friend was doing some work in the archives when they received Norman Mailer’s manuscripts. Great jubilation heard throughout the Center, she said. A week of celebrations culminated in a party where all the attendees were given little boxing-glove key rings.
I didn’t know all that then, only that the Center had a lot of money, and that people in my department said it had effectively ripped Coetzee’s papers out of the hands of South African scholars forever. Cape Town is far away from a lot of places, but it is very far away from Texas. Even if you got funded, who would have the resources or the time to apply for the visa (expensive, takes ages), travel to Texas, and then sit in the reading rooms of the Center for months, going through the small spiral notebooks in which the earliest drafts of Waiting for the Barbarians were sketched out? I sympathized, but not very much. The bulk of Gordimer’s papers, as far as I knew, had been at the Lilly Library in Indiana since 1993. Also very far away, also involving grant applications in order to travel for many days, and the reading room was probably not even as nice. I had long ago accepted that I was just not the sort of person to overcome these obstacles, and I thought the Coetzee people should see their problem in a similar light. They might never actually touch the manuscripts with their own two hands, but someone would, and surely it was nice to know they were being looked after so well. David Foster Wallace’s archive, which included about two hundred annotated books from his own library, had been acquired by the Center two years earlier. There were already stories of students going to Texas purely to sit and commune with his library, weeping over his copy of White Noise, touching the pages of certain books over and over until they went all soft and frilly and had to be removed from general circulation, replaced with digitized copies. I myself could not imagine getting on a plane in order to touch a book, but I liked the idea that some people would, and that there were institutions with the money and the will to facilitate this kind of behavior.
It’s possible, also, that I was able to take this benevolent view of things because the documents I needed for my own research were housed in a building about a ten-minute walk from my front door, at the Western Cape Provincial Archives on Roeland Street. I was writing about literary censorship during apartheid, with a particular focus on the state’s treatment of the novels of Nadine Gordimer. Six of her novels passed through the system. Three were banned and three weren’t. There was no discernible logic behind these decisions. The Publications Control Board was accountable to almost no one, and the censors were given extraordinary freedom to ban whatever they liked. Often what they did with that freedom was write long, rambling, defensive accounts of their decisions.
I was fascinated and disgusted by their reports, the venom and the stupidity and the intellectual waste they represented. I’d go to the archives to fish out a specific set of documents—say, the files pertaining to the appeal against the banning of Burger’s Daughter—and I’d end up stuck there for a whole day, and then a week, helplessly reading through a knee-high stack of files relating to the censor’s opinions on Pale Fire, or a stash of letters from members of the public demanding that the censors do something about copies of Franny and Zooey continuing to circulate through the nation’s public libraries (“dangerous filth emanating from a certain class of writer in the United States of America and masquerading as ‘culture’”). I’d worked out that these boxes of files amounted to just under a hundred linear meters’ worth of material, and I hated the idea that I would never be able to look through it all.
There’s been quite a lot written about apartheid censorship, some of it by Gordimer herself. Many of those documents had already been read and analyzed by researchers much more rigorous than I was, yet I still wanted to read it all myself. Even worse was the near certainty that there were boxes that no one had looked at, full of Christ knows what, but all too probably some pieces of paper that would upend every assumption anyone had ever made about the way apartheid censorship worked, potentially transforming book history as a field, enlarging our understanding of the making and unmaking of the authoritarian state, et cetera. I was rereading Middlemarch around this period, and I kept finding myself getting tearfully defensive on Mr. Casaubon’s behalf. There have been books written about this feeling, and I read some of them, making notes in the margins about the ones I needed to read next. I read Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, and drew a red wiggly line under the part where she says that Archive Fever is “the desire to recover moments of inception: to find and possess all sorts of beginnings.” Carolyn Steedman, thank you very much. I drew a less vigorous line under the part where she withdraws that understanding hand and says, “And nothing starts in the Archive, nothing, ever at all, though things certainly end up there. You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught halfway through: the middle of things; discontinuities.” I knew she was right, that every archive is necessarily fragmented and incomplete, but I didn’t like it.
I stopped being a student, eventually, after finally managing to wrench myself out of the archives and write something about what I believed I’d found. I stopped worrying that I hadn’t looked at enough of it, because of course I hadn’t, and I stopped making urgent notes to myself in the margins of Gordimer’s novels. I read her books for pleasure again, and tried not to look too proprietorial whenever her work came up in conversation, because no one cares about your thesis.
Still, when the rumor started going around that Wits University had accidentally given away the library Gordimer had donated, the story was passed on to me repeatedly, by friends who were sure I’d be especially interested, as an archives person, as a Gordimer person, as a nerd. There was a text message, forwarded by a friend of a friend of a friend, saying that someone had walked past the library and seen boxes of books inscribed to Gordimer piled up outside, with a notice saying they were free for anyone to take. There was a sort of blind item in the Mail & Guardian, inserted into a longer article about the failures of record keeping in postapartheid South Africa, about someone whose acquaintance had seen books stacked up outside a library, and noted that several of them were “inscribed to the Nobel laureate, some from other writers of equal renown.” The piece did not go on to name the library, or the Nobel laureate, but it was easy to see who was being referred to. South Africa has two Nobel laureates, and absolute hell would have broken loose if the books left outside the library had belonged to the other one. The Ransom Center would have instituted some kind of contact-tracing effort, or put up wanted posters all over Johannesburg until every last book had been returned. Of course it was Gordimer. For those left in any doubt, the piece also included a photograph of the Nobel laureate, holding her cat.
According to the piece, and to the various versions of the rumor floating around, the university realized what had happened pretty quickly. A call was sent out asking that the books be returned, and apparently most of them were. This is a nice idea, but it doesn’t really work when you think about it. Unless the collection was catalogued before being thrown out, how could anyone be sure that all of the books had been returned? If the collection had been catalogued, why would anyone give it away, knowing who it belonged to? I hated this story when I first heard it. It seemed to say a number of extremely depressing things very quickly, mostly about the role that money plays in legacy formation. It’s easy to imagine how it could have happened. The Nobel laureate bequeaths her library to the university, which is desperately underfunded and five years deep into a fees crisis. The books are received, but there’s nowhere to put them, and no money to pay a grad student to go through them all. No question of there being an exhibition anytime soon, or a week’s worth of celebrations culminating in a party where attendees are given a key ring with a silhouette of the mine dumps around Johannesburg. The books are put into a storage room, maybe with the labels on the boxes turned to the wall, and then maybe one day a new employee comes along and thinks the time has come to free up a bit of space back here. I couldn’t stand thinking about this. I hated the idea that Gordimer’s library was scattered throughout Johannesburg, while David Foster Wallace’s was getting breathed on reverently in Texas. I wanted somebody to kick up a fuss, call the manager, mount an aggressive publicity campaign. When Frank Kermode’s library was lost during a move (the story is that he mistook the Cambridge trash collectors for the removal men), it made the front page of the Times: “Professor’s first editions end up in dustcart.” Thirty boxes of first editions, manuscripts, and volumes with personal dedications, thrown into the compactor and crushed. Kermode claimed twenty thousand pounds in compensation, which was contested by the council on the grounds that it was not their fault that he had gotten removal men and trash collectors mixed up, and that “once it was realized they had been mistaken for removal men, they could not go back into the vehicle to rescue the professor’s belongings, because you cannot crawl into a compacting machine.” For a short article, there is a lot of vivid detail about the crushing process, but nothing about what was actually in those boxes, and nothing about how Kermode arrived at twenty thousand pounds as a figure commensurate with the loss.
There’s a part of me that feels the loss is incalculable. What if there was something in one of those crushed boxes that would have transformed literary criticism forever? What if we were looking at a sort of key-to-all-mythologies situation, something that could have cracked the case wide open? This is the same part of me that spent months thinking about Gordimer’s library and moaning quietly to myself, asking friends if they wanted to hear an unbelievably sad story, and going on to tell them all about it even when they said no. Such waste and neglect, so much that we’ll never be able to figure out now.
The university librarians sent me a list of what is currently in their possession: 526 books, many of them with a strong quality of “reading material you would expect to find in Nadine Gordimer’s library”. Deutscher’s biography of Stalin, a Tutu biography, Ahmed Kathrada’s letters from Robben Island, The Gulag Archipelago, a Turkish translation of July’s People, three copies of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, the letters of Simone Weil, The Complete Correspondence of Adorno and Benjamin, fifteen copies of Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black, a lot by other South African writers (Bessie Head, Zakes Mda, Es’kia Mphahlele, Ivan Vladislavic), a lot of African writers (Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish, published in 2005, is one of the few books with a twenty-first century publication date), a lot of Thomas Mann, a lot of books about Thomas Mann (including one called Thomas Mann: The Ironic German), a lot of ironic Germans in general. There’s less Sontag than I would have expected—there’s none, actually—and less poetry. There’s less Dostoyevsky (just The Brothers Karamazov), less Tolstoy (just The Kreutzer Sonata), less Lawrence (just The Kangaroo), and less Turgenev (just one volume of the collected works). There’s no Roth, no Rushdie, and no real way to work out why this might be. It could be that there is a copy of American Pastoral with a flirty inscription from Roth sitting on someone’s shelf in Rosebank right now, next to a heavily annotated copy of Against Interpretation, full of notes in the margins that reveal something extraordinary about Gordimer and Sontag’s friendship. There might be a copy of Anna Karenina out there somewhere with pencil markings next to all the bits about Anna’s ears, like in Edith Wharton’s copy of the novel, and this discovery might pave the way for a whole breakthrough in Tolstoy studies, or at least be a good excuse to hold a conference culminating in a party where the attendees are given tote bags featuring a drawing of a neat, feminine ear.
It could also be that the reason there’s no Rushdie or Dostoyevsky among the 526 books is because Gordimer had lent them to friends, or thrown them out herself years earlier to make room for more ironic Germans. It might be that she’d gotten rid of some of her books for the same reasons that my parents constantly bring up, which is that they don’t want my brother and I to have to deal with it after they die. There could have been some kind of crushing incident years earlier that never made it into the papers, or the living room could have gotten flooded, or she made a decision not to have any books by Sontag in the house, for reasons we will never know. Thinking about it this way, the list of remaining or recovered books looks different. What does knowing that Gordimer had a surprising number of L. P. Hartley books in her library tell us? Maybe she just liked the line about the past being a foreign country, and friends took her quoting it in conversation as an indication that she felt more strongly about his work than was actually the case. What does knowing that Gordimer owned a copy of Colm Tóibín’s The Master tell us other than that she might have read it, and then again perhaps she didn’t.
There’s a copy of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Sixth Series) on the list I got from the library. The book features interviews with Rebecca West, Stephen Spender, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Nadine Gordimer, among others, and is edited by Frank Kermode. The Gordimer interview begins with a vivid, detailed account of her “very curious childhood” in Springs, the small mining town outside of Johannesburg. She tells it like a story. Her mother, unhappily married and with nothing to do but obsess over her children, persuades herself, her doctor, and her daughter that Gordimer is “delicate,” that she has a “bad heart”: “By that time I was reading all sorts of books that led me to believe my affliction made me very interesting… When I was eleven—I don’t know how my mother did this—she took me out of school completely. For a year I had no education at all. But I read tremendously. And I retreated into myself, I became very introspective. She changed my whole character.” There’s no record, in the interview or anywhere else, of exactly what she read. What books were on the shelves of her childhood home? We have her legacy, or some bits of it at least, but we will never know her whole character, and that is as it should be.
Rosa Lyster is a writer living in Cape Town. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, The Outline, and the Guardian, among many other publications.