Nadine Gordimer obituary
Nobel prizewinnng South African writer who spoke out against apartheid and racial inequalityDennis Walder
Monday 14 July 2014
South Africa has produced several writers of stature in the past half century, but few have approached the achievement of Nadine Gordimer, who has died aged 90. A significant figure in world literature, Gordimer plumbed the depths of human interaction in a society of racial tension, political oppression and sexual unease. The connection between the intimate and the public lay at the heart of her work, an apparently inexhaustible stream of novels, short stories and essays.
An outspoken voice against the evils of apartheid, Gordimer continued to express forthright views after its collapse and the emergence of a multiracial democracy. Promoting even as she questioned white liberal values in her early work, she went on to espouse an increasingly radical position in the essays and fiction of the mid-1970s and later, openly supporting the liberation movement and associated cultural bodies such as the Congress of South African Writers. This led to her being for many years more widely acclaimed abroad than at home – where several of her novels were banned – until she became in 1991 the country's first winner of the Nobel prize for literature.
When the Swedish academy made its award, it announced that it was for her "great, epic writings centring on the effects of race relations in her country". While it is true to suggest that the focus of her work was on relationships between the races, her careful probing of what happens to people under the pressures created by the prevailing structures of power represents a larger achievement, that of a writer in touch with the broad movements of history and their impact upon society.
She went on to write more than 200 stories, expanding her range while concentrating her focus in a truly remarkable series of collections, from Not for Publication (1965) and Livingstone's Companions (1971) to Jump (1991), Loot (2003) and Life Times (2011, a collection spanning 55 years of writing). She experimented towards the end, not always successfully, with symbol and allegory, and but for her success as a novelist would have been remembered as a great master of the short-story genre, which she always defended for its concentration, integrity and lack of compromise.
Her first published novel, The Lying Days (1953), a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman, did little more than hint at a more challenging awareness of her fragmented colonial background. The succeeding novels, A World of Strangers (1958), Occasion for Loving (1963) and The Late Bourgeois World (1966), however, cemented her reputation as a novelist able to chart with a new immediacy and depth the failures of love and morality in the corrupting and limited world of colonial relations.
As resistance was being crushed by an increasingly vicious state, Gordimer's exploration of the impact upon the lives around her deepened her writing, leading to a more complex interweaving of narrative voices so as to include political speeches and documents as well as the secret interior thoughts of her characters – notably Mehring, the wealthy white industrialist and "conservationist" of that novel's title. Mehring's consciousness is at the centre of the novel, which reveals in precise and haunting detail his struggles to keep change at bay, while exploiting everyone in his power, from the young Portuguese girl beside him on a flight to the workers on his farm. A tissue of allusions to the indigenous African culture he unconsciously seeks to destroy while avoiding his own complicity undermines his attempts to conserve his wealth and his sense of himself, anticipating the collapse of white supremacy.
The increasingly polarised situation in South Africa after the 70s led to the semi-allegorical and strained July's People (1981), a revisiting of the master-servant relationship upon which so much of her work dwelt. But with the demise of apartheid, Gordimer once more showed her strength, challenging the supposed anxiety for writers in her country that they now lacked a subject, with The House Gun (1997) and her award-winning 2001 novel The Pickup, which exposed the new issues of migration, corruption, and continuing alienation. Her more recent work, such as Get a Life (2005) and No Time Like the Present (2012), although deft and assured, was increasingly impersonal, while continuing to pursue the dilemmas of a post-apartheid generation trying to come to terms with the present.
Of her innumerable reviewers and many critics, one of the best, Stephen Clingman, edited a stimulating collection of her essays, The Essential Gesture (1988), which reveals a rigorous analysis of the politics of writing in her country, in particular her unequivocal stand on censorship and her forthright support for the community of all South African writers. In 2005 a biography, No Cold Kitchen, was published by Ronald Suresh Roberts, who had been granted interviews and access to her papers on the understanding that she would authorise his book in return for the right to pre-publication review. However, biographer and subject fell out, and Gordimer disowned the book. It remains an invaluable resource, if to be treated with caution.
Gordimer addressed the moral and political dilemmas of her own and her children's generations in a society finally released from the terrible grip of an extraordinary form of control and exploitation. She did not share the profound disillusion of writers such as JM Coetzee, while admitting the problems brought by the new dispensation in her country. As she had thought, a "change of consciousness" had to accompany a change of regime. She examined the inevitable compromises and betrayals within individual lives of privilege, struggle and freedom, providing in the course of 15 novels the possibility of understanding, if not achieving, a humane life.