The death of South African writer and Nobel-Prize winner this weekend is a sad loss to lovers of brilliant fiction—both short and long. Obits in major newspapers will inevitably focus on her social activism and political novels about Apartheid. For example, the obit headline in The New York Times today read "Nadine Gordimer, Novelist Who Took on Apartheid, is Dead at 90." The opening paragraph of The Guardian reads: "The South African Nobel-prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer, one of the literary world's most powerful voices against apartheid, has died at the age of 90, her family say."
Recognition of Gordimer in the world press as a political voice and the author of socially-significant novels is to be expected. However, it underrates her talent to suggest that her fiction should be valued primarily as polemical. Indeed, she often decried the polemical and said that had she not been born in a country where racial strife was a significant fact of life, her fiction would probably not have been political at all.
Although she published twenty collections of short stories, I expect most commentators will talk about her novels this week, for indeed, they are the most obviously political. As I have suggested many times before, the short story form does not lend itself to the social and the political, for it cannot tolerate the kind of broad context and discursive argument often necessary for the polemical.
Gordimer had a great deal of respect for the short story. When I was editing my first book Short Story Theories, reading everything I could find on the form, I discovered a wonderful Symposium on the Short Story published by The Kenyon Review in 1968 and 1969, featuring discussions and opinions on the short story by writers from all over the world. One of the most pertinent and powerful pieces was the essay by Nadine Gordimer, which, with her permission, I reprinted in my book with a title taken from her essay, "The Flash of Fireflies."
Gordimer noted that literary critics consider the short story as a "minor art form," but that "like a child suffering from healthy neglect, the short story survives." She argued that if the short story is alive while many are dissatisfied with the novel as a means for "netting ultimate reality," it is because the short story as "a kind of creative vision must be better equipped to attempt the capture of ultimate reality at a time we are drawing nearer to the mystery of life or are losing ourselves in a bellowing wilderness of mirrors."
Here is the most important passage from Gordimer's essay:
"Short-story writers always have been subject at the same time to both a stricter technical discipline and a wider freedom than the novelist. Short-story writers have known--and solved by nature of their choice of form—what novelists seem to have discovered in despair only now: the strongest convention of the novel, prolonged coherence of tone, to which even the most experimental of novels must conform unless it is to fall apart, is false to the nature of whatever can be grasped by human reality. How shall I put it? Each of us has a thousand lives and a novel gives a character only one. For the sake of the form. The novelist may juggle about with chronology and throw narrative overboard; all the time his characters have the reader by the hand, there is a consistency of relationship throughout the experience that cannot and does not convey the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. Short-story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be pure of—the present moment."
There, my friends, is one of the most perceptive statements every made about the short story. Gordimer knew the magic and mysteries of the form very well indeed. It is in her short stories that the political is backgrounded and the complexity of human beings facing universal conflicts and tensions is made the true subject of narrative.
One of my favorite Gordimer short stories is from one of her best-known collections, the 1952 The Soft Voice of the Serpent, which I bought in the mid-sixties as a 25-cent paperback with a garish cover. The story is "The Train from Rhodesia," which focuses on a young woman on a train with her husband traveling through Africa. I liked the story so much I included it in my textbook collection Fiction's Many Worlds.
The challenge for the reader is to understand the relationship between the personal conflict within the young woman and the events of the story--the train stopping for vendors to sell their wares and her husband's purchase of a carved lion. At first this seems less a story than a picture, albeit a moving picture full of dynamic and picturesque action, until we enter the mind of the young woman and realize that she is the central consciousness, that this is her story.
We discover on our first entry into her thoughts that she has recently been married, that this trip into the African bush (maybe her honeymoon) seems curiously unreal, and that she has some difficulty thinking of her husband as being "for good" and not part of that unreality. Although no explicit conflict is suggested by these thoughts, they prompt the reader to be alert for a clash between her and her new husband.
After the young man haggles with the artist/peddler and buys the lion for his wife for one-and six rather than the three-and-six the vendor asked for it, the expected conflict erupts; however, the reader is no more prepared for it than the hapless husband, nor any better able to understand the cause of the young woman's anger. The only explicit clue we have is when we enter the woman's mind one more time and discover that she feels shame for her husband having purchased the lion for so little. However, that this has made her discover a weariness, a tastelessness, and a void in her very being seems like an extreme over-reaction. What must be determined, to use the phrase coined by T. S. Eliot, is how the purchase of the lion is an "objective correlative" for the young woman's sense of existential emptiness.
Although Nadine Gordimer is often concerned in her novels with the conflicts between Whites and Blacks in South Africa, it would be an oversimplification to read this story as a social criticism of the way Whites have exploited the culture of the region. Although indeed this situation may be the social context for the story, the conflict has to do with more basic issues: the difference between the creative and the commercial, the real and the unreal, the cheap and the valuable, and consequently, the meaningful and the meaningless.
The young woman wants the lion to be a work of art, not a commercial product; she wants it to be expensive, valuable, meaningful. When the old peddler sells it so cheaply, it is as though she has lost some rare embodiment of the unreality she has experienced in the past few weeks. That her new husband buys it at such a small price makes her despair and loneliness all the more painful, for she thinks he should have known how she would feel. Like many of her short stories, this is not a political story, except in the broadest understanding of that term.
I have read Gordimer stories throughout the years. Some of my favorite collections are: Livingstone's Companions (1970), A Soldier's Embrace (1980), Jump and Other Stories¸(1991), Loot and Other Stories (2003), and Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. (2007). I wrote reviews of these last two and include excerpts from those reviews below:
Loot And Other Stories (2003)
Because some of the freedoms that Nadine Gordimer has always bravely fought for in South Africa have been realized, the stories in this collection may not seem so politically pointed as her previous works. However, the brief title story is still perhaps a cautionary parable of the danger facing the post-apartheid world of South Africa. When an earthquake tips a continental shelf and draws the ocean back, revealing secret treasures, people rush in to loot, only to have the sea sweep back to add them to its treasury.
The two most conventional stories in the collection have nothing to do with racial tensions in South Africa, but rather examine in Gordimer’s usual tight ironic style, familiar themes. “The Generation Gap” explores how grown-up children react when their sixty-seven year old father leaves their mother for a much younger woman. It’s a wonderfully wistful and cleverly comic exploration of the hard fact that whereas young people cannot imagine what it is like to be old, older people can never quite forget what it was like to be young. “The Diamond Mine” is a story that has been told many times before, about a sixteen-year-old girl who is surreptitiously seduced in the back seat of her parents’ car by a young soldier they are taking to camp. Concealed by a blanket, while her father, oblivious as fathers often are, prattles on about diamonds, the soldier’s exploring hands are invasive but not entirely unwelcome.
In the novella-length “Mission Statement,” forty-six-year-old Roberta Blayne, who works for an international aid agency, falls in love with a Deputy Director of Land Affairs, who happens to be a native African. Rather than a simple polemical story of racial divides in a post-apartheid world, this syntactically demanding fiction concludes with an abrupt reminder of cultural divergence as she turns down his proposal that she become his simultaneous second wife.
“Karma,” defined as “the sum and the consequence of a person’s actions during the successive phases of his existence,” is another novella-length piece that examines the Eternal Return of a single existence in five different reincarnations--male and female, young and old--to atone for previous errors, right past wrongs, and complete acts previously left undone.
Although she is optimistic about South Africa’s future, Gordimer is not so naïve as to think that the fall of apartheid signals a rosy utopia. She knows that the residue of racial intolerance and the clash of disparate cultures cannot be eradicated by a simple regime change. A collection of stories by a committed writer, for whom politics is inevitably part of the human condition, is always welcome, especially if she is such a fine artist as Nadine Gordimer.
Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black. (2007)
Now that her old subject, South African apartheid, is history, Nadine Gordimer seems to have made history her new focus. In the title story of her tenth collection, a biology professor hears a radio presenter announce that Beethoven was one-sixteenth black, and ponders that while once blacks wanted to be white, now there are whites wanting to be black. Exploring his own anti-apartheid past and his possible black ancestry, the man recognizes that the past is valid only if the present recognizes it.
In “A Frivolous Woman,” when “a grandmother who had never grown up” dies, her family finds a trunk filled with fancy dress costumes she brought from Berlin as a refugee from Nazi extermination. Although they laugh at her frivolity, Gordimer knows that the costumes are not her whole story, quoting L. P. Hartley’s memorable line, “The past is a foreign country.” “Beneficiary” also examines haunting remnants of the past, beginning with the warning that caches of old papers are graves that one should not open. When a woman’s actress mother dies, she discovers a letter revealing that she is the child of an actor with whom her mother had an affair. At the end of the story, when the man she thought to be her father hugs her, she knows that love has nothing to do with DNA.
The dangers of exploring the foreign country that is the past is also central to “Allesverloren,” which means “everything lost,” in which a history teacher whose husband has died, searches out a man with whom he had a homosexual affair years before. Not all these stories are serious explorations of the past. Gregor,” with apologies to Kafka’s dung beetle, is a lighthearted jeu d’esprit about a writer finding a small cockroach behind the plastic window of her word processor, until it consumes itself and becomes a hieroglyph to be decoded. In “Safety Procedures,” when the narrator experiences terrifying air turbulence, he is astonished when his calm seat partner assures him that he will be safe, for she has tried to kill herself three times this year and failed. These are just mischievous finger exercises, concept pieces. But then, even a Nobel-Prize winner has the right to fool around a little.
Gordimer’s literary playfulness is more serious in the three stories collectively entitled “Alternative Endings,” which she self-reflexively introduces by announcing that she wishes to try out three different endings to basically the same story . Somewhat artificially structured on the senses of sight, hearing, and smell, each explore her favorite non-political subject—love affairs and infidelity. Although this is more a miscellany than an even-textured short story collection, even when she is playing around, Gordimer is always a pleasure to read.
My thanks to Nadine Gordimer for her brilliant understanding and mastery of the short story.