Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

An edited Afrikaans version of this article appeared as “Die miesies hy skryf” in By on 26 November 2011.

The madam he write

At eighty-eight Nadine Gordimer is throwing some more logs in the fire. Karina Magdalena Szczurek spoke with her about “certain kinds of attention”.

‘Do you know this author?’ I ask a waitress, pointing at Nadine Gordimer’s name on the cover of a book I am reading.

She shakes her head.

I pay for my lunch and walk from the restaurant to Parktown West, Johannesburg. A jacaranda petal falls on my head as I approach the angular white house which Nadine Gordimer has called her home for the past fifty years.

The first time I arrived here in 2004, I’d felt sick with worry for a week beforehand, duly warned about Gordimer’s reputation as an interviewee who suffers no fools. And this was my first interview, ever.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

But when she realised that I wasn’t there to ask about her breakfast (the type of personal question she usually refuses to answer), she let down her guard. It was an invaluable experience.

My present visit is a déjà vu in this and other respects. I’m again first met by a staff member and inspected by an eager Weimaraner before being invited into the house. I walk through the kitchen, down a passage and past the narrow, light-filled study where Gordimer’s typewriter squats proudly on a small desk. She is waiting in the lounge. As I enter she folds a newspaper and puts her reading glasses aside.

It is the same room where we first met, but the furniture is arranged differently. She settles in an elegant rocking chair. I sit on a sofa opposite with a coffee table between us.

I have seen her look her age in badly taken photographs, but never in person. Today she looks radiant in a gracefully long white kaftan dress with a soft blue pattern. Her grey hair is stylishly arranged. Delicate earrings adorn her ears.

This time I am more at ease, but I still notice my hands trembling slightly as I set up the voice recorder. I can feel Gordimer’s lively brown eyes on me. A beauty at her age – she turned eighty-eight this month.

Few literary oeuvres can match Gordimer’s. Between the publication of her first story as a child in 1937 and today, the world has seen fourteen novels, ten short-story collections, and six volumes of essays. In 2010, her stories and essays were collected in two large tomes: Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 and Telling Times: Writing and Living 1950-2008.

When in the beginning of 2006 Ampie Coetzee spoke to Gordimer at a literary breakfast organised by Die Burger Book Club in Cape Town, she told him that her memory no longer allowed her to think in novel-terms.

The collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black was published a year later.

Now she’s finished writing another novel after all. I remind her of what she’d said at the breakfast.

She smiles. ‘I don’t know what was wrong with me then.’

Since 2001, when her husband Reinhold Cassirer died, all her books carry his life dates and the dates of their relationship on their front pages. The dedication moves me every time.

Throughout her writing life Gordimer has stuck to a strict routine, devoting the first part of the day to her work only: ‘I still feel in the morning when I get up now, I’ve got to be at my desk.’

André Brink recalls how many years ago, before he knew better, he tried to phone her before lunch. A staff member informed him that Gordimer was not available.

At André's 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

At André’s 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

‘The madam he write,’ he was told firmly, and he had to try again in the afternoon.

The statement is extremely telling, even if it was not intended as such.

Gordimer grew up into a position of privilege in apartheid South Africa. And yet, while many others went with the flow, she devoted her life to fighting injustice. Even though she is most uncomfortable about the designation, for decades she was considered the ‘voice’ and ‘conscience’ of South Africa in the world.

I first encountered her work at university. The story “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” (1991) pricked my interest in South African literature, and eventually brought me here for research, then for life.

It tells the story of an Afrikaner farmer on trial for shooting one of his farm workers. The racial and political circumstances condemn him, but the last line of the story overturns all our expectations: “The young black was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.”

Gordimer has often been accused of portraying Afrikaners unfairly in her work. Asked about it, she reminds me that when the time to protest came there was no prejudice. ‘We did it together!’

She is also quick to point out how Uys Krige was the first person who published anything of hers: ‘He encouraged me tremendously, gave me the most helpful criticism and was a very dear friend.’

She reads Afrikaans writers in translation, and regrets that she lost the Afrikaans she learned at school, or that she never learned any of the other indigenous African languages. ‘As I say, it’s terrible; I’m a very poor linguist.’

Gordimer’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, mostly considered too political or / and too challenging. But both judgements rest more on hearsay than an engagement with her actual work.

Occasional stylistic density prevents a more leisurely read, but allowed to sink in, her thought-provoking stories can be inspiring, revelatory, and life-changing.

Many see her 1994 novel None to Accompany Me as a purely political reflection of the transition period in South Africa’s recent history. Rereading it now, I am stunned by the accuracy with which she prophecies the dangers facing the fledgling democracy. But for me personally, the novel is one of the most profound portrayals of a woman’s journey to selfhood.

This again brings to mind the statement with which André Brink’s morning phone call was fended off, and another quality which has defined Gordimer’s career – her ambivalence towards feminism. ‘All writers are androgynous beings,’ she states repeatedly.

She caused an uproar when she withdrew The House Gun (1998) from the shortlist of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, reserved for women only.

‘I have been indeed and still am sometimes tackled, because I withdrew…and then I made this rather rude, I suppose,’ she reconsiders, ‘frank remark that we don’t write with our genitals.’

One of her stories, “A Journey”, was reprinted in the South African October edition of Playboy.

‘How do you feel about being published in the magazine?’

There is no issue for her. She does however make one crucial distinction. ‘I would hate to be published anywhere which was racist,’ she says. ‘I would refuse.’

Her parents were Jewish, but she is a self-declared atheist. She recently caused, in her own words, ‘great offence in America’ with her story “Second Coming” (2011) in which the son of God walks across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape. The possibility of life’s or humanity’s re-creation is rendered impossible, because as the last one-sentence paragraph tells us: “The sea is dead.”

‘What was the Americans’ problem with it?’ I’m curious.

‘Well, it’s not for me, sitting here in South Africa, this little unbeliever in any religion to say that Jesus is coming…using this as the ultimate example it should be, for people who revere Jesus and the idea of a second coming, that he should find the world destroyed. It’s a story about the environment.’

Gordimer’s Get a Life (2005) was probably the first green novel in South Africa. She is one of a handful of local writers who now consistently champion the environment in their work.

* * *

While she gets some tea, I glance around me. On three sides of the room shelves brim with books and CDs. A vase of strelitzias and a few sculptures of different origins catch my eye. A walking stick rests against the other side of the sofa. The room opens on a large patio and a magnificent garden in full bloom. The cushioned bay window looks like an ideal place for reading. It makes me think of something she’s just said:

‘I have recently reread Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and I have reread the whole of Marcel Proust and now I can read French sufficiently to read it in French. And there are so many others. When I look at my bookshelf, I say, my God I must read that again before I die.’

Bodo, the dog, appears at the same time as the tea tray. Marie biscuits are on offer.

‘How do you like your tea, weakish?’ she asks.

‘Strongish’

‘Oh good!’

Bodo is allowed one cookie while she pours the tea. As she lifts the heavy pot her fragile hands betray her age for the first time.

I cannot help but think of the three thieves who forced their way into her home in 2006 and brutally removed her wedding ring from her finger.

‘Did the attack have any lasting effects on you?’

‘You know, I hesitate to answer this because it sounds as if I’m saying that I am brave. I’m not… The only thing of consequence, practical consequence, is that I now have these wires around the house… But I’m not brave…I choose to go on living here…my reality is here.’

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

She has been accused of lacking courage to criticise the ANC. But following her late friend, the American intellectual Susan Sontag, Gordimer believes that ‘to be a moral human being, is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.’

Very often she is the first to pay attention and fight with any means available to her for the causes she believes in.

Recently, together with André Brink, she drew up a petition against the planned legislation curtailing freedom of speech in South Africa and introducing ‘apartheid-type censorship all over again.’ The petition was not only signed by just about every writer in the country, but also many international writers whom Gordimer approached at the time during a visit in Sweden.

‘Let’s keep [the protest] going. Throw another log in the fire!’ she says.

The presidency was not impressed.

‘President Zuma didn’t have the courtesy to send us, representing so many others, an acknowledgement.’

In a recent HARDtalk interview she told Stephen Sackur that real loyalty to the ANC means the right to criticize the party, of which she is a member. She spoke of the disappointment she felt about the values that were being betrayed by the ANC. I prod her for more particulars.

‘First of all the fact that power is used in a very personal way.’

She is also deeply disappointed about the government’s handling of education.

‘The schooling is so bad.’ She is shocked at the discrepancy in entry requirements for university students from different backgrounds.

‘We can’t keep our black comrades out of universities. My God, who would want to? But what is the point of them coming in if they can’t cope. It’s humiliating for them…’

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

On the way to O.R. Tambo I ask the shuttle driver whether he knows the author Nadine Gordimer. I also ask a few SAA attendants. No recognition.

While awaiting my flight, I pose the same question to the middle-aged gentleman next to me. He is the only person to respond positively to my question. Does it matter that he is white and at least two decades older than the other people I’ve approached?

I am confident most Poles would at least have heard the name of the Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska at school.

* * *

Still in Gordimer’s lounge, I dare ask a personal question.

‘What makes you really happy?’

A short silence; my heart stops.

‘André would say chocolate,’ I volunteer out of desperation.

‘Well, that’s an evasive answer… I’m also very fond of black chocolate, but of course that’s a taste happiness.’

Another pause.

‘I have been unbelievably lucky by having forty-eight years with the love of my life, and I have that to treasure. Sometimes it is painful to do so, but other times…it’s there, I had it.’

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