In 2008, I read all of Nadine Gordimer’s fourteen novels from start to finish. From her excellent début, The Lying Days (1953), to her 2005 novel Get A Life. (If you’re interested, here are the two wrap-up posts from that project, Wrap-up #1 and Wrap-up #2 and I think they serve as a good introduction to her work.) Reading someone start to finish is a hobby of mine, but Gordimer’s oeuvre is so big and diverse that it was a wonderfully satisfying project. It also gave me an appreciation for her writing, instead of what tends to get trumpeted more often, her message. Her latest novel, No Time Like the Present, just came out in March and I finally finished this rather grand, sweeping 421-page novel the other day.
I certainly don’t want to think that No Time Like the Present will be her last novel. At 88, she is incredibly sharp and has said that she continues to write. But if circumstances dictate that it is her last novel, a hundred years from now people may suggest that she planned it this way. More than any of her other post-Apartheid novels, this book will serve as a detailed document of the years between say 1991 (just before Apartheid was banned in 1994) and 2012.
The book is about a couple, Jabulile and Steve, who meet and fall in love while fighting against Apartheid. Being a mixed-culture couple, they are married in secret out of the country and live hidden for a few years in the country until 1994. When Apartheid is banned, their relationship becomes legal and their lives in this new independent situation begin. They have two children, Sindiswa and Gary Elias, and they both work jobs that give them power to affect change in the radically transforming South African society. Jabu is a lawyer and Steve a professor.
No Time Like the Present covers a lot of territory – it touches on so many subjects and so many issues of post-Apartheid society: violence, government corruption, poverty, immigration, continued racism. It looks at how Steve and Jabu must re-define their relationship that was once clandestine but is now accepted. It looks at how their children grow up in a society that now legally accepts their mixed-culture status. The second half of the book focuses on one particular issue—the brain drain. Steve begins to look at the possibility of moving to Australia, at the possibility of giving himself and his children a different sort of life.
That discussion is where the book generates a lot of power. (And where, as an expat myself, from a country that has its own set of difficult and frustrating social and political issues, I had my most personal reaction to the story Gordimer tells.) When a person has invested their young adulthood in a movement to better the society they live in, the idea of abandoning that society does not come easily. Both Steve and Jabu are disillusioned with the governmental corruption that ensues once Jacob Zuma becomes president, they are angry at the violence and poverty that explodes all over the nation. They are faced with the fact that no matter the laws, the capitalist system will effectively continue to segregate their society. Gordimer does a really excellent job of revealing the complications behind the desire for escape and the desire to stay behind to continue to fight.
Where No Time Like the Present disappointed me just a little is that I’ve always felt that Gordimer manages to effectively blend politics with personal. Even in Burger’s Daughter, which is not one of my favorites and one of her most overtly political, there are passages of writing, insights into complicated human emotion that rise above the rapid-fire political discussions that Gordimer has no qualms inserting into a book. A Guest of Honour is similar in that despite the diplomatic meetings and political cocktail parties, there are brilliant descriptions of life lived, of landscape, of rare human connection. She has an incredible talent for finding a description that unbalances a reader, that reveals something new.
And yet this was mostly missing in No Time Like the Present. If it’s possible for a book to be both dry and passionate, then this is the best description. The narrative is fast-paced and distanced, and it doesn’t ever, or very rarely, linger on the intangible parts of a story—the physical details of landscape and character, the strange observations of individuals within the story. Because of this, I ended up with the feeling that Steve and Jabu could have been any mixed-culture couple, that their children could have been any set of siblings from the new South Africa. And so their story, although interesting and filled with “event,” did not move me so much. I suppose the way Gordimer tells this story makes the book an important artifact, perhaps even an important literary artifact, but, for me at least, it didn’t make the book an excellent piece of fiction.
At her reading in London a few weeks ago, I was too shy to ask a question and I hadn’t yet finished the book anyway. But if I had the chance now, I would have loved to ask her why she used such a dash-over-everything narrative style and whether she knew she was sacrificing “story” for documentation. This must be something she considers—she is a fine writer, a powerful writer, most of her books have balanced this tricky problem with elegance. I’m thinking of The Conservationist and July’s People, The Pickup and My Son’s Story, for example. All novels that are powerful documents of a troubled society, but more than that, are examples of compelling and effective storytelling.