Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Reading Nadine Gordimer’s first novel The Lying Days (1953) is a bit like being introduced to someone you’ve been wanting to meet for a long time. There’s a huge amount of expectation involved and not just a little preconceived notion. I was uneasy to start that first page, nervous she wouldn’t live up to all I’ve decided she already is. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t at all disappointed. All of her subsequent accomplishments can be easily spotted in the pages of this first sampling of her art. As much as the term can annoy me with its ability to reduce a larger work into some easily pocketable catch-phrase, The Lying Days is a coming-of-age novel. Our narrator Helen will grow up in these pages, discover herself, discover the world and come to contemplate her own substance.  

The novel begins with a vivid evocation of both transgression and trespass. Young Helen, maybe 7 or 8, quarrels with her mother and as a result ventures out of her safe white community into the roiling and colorful atmosphere of a nearby township. This first voyage into a place she should not be is a visceral experience for our narrator, both frightening and exciting, that serves as a template for the rest of the novel – the sensual and intellectual delight of contravention.  

Gordimer is interested in the space where the political and the emotional interact. This is where her characters really come to life. This first novel makes that very clear. However, it doesn’t merge the two as seamlessly as most of her later work. But what The Lying Days does reveal, quite splendidly, is Gordimer’s uncanny perception into those unique moments of human interaction. 

I could nearly pick a page at random and find something similar but this particular passage struck me – these lines come from when Helen has left her family and set up a new life in Johannesburg:

So I, who had inherited no God, made my mystery and my reassurance out of human love; as if the worship of love in some aspect is something without which the human condition is intolerable and terrifying, and humans will fashion it for their protection out of whatever is in their lives as birds will use string and bits of wool to make a nest in the city where there are no reeds.  

Where the first sections of the book remain subtly political, the second half is intensely so. Helen becomes involved with a man who is passionately fighting against the newly elected National Party and their policy of apartheid. These sections do lose some of “Helen’s story” in a larger sense but they are still quite fascinating. And the events she witnesses shape her as much as her love affair and her friendships. By the end of the book, Helen has become a complicated character who comes into her own both powerfully and honestly.  

11 Responses to “Nadine Gordimer – The Lying Days”

  1. Dorothy W.

    It IS a relief to find out you like an author’s earlier works, isn’t it? I’m experiencing the same thing with Woolf; I already knew I loved To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, but I wasn’t sure I’d love her early work. It’s not as good as the later novels, but it’s still quite good.

  2. Ann Darnton

    I literally picked this book up from the library an hour ago. What would I have done if you’d said you hated it?

  3. verbivore

    Dorothy – I keep thinking that Virginia Woolf should be the next author I go through chronologically, I think I would really enjoy that.

    Ann – Can’t wait to see what you think!

  4. Stefanie

    Oh, this sounds so good. I’ve not read Gordimer before. She’s on my list though. She sounds like a margaret Atwood like author to me – one who even if the book isn’t their best, is still heads and shoulders above most other books.

  5. verbivore

    Stefanie – I think its just that there is so much to her books. Even if something fails a little in the storytelling, the central concern of the book is so far-reaching or so relevant that it works. And I would agree with your Atwood comment – they are definitely similar in that way.

  6. Juliette

    Dear Verbivore – just thought I would share my news … I returned from the library with my recently reserved Lying Days. You inspired me with your Nadine Gordimer – so thank you very much. I have also put A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf into my hand luggage. Saturday will see us en route to Perpignan for a week in Rennes les Bains, Eastern Pyrenees. It is a most wonderful place for reflection and reading. A la prochaine! Julie

  7. verbivore

    Julie – Sounds wonderful, une vacance en France! I hope you do get lots of reading done and I can’t wait to hear what you think of the Gordimer.

  8. Juliette

    Yes and thank you for your reply – it was wonderful with azure skies, sunshine and a cafe bar menu lunch for 10 euros – c’est la vie!

    Completed Snow by Orhan Pamuk which was an impulse buy at Stanstead Airport and nearly finished A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. Nadime will be next. In fact one of my friends in our village was fascinated to see The Lying Days on my shelf as she lived in South Africa for a while. Additionally I had printed your thoughts upon the book and shared it with her – she was fascinated and is going to begin a reading group in the region.

  9. verbivore

    Juliette – How wonderful that you had good weather. I’ve always wanted to read Snow, or anything by Pamuk but haven’t yet. Can’t wait to hear what you think! I think Gordimer would be a great author to study in a group – I am going to try and get my book group here to take one of her novels sometime next fall!

  10. Juliette

    Simply had to let you know that I made a start on The Lying Days yesterday. (Slightly delayed due to my overwhelming desire to read A Room of My Own!)
    What a start, I find myself savouring and reading very carefully. So many quotes marked with stickies already. An incredible use of words and pictures painted – flies, birth, marriage and motherhood … and I have only reached page 62! Soooo sorry -rather a long comment on your site. I think I may start collecting quotes and reflecting upon them mid read as opposed to writing at the end of the book as been my wont previously. Rather mischievously I did turn to the back and checked that there was no epilogue!!

  11. verbivore

    Juliette – Her language is so tremendous isn’t it? I am so glad you are enjoying the novel so far. I found that the pace slows down after awhile but then picks right back up toward the end. And there is so much going on. I really liked Helen’s voice and the details she presented to the reader. I also collected a huge amount of quotes from the novel 🙂

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