Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Have I made it clear how much I respect Nadine Gordimer? In case anyone missed it, let me mention yet again how often I pick up one of her books, read for a while and settle in to the comfortable bliss of admiration. Her talent and insight are immense. I particularly appreciate that she dedicates that talent to the creation of a discussion about the injustice and moral poverty of any situation of apartheid or discrimination.  

However, it isn’t the political agenda of her work that establishes its excellence. It is much more than that. It is her profound understanding of the human creature, with all our whims and contradictions, our emotional complexity and frightened empathy. Somehow, she manages to get right to the essence of a character, an essence which, I think, is quite simply a reflection of the reader. Her characters are not just people she’s invented and sent off to wander the landscape of her imagination. They are us.  

Which is why the title of her second novel, A World of Strangers, is really more of a challenge thrown at the reader. Yes, the book is set in South Africa during the early years of apartheid and many of us don’t have first hand experience with that system. But yet the division she considers, the ignorance and racism she puts on display, is chillingly familiar. 

A World of Strangers is thematically quite similar to her first novel, The Lying Days – the story of an individual coming to grips with South African culture in the initial years after the Nationalist Party came to power and established the legal institution of cultural segregation. However, whereas The Lying Days is about coming to terms with one’s own culture and defining oneself within that culture, A World of Strangers approaches the same questions through the eyes of an outsider looking in.  

Our narrator Toby is a young Englishman sent to South Africa to work for the family business. He comes from the upper middle class but also from a family with open-minded political beliefs. Toby doesn’t negate those beliefs but he doesn’t embrace them in the same eager way as his family. At best, he agrees but is uninterested in wasting his time on the debate. As he gets established in Johannesburg, he begins to move between two worlds – the contented and extremely wealthy white suburbs and the animated but poor black townships. These two worlds are embodied in two of his relationships – a love affair with Cecil, a white divorcée, and a close friendship with Steven, an educated and dashing young black man.  

Toby considers himself immune from the rules of apartheid and travels freely, even carelessly, between his white friends and the townships. He knows enough to keep his worlds separated, not allowing the two to meet. One of the things I found so honest about Toby was his understanding that neither of those two lives was really for him. He disdained many aspects of his wealthy friends’ undemanding and counterfeit lives but at the same time understood he would never have the courage to face the poverty and violence of the townships.  

Toby slides back and forth between the two worlds, and in a way, he becomes a smug voyeur. Sampling the best of both worlds, keeping himself apart when it suits him and never feeling guilty about his own double standard. Of course this kind of social schizophrenia cannot really last. Eventually, a tragedy requires Toby to confront his emotional sightseeing. He’s forced to face up to the disaster of apartheid and what it means to him personally. No longer a system that has nothing to do with him but one that is him, is in him, that he cannot just walk away from. 

A World of Strangers was published in 1958. It was banned in South African for twelve years.     

11 Responses to “Nadine Gordimer – A World of Strangers”

  1. Dorothy W.

    It’s interesting that it was banned there — that would change the way you read it a little bit, wouldn’t it? The book sounds quite good; I didn’t expect to become so interested in reading Gordimer.

  2. Stefanie

    This sounds really good. You’re going to break me down and make me reader Gordimer if you keep on like this! 🙂

  3. litlove

    ’emotional sightseeing’ – what a great phrase! Fascinating review, verbivore, and oh dear, yes, there Gordimer goes, perched atop that great wobbly mountain of the tbr pile!

  4. gentle reader

    I’ve been impressed with Gordimer since I first read July’s People when I was in college. You remind me that I want to read her again! Thanks for this review!

  5. verbivore

    Dorothy – I actually didn’t know that any of her books had been banned in S.Africa until just a few days ago. She was so highly critical of the Apartheid system that it doesn’t surprise me at all the govt banned some of her work.

    Stefanie – Hooray! I’d be thrilled if everyone would read Gordimer 🙂

    Litlove – Thinking about some of your recent work, litlove, she also focuses on mother-daughter relationships. Especially in The Lying Days. I’d love to know what you think of her.

    Gentle Reader – I really enjoyed July’s People too. It may have been the first Gordimer I read. Or The Pick-Up which remains my favorite to this day.

  6. zhiv

    Hola, Verbivore
    I come to you via Dorothy W and OB&B, who was my blogstart for unknown reasons. I need to dig in further–the 10-year plan, etc.–, but I’m fascinated by your Gordimer efforts. At zhiv on wordpress you can look into a few posts on how I stumbled onto the treasure trove of South African literature, just following along in my high school senior daughter’s wake. It turns out that where there are diamonds there is also incredible literature. Coetzee has flummoxed me, Brink and Dry White Season was a strong quick intro (with a Marlon Brando cameo), Olive Schreiner has been amazing, and I will follow you into Gordimer. I read a few stories at the end of last year, while the GD (my daughter) has gone through The Conservationist and Burger’s Daughter. So I want to catch up, but thought I would say hello as I begin to delve into your project and get to know your approach. Funny thing, the GD is right on track with you, having worked on Bel Canto in the fall and Handmaid’s Tale a couple of weeks ago, so I’ll get her to look at your most recent post. I need to put Bel Canto on my list–not remembering Handmaid’s Tale well enough, from many years ago, to remember that it had an epilogue–but I like the idea of reading through Gordimer from the beginning. Of course you can get anything from the library or Amaz, but for such a big time writer, copies of her books aren’t around much, at least not that I’ve seen. But that just makes it more fun. Greetings.

  7. verbivore

    Zhiv – thank you for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful comment. I’m looking forward to reading your own thoughts on Gordimer and many others. I discovered S.A. literature through Coetzee and Gordimer. Disgrace is one of the best novels I think I’ve ever read. And as I get further into my Gordimer project I just become more and more impressed with her development as a writer and activist. I don’t know Olive Schreiner so will look for that right away!

  8. Mrs.B

    I’ve never read Gordimer but many people have recommended her over the years. She has such a large body of work that I’m not exactly sure where to start. Any suggestions?

    • verbivore

      There are a few Gordimer novels I always recommend when someone is reading her for the first time – The PickUp is one of her more recent and deals with S. African society after the fall of Apartheid, but it’s also a novel with a global reach and it’s lovely. Also, Occasion for Loving is a good one, so is The House Gun. I’ve reviewed all of her books here on this site, so feel free to browse a bit and see if anything strikes your facy!

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