Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I love it when you’re reading a book and you’re just enjoying the scenes, the ideas and the prose and then suddenly you come across a few passages that change everything. That put the entire novel into perspective. That transform the story into something much greater than thoughtful fiction. 

Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving kind of sneaks up on you like that. I was reading this book and although I was enjoying it, I was also kind of thinking it might turn out to be one I’d leave on the shelf after finishing and not think much about again. Instead, the book packs kind of a surprising wallop.  

The basic story centers on a family, The Stilwells, and their relationship with another couple, Boaz and Ann Davis. The Stilwells, as represented mostly by the mother Jessie, do not agree with South African apartheid and live their life as much as possible as though the color barrier did not exist. In some ways they convince themselves they exist outside the system – their home is open to anyone, they travel freely to the townships and work within the political parties that are actively fighting against the apartheid system – and this is their way of believing they have kept their own integrity intact. 

But of course this isn’t possible. Their attempt at living as though apartheid doesn’t affect them gets called into question when Ann begins an affair with one of the Stilwell’s black friends. Everything about this affair serves to highlight what it means to have your life defined through the color of your skin. There is one line, taken from somewhere smack in the middle of the book, that I felt encapsulated this very idea: 

Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart. 

Ann and her lover Gideon are engaged in an act of political transgression. In a situation like theirs, this will always be more important than anything else between them. So how is it possible for anyone to consider the affair without first considering that Ann has power and freedom and choice and Gideon has none? Even Ann’s husband, who should be allowed to honestly experience all the emotions involved in a betrayal cannot forget for one moment that the relationship will always be more complicated than that. 

Another thing that struck me the more I got into the story was how Gordimer skillfully reveals just how difficult it is for someone in a privileged class, no matter their sympathies for the oppressed, to really understand what’s it like to live without any freedom. Jessie comes close, toward the end in a conversation with Gideon but even then she can only frame her understanding from her own perspective: 

She smiled, looking at him from a distance. “We’re not talking about the same thing. It’s a question of freedom.”

“Freedom?” He was astonished, derisive.

“There’s more than one kind, you know.”

“Well, one kind would do for me.”

“Yes, perhaps it would, because you haven’t got it. Perhaps you’ll never have to ask yourself why you live. A political struggle like yours makes everything very simple.” 

The book also contains a tangential story about Jessie and her son from a first marriage. It offers a nice parallel, a side-route exploration about freedom and responsibility, about natural ties to family members and whether those are created or grow up all on their own.  

Occasion for Loving surprised me. Early on I thought I had figured out what the book was going to be about, thought I knew what the experience of reading it would feel like. But I was wrong. What appears to be a calm and careful story is actually destabilized with a tremendously angry undercurrent. The novel nurses a veiled rage about the injustice of social segregation based on skin color.

10 Responses to “Nadine Gordimer – Occasion for Loving”

  1. Guilherme

    You’re one of the few people out there who truly understands what her work is about and how it functions; congratulations!

  2. LK

    She is one of those authors I’m scared of. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ll have to add her to the Year of Reading Dangerously challenge…

  3. verbivore

    Guilherme – thank you for leaving a comment! She is my favorite writer and I’ve decided to read her complete works this year, from earliest to latest. I’m not sure I truly understand everything she is about but I am certainly giving it my best try. She’s just remarkable.

    LK – I came to her a few years ago without any knowledge, really, of what she was about. Her short novel, July’s People, simply grabbed me by the throat. Then I read The Pick-Up, which remains my favorite (for now). It’s quite a modern story and has one of the most interesting endings I’ve ever read in a book. The House Gun is one of the most psychologically rigorous novels I’ve read. Oh, I’ll stop there…I just love her work. 🙂 But I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts if you do decide to read her.

  4. verbivore

    Raych – Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to read your thoughts on it if you do decide to read it sometime.

  5. Deborah

    I love books that upset my complacency about them! Thank you for your thoughtful “tour” of this one. I’m sorry to say I’ve only read one Gordimer–Jump, and other Stories–and that was long ago when I used to include it on every syllabus possible. Gordimer is an absolute master of the short story. I definitely need to pick her up again. But, short of recommending the whole collection, can you make a suggestion?

    At the same time I was head over heels with Gordimer, I was reading Bharati Mukherjee–especially “The Middleman and other Stories”—I don’t know what she’s been up to since (15 years ago! shame!), but if you like Gordimer (and I can see that you LOVE Gordimer), you might want to check out Mukherjee.

    Thank you for your insight. And so well written.

  6. Juliette

    verbivore – Thank you for another inspiring Gordimer post and for the enticing review. As for me, I have July’s People from the library and am about to make a start. I was going to follow your example, try and be disciplined and read them in order but saw this one at the library and just couldn’t resist. I must try and compile/find a list of her books and publishing date.

  7. verbivore

    Deborah – She is definitely a wonderful short story writer as well. I haven’t read Jump and other stories, I’ve read Six Feet of the Country and that was great. As for her novels, I’d recommend The Pick-Up to start. It remains my favorite out of the six (out of 14) I’ve read. I’d love to know what you think.

    I haven’t read Bharati Mukherjee but am adding her to the list right away! Thank you for the thoughtful suggestion.

    Juliette – I’ve read July’s People, it was the first Gordimer novel I read. I hope you enjoy it as well! Thank you for the list, I will check it against the one I have to make sure I’m not missing anything! Mine doesn’t include her short story collections so maybe yours well!

  8. Dorothy W.

    The book sounds great. How nice to be surprised! I love it when a book takes you places you didn’t expected to go.

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