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.