I’ve finally reached the half-way point in Nadine Gordimer’s fifth novel, A Guest of Honour. As I mentioned before, this novel takes a broader scope than her previous four. It isn’t so much about the individual perspective and experience of apartheid but more about the legacy of that system on an entire culture – both sides, those who had power and those who were never allowed the same responsibility or privilege.
The novel isn’t set in South Africa, but in a fictional neighboring state which has just gained its independence. A Guest of Honour asks two preoccupying questions – first, what are the elements of colonialism most difficult for the no-longer-colonized nation to move beyond and second, what role can (or, more importantly, should) the liberal white individual play in the dismantling and subsequent reconstruction of a culture he/she participated in along the way. For a novel written in 1970, Gordimer is exceptionally prescient as well as compassionate and I’m eager to work my way through to the end and experience either the solution she might offer or a deeper investigation of these important questions.
But what I really wanted to talk about today was style. In terms of writing technique, I get a lot from Gordimer. She’s a fantastic study and I just wanted to point out some of the things I’ve been noting throughout this book.
First, and I’ve mentioned this before when talking about Gordimer, is her remarkable facility with description. Her use of symbolic language is never heavy or extended – just a word or two, but she somehow manages to pick just the right word or image. A few examples:
The road to the village would be blocked, the dog ran over the soft fields breathing like a dragon…the kernel of the house was warm with oil-fired heating…
The spiders came out from behind the pictures and flattened like starfish against the walls.
Every now and then the trumpet blurted like a shout of obese laughter.
There were bats at the fruit, the most silent and unobtrusive of creatures, torn-off rags of darkness itself.
Second, she has unapologetic transitions. Simply effortless. In the example here, she moves her character from one side of town (his house) to another (his friend Hjalmar’s), to a completely different scene, as well as brings in another character, with a semi-colon and the word “yes”. It’s brilliant:
The trousers were a little short. He looked at himself in the damp-spotted mirror on the door of the wardrobe in his room. He had forgotten to buy a dress tie, after all; but Hjalmar would have one. Yes; and it was a beautiful tie, finely made of the best ribbed silk, with a Berlin label still on it. Emmanuelle laughed. “Nobody wears those butterflies anymore. Ras will lend you one of his.”
In her other novels, Gordimer already captures the flow of what I would call “party” conversation. Streams of sentences that don’t always connect, batted back and forth across whatever scene she’s got set up. In A Guest of Honour, which is heavily peppered with these kinds of busy scenes, she refines the technique. This novel features state dinners and policy discussions, dinner parties and after-hours political brainstorming. She gets the mood of these either heated or weary dialogues just perfect. I won’t quote them because they can go on for a long time but suffice it to say Gordimer can be useful to look at if you want to work on the musicality, the nonsensical nature, and the flow of written dialogue.
Finally, the third person omniscient narrative style she favors lends itself well to this kind of socially/morally investigative novel because she can telescope between her characters’ observations and more general insights. Here is one such example, taken from a scene when the main character Bray meets another white woman at a state dinner:
She did not know who he was; the curious fact was that people like him and her would not have met in colonial times, irrevocably separated by his view of the Africans as the owners of their own country and her view of them as a race of servants with good masters. They were brought together now by the blacks themselves, the very source of the contention, his presence the natural result of long friendship, hers the equally natural result of that accommodating will to survive – economic survival, of course; her flesh and blood had never been endangered – that made her accept an African government as she had had to accept the presence of ants in the sugar and the obligation to take malaria prophylactics.
This particular example is a bit longer than most, but I still think she carries it off because she’s able to sculpt our understanding of both characters with this kind of confident narrator. It’s such a smooth omniscient.
A Guest of Honour is a heavy book, rich with political maneuvering, complicated social philosophy and historical information. It’s a slow read. But at the same time, the sheer delight of turning the page to come across yet another of Gordimer’s stunning images or insightful descriptions significantly lightens the experience. Definitely one of those books I’m eager to keep reading but that I don’t really want to finish.