Nadine Gordimer – Burger's Daughter

Well, I didn’t think it could happen but it finally did. I shouldn’t feel so disappointed about this but I do. I was prepared to love all of Nadine Gordimer’s work wholeheartedly. And its not that Burger’s Daughter is bad – on the contrary, it’s a rich story with a lot of very interesting questions. And there are those moments of pure Gordimer – exquisite writing with just the right reflection or description. But as a whole, in its movement through and from each scene to scene, it just kind of got lost in itself along the way.

 

The novel has three distinct parts and if I explain what they are to any extent, I will give the story away. I wanted very much for these three parts to work together – and I suppose that on the surface they do. They represent three distinct phases of Rosa Burger’s self-actualization. But instead of leading one to the other, they felt more like images taped together a bit awkwardly at the seams. There was a moment in the middle of Part II that I thought Gordimer had changed course for an entirely different story and I was ready to feel cheated or at the very least confused. An act of almost-believable coincidence puts the story back on track and eventually it traipses forward to an ending which felt…well, I suppose it felt okay.

 

It must be difficult when writing fiction with a political purpose to keep your eye fixed firmly on storytelling. There were moments when certain characters got far too involved in making speeches and I admit I started reading diagonally. If Gordimer is anything, she is thorough. I don’t doubt that when politically engaged people get together their meetings are everything she portrays them to be – intricate, involved, passionate. But to read through their every detail is frustrating for me – the reader – because I want to stay focused on a character I have come to appreciate or worry about. I don’t want Marxist or any other theory explained to me or examined ad nauseum by characters who will leave the story as quickly as they came in.

 

I mentioned in my review of her sixth novel, The Conservationist, that Gordimer uses a particular technique of having the main character speak to another character (or characters) in their mind. A kind of imaginary conversation which gives the main character the right to explain himself, complain, or defend himself. In The Conservationist this device was a source of some of the most moving passages of the entire book. In Burger’s Daughter she uses the very same stylistic device, but at first I found it horribly distracting. The person to whom Rosa addresses her thoughts is an ex-lover – someone the reader never meets on the page. It was frustrating never having that person in the flesh – just a construct of Rosa’s mind. In Part II, she switches to “thinking at” her father’s first wife, the woman she is staying with in France. I don’t think it works particularly well in that section either, but not for the same reasons. More because all of Part II seems disjointed and apathetic until we reach the coincidence I mention above. But then all of a sudden, in Part III, I saw why Gordimer continued to use the device. Suddenly Rosa is addressing her dead father. And I think this was the whole point. Her transformation is complete and she can safely begin a conversation she has been longing to have but never felt confident enough to do.

 

I won’t put Burger’s Daughter on my list of favorites but as always I’m glad to have read it. Her eighth novel, July’s People, is one I have already read and enjoyed. It’s short so I think I will re-read it before moving on.

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Michelle

Reader, writer, translator, nature-lover, happy expat and concerned world citizen.

7 thoughts on “Nadine Gordimer – Burger's Daughter”

  1. I’m glad that your reading of Gordimer is honest enough to allow space for criticism of her work! Especially when you can see how good this is, just how it’s not as great as she’s capable of. And glad you’ve got a re-read of July’s People to look forward to as well 🙂

  2. I don’t know this wok, so can’t comment about the way in which it’s written. However, I do think that there are some benefits to hitting a book that disappoints like this. The first is what Logophile says, it shows you that you are not reading uncritically, which can happen with a much loved writer. The second is that it gives you something that acts as a point of contrast with the writer’s other works and as a result your whole reading of the author becomes more rounded. Just, that is, as long as it doesn’t happen too often!

  3. Logophile – I will be thrilled when I’ve finished her last book and at least have a catalogue of them in my head. They are books I would go back to, even Burger’s Daughter, once I know what I’d like to search out and look at once more. And I am definitely looking forward to rereading July’s People, it is the book that introduced me to Gordimer in the first place.

    Chartroose – I suppose you are right. And that’s the whole point of reading all of her books, so I get to know them in detail (good and not-so-good)

    Ann – I’ve been trying to leave a comment on your blog for days but it doesn’t work for me. I will try again today. I like your comment about this making my reading more rounded. I agree with that. As I wrote above, having all her novels in my mind when I read another is going to be a great tool for comparison and contrast. For this book especially, I enjoyed seeing her re-use a particular device but to different purpose.

  4. Verbivore, don’t worry about it, no one is able to leave a comment at the moment. Apple have made a complete mess of the blogs with their MobileMe update. If it’s still going on at the end of the week and I haven’t received a reasonable reply from their support team then I’ll move the blog over to Word Press and let you have the new address.

  5. Those political speeches ARE what her characters are about. If you aren’t political you can’t possibly completely understand or appreciate Nadine Gordimer.

  6. Janet – I think we have to be careful about saying its impossible to understand or appreciate Gordimer without being political. She is definitely political and her life’s work is to affect change through her literature, but she is more than that – she is a damn fine storyteller with an impressive literary style. I think its fair to evaluate her for both her politics and her style. I’d also like to mention that my criticism of this particular novel has nothing to do with her political preoccupation, its one of the reasons I love and respect her work, but more with her style in Burger’s Daughter specifically. The dialogueof her characters, as you say, is always focused on politics and usually that discourse is woven neatly into the novel, becomes an organic part of the work as a whole. In Burger’s Daughter I don’t think she did this as cohesively as she does in other novels.

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