I believe Gordimer probably begins each of her novels with an idea – by that I mean her characters often represent a philosophy instead of an active element of some story. I don’t mean this as a criticism, her characters are never ‘types’ because she eventually fills them with enough inner life to sink a lifeboat, but in essence her work is more about context than it is about story. In some of her novels, however, I think the story does get a bit too pushed aside but in others the balance of idea and story comes out just fine.
Her tenth novel, My Son’s Story (1990) takes up several ideas – interracial love, adultery and the ongoing revolution to overthrow apartheid in South Africa, and settles them firmly inside an engaging, well-told story. The novel begins with a teenage boy playing truant who catches his father doing much the same. The two run in to one another at the movie theatre. The son’s minnow of a lie is swallowed up by the enormous shark of his father’s obvious infidelity. But without batting an eyelash, his father introduces him to his white mistress.
The book takes place in the political environment which preceeded the final dismantling of the apartheid system. It was no longer strictly illegal for a black man and a white woman to be together, but Gordimer shows it was not accepted either. But this is less the point, really, because Sonny’s affair coincides with his political awakening. His love for Hannah runs parallel to his developing passion for revolution, for justice, and the two experiences are simply inseparable and will remain inseperable. A reality which will cause big problems for Sonny.
The story is told in alternating viewpoints – first person Will (the son) and third person Sonny (the father). This technique and the access it grants us to both men’s experience of Sonny’s revolutionary development and his affair is what propels the book forward. Sonny represents a movement toward the future, toward a new kind of society where relationships are based on ideas and sharing and aren’t first and foremost defined through skin color, but his evolution is due mostly to knowledge passed along to him by Hannah. Will, on the other hand, wants to reject that structure. He’s torn between wanting to maintain his quiet life between the lines set for him by someone else and bursting out, but on his own terms, with no help from the oppressive system that made him who he is in the first place.
This tension between the two men is already a lot for the story to contain but it goes further, delivering a number of interesting surprises along the way. Mostly to do with Sonny’s wife – Aila, one of the novel’s more intriguing and rich characters.
And there are also those moments of pure Gordimer. The reason why I read her novels slowly.
Here is the narrator describing how Sonny categorizes the difference between his wife and his mistress:
Joy. That was what went with it. The light of joy that illuminates long talk of ideas, not the 60-watt bulbs that shine on family matters.
And later, a moment of quiet reflection on Hannah:
The face of a woman who uses no makeup has unity with her body. Seeing Hannah’s fair eyelashes catching the morning sun and the shine of the few little cat’s whiskers that were revealed, in this innocent early clarity, at the upper corners of her mouth, he was seeing the whole of her; he understood why, in the reproductions of paintings he had puzzled over in the days of his self-education, Picasso represented frontally all the features of a woman – head, breasts, eyes, vagina, nose, buttocks, mouth – as if all were always present even to the casual glance. What would he have known, without Hannah!