Gordimer wrap-up #1

I know, I know, I have assailed you with Nadine Gordimer for an entire year. But if you have the patience to stick with me for just one more week, I promise to mention her only when absolutely necessary for the next few years.

Sometime in 2007, I decided Gordimer was one of the writers I wanted to read from start to finish and I duly looked up all of her novels and ordered them or mooched them, setting aside a section of my overflowing shelves for her fourteen novels, and then last January, I plucked number one from the shelf and began what became an extremely rewarding journey through a succession of fictional worlds.

There are a number of doors I could open to begin with, points of entry for a Gordimer-centered discussion, but I think today I would like to talk about the intricacies of her writing style. More than anything, I read for the little stuff – the way a writer puts words together, the transitions and word choices, how the narrative threads and directs the story, how descriptions get built and then placed appropriately, how the writer animates a character.

I have mentioned before one of the more arresting aspects of Gordimer’s writing is her ability to capture, distill and convey an emotion or an observation. Across her fourteen novels, I was continually pulled up short by a line here or a paragraph there that managed to reflect some minute truth I wasn’t aware of until the way she expressed it made it all too clear.  Very often these moments were superfluous to the actual story in progress, and functioned like a kind of supportive netting cast delicately across the larger structure of the novel. This is something I find lacking in some contemporary fiction, as though writers are afraid nowadays to stray too far from the point.

Her earlier novels have a traditional narrative structure, but later she began making some interesting choices in narration. The Conservationist (1972), in particular, is one of the first to try something different. In that novel the narrator, Mehring, is not just telling his story, but he’s speaking to another character in the book. A character Gordimer never brings onto the page, so that our only experience with that person is through Mehring’s frustrated interior discourse. It’s an interesting technique which creates a kind of narrative layering, multiple voices within a singular narrative focus. She does this a second time in Burger’s Daughter (1979).

In The House Gun (1998) and The Pickup (2001), she writes simultaneously from the perspective of both halves of a married couple.  Exploring the two opposing/complementing sides of a couple is something she started doing as early as her third novel, Occasion for Loving (1963), but in her later novels the technique becomes much more refined, more subtle. And in many ways, more intimately reflective of the “unit” she’s describing. There are very few seams or spaces between each character’s thoughts, and Gordimer moves back and forth between Harald and Claudia or Julie and Ibrahim without any heavy guiding structure to “tell” us who is thinking what. The separation comes naturally, from their differing characters and voices.

I’ll finish today with some thoughts on how Gordimer handles description. She is skilled with corporeal presence in her writing, and knows how to give substance to her characters without resorting to unnecessary superficial tags. Instead, she gives them weight, shape, and movement. I think My Son’s Story (1990) showcases this particularly well, as so much of the book is wrapped up in exploring the physical differences of Sonny, William, and Hannah, as well as Sonny’s wife’s physical transformation. But even the smallest, most insignificant character in any Gordimer novel is unique and real and perfectly visible. It is almost infuriating how simple she makes it, a line detailing a nervous habit, a few words on the shape of a forearm, the exact description of someone’s laugh.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Published by

Michelle

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

10 thoughts on “Gordimer wrap-up #1”

  1. I know that I admitted I had to put aside Occasion for Loving but I really do hope it was just a problem with time and mood for me. I am enjoying her short stories very much. (Something Out There, 1979)

  2. “I promise to mention her only when absolutely necessary for the next few years”

    I just can’t get enough; I was actually hoping you’d set your keen eye on her short stories next…

    Thanks again for sharing.

  3. I have never read anything by Godimer. But your posts about reading her books have piqued my curiosity. So, I’ll try to hunt one down and give it a go. Any recommendation on which one to choose first?

  4. Nice post, and since you express yourself so well I don’t mind being reminded of Gordimer’s writing. I like the small details you mention – descriptions, the way of expressing emotions etc.

  5. Care – Her short stories are lovely, aren’t they? I have enjoyed the collections I’ve already read and am looking to read a few more this year. You might try one of her more recent books, like The House Gun or The Pickup or July’s People, the narrative in those novels is a bit tighter and easier to stick with.

    Guilherme – Don’t tempt me! 🙂 I probably will continue to go through her short stories at this point, so I might write about them a little, but we’ll see.

    Kinuk – I always recommend The Pickup to people who have never read her. It’s a really interesting book, a fairly quick read and has a fascinating ending. The narrative is complex but not inscrutable and the descriptions are really stunning. I’d love to know what you think if you do get a chance to try her.

    Pete – Despite her huge overall project, which is really interesting to discuss, I think I read her most of all for the small stuff. There are so many wonderful, complex details in her writing and she has a unique way of getting the information to the reader. I will be rereading several of her novels slowly, looking out for more of these same details. Sigh..if only I had more time!

  6. ‘Very often these moments were superfluous to the actual story in progress, and functioned like a kind of supportive netting cast delicately across the larger structure of the novel. This is something I find lacking in some contemporary fiction, as though writers are afraid nowadays to stray too far from the point. ‘ Fabulous point! I agree – the spaciousness and the intricacy of narrative are too often cast aside these days as they are not mass-market-friendly. Shame, because in the hands of the right writer they make the book. I know I’ve said it before, but I do mean it: I will certainly read a Gordimer novel thanks to your posts on her.

  7. “It is almost infuriating how simple she makes it,” so nice to hear that a writer has the fine detailed nuances that make characters come alive. Those details are incredibly hard to create, at least in my experience and I don’t know that I have ever really managed it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s