Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

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