On Saturday I said there were two other articles I wanted to mention besides the wonderful Barnes piece from The London Review of Books. The first of these is a short, (nearly infuriatingly so) piece on Nadine Gordimer from The Guardian. The occasion of the article was a lecture she gave in England a few weeks ago, after which the journalist was able to ask her a few questions, and the subject was her life and her newest book, the complete collection of her non-fiction writings, Telling Times, Writing and Living, 1954 – 2008.
The article is worth a skim, especially if you are a fan of Gordimer like me, but it served more to remind me to start reading Telling Times. Which I did right away, and which is about as delightful as going through her fiction again. I like that I’ve read all of her fiction before now experiencing her non-fiction essays. I feel I have a sense of what she tried to accomplish through her literature, and I have judged and admired that on its merits, and so now I can go back and discover her personal voice.
I believe, although I could be wrong, that most people think of Gordimer as a strictly political writer. And so, in some sense, despite her Nobel Prize, despite her other awards and general prestige, her work actually gets overlooked by many readers who might be intimidated, or simply not interested, or putting it off for the right time. But I think that keeping her in such a strict classification is a gross mischaracterization of her work. Yes, all of her novels have some social-political element to them, that fact cannot be pushed aside, but they are all novels of people more than anything else.
In an essay from 1963 on how she came to writing, she says:
I was looking for what people meant but didn’t say, not only about sex, but also about politics and their relationship with the black people among whom we lived as people live in a forest among trees. So it was that I didn’t wake up to Africans and the shameful enormity of the colour bar through a youthful spell in the Communist Party, as did some of my contemporaries with whom I share the rejection of white supremacy, but through the apparently esoteric speleology of doubt, led by Kafka rather than Marx. And the ‘problems’ of my country did not set me writing; on the contrary, it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of ‘the South African way of life’.
I loved reading these lines, especially the first and last sentence, because they confirm to me how Gordimer approaches writing. It is simply the essential fact of her existence, the first fact. Other facts have layered themselves around this first one, perhaps the greatest is having been born and raised in South Africa. But Gordimer would have written, and written superbly, had she come from anywhere else.