Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

If you have been reading my blog for any amount of time you have probably noticed that one of my favorite writers, if not my all-time favorite writer, is Nadine Gordimer. Back in December I got word (hat tip to NOCA and Guilherme) that she would be giving a reading at Bloomsbury in London in March. After a little debate—okay, not much debate at all really, just some logistical negotiations for childcare and work schedule—I decided to buy a ticket and fly over for what was probably my only chance to attend a Gordimer reading. She turns 89 this year and she doesn’t often travel outside of South Africa.

The reading was Monday night and was held at the lovely Bloomsbury offices at Bedford Square. It was a very small gathering, not more than 50 people. I attended with two wonderful friends, who are also writers. Once inside, with our coats handed over, we were directed into a reception room for a glass of wine. Within seconds one of my friends turned to me and said, “She is sitting right over there. And you must absolutely go up to her right now.”

I hesitated. Because, first and foremost, that is what shy people do when faced with someone they admire very much. But also, it was very informal. It was not quite clear whether she was going to be signing books already before the reading, (of course, why else was she seated in this room with a little table in front of her?) and I’m just the kind of person who doesn’t want to bother anyone, doesn’t want to be that awkward person who speaks too loud or says something ridiculous. I’m sure I sputtered a few half-finished sentences that all started with, “Well, I’m not…” and “Maybe we shouldn’t…”

But thankfully my friends would have none of my silliness and we made our way over to Gordimer, got behind another would-be book signee and waited our turn. I gave her my copy of No Time Like the Present – her latest novel, and that came with tickets to the event – and managed to say a quiet, “Thank you,” once she’d signed, but that was it.

Until my friend stepped up, beaming and a little mischievous, and asked Gordimer whether she minded having her photograph taken with me. I was embarrassed, ridiculously so, but am now forever grateful to my outgoing friend. She also forced me to sit in the first row once we moved into the reading room, and hooray that she did; of course I chose the 2nd or 3rd row – because that is what shy people do. Instead, I got to sit for an hour just two feet away from Nadine Gordimer and watch her think and speak as she read and answered a series of questions.

I have admired, if not loved, each of her novels, and have read several many times. I’m now halfway through her fifteenth novel, No Time Like the Present, and while it will probably not become one of my favorites (like The House Gun, The Pickup, Occasion for Loving and My Son’s Story, for example), it is a very important work of fiction. It details contemporary, post-Apartheid South Africa by following a bi-cultural couple, married in secret just before Apartheid is dismantled. It is the story of their married life, their transformation from freedom fighters to legitimate couple and about their children who grow to maturity without the same constraints placed on the parents. It is a fiercely political novel and an intelligent work of fiction. I’ll be writing more about it when I finish.

On Monday evening, Gordimer introduced the novel, read a few pages and then answered questions. Watching her, I had to remind myself that she is 88 years old. She is incredibly sharp. Elegant and sure-spoken.

The nature of her fiction invites tangential political discussion, and this is something that I do enjoy, but our time with Gordimer was quite short and I would have loved being able to talk more about her fictional style. She has a unique narrative perspective that has developed in her writing over the years – the editor at Bloomsbury who moderated the evening called it “simultaneous narration.” She’s always had an absolutely sparkling first-person or omniscient narrator, but around, say, A Sport of Nature or None to Accompany Me (both published in the 90s), she started using a slightly different technique, a kind of layering of the close 3rd person. The perspective jumps from person to person, even sometimes within the same paragraph. It takes a little getting used to, but it gives her the ability to reveal what each character is thinking at any given moment.

Gordimer is often discussed in terms of the message or the content of her fiction, and understandably so, but I would love to read more (and to have heard more at the reading) discussions of her style. She has said on many occasions, and she repeated this on Monday, that she is not a “political writer” or any other combination of adjective and writer. She is simply a writer. In my (humble) opinion, she is too often overlooked for the way she portrays human feeling in any context, political or otherwise, as well as for the quality of and unique feel to her prose.

I’m still basking in the afterglow of my whirlwind trip to London and this reading. It was a small gathering, it was only an hour and a half, I was too shy to actually say anything to her except variations of “thank you,” but I feel very lucky to have actually met Nadine Gordimer after spending so many years reading, admiring, and thinking about her fiction.

15 Responses to “Meeting Nadine Gordimer”

  1. Kerry

    Congratulations! It is absolutely fabulous meeting a writer whom you admire, particularly when they turn out to seem even more awesome in person than they do on the page. I am thrilled for you and, undoubtedly, that will be a long-cherished memory. (And you’ve given me a kick in the pants to read some Gordimer.)

    • Michelle

      Thanks, Kerry. It was a great experience. And yes, please, read some Gordimer! If you want any suggestions, just ask.

      • Kerry

        Well, of course, where should I start? Because her oeuvre is sufficiently extensive I cannot commit to reading it all, I’d prefer to start with one of her best novels and go from there.

      • Michelle

        Oooh, it’s hard to know which one to suggest. She is perhaps best known for The Conservationist, and I do love this one. But it’s very male – that isn’t a bad thing, she does male perspective flawlessly. Of her apartheid novels, I think my favorite is Occasion for Loving (because of its tight focus). Of her post-apartheid novels, I love both The House Gun and The Pickup. Both are very contemporary and deal with contemporary political issues.

        July’s People is also excellent, very short and very powerful. It is speculative fiction, and she imagines a different end to the apartheid era.

        I’ve written about all of these novels on the blog, and so might peek at some of those posts and see what strikes your fancy!

      • Kerry

        I will make my choice out of this list, then:

        The Conservationist
        Occasion for Loving
        The House Gun
        The Pickup
        July’s People

        I will try to get to whatever I select in 2012. But you know how TBRs are….

        The important thing is that she is officially on the list. She will be read.

  2. Stefanie

    How wonderful Michelle that you got to meet her! I think a good many of us get tongued tied when given the opportunity to meet a favorite author but just being in her presence is enough. And now you have the memory and a photo, something you will never forget.

    • Michelle

      Getting to hear her speak in person was a real treat – she was inspiring for a number of reasons, and it is certainly an event I won’t ever forget.

  3. Lilian Nattel

    I’m so glad for you! I would have reacted just the same way as you so I’m glad you had your friends to push you forward. I’m saving this post in my reader because I want to re-read when I’m less sleepy and also make note of your favourite NG books. I read one of hers some time ago and I am def ready for more.

  4. Helen

    I was going to write pretty much what Lilian wrote, but she did it better! (Except that I haven’t read any of NG’s work, so your list is very handy.)

    I still treasure the memories of readings I’ve attended, even those by authors whose work wasn’t a particular favourite.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: