Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Nadine Gordimer’ category

Rereading Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun over the weekend confirmed to me that it will remain one of my all-time favorites. I think this was the third Gordimer novel I ever read and I sought it out because I had so enjoyed the first two. It is her twelfth novel and was published in 1998, when she was 75 years old. And yet it is a novel with incredible insight into contemporary problems of violence and sexual concerns.

 

In 2006, I wrote this about the novel:

 

In The House Gun Gordimer literally unstitches the seams holding together the lives of her main characters, Claudia and Harald, as they cope with the reality that their only child, their son, has committed a murder. Part One begins with the coy words, Something terrible happened but this is not yet Harald and Claudia’s “terrible”, it is only the news, the busy hum of everyday violence the couple are watching on TV one evening. But then within a paragraph, that hum infiltrates their living room. A messenger arrives. Their lives will never be the same.

 

This dichotomy between the violence “out there” and the violence “within” soon becomes one of the central sources of the novel’s power. Harald and Claudia have lived relatively quiet and happy lives, not so much oblivious to the violence in their society, but discreetly distant from it. They are quick to point out that they didn’t agree with the apartheid system but neither did they risk their life and security fighting against it. Claudia is a doctor and an atheist, while Harald is the director of an insurance company and a contemplative Christian. They are both politically liberal, in theory supportive of equality but yet admittedly still enmeshed in the mores dictated by an earlier cultural system. The unfathomable act committed by their son soon becomes their only point of reference and each aspect of their life must pass through its prism as they try to understand the unthinkable.

 

I would say The House Gun has two main preoccupations – one is Gordimer’s traditional dissection of the legacy of apartheid on the South African pysche (from both sides of the color barrier) but the other takes up the issue of longstanding violence within a community and how that poison, for lack of a better word, seeps into everything. With an incredible amount of sympathy, Gordimer presents Harald and Claudia’s son Duncan as someone who can’t help having assimilated that violence (which is both sexual and physical) because, in essence, everyone in the entire culture has had to do the same. The title emphasizes this fact – the group of young people living with Duncan has this “house gun”, an object of incredible violence that everyone treats as no big deal.

 

The novel is one of Gordimer’s most compelling narratives, in the traditional sense, in that the story literally keeps you on the edge of your seat. For those of you a bit shy of Gordimer’s sometimes roundabout narrative style, this would be an excellent book to start with. It is simply packed with her discerning prose and vivid descriptions but also with a story that grips you right from the beginning.

 

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Things have been quiet around here – sorry for the unexpected blogging break but I’m back today with more Nadine Gordimer. I finished her 11th and 12th novels over the weekend – None to Accompany Me and The House Gun. Both excellent – of course you all guessed I would say that right?

 

None to Accompany Me meanders in the way that several of her novels meander. It doesn’t have a precise, focused story. Instead it charts a period of time, following the lives of two women (one black, one white) during South Africa‘s transitional period away from apartheid.

 

One of the things I’ve grown to appreciate with Gordimer is her willingness to put what I can only call “story” onto a smaller stage and let the details and intricacies of the lives of her characters create an effective storyline on their own. On the one hand, both women (and their husbands) are involved in dismantling the apartheid system, on the other, they are concerned with more personal issues – a teen daughter’s pregnancy, the death of a co-worker, a son’s divorce, their own marital commitment, new employment and shifting friendships. And all of this is set against the evolving political landscape into which each of the four must somehow fit or transform their identity.

 

The book made an interesting parallel between apartheid and a certain kind of marriage in which one person holds all the power. The kind of relationship in which one person does all the defining for both halves of the couple. Gordimer makes the point carefully, showing that although it is possible for the parties on opposite sides to connect, even care for one another, until that original imbalance is corrected, the connection remains a false one.

 

I’m finding it difficult here to put together a neat synopsis of the novel because it encompasses such a wide variety of human experience. None to Accompany Me is a fairly complicated and weighty read (with exquisite writing, however, to make things just a little easier). The story is deceptively quiet when in fact it takes on a steady stream of huge issues and treats them each with a particularly painful honesty.

 

 

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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!

 

 

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I finished Nadine Gordimer’s novel A Sport of Nature last night and believe this will be the most difficult of her novels to write about thus far. It was complicated – but not in a way I was expecting. This is a novel I will have to read at least twice, and slowly, to come to any firm conclusions about what Gordimer was trying to do.

 

In the simplest sense A Sport of Nature is a personality profile, telling the story, from childhood to adulthood, of Hillela, a white South African woman who “becomes” a revolutionary in the struggle against Apartheid. Hillela’s political and psychological trajectory is unusual, mainly because Gordimer reveals her transformation from unconcerned to concerned (about her country’s social injustices) through a distillation of the idea of human contact. It makes sense that falling in love with another human being is one of the best ways to smash up racial boundaries and I think this is often the story that gets told – how better to understand our shared humanity than to really and truly fall in love. But Hillela’s story is more than this familiar one – her character, her self, struck me as Gordimer’s personification of the idea that love is blind.

 

Her early life is marked by a series of transgressions, all of them having to do with sex. She develops a relationship with a man from a township, whom she doesn’t even realize is black (a first allusion to exactly how colorblind her experience of falling in love will become) and is kicked out of her private school, she woos her cousin and is eventually caught in his bed and has to leave home, she follows a lover illegalIy into Ghana, escaping South Africa not for political ideals but romantic ones.

 

Through all this Hillela seems to possess some incredible luck. She is taken in again and again by the right people and kept back from the edge of poverty. She becomes friends with the wife of the French Ambassador to Ghana, moves in with this family as a sort of nanny and eventually has an affair with the Ambassador. It’s during this period that she meets Whaila, the black man who will become her husband.

 

This is the moment when Hillela changes, when she becomes engaged in the fight to overthrow Apartheid. This is Whaila’s passion and Hillela has fallen in love with him so it becomes her fight too. On the one hand, I saw Hillela’s “transformation” as quite shallow – to love this man, she will also love his politics. A subject she had no use for previously. But on the other hand, this is the moment she becomes aware of her disregard for skin color. She isn’t in love with Whaila as an exotic other, but with him – his mind, his person, his whole self. She was raised under Apartheid, and although rationally she rejected it as many of her generation did, she had never confronted its reality emotionally. So then to finally experience, emotionally, the absolute meaninglessness of that system is nothing short of revelation.

 

What happens to Hillela after this is also really interesting but I’ll give the story away if I say any more. So I’ll just say a bit more about Hillela as a character – after this transformation she continues to create a personal, rebellious world where Apartheid has absolutely no power over her. But the power she uses to fight the world beyond her personal circle isn’t physical, it isn’t intellectual, and it isn’t even emotional – her power is purely sexual. Gordimer is exploring a really interesting idea here, even if I found it somewhat uncomfortable. Her portrait of Hillela is intriguing and provocative. She is essentially a nobody who manages to rise to considerable political power…through love but mostly through refusing to choose a specific ideology except her own colorblindness.

 

As I mentioned above, there is definitely more to this novel than can be picked up in one reading. So in the meantime, before I tackle a re-read or any of the critical work about Nadine Gordimer I’ve been delighted to discover over the last 8 months, I have three more of her novels to read by the end of the year. Next up: My Son’s Story, published in 1990.

 

 

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Well, I didn’t think it could happen but it finally did. I shouldn’t feel so disappointed about this but I do. I was prepared to love all of Nadine Gordimer’s work wholeheartedly. And its not that Burger’s Daughter is bad – on the contrary, it’s a rich story with a lot of very interesting questions. And there are those moments of pure Gordimer – exquisite writing with just the right reflection or description. But as a whole, in its movement through and from each scene to scene, it just kind of got lost in itself along the way.

 

The novel has three distinct parts and if I explain what they are to any extent, I will give the story away. I wanted very much for these three parts to work together – and I suppose that on the surface they do. They represent three distinct phases of Rosa Burger’s self-actualization. But instead of leading one to the other, they felt more like images taped together a bit awkwardly at the seams. There was a moment in the middle of Part II that I thought Gordimer had changed course for an entirely different story and I was ready to feel cheated or at the very least confused. An act of almost-believable coincidence puts the story back on track and eventually it traipses forward to an ending which felt…well, I suppose it felt okay.

 

It must be difficult when writing fiction with a political purpose to keep your eye fixed firmly on storytelling. There were moments when certain characters got far too involved in making speeches and I admit I started reading diagonally. If Gordimer is anything, she is thorough. I don’t doubt that when politically engaged people get together their meetings are everything she portrays them to be – intricate, involved, passionate. But to read through their every detail is frustrating for me – the reader – because I want to stay focused on a character I have come to appreciate or worry about. I don’t want Marxist or any other theory explained to me or examined ad nauseum by characters who will leave the story as quickly as they came in.

 

I mentioned in my review of her sixth novel, The Conservationist, that Gordimer uses a particular technique of having the main character speak to another character (or characters) in their mind. A kind of imaginary conversation which gives the main character the right to explain himself, complain, or defend himself. In The Conservationist this device was a source of some of the most moving passages of the entire book. In Burger’s Daughter she uses the very same stylistic device, but at first I found it horribly distracting. The person to whom Rosa addresses her thoughts is an ex-lover – someone the reader never meets on the page. It was frustrating never having that person in the flesh – just a construct of Rosa’s mind. In Part II, she switches to “thinking at” her father’s first wife, the woman she is staying with in France. I don’t think it works particularly well in that section either, but not for the same reasons. More because all of Part II seems disjointed and apathetic until we reach the coincidence I mention above. But then all of a sudden, in Part III, I saw why Gordimer continued to use the device. Suddenly Rosa is addressing her dead father. And I think this was the whole point. Her transformation is complete and she can safely begin a conversation she has been longing to have but never felt confident enough to do.

 

I won’t put Burger’s Daughter on my list of favorites but as always I’m glad to have read it. Her eighth novel, July’s People, is one I have already read and enjoyed. It’s short so I think I will re-read it before moving on.

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I find reading Gordimer a combination of pure pleasure and hard work. Her images are captivating and unique, her narration unusual, her subject matter courageous. Her novels are so thorough in their project (political, psychological, literary) that reading them is often painstakingly intense – these are novels I want to savor slowly, with necessary appreciative pauses and time spent considering the labor which went into their creation.

 

The Conservationist (1972), her sixth novel, is a character portrait. A detailed rendering of a dying man – not dying in a physical sense, but a metaphysical one. Mehring is a wealthy white South African businessman who commutes between town with its glittering, oblivious socialite world and his small farm in the countryside. He is a perfect cog in the Apartheid wheel, making his money on the near slave labor of his black farm workers or his mining investments (which amounts to essentially the same thing) and accepting the separation of South Africa’s cultures as right and natural. He is everything Nadine Gordimer disapproves of. And yet her representation of him doesn’t once make him the reader’s enemy. Except in an abstract, ideological way. My sympathy for Mehring lies in his full awareness of his own demise. He recognizes the futility (and in his more lucid moments, the injustice) of the system which enables his privilege.  

 

Mehring is also a womanizer. A natural character trait for a man who has always had everything he’s wanted by simply taking it. But that part of him is dying a painful death as well. His last mistress, who was working to fight against the Apartheid system, eventually had to flee the country. He has trouble admitting it but he is in mourning for her. Most of the novel unfolds as an imaginary conversation between her and him – he wants very clearly to understand why she would choose to support a philosophy which would eventually alter the comfortable life they’ve enjoyed until now. He’s enraged and frustrated and confused. And he misses her.

 

I found the structure of that imaginary back and forth (which includes similar imagined conversations with his hippie son) both fascinating and touching. Mehring is a wounded creature, and he’s desperately trying to understand what’s wrong with his life. According to the morals of the culture he was raised in, he hasn’t done anything wrong. Yet in the eyes of the people closest to him (his ex-wife, his son, his former mistress), he’s an abuser of the highest degree. Mehring’s baffled attempt to reconcile these two views created a space where he and I could co-exist.  Where I wanted to get to know and understand him.

In The Conservationist, Gordimer endeavors for the first time to take on the perspective of a black African, exploring the thoughts and experiences of some of the workers on the farm, and especially Mehring’s foreman Jacobus, as well as the Indian shopkeepers just off the property. With this careful work, I was able to experience South African society of the early 1970s when the rigid distinctions between each culture are beginning to fray. Both from within and as the next generation courageously crosses the line. It’s a tense scenario and risky for everyone involved. Gordimer’s pinpointing and depiction of these both dangerous and hopeful moments increase the novel’s consequence.

 

As the story progresses, the narration becomes more jarring and disconnected. Mehring, more and more emotionally marooned, rejects the overtures of his former friends and settles further into his imagined conversations and daydreams. He hides out at his farm, trying to establish some sort of connection with the land he wants desperately to believe is rightfully his. His sorrow, indignation and uncertainty are palpable, and he keeps denying the fact that he’s nothing but an interloper while at the same time coming to the unsettling realization that the people who originally belonged to the land now work for him.

 

 

As usual, Gordimer’s writing accomplishes this impressive project with grace, power and matchless coherence.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve finally reached the half-way point in Nadine Gordimer’s fifth novel, A Guest of Honour. As I mentioned before, this novel takes a broader scope than her previous four. It isn’t so much about the individual perspective and experience of apartheid but more about the legacy of that system on an entire culture – both sides, those who had power and those who were never allowed the same responsibility or privilege.

 

The novel isn’t set in South Africa, but in a fictional neighboring state which has just gained its independence. A Guest of Honour asks two preoccupying questions – first, what are the elements of colonialism most difficult for the no-longer-colonized nation to move beyond and second, what role can (or, more importantly, should) the liberal white individual play in the dismantling and subsequent reconstruction of a culture he/she participated in along the way. For a novel written in 1970, Gordimer is exceptionally prescient as well as compassionate and I’m eager to work my way through to the end and experience either the solution she might offer or a deeper investigation of these important questions.

 

But what I really wanted to talk about today was style. In terms of writing technique, I get a lot from Gordimer. She’s a fantastic study and I just wanted to point out some of the things I’ve been noting throughout this book.

 

First, and I’ve mentioned this before when talking about Gordimer, is her remarkable facility with description. Her use of symbolic language is never heavy or extended – just a word or two, but she somehow manages to pick just the right word or image. A few examples:

 

The road to the village would be blocked, the dog ran over the soft fields breathing like a dragon…the kernel of the house was warm with oil-fired heating…

 

The spiders came out from behind the pictures and flattened like starfish against the walls.

 

Every now and then the trumpet blurted like a shout of obese laughter.

 

There were bats at the fruit, the most silent and unobtrusive of creatures, torn-off rags of darkness itself.

 

Second, she has unapologetic transitions. Simply effortless. In the example here, she moves her character from one side of town (his house) to another (his friend Hjalmar’s), to a completely different scene, as well as brings in another character, with a semi-colon and the word “yes”. It’s brilliant:

 

The trousers were a little short. He looked at himself in the damp-spotted mirror on the door of the wardrobe in his room. He had forgotten to buy a dress tie, after all; but Hjalmar would have one. Yes; and it was a beautiful tie, finely made of the best ribbed silk, with a Berlin label still on it. Emmanuelle laughed. “Nobody wears those butterflies anymore. Ras will lend you one of his.”

 

In her other novels, Gordimer already captures the flow of what I would call “party” conversation. Streams of sentences that don’t always connect, batted back and forth across whatever scene she’s got set up. In A Guest of Honour, which is heavily peppered with these kinds of busy scenes, she refines the technique. This novel features state dinners and policy discussions, dinner parties and after-hours political brainstorming. She gets the mood of these either heated or weary dialogues just perfect. I won’t quote them because they can go on for a long time but suffice it to say Gordimer can be useful to look at if you want to work on the musicality, the nonsensical nature, and the flow of written dialogue.

 

Finally, the third person omniscient narrative style she favors lends itself well to this kind of socially/morally investigative novel because she can telescope between her characters’ observations and more general insights. Here is one such example, taken from a scene when the main character Bray meets another white woman at a state dinner:

 

She did not know who he was; the curious fact was that people like him and her would not have met in colonial times, irrevocably separated by his view of the Africans as the owners of their own country and her view of them as a race of servants with good masters. They were brought together now by the blacks themselves, the very source of the contention, his presence the natural result of long friendship, hers the equally natural result of that accommodating will to survive – economic survival, of course; her flesh and blood had never been endangered – that made her accept an African government as she had had to accept the presence of ants in the sugar and the obligation to take malaria prophylactics.

 

This particular example is a bit longer than most, but I still think she carries it off because she’s able to sculpt our understanding of both characters with this kind of confident narrator. It’s such a smooth omniscient.

 

A Guest of Honour is a heavy book, rich with political maneuvering, complicated social philosophy and historical information. It’s a slow read. But at the same time, the sheer delight of turning the page to come across yet another of Gordimer’s stunning images or insightful descriptions significantly lightens the experience. Definitely one of those books I’m eager to keep reading but that I don’t really want to finish.

 

 

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I love it when you’re reading a book and you’re just enjoying the scenes, the ideas and the prose and then suddenly you come across a few passages that change everything. That put the entire novel into perspective. That transform the story into something much greater than thoughtful fiction. 

Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving kind of sneaks up on you like that. I was reading this book and although I was enjoying it, I was also kind of thinking it might turn out to be one I’d leave on the shelf after finishing and not think much about again. Instead, the book packs kind of a surprising wallop.  

The basic story centers on a family, The Stilwells, and their relationship with another couple, Boaz and Ann Davis. The Stilwells, as represented mostly by the mother Jessie, do not agree with South African apartheid and live their life as much as possible as though the color barrier did not exist. In some ways they convince themselves they exist outside the system – their home is open to anyone, they travel freely to the townships and work within the political parties that are actively fighting against the apartheid system – and this is their way of believing they have kept their own integrity intact. 

But of course this isn’t possible. Their attempt at living as though apartheid doesn’t affect them gets called into question when Ann begins an affair with one of the Stilwell’s black friends. Everything about this affair serves to highlight what it means to have your life defined through the color of your skin. There is one line, taken from somewhere smack in the middle of the book, that I felt encapsulated this very idea: 

Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart. 

Ann and her lover Gideon are engaged in an act of political transgression. In a situation like theirs, this will always be more important than anything else between them. So how is it possible for anyone to consider the affair without first considering that Ann has power and freedom and choice and Gideon has none? Even Ann’s husband, who should be allowed to honestly experience all the emotions involved in a betrayal cannot forget for one moment that the relationship will always be more complicated than that. 

Another thing that struck me the more I got into the story was how Gordimer skillfully reveals just how difficult it is for someone in a privileged class, no matter their sympathies for the oppressed, to really understand what’s it like to live without any freedom. Jessie comes close, toward the end in a conversation with Gideon but even then she can only frame her understanding from her own perspective: 

She smiled, looking at him from a distance. “We’re not talking about the same thing. It’s a question of freedom.”

“Freedom?” He was astonished, derisive.

“There’s more than one kind, you know.”

“Well, one kind would do for me.”

“Yes, perhaps it would, because you haven’t got it. Perhaps you’ll never have to ask yourself why you live. A political struggle like yours makes everything very simple.” 

The book also contains a tangential story about Jessie and her son from a first marriage. It offers a nice parallel, a side-route exploration about freedom and responsibility, about natural ties to family members and whether those are created or grow up all on their own.  

Occasion for Loving surprised me. Early on I thought I had figured out what the book was going to be about, thought I knew what the experience of reading it would feel like. But I was wrong. What appears to be a calm and careful story is actually destabilized with a tremendously angry undercurrent. The novel nurses a veiled rage about the injustice of social segregation based on skin color.

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I attended a workshop a few months ago conducted by the playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah. Kwei-Armah is an unabashedly political writer with a social agenda and he spent a considerable amount of time discussing the idea that writers are the mirrors of society. I like this idea and agree with it. But I also think that if its true, it makes writing a very difficult exercise indeed.

I like the idea because so much of what I enjoy in fiction is having the world thrown back at me in a way I wouldn’t have formulated myself. I love it when a piece of fiction shows me something about the world that I instantly recognize as “true” but that I hadn’t managed to discover on my own, or understand in exactly the same way. Good fiction reveals. Good writers capture the play between the light and darkness of reflection.

It’s this tension that makes writing so difficult. How do we create something unique out of something that is essentially a revelation of things as they actually are? In this sense, good fiction creates something that is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I don’t mean we have to recognize ourselves in each character we read, but often, it is only through a recognition of our shared humanity with a character that a story becomes meaningful.

From Birds of America, “People Like That Are the Only People Here”, Lorrie Moore: What words can be uttered? You turn just slightly and there it is: the death of your child. It is part symbol, part devil, and in your blind spot all along, until, if you are unlucky, it is upon you. Then it is a fierce little country abducting you; it holds you squarely inside itself like a cellar room – the best boundaries of you are the boundaries of it. Are there windows? Sometimes aren’t there windows?

From That Night, Alice McDermott: For after this, after the cars and the sudden spinning onto her lawn, the boys with their chains and the fight and the chilling sound of her boyfriend’s cry, after this, no small scenes could satisfy us, no muffled arguments, no dinner-at-eight celebrations, no sweet, damaged child, could make us believe we were living a vibrant life, that we had ever known anything about love.

From The Echo Maker, Richard Powers: What did it feel like to be Mark Schluter? To live in this town, work in a slaughterhouse, then have the world fracture from one moment to the next. The raw chaos, the absolute bewilderment of the Capgras state twisted Weber’s gut. To see the person closest to you in this world, and feel nothing. But that was the astonishment: nothing inside Mark felt changed. Improvising consciousness saw to that. Mark still felt familiar; only the world had gone strange. He needed his delusions, in order to close that gap. The self’s whole end was self-continuation.

From Occasion for Loving, Nadine Gordimer: He stretched himself out on the sofa, and when Tom finished his work he saw that he was asleep. His head was flung back on a raised arm behind his head. The fingers of the hand moved like tendrils in an effort against cramp that did not break through to consciousness; on the blank face of sleep traces of bewilderment and disgust were not quite erased round the mouth. Tom looked at him for a moment with the curiosity that is always aroused by the opportunity to contemplate suffering without having to respond to the sufferer, and then decided to leave him there, and turned out the light.

The narrators of each of these passages exposes something recognizable about the human condition. I’ve never had any first hand experience with Capgras syndrome yet Powers’s description of the splicing of the psyche after trauma feels horribly familiar, I’ve never experienced anything having to do with pediatric cancer but the desire for denial that Moore presents speaks to me because that is something that humans do – we deny, we rant and rave, we even tell jokes in the dark moments. These passages are all so affecting because they show us who we are, they reflect something particular and it becomes something shared.

These novels are constructed out of a web of these moments, groups of sentences put together by the narrator and wedged in between the dialogue and the action to ensure the novel functions on two levels at all times – The Echo Maker isn’t just about Mark Schluter’s car accident and his sister’s attempt to rehabilitate him, it is also a novel about us and how fragile our minds and identity really are. Nadine Gordimer isn’t just writing about a woman’s love affair with a black man in apartheid South Africa, she is also revealing how we negotiate social inequality in its myriad forms.

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Have I made it clear how much I respect Nadine Gordimer? In case anyone missed it, let me mention yet again how often I pick up one of her books, read for a while and settle in to the comfortable bliss of admiration. Her talent and insight are immense. I particularly appreciate that she dedicates that talent to the creation of a discussion about the injustice and moral poverty of any situation of apartheid or discrimination.  

However, it isn’t the political agenda of her work that establishes its excellence. It is much more than that. It is her profound understanding of the human creature, with all our whims and contradictions, our emotional complexity and frightened empathy. Somehow, she manages to get right to the essence of a character, an essence which, I think, is quite simply a reflection of the reader. Her characters are not just people she’s invented and sent off to wander the landscape of her imagination. They are us.  

Which is why the title of her second novel, A World of Strangers, is really more of a challenge thrown at the reader. Yes, the book is set in South Africa during the early years of apartheid and many of us don’t have first hand experience with that system. But yet the division she considers, the ignorance and racism she puts on display, is chillingly familiar. 

A World of Strangers is thematically quite similar to her first novel, The Lying Days – the story of an individual coming to grips with South African culture in the initial years after the Nationalist Party came to power and established the legal institution of cultural segregation. However, whereas The Lying Days is about coming to terms with one’s own culture and defining oneself within that culture, A World of Strangers approaches the same questions through the eyes of an outsider looking in.  

Our narrator Toby is a young Englishman sent to South Africa to work for the family business. He comes from the upper middle class but also from a family with open-minded political beliefs. Toby doesn’t negate those beliefs but he doesn’t embrace them in the same eager way as his family. At best, he agrees but is uninterested in wasting his time on the debate. As he gets established in Johannesburg, he begins to move between two worlds – the contented and extremely wealthy white suburbs and the animated but poor black townships. These two worlds are embodied in two of his relationships – a love affair with Cecil, a white divorcée, and a close friendship with Steven, an educated and dashing young black man.  

Toby considers himself immune from the rules of apartheid and travels freely, even carelessly, between his white friends and the townships. He knows enough to keep his worlds separated, not allowing the two to meet. One of the things I found so honest about Toby was his understanding that neither of those two lives was really for him. He disdained many aspects of his wealthy friends’ undemanding and counterfeit lives but at the same time understood he would never have the courage to face the poverty and violence of the townships.  

Toby slides back and forth between the two worlds, and in a way, he becomes a smug voyeur. Sampling the best of both worlds, keeping himself apart when it suits him and never feeling guilty about his own double standard. Of course this kind of social schizophrenia cannot really last. Eventually, a tragedy requires Toby to confront his emotional sightseeing. He’s forced to face up to the disaster of apartheid and what it means to him personally. No longer a system that has nothing to do with him but one that is him, is in him, that he cannot just walk away from. 

A World of Strangers was published in 1958. It was banned in South African for twelve years.     

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