Nadine Gordimer published her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953. This book traces a young woman’s complicated journey from the ignorant bliss of her sheltered childhood to an adult’s understanding of her particular South African world and her place in it. I can’t help seeing The Lying Days as the most biographical of Gordimer’s novels – it isn’t about a writer, thankfully, but it does detail a psychological journey which strikes me as basic for someone destined to become a transformative political figure. So many different tensions to navigate: the struggle between wanting to fulfill the self but knowing that serving the greater community is more important, a relentless and exacting self-scrutiny, and the ability to turn that same scrutiny on society and not be blinded or deluded into ineffective or condescending action.
These same tensions then figure in her other novels and take on new depth depending on the context. The Lying Days is a strictly personal coming-of-age, both sexual and political, while her next novel takes up that same idea from an altered perspective. In The Lying Days, Helen is South African and finds her way to her self within a familiar landscape she must learn to see objectively, while Toby in A World of Strangers is a foreigner coming into South Africa who undergoes a similar realization from a different angle. This second novel goes further than the first by delving into the intracacies of a bi-cultural friendship.
This same theme then becomes even more powerful in her third novel, Occasion for Loving, which is about a bi-cultural love affair. It is in this novel that one of Gordimer’s fundamental ideas gets phrased for the first time.
Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.
Here is something which will come back again and again in her work, in the relationships she creates which reflect South African society and later, in a more general way, which explore any ingrained system of cultural, political or gender-based separation.
The Late Bourgeois World goes further into the psychology of revolution, how a cause becomes both motivating and devastating for an individual, how that individual must fight to maintain a sense of self while accepting an equally powerful need to self-efface for the greater good. It is a short novella and very intense. For ninety pages, Gordimer holds a magnifying glass over one woman’s thoughts and experience, using those suddenly clear details to reveal a much larger story.
Her next novel, A Guest of Honour, takes up this same question of the individual within a larger system, although the magnifying glass is inverted to provide a vast, sweeping portrait of an entire country and its politics. Here, I think, Gordimer puts all her questions and attempted responses into a single, far-reaching framework – bicultural relationships, revolutionary psychology, objective political action, love (or lust) in a context of political turmoil, and social/political reconstruction.
At this point in her bibliography, history is already happening. The political system of apartheid is beginning to crumble. Her next two novels (The Conservationist and July’s People) capture that period of uncertainty and transition and distill it into a single emotion – fear. The upheaval of a political system can be seen in much the same way as a generational change and role reversal, both frightening experiences, and I think Gordimer integrates that feeling of heightened anxiety into her exploration of cultural differences.
So I’ve traced this link between her first six novels, and I could go on to include the next eight (but I won’t – no time), because I was curious to see how her thematic project moved from one book to the next. The six novels I’ve just outlined are quite different, both technically and in terms of story, but they are part of an ongoing discussion which Gordimer invites the reader to participate in each time he or she sits down and opens one of her books. Following that discussion has been one of the more rewarding aspects of reading her from start to finish this year. I have loved seeing how she opens a question in one book and then goes back to it in another, or then looks at it from another angle in a third. This is where fiction really shows its power, I think, in its ability to accommodate sustained discussion.