The passing of Nadine Gordimer is a tremendous loss, both to South Africa and to the literary world. For me, and others who knew her, it will also be an enormous personal loss.
Born in November 1923, Nadine Gordimer came from a different era. Her first task was to discover that South Africa was worth writing about. Of course she was by no means the first writer in South Africa, but growing up all her models were European; by definition that was where literature came from. Then came her dawning realisation: those masters, mistresses, and servants; the racially divided world she belonged to; the energies, passions and frustrations of the black townships; the personal experience of the political world; the deeper texts and subtexts of South African life: these and more became her topics, her roving ground.
She followed where her instincts led, and was clear on the fact that it was writing that led her to politics because — as she once memorably put it — “politics is character in South Africa”. If you were interested in character, you would soon realise that the world of apartheid suffused every aspect of the personal. Gordimer, chronicler and more of the personal, became the chronicler and more of the political in South Africa as well.
She had a precocious talent, and her first stories were published when she was still a teenager. To begin with, short stories were her métier, and few could equal the diamond-cutter precision which she brought to her craft. Then, by the 1950s, came the novels, and over the decades volumes of stories and novels alternated with impressive regularity.
But Gordimer was also a non-fiction writer. She travelled to Egypt, the Congo, and Madagascar, and wrote about those places, bringing to her work a sensuous feel for landscape and atmosphere that was virtually unmatched. As she became more immersed in the world of Johannesburg and the political temper of the times, so too she wrote articles about politics — about censorship, and the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and the chaos and apparently looming revolution of the 1980s. Long before the political world understood it, she followed Gramsci in defining that moment as the “interregnum”: when the old was dying, the new could not be born, and the present was filled with a great diversity of morbid symptoms.
It was, in many respects, her dissection of those morbid symptoms as well as the straitened attempt to come to grips with an unfolding history that characterised her great novels of the 70s and 80s. Her 1974 novel The Conservationist (in my view, her masterpiece) foretold in intensely realist yet richly symbolic form the eventual reclamation by black South Africans of their land.
Burger’s Daughter, published in 1979, focused on the daughter of an anti-apartheid political figure (loosely based on Bram Fischer) finding her way in the challenging context of the Black Consciousness movement, which rejected white involvement in the political struggle.
July’s People (1981) was set in an imaginary future of revolutionary breakdown, but its real revolutionary gesture was to understand the underlying codes and assumptions of an apocalyptic present through the perspective an imagined future could provide.
In the latter stages of apartheid, Gordimer embodied her allegiance in other ways: appearing in court as a witness for ANC members charged with crimes against the state, and attending funerals in the townships where black youths were at risk from attack by the police. As apartheid came to a close, many paid tribute, including Nelson Mandela, but her post-apartheid novels continued to explore South African reality without fear or favour in all its contradictions and continued problems.
One pattern, though, never changed: time and again her characters would face an impending choice on whether or not to leave South Africa. Time and again the choice became clear: it was not to leave, or, once having left, to return. South Africa was forever Nadine Gordimer’s place.
One morning in March 1980, I stood with great trepidation outside her front gate before going in to interview her for the work that became my doctoral thesis and in due course my first book. Later, I worked closely with her when I was editing the essays included in her non-fiction volume, The Essential Gesture.
Serendipitously in 1991, in the week when she won the Nobel Prize, we had invited her to our campus to give our most prestigious lecture. Later still, I saw her whenever circumstances allowed. We corresponded and spoke on the phone; I spoke with her just a few weeks before she died.
How do I, and will I remember her? To many she was distant, perhaps cold, her writing challenging and demanding. I saw it as filled with an underlying passion and deep feeling. I remember her eyes, observing all with a piercing yet intimate effect. Though small, she had the poise and balance of the dancer she had been as a young girl — and it was there in her sentences as well. There was steadfastness, loyalty, toughness, tenderness, and most of all great friendship.
In July 2012 I stayed in her house for a few days. We went together to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, one of her great pleasures in the city she loved. Though the weather was freezing, there was in her an unmistakable zeal, even as she became frailer, to live life to the brim. She had the rarest clarity of mind, body and spirit, there for everyone to see and read in her work.