Gordimer and Me
In 2008, a publisher asked me to edit a collection of nonfiction by Nadine Gordimer, who died this week at the age of ninety. There had been a couple of short selections before, but the idea behind the project was to collect pretty much everything. Six decades of work, arranged chronologically, would provide a kind of blow-by-blow record of the times she’d lived through—from the crackdowns of the nineteen-sixties to the new democratic South Africa of the nineties, from the banning of her novels to her emergence as a leading voice in the anti-apartheid struggle and a Nobel Prize laureate.
By the time I got to work, there was already so much material that the project was in danger of spiralling out of control. After she won the Nobel Prize, in 1991, Gordimer’s diary had filled up with endless lecturing obligations, and texts existed in a constellation of slightly different versions. She had recently outlived an assistant of many years, and her files, as it seemed from the packages she sent, were endlessly capacious. Every time she rummaged, she’d find something new and be transported back to the moment of its composition, the political struggles out of which it had arisen.
Delving back to the early years of her career, she terrified her publisher by sending original typescripts and clippings from magazines rather than copies. What if this stuff went astray?
Gordimer had a slightly fearsome reputation—not suffering fools gladly, that sort of thing—but we got along well. Of course, I was trying hard not to be a fool. I sent her memos that were highly detailed, as a way of semaphoring that all was under control. (It helped that there was already a published bibliography of her work up to 1992, so it was easy to be sure that we hadn’t missed important early work.) The approach seemed to suit her. She was meticulous and clearly enjoyed the work. For about nine months, we sent long memos back and forth, she awarding her work marks out of ten (though at the lower end she would simply write “Discard”) and me keeping track of the score.
Her nonfiction wasn’t the output most important to her: “That was just on the side,” she told Emma Brockes at the time of the book’s publication. “Fiction is what really matters.” Still, looking back now through the stack of our correspondence, I see, in a way that I didn’t then, that it must have been nerve-racking to go back through a lifetime of work. The injustices she had witnessed were still utterly immediate for her, yet so much time had elapsed—could we still say “gay,” meaning happy?
Had the South African Communist Party already been banned by 1963? Subeditors who were probably now long dead were excoriated afresh for incorrect corrections they had made half a century before. Then there was the question of changing one’s mind: “Is it ethical for me to make cuts, on second thoughts, in pieces?! If so—cut P18 last 3 lines up from end of piece … It is an insincere sop I made, I think, to my hosts.” “Pro-Mugabe piece [from 1980] justified as true at the time, but would have to have an update now that he has become a monster dictator. I don’t mind having been proved mistaken….” This last was a recurrent point: how she might come off now was far less important to her than providing an honest record.
The contents of the book ranged widely: memoir, literary criticism, travelogue, speeches. Early in her career, journalism was an important part of how she made her living. Later, as she became an important figure in the anti-apartheid movement, nonfiction became perhaps more of a political act than a writerly one. My favorite pieces in the collection were often memoirs. There is a touching short piece about Nat Nakasa, a dissident journalist who became a close friend of hers in the late fifties. He took up a Niemann fellowship at Harvard in 1964, knowing that to leave South Africa meant being barred from returning (he was given an exit permit, not a passport). In 1965, unable to adjust to life in exile, he killed himself. In the piece, Gordimer alludes to this sad trajectory, but then we go back in time and get a portrait of a young man vibrating with ambition and ideas and optimism—staying at her house, listening through her record collection, excitedly showing her submissions that were coming into the literary journal he’d founded. A long, early memoir for The New Yorker—“A South African Childhood: Allusions in a Landscape”—is another standout, evoking the mining country of Witwatersrand, where she was raised (“one of the ugliest parts of a generally beautiful continent”), and her growing adolescent awareness of the racial rift she was born into. Since the publication, in 2006, of an unauthorized biography of Gordimer, there has been speculation that a couple of incidents in the piece were invented. It wouldn’t totally surprise me—our culture now polices the badlands of memoir more stringently than was the case back then—but it remains, for me, one of the most rewarding pieces of writing in the book. (Check out the story of the crocodile on 132-134.)
I was also fascinated by moments when you could see her political awareness and her sensibility as a novelist growing in tandem. In “Great Problems in the Street,” she writes about “the indifferent”—South African whites who, though “kindly and decent,” are essentially apathetic and unwilling to look beyond the comfort of their lives to confront the injustice that is its foundation. When they converse with politically dissident whites, “there is an exchange of silences between strangers.” She relates a dinner party during the state of emergency that followed the Sharpeville massacre (in 1960, police fired on demonstrators protesting against the Pass Laws, which vastly limited freedom of movement for blacks):
“Is it true that D—— B—— is in prison?”
“Yes, he was picked up last Thursday night.”
“But why? He seems such a fine person. I mean I couldn’t imagine him doing anything wrong—”
“Do you think it’s wrong for Africans to demonstrate against the pass law?”
“Well, I mean, that’s got to be put down, that’s political agitation—”
“Yes, exactly. Well D—— B—— thinks the pass laws are wrong and so, quite logically, since he is a fine person, he’s prepared to do what he can to help Africans protest against them.”
How could the indifferent keep at a safe distance this man whom they had accepted and who was at once the same man who sat in prison, nothing whatever to do with them? The subject was dropped into the dark cupboard of questions that are not dealt with.
Reviews of the book were mixed. Inevitably, the decision to be inclusive meant that the quality of the material was not uniform. Adam Mars-Jones, in the Guardian, wrote that, in the later stages of the book, “the crown of wisdom … slips slowly over her eyes.” Ouch. He put this down to the vanity of eminence, but I’m not so sure. After all, there’s plenty of vanity in the opposite approach—preserving only what makes one look good as a writer, making sure to present one’s best side to history’s camera. In her notes assessing the work, she never picked out a particular insight she was pleased with, much less a turn of phrase. The emphasis was always on the underlying issue, on what needed to be said: “ONE OF THE VERY BEST PIECES. RELEVANT NOW.”
Photograph: Jerome Delay/AP