Nadine Gordimer, Nobel laureate, exposed toll of South Africa’s apartheid

In a 2007 interview, Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer describes her escape from the racist ideology she had grown up with. Gordimer died July 13 at her home in Johannesburg at the age of 90. (Nobel Media AB)
July 14

Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer and Nobel laureate for literature whose intense, intimate prose helped expose apartheid to a global readership and who continued to illuminate the brutality and beauty of her country long after the demise of the racist government, died July 13 at her home in Johannesburg. She was 90.

Her family announced the death but did not disclose the cause.

Ms. Gordimer, who was white, was an early and active member of the African National Congress, but she did not craft political manifestos. Her role as an author, she said, was simply to “write in my own way as honestly as I can and go as deeply as I can into the life around me.” 

Her characters with lofty ideals were often personally flawed; the racists and apolitical businessmen had the same depth and complexity as the freedom fighters.

“The Conservationist,” which won the Man Booker Prize in 1974, presents one of Ms. Gordimer’s most well-formed characters, a white industrialist who has purchased a large farm outside Johannesburg, in part to be a rendezvous spot for him and his married, politically radical mistress.


Former South African President and Nobel Peace Laureate Nelson Mandela (R) smiling as he receives the Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award from Nobel Literature Laureate Nadine Gordimer in 2006. (Jon Hrusa/EPA)

Another acclaimed novel, “Burger’s Daughter,” published in 1979, follows the personal and political struggles of Rosa Burger, the daughter of a charismatic Afrikaner doctor and anti-apartheid activist who died in prison. In a country defined by its political intensity, Rosa explores whether “the real definition of loneliness” is to “live without social responsibility.”

Ms. Gordimer’s 1981 novel “July’s People” tells the story of a liberal white family fleeing an imagined, violent revolution against apartheid and ending up in the village of — and beholden to — their former servant, July.

From her 1958 novel, “A World of Strangers,” which details the futile attempts of a young English businessman to maintain ties among whites and blacks in South Africa, to the 2012 “No Time Like the Present,” which follows an interracial couple struggling to navigate their troubled post-apartheid society, Ms. Gordimer wrote unsparingly of race, identity and place, and of how repressive political systems etched themselves onto the lives and relationships of individuals.

Exploring secrets

 “She makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation,” Sture Allen, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said while awarding Ms. Gordimer the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. “In this way, artistry and morality fuse.” 

Ms. Gordimer noted that “politics is character” in South Africa, said Stephen Clingman, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an authority on the novelist’s work. “She knew that if you wanted to understand any character, black or white, you needed to understand the way politics entered into the very individual.”

The apartheid government, which imposed censorship laws capriciously, banned four of her novels — “A World of Strangers,” “The Late Bourgeois World,” “Burger’s Daughter” and “July’s People” — with various claims of subversiveness. 

“This aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him,” Ms. Gordimer said in her Nobel lecture. “Then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.”

Ms. Gordimer was co-founder of the majority-black Congress of South African Writers and counted as her closest friends such intellectuals as Edward Said and Susan Sontag. Although a loyal friend and mentor to those whom she deemed worthy of her attention, she was known for her impatience with those she found pedantic. 

She scoffed at the cautious sensibilities of “liberal whites,” preferring to call herself a “radical,” and expressed frustration at the hand-wringing attention to the plight of whites in post-apartheid South Africa. 

She refused to move to a gated community in Johannesburg — even after she was stripped of her wedding ring given by her late husband and locked in a storeroom during a home invasion and burglary in 2006. 

After the incident, she acknowledged her city’s crime problem but also expressed sympathy toward the perpetrators.

“I think we must look at the reasons behind the crime,” she told the Guardian of London. “There are young people in poverty without opportunities. They need education, training and employment.”

At 5-foot-1, Ms. Gordimer had what one observer described as “the carefully cultivated fierceness of the fragile.” Despite her stature, she could turn a piercing, intimidating eye on those who suggested her works were “about” some real-life person or event. Her work was pure fiction, she insisted, although in her view that made the writing more “true” than nonfiction.

Stories, she said, gave clearer insight into policies and politics, and their lasting impact on human lives, than could any biographical or journalistic report. 

“She allowed us to see things about the political world that the political world could not really describe,” Clingman said.

A South African from birth

Nadine Gordimer was born Nov. 20, 1923, outside of Johannesburg in the mining town of Springs, a place of “burned veld round mine-dumps and coal-mine slag hills,” she said. 

“Not a romantic vision,” Ms. Gordimer said during a presentation to the University of Cape Town in 1977, titled “What Being a South African Means to Me.” “Not one that most Europeans would recognize as Africa. But Africa it is. Although I find it harsh and ugly, and Africa and her landscapes have come to mean many other things to me, it signifies to me a primary impact of being; all else that I have seen and know is built upon it.”

Her parents were Jewish immigrants — her mother from England, her father from Lithuania — but the family was secular and, Ms. Gordimer would say, excruciatingly middle class.

As a child she took dance lessons, attended a convent school and was warned that when she crossed the veld during her walk to school, she should steer clear of the compounds where black mineworkers lived.

When Ms. Gordimer was 11, she was diagnosed with what she later realized was a relatively minor heart ailment. Her mother — whom Ms. Gordimer described as energetic but bored in her “married-off” life — withdrew her daughter from school, canceled the child’s beloved dance classes, hired a tutor and kept her “resting” for years. 

“This mysterious ailment is something that I can talk about now,” Ms. Gordimer told the BBC magazine the Listener in 1976. “I realized after I grew up that it was something to do with my mother’s attitude towards me, that she fostered what was probably quite a simple passing thing and made a very long-term illness out of it, in order to keep me at home, to keep me with her.”

It was in this strange, forced seclusion — taken along on adult outings, spending afternoons reading with her mother — that Ms. Gordimer began to write. She published stories in the children’s section of a local newspaper; she wrote her first piece for an adult journal when she was 15. 

Captivated by the idea of being a writer, Ms. Gordimer moved to Johannesburg. She attended university there for about a year but got more of an education delving into the electric, interracial arts scene of the famous Sophiatown township.

Anthony Sampson, editor of the black South African magazine Drum, became one of her closest and longest-lasting friends. 

A second birth

There is a second birth that can occur for the South African, Ms. Gordimer said at her University of Cape Town talk, a coming into consciousness when one realizes that apartheid is not, in fact, the god-given order of the world. 

She pointed to various moments that began to open her eyes to the depravity of apartheid society: the dehumanizing liquor raid of her black nanny’s small living quarters behind her parents’ home, during which her parents stood by silently; the realization that the black miners who patronized the shops run by men like her father were not allowed to touch items before they bought them; her growing friendships with black writers who, despite being as talented as Gordimer, were far less able to pursue their craft.

Ms. Gordimer published her first short-story collection, “Face to Face,” in 1949, and she soon began contributing fiction to the New Yorker. 

Her first novel, “The Lying Days,” was published in 1953 and follows Helen Shaw, the daughter of white, middle-class parents who live in a gold-mining town, as she begins to become aware of the black life around her. 

“I think the first novel is usually some kind of revenge against your background,” she said at the time of her Nobel win. “And, you know, you’ve got to get it off your chest.”

Her first marriage, to Gerald Gavronsky, ended in divorce. In 1954, she wed Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who had been a refugee from Nazi Germany and was a nephew of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer. 

Reinhold Cassirer died in 2001. Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Oriane; and a son from her second marriage, Hugo.

Ms. Gordimer was a prolific, disciplined writer. While raising her family, she would shut herself in her office with her typewriter. No one was to disturb her unless the house was burning down, she said.

From that home office, Ms. Gordimer wrote more than a dozen novels, hundreds of short stories and essays, and collaborated on screenplays and edited collections of other works. She won many literary awards. 

As her country stumbled into the post-apartheid 2000s, she was asked whether democracy would “take the zip out of South African fiction.” She responded, “On the contrary. We’ve got plenty of problems.” 

Those critics who suggested hers had been a privileged existence — that she was able to use as a muse the toils of her country from her leafy, white neighborhood without ever facing consequences — simply did not understand her job, she would say.

“The tension between standing apart and being fully involved,” she wrote in one of her introductions, “that is what makes a writer.”

Hanes is a freelance writer who covered South Africa for numerous U.S. publications.

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