by Robert WeibezahlDecember 2010
Story collection captures South Africa's painful past
Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, Nadine Gordimer (along with such writers as Andre Brink, playwright Athol Fugard and fellow Nobel Laureate J.M. -Coetzee) has been a dominant voice in chronicling—through fiction—the political and racial issues that have plagued South Africa for the last half century. Earlier this year, Gordimer published Telling Times, a volume of her personal and political nonfiction pieces since 1954. Now, with Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007, this 87-year-old master collects 38 representative short fiction pieces from the span of her writing life.
Not a comprehensive “collected stories” (which would run to well over 100), the book nonetheless has a career-defining weight, and it offers a valuable overview of Gordimer’s indispensable narrative talents. Included here is the novella “Something Out There,” as well as a number of very short pieces. A few of her late stories are highly experimental, including “The Second Coming,” one of two previously uncollected stories written after 2007, and “Tape Measure,” from her last collection—but these are not the stories for which Gordimer will be remembered.
The quintessential Gordimer story offers a deft analysis of human psychology, often played out against the backdrop of the rarely cut-and-dried racial strife that marked South African life during apartheid and, in different ways, still defines it today. In an early story, for instance, a white farmer is flummoxed by bureaucratic indifference when he tries to give a dead black worker a proper burial. An Afrikaner farmer must conceal his grief when he accidentally kills his favorite “boy.” The topsy-turvy post-apartheid era finds a white professor searching for the possibility that he has black relatives because “now there are whites wanting to be black.”
Politics is never far from the surface, and it transcends the races: A well-heeled young white woman returns from a sojourn in England and casts her fate with a band of civil disobedience protesters; a Muslim Indian immigrant, mother of nine, is carted off to prison for printing incendiary flyers in her dining room; a black man is astonished when a white woman tells him, “It’s hard to be punished for not being black.” Gordimer is an expert at conveying the relentless tension of living in a land where destiny is inextricably tied to the color of your skin or the language that you speak. Her stories, read chronologically and with an eye for the quiet details that expose her characters’ self-deceptions, offer an intricate portrayal of her country’s often wrenching growing pains.
For all their political relevance and historical import, however, what ultimately makes Gordimer’s stories matter is her extraordinary ability to get beneath our skin, forcing us to acknowledge our own uncomfortable fellowship with her humanly flawed characters. As the title of the collection implies, these are not merely stories from her own lifetime, but of life with a capital “L”—lived by ordinary men and women like us, albeit in an imperfect, sometimes brutal society of their own making. And in the telling, Gordimer can take a reader’s breath away with a well-observed detail or an elegant turn of phrase.
For those new to Gordimer, Life Times is a marvelous introduction to her writing. For those who know her work, it is a worthy reminder of the enduring power of her art.