Shaking the family tree
Nobel winner Nadine Gordimer still plumbing South Africa's past
When the long-awaited collapse of apartheid in South Africa ushered in democratic elections in 1994, some readers feared that Nadine Gordimer's fiction would lose its inventive energy and moral force. But Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, remained a vocal human rights activist and almost serenely continued to produce novels and stories, at least a few of which rank among her best. With Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, her 11th collection of stories (and 25th work of fiction), Gordimer, 84, continues to perturb and delight readers with her mastery of the short story form.
"I love to write stories. It's such a wonderful form, like poetry, because it's so distilled," Gordimer says during a call to her home in Johannesburg. Gordimer has lived in her " big old house" and written on an electric typewriter "in a very small room downstairs" for most of her adult life. She chose to remain in South Africa even after the government banned three of her books. Her husband, to whom the new collection is dedicated, died six years ago, after 47 years of marriage.
Gordimer says that the remarkably tight construction she achieves in her stories is a subconscious process. "I'm not conscious of compressing it while I'm doing it. If there's something that captures my imagination or that I begin to ponder, I know right away whether it's going to be a short story or whether it's the germ of a novel. To me a short story is like an egg: When the beginning comes to me, I have the end. It's complete. It's got its white and it's got its yolk and it's got its shell containing it. I have it there complete, as if in the palm of my hand."
The textures and resonances of the stories in Gordimer's Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black are as varied as an omelet, a soufflÅ½ and a hard-boiled egg. In the title story, for example, Gordimer continues to explore the scars left on the souls of South Africans by apartheid. Her protagonist, an intellectual and former anti-apartheid activist, goes in search of evidence of his own racial identity, after pondering the likely history of his great-grandfather's time in the diamond mines.
"I got the idea from an announcement [about Beethoven] I heard on the radio," Gordimer says. " I thought, what does this poking back into the personal life, the DNA really, of a very, very great composer matter. But of course in some circumstances it could matter very much, and that's where my story comes from. There's a longing among many white South Africans to find what was denied before. You know, tucked away in a cupboard somewhere there was a black grandfather, or great-grandmother. I think it's a natural impulse for people to want to explore that. And an honest one. That honesty was missing before."
In a story called "Gregor," Gordimer shows a playful side, writing with light and shadow about a cockroach stuck under the small viewing screen of her electric Olivetti, summoning also the spirit of Franz Kafka.
"I've resisted over many years any reference to Kafka or any kind of Kafka pastiche because everybody drags Kafka in," Gordimer explains. "But this is the only story in the book that is about something that really happened. That beetle or cockroach was there in my typewriter. Writing is a solitary business and having this unwanted partner or overseer was a very strange experience. I couldn't resist. I named him Gregor. How could I possibly do anything else?"
Among Gordimer's own favorites is a story called " Dreaming of the Dead" in which the author summons three departed friends Susan Sontag, Edward Said and Anthony Sampson to a dinner at a Chinese restaurant in New York. It is a story about friendship, vivid conversation, writing and political commitment, at once both sorrowful and funny. "It's the only story I've ever written that way," Gordimer says. "It's a kind of homage to people that I loved who have gone. But I also, of course, amused myself as I know they would do to me by making fun of them."
Turning reflective, Gordimer says, "I began to write very, very young in the small gold-mining town in South Africa where I was born. I didn't come from a family with any literary tradition, but my mother read a lot, [and] she encouraged reading. Indeed the most formative thing for me was that she made me a member of the children's library in this little town. And every Saturday, we would go to the library and select three books each for the week. And then when there were birthdays and Christmas and so on, the presents for me were always books. That was what I wanted and what I got. By the time I was 12, the librarian at this local library, who was also a friend of my mother's, allowed me the freedom of the library. I wasn't confined to the children's section. I read everything from D.H. Lawrence to Thucydides. Nobody was guiding me. I was like a pig in clover and I found what I wanted and what was nourishing to me. The local library was unbelievably important to me. It was my real education."
Gordimer says that even in her 80s, she maintains the same writing routine she developed in her 20s. " My writing routine was constricted because I had a small child and was divorced and was living alone with her. My writing time was when she was at nursery school in the morning. I think it was good that it was constricted because when you're a writer, you're your own boss and unless you're disciplined, you're never going to get down to it. Later on my circumstances changed but I still kept to my routine."
"Indeed," Gordimer adds with a laugh, " I just finished a new story last week. A weird little story. I have no idea what will happen to it."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.