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Nadine Gordimer: Self-disciplined, hugely successful, but politically blind (Rex/Gallo Images)

Nadine Gordimer's first book was a collection of stories titled Face to Face. It was published in Johannesburg in 1949 by Silver Leaf Books, a firm newly established by my mother. The collection was reissued three years later in New York by Simon & Schuster, retitled The Soft Voice of the Serpent.   

Nadine, who died in July aged 90, was married then to Gerald Gavron and had a daughter named Oriane. She told me it was the name of a character in Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Unlike most of my parents' visitors, she talked to me. I was nine years her junior — 17, and in my first year at university — and for all her friendliness I held her in some awe as a published writer, which I aspired to be. I read her stories and admired the vividness of her descriptions. More than her talent, I admired — and envied — her success. Her work began to appear in the New Yorker. I could imagine no higher peak for a writer to attain. I never stopped admiring her skill; but as the years went by, I found it ever harder to like what she wrote, and eventually I liked it not at all.   

Nadine often said in her later years that she had been something of a bohemian in her youth. It must have been before I knew her. Soon after the publication of Face to Face she was divorced, moved into a small flat with Oriane, and did not live anything like a bohemian lifestyle. One afternoon when I went with my mother to see her, we came upon her rebuking her black maidservant for not changing, as was the custom in our world, from a morning-blue uniform with matching cap into a black afternoon uniform with a white cap and apron.  

She was writing her first novel, The Lying Days, at that time. She worked in the mornings while Oriane was at school. She was extraordinarily self-disciplined. Every day she rose early, did some physical exercises, then worked until lunchtime. Her afternoons were for living: being with her child and later her two children; seeing friends; shopping. That was the routine she established and stuck to throughout her long life, varying it only when she went on her travels. She told me once that she didn't revise much but wrote "very slowly". Slowly the works grew: stories for magazines, later collected and republished in a book; the book of stories followed by a novel; then a collection of stories again, and again a novel, in alternation through the years and the decades.
In her own account of her life, she had always, since her childhood, been concerned with the plight of the blacks. But her early writings showed no sign of it. She had nothing to say about white rule and black subjugation — the flaw in the good life we whites could lead in our beautiful, bountiful country, while the greater part of the population endured oppression, humiliation and poverty. But she got to know people who talked about it: some who worked against the regime from within the system, such as the journalist Anthony Sampson, editor of Drum, a magazine for blacks; and politicians, such as my father, Dr Bernard Friedman, a member of parliament in the "liberal" United Party (who later co-founded the anti-apartheid Progressive Party).  

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September 12th, 2014
2:09 PM
This article points out with clarity Nadine Gordimer's inability to distinguish the righteous terror of Israel and South Africa from the malignant terror committed by Winnie Mandela and the Palestinians.

David Hutchison
September 10th, 2014
8:09 PM
This does not surprise me. It is typical of the hard Left

James E Martins
September 2nd, 2014
8:09 AM
“Standpoint” is to be congratulated on publishing Jillian Becker’s scathingly perceptive and darkly witty demolition of one of the most over-lauded and tiresome champagne Stalinists since Lillian Hellman. Becker’s superb piece on Nadine Gordimer (“Comrade Madam”: “Standpoint”: September, 2014) ranks with Dwight Macdonald’s brilliant denunciation of the snobbery and obfuscations of James Gould Cozzens. After receiving her ill-deserved Nobel Prize, Gordimer was treated as if she were Yoda by the trendy Left, both In South Africa and abroad, and she was routinely praised for her literary achievements and her “courage”. In truth, Gordimer’s turgid, tub-thumping novels are unlikely to stand the rigorous test of passing years: they were always more bloated pamphlets than Tolstoy, whatever South African academics, frenziedly waving the “Local is Lekker” banner, may assert. Although there are some impressive short stories (“Enemies” is undoubtedly a masterpiece), Gordimer’s works in that genre are little more than poor man’s Katherine Mansfield, laced with political gibes. As far as courage is concerned, Nadine Gordimer, insulated by vast wealth, was never destined to be a martyr of the oppressive Nationalist government. Certainly, her novels were subjected to despotic and idiotic censorship, but, then again, so was South Africa’s very own girlie magazine, “Scope”. Gordimer generously promoted Black protest poetry of the 1970s, but she could be both fatuous and churlish about works that did not share her own political views. She “regretted” the publication of J. M. Coetzee’s wrenching, dystopian masterpiece, “Disgrace”(published in 1999), claiming that it lacked “deep feeling”, simply because it did not echo her naïve optimism about ANC-governed South Africa. Blinkered, even worshipful in her support of the ANC, Gordimer expressed reservations about “democratic” South Africa’s ruling regime’s corruption and restrictions on freedom of speech only towards the end of her life. Her criticisms, while apt, were very belated and hardly risky. Gordimer’s true talent lay in self-promotion – toadying to Susan Sontag certainly raised Gordimer’s profile in the U.S.A. – and F. R. Leavis’s brisk dismissal of the Sitwells could definitely be applied to “Comrade Madam”: she belongs more to the world of publicity than to that of literature. Those who relish Jillian Becker’s insights should also treasure an assessment of Nadine Gordimer offered by the very fine historical novelist, Mary Renault (1905 –1983), who settled in South Africa in the late 1940s. Renault clashed with Gordimer over admissions to PEN, and, in 1979, she wrote unforgettably of Gordimer: "There’s hardly anyone who knows her and likes her, and, instead of ever asking herself if this can possibly be because she is a bit of a bitch, she always attributes it to political martyrdom. Alan Paton has been every bit as outspoken as she has, and everyone respects him. I could write you chronicles about her, the only writer I have ever known to go in for calculated intrigue in the world of letters. But, as Jane Austen very properly says, let other pens dwell on vice and misery."

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