Obit – Nadine Gordimer rests her mighty pen

2014-07-14 17:49

Nadine Gordimer saw her life’s writing as ‘a single book’. It’s a body of work – marked by the themes of love and politics – that has been described as a ‘Geiger counter of apartheid’. Gugulethu Mhlungu pays tribute to a literary icon.

“Your whole life you are really writing one book, which is an attempt to grasp the consciousness of your time and place – a single book written from different stages of your ability.”

So wrote novelist, essayist, screenwriter, political activist and Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Nadine Gordimer, who passed away peacefully in her sleep in Johannesburg last night, family said earlier today.

Her work had a consistent impact on the society that she was part of and also highly critical of.

“Gordimer has painted a social background subtler than anything presented by political scientists, thus providing an insight into the roots of the struggle and the mechanisms of change that no historian could have matched,” wrote her friend Per Wästberg at the time of her receiving the Nobel Prize.

Gordimer was born in 1923 in Springs, east of Johannesburg.

An English girl in an Afrikaans mining town, she was a Jew in a Catholic convent school before being educated at home. Her sense of isolation from her society saw her turn to writing at a young age and she published her first short story at the age of 15. Her first collection of short stories, Face to Face, was published in 1949.

Conscious of the inequality all around her, a young Gordimer started a crèche for black children in her community.

She would use her life to reflect on the country as her writing took form.

Her first novel, The Lying Days, appeared in 1953. It was “about waking up from the navïeté of a small colonial town”.

Over the course of half a century, Gordimer wrote more than thirteen novels, over two hundred short stories, and several volumes of essays. Ten books are devoted to her works, and about 200 critical essays appear in her bibliography.

She joined the ANC and entered the anti-apartheid movement in the 1960s, writing critically of well-meaning white liberals who flinched at the reality of the struggle. She herself was, of course, a member of the bourgeoisie that she critiqued.

The Late Bourgeois World (1966) meditates on Nelson Mandela’s decision to switch from passive resistance to armed struggle.

Later her attention would turn to the role of women in her world and she crafted characters that were fiercely original for their times.

Many of her works were banned in South Africa. During the Rivonia Trial of the early 1960s, Gordimer worked on biographical sketches of Mandela and his co-accused to send overseas to publicise the trial.

It is widely believed that she assisted Nelson Mandela in the editing of his iconic “I am prepared to die” speech made during the Rivonia Trial.

In 1971, Gordimer completed A Guest of Honour, an epic novel about the birth of a new Africa. Her novels were peopled with symbols of her society, all woven into a sociological portrait.

She won the Booker Prize for The Conservationist in 1974, unpacking “the sterility of the white community”.

“Using Zulu creation myths,” wrote Wästberg, “she looks in a new way at nature in South Africa, leaving her white predecessors in art and literature behind.”

Gordimer’s fame grew with the resistance to apartheid. Burger’s Daughter (1979) is “a coded homage” to Bram Fischer, the communist lawyer.

July’s People (1981) and My Son’s Story (1990) followed, exploring lives grappling with the inhumanity of the state.

In July’s People, she predicted a bloody South African revolution.

She was there to witness the dawn of democracy in 1994.

She would continue stitching her social tapestries well after, exploring the dilemmas of a future country being forged. She published The House Gun in 1998, The Pickup in 2001, Get a Life in 2005. Her final novel, published in 2012, was No Time Like the Present. It involves a multiracial couple who had fought in the struggle.

In addition to her Nobel Prize awarded in 1991, her other awards include 15 honorary doctorates, serving as Vice-President of International PEN, Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), Executive Member of the Congress of South African Writers, 11 literary awards and 14 honorary degrees. Her works have been translated into more than 30 languages.

She is survived by her two children and an army of readers.

“Gordimer’s territory has always been the border between private emotions and external forces. There are no neutral zones where people can rest unobserved,” wrote Wästberg.

“In a land of lies, everyone lives a double life. Only love, the erotic dimension, stands for a sort of liberty, the glimpse of a more truthful existence.”

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