Subtle story telling

2008-08-20 00:00

This is an impressive collection of short stories by veteran writer and Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer. Intelligent, insightful and imaginative, the stories focus predominantly on the complexities of given contexts and relationships for individual protagonists. Though in Tape Measure the narrator is, surprisingly, an indignant tapeworm, bemoaning the loss of its comfortable habitation when its host takes potent measures to eliminate it.

In the title story, with its teasing assertion that “Beethoven was one-sixteenth black”, apparently voiced by a radio announcer on a classical music programme, and with passing reference to Alexander Pushkin’s professed Ethiopian ancestry, Gordimer argues that just as once “there were blacks … wanting to claim white”, so now, in a new dispensation, the converse is the case.

Dreaming of the Dead celebrates the lives and minds of three notably original thinkers and writers, Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Anthony Sampson, whom the narrator conjures in a dream sequence set in a Chinese restaurant in New York. The trio of newly dead engage in animated — though not sequential — discussion about the issues of the world they have left behind, while the dreamer/narrator laments the passing of such irreplaceable luminaries and friends and waits (without hope) for an absent other.

Perhaps the most effective are the final three stories, which form a sequence and need to be read together. The stories are prefaced by a short essay on the process of creating fiction and the power of the writer to choose how (and when) the narrative should end. Each of the stories deals with a marriage under threat; in each case one of the senses — sight, sound, smell — is central to the narrative; and each situation is resolved in a way that is appropriate for the given players in their particular contexts. In these stories, Gordimer rightly identifies emigration and the accompanying redefinition of self, the demands, challenges and absenteeism of professional life, and anxiety over business and financial commitments as potential threats to relationships. Never heavy-handed, her telling of the stories is inventive, subtle, even elliptical.

This new collection is testimony to the ongoing intellectual and creative energy of a prolific writer.

Moira Lovell

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