About Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize in Literature 1991
Nadine Gordimer (20 November 1923 - 13 July 2014) was a South African writer and political activist. She was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature when she was recognised as a woman "who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity".
Her writing has long dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned. She has recently been active in HIV/AIDS causes.
Swedish Academy The Permanent Secretary
Press Release October 3, 1991
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1991
Nadine Gordimer The Swedish Academy has decided to award the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1991 to Nadine Gordimer. She is a South African, her mother English, her father Lithuanian. Her work comprises novels and short stories in which the consequences of apartheid form the central theme. She was born in 1923.
Gordimer writes with intense immediacy about the extremely complicated personal and social relationships in her environment. At the same time as she feels a political involvement - and takes action on that basis - she does not permit this to encroach on her writings. Nevertheless, her literary works, in giving profound insights into the historical process, help to shape this process.
A landmark in the first half of her career is the novel "A Guest of Honour" (1970). This is a close- textured and pregnant novel, classical in style. With great intensity she succeeds in conveying the complexity of events as a nation comes into existence. The returning former colonial administrator becomes involved in the conflicts and is torn by loyalties in several directions. The course of events is reflected in the parallel love affair of the protagonist. His adventitious, totally unheroic death gives rise to reflection on the role of the individual in the great game for the future.
Since the middle of the 70s Gordimer has developed a more complex technique in her novels. This phase of her writing has produced three masterpieces: "The Conservationist" (1974), "Burger's Daughter" (1979) and "July's People" (1981). Each in its own way illustrates conceivable personal standpoints in the complicated spiritual and material environment of an Africa in which black consciousness is growing. Gordimer takes the question of the justification of the privileges of white people - even benevolent white people - to its extreme.
Among these powerful novels "July's People" deserves particular mention. The events in Soweto form the background against which the novel is set. Confronted by armed rebellion, the Smales, a white family, flee with the help of July, their boy, to his own village, where they have to survive in a primitive, evacuated hut. As time goes by, the master-servant relationship is turned upside down by the family's increasing reliance on July. The ambiguity of the novel's title etches itself fast - July's people are the white family he still serves but also the members of his tribe. The description of the cultural and physical coarsening which the circumstances evoke is masterly. Communication between husband and wife dries up. He tries to articulate the new situation without the old phraseology, "but the words would not come". To refer to his wife, a pronoun is used: "Her". Not 'Maureen'. Not 'His wife'... The ones who find it easiest to adapt, both linguistically and socially, are the children. The author has her reasons for using the children's relationships to cast light on those of the adults in the novel.
Gordimer's latest book "My Son's Story" was published in 1990. Its subject is love in an insupportable society, the complications and obstacles inherent in the path to change. The relationship of the lovers is described with great tenderness. At the same time the unyielding political reality constantly intrudes. The twofold narrative perspective makes richly faceted description of the characters possible, its most surprising element being the heroism finally exhibited by the wife. The novel is ingenious and revealing and at the same time enthralling because of its poetic values.
The powerful novels should not make us forget the shorter works. Compact and dense, they are extremely telling and show Gordimer at the height of her creative powers. "Selected Stories" (1975) provides a survey. The fundamental themes are reworked successfully, as the title story in the collection "A Soldier's Embrace" (1980). Gordimer's specifically feminine experiences, her compassion and her outstanding literary style characterise her short stories as well.
Biobibliographical note Nadine Gordimer was born on 20 November 1923 in Springs, a small mining town near Johannesburg in South Africa, of immigrant Jewish parents. Her father, a jeweller, came from Lithuania (then in Russia), her mother, from England. After being educated at a convent school, Nadine Gordimer studied at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She has travelled extensively in Africa, Europe, and North America, where she has often undertaken lecture tours, but has continued to live in Johannesburg; married since 1954 to a businessman, Reinhold Cassirer. The couple have a son and each has a daughter from a previous marriage.
Nadine Gordimer began to write at the age of nine and her first short story was published in a South African magazine when she was only fifteen. Her first collection of short stories, Face to Face, was published ten years later in 1949. Her first novel, The Lying Days, appeared in 1953. She has now published 10 novels and 7 collections of short stories, as well as a few volumes of literary criticism and in addition, a large number of articles, speeches and lectures on different subjects. Some of her books have at times been banned in her native country.
Nadine Gordimer has always aspired to live as a private individual outside the public eye, but international fame and the many major awards which followed (among them the Booker Prize in 1974 for The Conservationist), honorary doctorates abroad (she has declined one in South Africa), various positions (she is, for example, Vice President of International P.E.N.), and her continual involvement on behalf of literature and free speech in a police state, where censorship and persecution of books and people exist, have made her "the doyenne of South African letters".
Short Story Collections Face to Face. Johannesburg: Silver Leaf Books, 1949. The Soft Voice of the Serpent. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952. (Largely overlapping with Face to Face.) Six Feet of the Country. London: Gollancz, 1956. Friday's Footprint. London: Gollancz, 1960. Not for Publication. London: Gollancz, 1965. Livingstone's Companions. New York: The Viking Press, 1971. Selected Stones. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975. A Soldier's Embrace. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980. Something Out There. London: Jonathan Cape, 1984.
Novels The Lying Days. London: Gollancz, 1953. A World of Strangers. London: Gollancz, 1958. Occasion for Loving. London: Gollancz. 1963. The Late Bourgeois World. London: Gollancz, 1966. A Guest of Honour. New York: The Viking Press, 1970. The Conservationist. London: Jonathan Cape. 1974. Burger's Daughter. 1979. July's People. New York: The Viking Press, 1981. A Sport of Nature. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1987. My Son's Story. London: Bloomsbury, 1990. "Nobel Prize in Literature 1991 - Press Release". Nobelprize.org. 21 Mar 2011 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1991/press.html
Personal Story of Her Relevance to a South African Life
Although not yet a Nobel winner, Nadine Gordimer was part of the White English speaking South African heritage by the time of the 80’s, when I went to Wits University (the same university she had attended in the 40’s).
The country was moving into the final stages of the armed struggle against the Apartheid Government and terrorist bombing of civilian targets had become almost routine in our lives, along with bomb drills in high school, and a sense of being more and more cut off from the rest of the world, which was applying sanctions against us. All of our brothers and boyfriends were conscripted into the army for two years, and many were stationed in the ‘black’ townships, whatever their own political views on Apartheid might have been.
In this climate, Nadine Gordimer was most well-known to those of us emerging from high school for having had her books continually banned. As this was the same government that had banned ‘Black Beauty,’ you can imagine that her reputation was not especially diminished by these aspersions. However, it did mean that in her own country we were less familiar with her actual writing than with her reputation for political outspokenness.
My first real exposure to her came at university, in the midst of a sudden onslaught of Struggle writing by Black writers* filled with a violence and bitterness, which, although unsurprising, was also difficult to immediately process through the lens of my protected white middle class upbringing. Amongst the hundreds of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ posters on the university walls, there were also lines of poetry by Mongane Wally Serote ,
“It is a dry white season,
but seasons come to pass”
and in lectures we studied Oswald Mtshali’s ‘Sounds of a Cowhide Drum’ (for which Gordimer had written the preface ):
“I am the drum on your dormant soul,
cut from the black hide of a sacrificial cow.” This strident and accusatory tone was unrelenting, and completely at odds with anything I’d read before. After all, bombs were going off in our shopping malls, so how could I represent the enemy? While I understood the sentiments, I had difficulty identifying with the world described by the writers, so I struggled to find empathy.
And then I found Gordimer’s short stories. Soft-spoken by comparison to the Struggle poets, but written by a white woman from the centre of the Apartheid world, they helped me identify a perspective on the Apartheid Other that had crept so surreptitiously under my own skin.
‘The Train from Rhodesia’ tells a story from my grandmother’s time, of a woman watching her partner bargaining down the price of a hand-carved lion being sold by an elderly and impoverished black man. The lightness of her touch in describing through the eyes of the woman the diminishment that occurs in her impression of her partner when he ‘gifts’ her with this bargained down artwork, has remained with me. Although Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, and our much beloved Nelson Mandela is free as a result of those university posters, the scenario of impoverished Black road-side artists remains common all over South Africa today. I never pass them without being reminded of this story.
Writing about these edges of society, and quietly illuminating the lines we draw in the sand between us and them, remains, for me, Nadine Gordimer’s gift to South Africa.
[*In SA, the race descriptors: ‘White’, ‘Black’ and ‘Coloured’ are not pejoratives, although I seem to recall being told that they are in America.]
..Sharon Doubell June 2013