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Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Storiesby Nadine Gordimer
Synopses & Reviews
"You're not responsible for your ancestry, are you . . . But if that's so, why have marched under banned slogans, got yourself beaten up by the police, arrested a couple of times; plastered walls with subversive posters . . . The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognizes it."
In this collection of new stories Nadine Gordimer crosses the frontiers of politics, memory, sexuality, and love with the fearless insight that is the hallmark of her writing. In the title story a middle-aged academic who had been an anti-apartheid activist embarks on an unadmitted pursuit of the possibilities for his own racial identity in his great-grandfather's fortune-hunting interlude of living rough on diamond diggings in South Africa, his young wife far away in London. "Dreaming of the Dead" conjures up a lunch in a New York Chinese restaurant where Susan Sontag and Edward Said return in surprising new avatars as guests in the dream of a loving friend. The historian in "History" is a parrot who confronts people with the scandalizing voice reproduction of quarrels and clandestine love-talk on which it has eavesdropped."Alternative Endings" considers the way writers make arbitrary choices in how to end stories--and offers three, each relating the same situation, but with a different resolution, arrived at by the three senses: sight, sound, and smell.
"Thirteen stories from South African Nobel Prize — winner Gordimer offer a staccato demonstration of how people's origins, inheritances and histories — and the loss of them — are inescapable. The title story centers on the white, twice-divorced academic descendant of a London diamond prospector who visits his forebear's mine in Kimberly, South Africa, and wonders about who in the township, black and white, he may be related to. The narrator of 'Dreaming of the Dead' is haunted by famous former companions (the late intellectuals Edward Said and Susan Sontag), while the grieving widow of 'Allesverloren' (or 'All Is Lost') seeks out her husband's former lover to unearth a message from him. The daughter of 'A Beneficiary,' meanwhile, finds an unsettling letter among the effects of her late mother, an actress. Cultural inheritance shadows the marriage of a Hungarian couple that emigrates to South Africa in 'Alternate Endings: Second Sense,' and also the son of 'A Frivolous Woman,' who resents his flamboyant German-Jewish migr mother's easy adaptability. Again and again, Gordimer puts big, sweeping disasters (the Holocaust, apartheid) in the pasts of flawed, ill-equipped characters and shows how their choices have been little more than wing beats against history. The results are terrifying, sometimes acidly funny and often beautiful." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"It's impossible not to be astonished by Nadine Gordimer. At the age of 84, the South African Nobel Prize winner is still publishing stories and novels at a pace that those half her age would find daunting. And at a time of life when she'd be well within her rights to be offering up gentle valedictories, she's still channeling her energy into tackling themes and issues that many of her more timid contemporaries... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) are hesitant to touch. But if it's impossible not to be astonished by her, it's not always easy to love her. Her prose style, with its overtones of Virginia Woolf, seems designed to make readers stop at the end of each sentence and read it again, just to make sure it's been properly parsed. She prefers to build stories almost entirely through exposition and analysis, with dialogue kept to a minimum. (It's curious, and maybe telling, that for all of her prolificacy Gordimer has written only one stage play, as if she doesn't completely trust an actor to say precisely what she wants to get across.) Her characters, who typically have a great deal to think about, do a lot of just that: thinking, associating, tying present apprehensions to past events. Her newest collection of stories, 'Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black,' finds Gordimer poking at embers of the fire that has fueled her work since the very beginning, more than half a century ago: politics, both racial and sexual; our responsibilities to unknown (and perhaps unknowable) others; and, especially, the dangers of delving into history without adequate preparation. Though these stories appeared over the course of several years in various publications, a number of them are mysteriously connected by the recurring image of the unready biographer, someone whose casual research into the obscured life of another exacts a fierce toll. 'Caches of old papers are graves, you shouldn't open them,' begins one story, although Gordimer — the rare fiction writer whose work has actually helped alter the course of her country's history — almost certainly doesn't believe it. In the title story, a white academic and former anti-apartheid activist finds a bag filled with old letters and family photographs, a discovery that drives him to the birthplace of South Africa's rapacious diamond trade in a quixotic effort to find black relatives descended from his great-grandfather, a diamond prospector. He doesn't know if they exist, but he knows that they're likely to, given the sexual exploitation of black laborers by white miners at the time. 'You're not responsible for your ancestry,' he assures himself, though he suspects that his political life has been as much about assuaging inherited guilt as about fostering racial equality. By including a small detail — the fact that he's divorced from his second wife and has only intermittent custody of their children — Gordimer confers on her character's plight a tender poignancy: Here is a man trolling the streets for family. In 'A Beneficiary,' she takes the idea one step further. A young woman essentially stalks her biological father, a famous stage actor, from the second row of the theater, night after night. Digging through her late mother's old papers, Charlotte is startled to come upon evidence of her mother's relationship with the actor, a brief affair that nonetheless produced her; she's even more startled to realize that the kind and gentle man she has called 'Father' all these years has known the truth, yet treated her as his own flesh and blood. Her dilemma — which of her fathers is the 'real' one? — is echoed by the widow in 'Allesverloren,' who wonders which of her late husband's personalities was real: the one who loved her and stood by her during the entirety of their marriage, or the one who had a sexual relationship with another man before they met. She, too, can't help but engage in dangerous research, going so far as to visit the ex-lover to find out more about their time together. Her beloved 'can exist for her survival only through piecing him together in what is available for recall,' Gordimer writes. 'She can make the re-creation for herself whole only if she can recall what is not hers to recall.' Other stories are refreshingly playful. 'Tape Measure' chronicles the short and disgusting life of — no kidding — an intestinal tapeworm, whose narrative voice bears a remarkable, and hilarious, resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe at his purplest. In 'Gregor,' which has the feel of a recollected anecdote more than a short story, she writes of a cockroach trapped beneath the screen of a word processor — real, perhaps, or possibly conjured by the word processor's Kafka-reading owner. And there's 'Dreaming of the Dead,' which is sure to garner much attention. Imagined as a celestial dinner date between Gordimer and three of her close friends — the literary critic Edward Said, the cultural critic Susan Sontag and the historian Anthony Sampson, all deceased — it's not really a story so much as a fond remembrance by a fellow writer who has improbably outlived them all and who misses them terribly. Readers' responses to it will depend on their affinities for these three, although the depictions, bordering on intellectual caricature, don't present any of them in their best light. But even when she's indulging herself, Nadine Gordimer is more interesting, and provocative, than most. Jeff Turrentine is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Jeff Turrentine, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In this collection of new stories, Gordimer crosses the frontiers of politics, memory, sexuality, and love with the fearless insight that is the hallmark of her writing.
About the Author
Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is the author of fourteen novels, nine volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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