Reviewed by Robert Boyers
Novelists often declare the absolute sovereignty of the imagination. They are free -- so they say -- to roam where they will, to turn night to day, tall to thin, early to late. Occasionally they acknowledge the liberties they take, boast of their courage, or trumpet their indifference to historical fact. More often they say nothing of their departures from the official record or established truths, arranging, distorting, revising as if they had never doubted their freedom to make of "reality" a more or less plausible, or implausible, representation.
Nadine Gordimer, the 1991 Nobel Laureate, has long been an unapologetically venturesome writer. In her greatest novel, Burger's Daughter (1979), she gave herself permission to shift the action, after 200 pages, from South Africa to the south of France, and to confront her protagonist with frivolous choices not easy to reconcile with our established sense of the character. In a comparably ambitious novel called A Sport of Nature (1987), Gordimer allowed herself to imagine a future, free from racial strife, that seemed to her readers more than a bit improbable, and presented them with an oddly off-putting and yet somehow attractive central character who was both courageous and brazenly promiscuous. A writer whose sentences can be elegant or thickly sensuous, elevated or matter-of-fact, Gordimer has often resorted to an obstructed syntax, a lift into abstraction or a jazzy shorthand, as if determined to put readers through some hard going on the way to the several pleasures -- literary, emotional, intellectual -- clearly in store for them.
A demanding writer, then, by no means accommodating, in her way something of a tease -- withholding, obscuring, and complicating her narrative with every conviction that the writer may do, must do, as she pleases. It should come as no surprise that she would wish to flex her writerly muscles in her latest book of stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, which can be sublimely cavalier about the standard decorums and expectations. A story ("History") told, more or less, from the perspective of a parrot? A dream narrative ("Dreaming of the Dead") in which the author meets up with recently deceased friends Susan Sontag and Edward Said at a Chinese restaurant? Who's to say what a story can or cannot be? Why not another ("A Beneficiary") that relies on coincidence and concludes with a flourish of tenderness bordering on sentimentality?
Gordimer has often disappointed readers who have wanted her to do more of one thing and less of another, who will, no doubt, deplore the fact that politics is not much present in this new book. After all, her readers have been trained, over her long career, to expect work from her that is focused on the uneasy relationship between public and private in the quest for a better world. The setting for much of her fiction from the 1950s through the late 1980s has been South Africa, and the struggle against apartheid has figured in many of her novels. Even in her stories, where politics sometimes plays a less significant role, Gordimer has sought to address questions of social justice, racial consciousness, and the inner turmoil of protagonists who are resistant to radical ideology and fearful of violence and fanaticism.
The desire to identify Gordimer as a political writer has proved so seductive that any deviation on her part from ostensibly "correct" perspectives, whether real or perceived, has been met with reprobation. A standard scholarly study -- one of many -- faults her for an insufficiently feminist "construction of the feminine" and for promoting "outmoded and sexist paradigms." Other academic critics fault her for representing whites and blacks as fundamentally similar in their common humanity; they argue that the effect of Gordimer's "passionate identification with the justice of the black struggle" is "to defuse the threat of the 'Other' as he is assimilated and becomes 'one-of-us' in a typical process of imperialist appropriation." One scholar even goes so far as to call Gordimer an "accomplice" and "beneficiary" of the very oppression she has anatomized and exposed for more than fifty years. What is there to say, finally, to the critic who castigates Gordimer for an entrapment in stereotypes when, in fact, the very works cited -- early novels such as The Lying Days (1953) and Occasion for Loving (1963), as well as later novels such as July's People (1981) -- carefully scrutinize the struggles of ordinary people, white and black, trying to liberate themselves from the stereotypes that infect their thinking?
Frequently in her fiction, Gordimer operates from a view of politics memorably formulated by the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, who wrote that "the political emerges, in the literal sense, as a 'culture,' that is, a cultivating, a tending, a taking care of beings, and things." We see this version of politics in Gordimer's emphasis upon activists who lead and inspire by example, who are present to us as people of unassailable character and conviction. Such characters -- in Burger's Daughter, they are ironically referred to as "the faithful" -- may be counted on to take enormous risks, even to go to prison, and to give off a forgivable odor of "sanctimony." But against these characters Gordimer invariably pits others who are skeptical about mere idealism and an ethos of self-sacrifice. Often her black characters resent the white characters who have taken it upon themselves to make sacrifices for those whose lives they cannot really understand. And although Gordimer knows -- has always known -- that any expressed or implied ambivalence on such matters will infuriate many readers, she has steadfastly vacillated from one view to another. Principled inconstancy, in fact, has been a signal virtue of a novelist who, as much as any major writer we can name, has nonetheless regarded herself as engage and has claimed, in the words of J. M. Coetzee, "a place inside history, a history which she herself has to some extent been successful in shaping."
As if to certify anew her beautiful freedom to do as she chooses, Gordimer includes in this new volume a one-page introduction to a trio of stories collectively entitled "Alternative Endings." Gordimer notes that the "sense of form which is art" inevitably informs a writer's decisions about what to suppress or include in her work. Haunting every decision, she contends, is the thought "This way, not that," along with the question, "Might [the narrative] not find its resolution differently?" And so the three stories included in "Alternative Endings" will demonstrate how a common human problem -- call it sexual infidelity, or betrayal, or simply marriage -- may be resolved in radically different ways. Alternative endings? "I've tried them out, here, for myself," Gordimer declares.
Not a big deal, or so most of us will incline initially to believe. After all, writers are always trying things out. Yet there is something puzzling in Gordimer's assertion that "the forms of story-telling are arbitrary." Arbitrary? Surely Gordimer cannot believe that in a work of fiction any form will do, or that she herself is free, as an artist, to do anything at all. You need only read Gordimer's novels to conclude that she has perfectly good reasons for what she does. Why, for instance, are the terrorist characters in her 1984 novella Something Out There rather flat? Why did she not flesh them out? As Leon Wieseltier noted in Salmagundi when the novella first appeared, the strategy was obviously deliberate: it was "the price of [the novella's] oppressive objectivity, of its air of a finality about which nothing can be done." To speak of such a decision as "arbitrary" is to believe that a writer moves with little respect for the logic inscribed in her own creation.
In the decidedly unsatisfactory stories grouped as "Alternative Endings," Gordimer's skills are nonetheless everywhere in evidence. Where appropriate, she shifts casually from past to present tense, capturing real-time continuity without sacrificing the desired impression of events decisively concluded. Here and there, almost forgotten moments in the lives of her protagonists are lightly alluded to, like whispers of memory barely intruding upon present urgencies. The prose captures a sharp stab of sensation at one point, a half-formulated or commonplace idea at another, without ever losing narrative momentum. Characters say, or cannot say, what is on their minds, alert always to language, habits of usage, slips of the tongue. The wife in "The Third Sense," who knows that her husband is having an affair, who smells on him the scent of another woman, is caught precisely by Gordimer in her semi-articulate uncertainty. All of the characters are believably drawn: just a bit remote, never substantially understood. At the same time, none of these stories has the force or inevitability of a fully realized fiction. Each is resolved by a kind of imaginative fiat; conflicts are terminated as if by a peremptory authorial wish-fulfillment. In "The First Sense," the first of Gordimer's three experimental fictions, a celebrity cellist husband is adored by his perfectly supportive wife, who basks in her man's reflected glory and too soon sees that the husband's cello speaks no longer "to her but some other." There is no suggestion that the wife has brought anything on herself or that the husband is anything but decent. That things just happen is about as much as we can draw from this terse narrative. There is no blame, no cause: there is only the crisis of what had appeared to be an untroubled marriage.
Again, for no good or communicated reason, the wife eventually recognizes that "the affair" is over, feels a brief "pull of sadness" for her unhappy man, and welcomes him back to their old married life. For his part, the husband "makes love better than ever before remembered," and seems now to know -- perhaps for the first time -- "what can be roused in her, what she's capable of feeling, needing." Was there something in Gordimer's story that conceivably pressed her to decide on this particular denouement? The logic of the narrative does not point to any such conclusion. Thus, there would appear to be an unfortunate literalism in Gordimer's way of imagining her own authorial freedom, at least in this case, as if "freedom" meant her right to decree "no more affair" and "better sex." No one can object in principle to a narrative in which things turn out better than expected, but we can object when the final shape of a story seems merely arbitrary. (note)
When writers are asked how they decide to end a story here rather than there, they often speak of intuition or of just knowing when to stop. In her 2003 volume Loot, Gordimer includes a short work entitled "Homage," which ends precisely where another story of a similar nature might well have begun. We are told almost nothing of the central figure, a man who left his home in the midst of political unrest and found himself in a foreign country, without papers, desperate. Now, trained as an assassin by unidentified conspirators in an unspecified country, he commits murder, on assignment, the motive apparently money and the vague promise of something rather than nothing. Gordimer sketches the action so lightly that we have little sense of place or character. The assassin wonders at the outpourings of grief he observes for the person he has killed. But although there is a fevered quality in the lurchings of his imagination, he demonstrates no inclination to reflect on his experience, to discover something new about himself. If he is one of the wretched of the earth, dispossessed, extraterritorial, he offers no way for us to think seriously about the condition of such persons, to ask how life can be improved for those who are stateless or oppressed. Neither does Gordimer feel in any way compelled to tie things up for us at story's end, to clarify motives or to suggest what developments might lie ahead.
To read "Homage" is not to want more or to suppose that the writer was bored with her material or was simply asserting her freedom to limit the thing to five pages. Quite as she did in "Something Out There," Gordimer has made a legitimate decision to suppress ruthlessly what might otherwise inhere in a very different sort of work built around comparable material. From beginning to end, "Homage" is all of a piece, a compact work of deliberately calculated flatness colored by the speaker's fear and blankness of outlook. In part the point of the story is in the very integrity of the thing, its refusal to be anything but what it is. But there is a point, too, in suggesting that we must be wary of "understanding" more than we do of people like the speaker in "Homage," or of the global nightmares he dimly reflects. By contrast, there is no legitimate governing idea to underwrite several of the stories in the new volume.
In the best of Gordimer's fiction, of course, there are no grounds for such objections. For example, the most brilliant and moving piece in the new book is "Allesverloren," a story that looks like a conventional realistic narrative but penetrates so deeply into the turmoil of a self in crisis as to banish all thought of the routine or prosaic. This story has none of the interest in politics or society that we associate with Gordimer's major work, though she is obviously aware of context and of the impact of historical forces on the lives of individuals. There is passing reference to "wars and floods, nature's disasters, the features of strikers and politicians," "African" bloodlines. But Gordimer does not choose to follow these threads of suggestion as she would in a work devoted to politics or race. She knows what her story is and what it is not, and if she is tempted to move where she has often moved before, toward issues and grand ideas, and to tempt us along with her, she is resolute in her resistance.
The title of Gordimer's story is translated as "everything lost," and there is no question that its central purpose is to perform a labor of mourning. Here it is a husband who is lost, after a very long and apparently very satisfactory marriage, and it is the wife who must take the measure of the bond that has sustained her. Gordimer manages a narrative that allows the wife her obsession without suggesting that it betrays some fatal or pathetic weakness.
As it does so often in Gordimer, the language circles warily around inarticulate impressions and suspicions. Now and again the word it surfaces without sufficient antecedent, as in "it was not spoken by them" and therefore "it didn't ever happen." There is nothing coy in this wary sidling up to something without naming it, and Gordimer may always be counted on to deliver the requisite information as soon as she feels she has conveyed her character's obstructed progress toward the knowledge she suspected and feared. Here the wife revisits a fact she had known many years earlier -- namely, that before their marriage her husband had had an affair with a man. The fact is announced, bluntly enough, after the briefly anticipatory references to "it" and "this."
But the full paragraph in which the fact is delivered must be savored if we are to take in Gordimer's way of entering the progressively expanding consciousness of her character. "She, the survivor," Gordimer begins, in a continuous, third-person narrative that is told from the wife's perspective:
was divorced when she met the man who was to be hers, and so was he, her man who now is dead -- months ago, the long while beyond the short while when others still talked of him with her. She had had a couple of brief affairs in the interim between divorce and the marriage, and he had had only one. That was not the difference. It was with a man. He had told her of it as part of the confidentiality, confessions, that come as the relief of another kind of blessed orgasm after the first few of love-making. A form of deep gratitude that is going to be part of love for the other being, if there is going to be love.
The passage is an odd sort of monologue in which the wife aims at an objectivity she cannot sustain. Yes, we see, she had a couple of affairs; he had only one. Yes, there were those standard confessions. And yes, of course, there will always be those categorical, unreliable epithets that surface elsewhere among her thoughts: "bisexual," "femaleness," and "unnaturalness." But Gordimer's prose lives in the steady alternation from fact to impression, from the categorical to the specific. She and often her characters are tempted by the idea of the general phenomenon to which a moment or a conflict belongs, as in the suggestion that "confessions" are a standard feature of intimacy, or that "femaleness" might tell us something essential about a person. The recourse to the typical in Gordimer is only an aspect of the way the mind works, and in the end it will not do to remain there.
In the face of Gordimer's customary mastery, assertions about the writer's freedom are bound to seem more than a bit beside the point. After all, who more than Nadine Gordimer has shown herself to be so painfully aware of the human and formal constraints within which serious human beings operate? Her attraction to the unbidden, and occasionally even to the arbitrary, is a token of her sense that too sober a view of reality, too modest a sense of ordinary limitation, will impose upon a narrative too predictable a design. She wants not just pattern and sobriety but the unaccountable formal flourish, the occasional defiance of pattern, the deliberate excess or sleight of hand. The writer's freedom must also be asserted, so long as it is truly felt, in the vagrant insight, in gusts of untrammeled sensuality or outrage, in eruptions of contradictoriness or obsessiveness. But such freedom, as Gordimer well knows, is hard-won. It must go against the established grain of the writer's own created logic and test her own entrenched assumptions.
One example: the novella "Mission Statement" (included in Gordimer's Loot) features a love affair between a female bureaucrat posted for the first time to Africa and a married African official, who offers to marry her and thereby to absolve her "from her burden of [colonialist] ancestry" (her grandfather had once owned a copper mine in Africa). But the man has no intention of divorcing his wife, instead invoking what has been called "an older custom of the country" and proposing to take the bureaucrat as a second wife. The woman tries to do the right thing -- that is, to see the proposal as an "enlightened" person would do, to accept what we blithely call "difference" and thus to stifle her disgust. Instead, she indicts her lover for holding on to what is customary in his culture. Claire Messud nicely identifies the peculiar and yet characteristic tension in this work: It is, she writes, "a moral story rather than a story with a moral: it probes . . . the complex dance between the selves we intend to be and those we can't escape."
The characteristic tensions that drive Gordimer's work are too various to summarize, but they are readily discernible in the best of her recent fiction, including her brilliant 2001 novel The Pickup. Now well into her eighties, Gordimer has lost none of her power to move nimbly between extravagant possibility and sober, sobering realism. Reading her again, remembering how steadily she has visited the central issues of her time and place, I can't help thinking of a passage in J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (2003), in which Costello is interrogated on the matter of belief. "I have beliefs," says Costello, "but I do not believe in them." Of course, Costello concedes, she has "opinions and prejudices," though she hopes always to write from the perspective of an "ideal self . . . capable of holding [those] at bay while the word which it is her function to conduct passes through her."
To be sure, Gordimer could never bring herself to say that she does not believe in her beliefs. She would not say that her "opinions" on the matter of racial justice are unimportant. But she would likely agree that her primary instinct as a writer is to "write . . . what I hear," as Costello has it, to be "a secretary of the invisible," taking "dictation" from "powers beyond us," ever in readiness and "waiting for the call." There, in that realm of the invisible, if you will, is the source of the tension that most fully animates Gordimer's work, which is poised between the will to pick up the whisper of ultimate things -- to be ready for the true word, some revelation about the way we ought to live our lives -- and the will to be true to what is urgent and palpable, changeable and contradictory.
*Indeed, there is nothing arbitrary in the classic wokrs of the literature of adultery that come at once to mind. In Chekhov's The Lady with the Dog, the lovers, who had seemed simply to behaving a convental short-term affair at a resort, find that they cannot do without each other for reasons Chekhov plants firmly in his narrative. In Anna Karenina, too, although we are aware throughout that Tolstoy might well have orchestrated the novel in another way, say, with the Karenin marriage front and center from the first, the logic informing Tolstoy's decision to begin with the ruined marriage of Stiva Oblonsky and his wife, Dolly, seems to us entirely persuasive and not in the least arbitrary. (Back to top...)
Robert Boyers is the editor of Salmagundi and director of the New York State Summer Writers Institute.
Books mentioned in this post