Nadine Gordimer Biography
Nationality: South African. Born: Springs, Transvaal, 1923. Education: A convent school, and the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Career: Visiting lecturer, Institute of Contemporary Arts, Washington, D.C., 1961, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1969, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1969, and University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1970; Adjunct Professor of Writing, Columbia University, New York, 1971; presenter, Frontiers television series, 1990. Awards: W.H. Smith Literary award, 1961; Thomas Pringle award, 1969; James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1972; Booker prize, 1974; Grand Aigle d'Or prize (France), 1975; CNA award, 1975; Scottish Arts Council Neil Gunn fellowship, 1981; Common Wealth award, 1981; Modern Language Association award (U.S.A.), 1981; Malaparte prize (Italy), 1985; Nelly Sachs prize (Germany), 1985; Bennett award (U.S.A.), 1986; Royal Society of Literature Benson medal, 1990; Nobel prize, 1991, for literature. D. Lit.: University of Leuven, Belgium, 1980; D. Litt.: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1985; City College, New York, 1985; Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts, 1985; Harvard University, 1986; Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1986; Columbia University, 1987; New School for Social Research, New York, 1987; University of York, 1987. Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1980; Honorary Fellow, Modern Language Association (U.S.A.), 1985. Agent: A.P. Watt Ltd., 20 John Street, London WC1N 2DR, England; or, Russell and Volkening Inc., 50 West 29th Street, New York, New York 10001, U.S.A.
The Lying Days. London, Gollancz, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1953.
A World of Strangers. London, Gollancz, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1958.
Occasion for Loving. London, Gollancz, and New York, VikingPress, 1963.
The Late Bourgeois World. London, Gollancz, and New York, VikingPress, 1966.
A Guest of Honour. New York, Viking Press, 1970; London, Cape, 1971.
The Conservationist. London, Cape, 1974; New York, Viking Press, 1975.
Burger's Daughter. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1979.
July's People. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1981.
A Sport of Nature. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1987.
My Son's Story. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1990.
None to Accompany Me. London, Bloomsbury, and New York, FarrarStraus, 1994.
Harald, Claudia, and Their Son Duncan. London, Bloomsbury, 1996.
The House Gun. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Face to Face. Johannesburg, Silver Leaf, 1949.
The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1952; London, Gollancz, 1953.
Six Feet of the Country. London, Gollancz, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1956.
Friday's Footprint and Other Stories. London, Gollancz, and NewYork, Viking Press, 1960.
Not for Publication and Other Stories. London, Gollancz, and NewYork, Viking Press, 1965.
Penguin Modern Stories 4, with others. London, Penguin, 1970.
Livingstone's Companions. New York, Viking Press, 1971; London, Cape, 1972.
Selected Stories. London, Cape, 1975; New York, Viking Press, 1976; as No Place Like, London, Penguin, 1978.
Some Monday for Sure. London, Heinemann, 1976.
A Soldier's Embrace. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1980.
Town and Country Lovers. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphanos, 1980.
Something Out There. London, Cape, and New York, Viking, 1984.
Crimes of Conscience. London, Heinemann, 1991.
Television Plays and Documentaries:
A Terrible Chemistry (Writers and Places series), 1981 (UK); Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak, with Hugo Cassirer, 1985 (USA and UK); Country Lovers, A Chip of Glass Ruby, Praise, and Oral History (all in The Gordimer Stories series), 1985 (USA); Frontiers series, 1990 (UK).
African Lit. (lectures). Cape Town, University of Cape Town, 1972.
On the Mines, photographs by David Goldblatt. Cape Town, Struik, 1973.
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing. Johannesburg, Spro-Cas Ravan, 1973.
What Happened to Burger's Daughter; or, How South African Censorship Works, with others. Johannesburg, Taurus, 1980.
Lifetimes: Under Apartheid, photographs by David Goldblatt. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1986.
Reflections of South Africa, edited by Kirsten Egebjerg and GillianStead Eilersen. Herning, Denmark, Systime, 1986.
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places, edited byStephen Clingman. London, Cape, and New York, Knopf, 1988.
Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, edited by Nancy ToppingBazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1990.
Writing and Being. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1995.
Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999.
Editor, with Lionel Abrahams, South African Writing Today. London, Penguin, 1967.
Nadine Gordimer, Novelist and Short Story Writer: A Bibliography of Her Works by Racilia Jilian Neil, Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, 1964.
Nadine Gordimer by Robert F. Haugh, New York, Twayne, 1974; Nadine Gordimer by Michael Wade, London, Evans, 1978; Nadine Gordimer by Christopher Heywood, Windsor, Berkshire, Profile, 1983; The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes by John Cooke, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1985; The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside by Stephen Clingman, London, Allen and Unwin, 1986; Nadine Gordimer by Judie Newman, London, Macmillan, 1988; Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer edited by Rowland Smith, Boston, Hall, 1990; Rereading Nadine Gordimer by Kathrin Wagner. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994; Nadine Gordimer by Dominic Head. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994; From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer by Louise Yelin. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1998; A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer, edited by Andries Walter Oliphant. London and New York, Viking, 1998; Nadine Gordimer Revisited by Barbara Temple-Thurston. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1999; This Is No Place for a Woman: Nadine Gordimer, Nayantara Sahgal, Buchi Emecheta, and the Politics of Gender by Joya Uraizee. Trenton, New Jersey, Africa World Press, 1999.
Director: Television—Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak, with Hugo Cassirer, 1985.
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Nadine Gordimer, through her courageous and probing search for understanding and insight, has achieved international status as one of the finest living writers in English. Despite this international status, her work has been firmly rooted in her native country, South Africa, where she has remained throughout her career. Her position within the tumultuous social structure of this diverse and divided country—confined within the white, liberal, English, middle class—has been a source of both strength and weakness in her writing. On the one hand, she has been able to effectively make sense of the inextricably intertwined factors of South African social existence—political, sociological, and sexual—focusing on the apartheid regime's excessive intrusion into the realm of the individual. On the other hand, many of her characters, while exposing the limitations of Western, liberal humanism as a way of life, have been unable to escape these very limitations.
Most of Gordimer's main characters are involved in the very serious business of finding suitable moral apparatus to cope with the excruciating mental difficulties of living white—with a conscience—in a minority within a greater South African minority. Viewed as a group, Gordimer's male and female protagonists show a parallel development of consciousness towards a point at which most moral options appear to be exhausted (two of her later heroes end up running away, blindly, to nowhere).
In Helen Shaw, Jessie Stilwell, and Liz van den Sandt, the heroines of The Lying Days, Occasion for Loving, and The Late Bourgeois World, respectively, Gordimer charts the development from the racially exclusive confines of a white childhood in South Africa, to the discovery of—and disillusion with—the "freedom" of adult liberal thinking, and from there to the point where personal sacrifice becomes necessary for the sake of political integrity. In The Lying Days, Helen Shaw triumphs against the provincial narrowness and racial bigotry of her parents' mining village existence, yet she discovers that she, too, is sealed within her social limitations when she watches, from behind the windscreen of a car, a riot in a black township in which a man is shot dead by the police. As is the case with a number of Gordimer's characters, Helen Shaw's sense of moral failure is realized within and suggested by the failure of a love relationship in which certain moral suppositions function as a way of life. She goes away, to Europe, aware of a need for new sustenance, but essentially disillusioned. She is succeeded by Jessie Stilwell, an older version of Helen, back from Europe, now married and running a family, and committed to a makeshift liberal ideology, because the general (white) South African way of life is unacceptable. Yet the action of the novel shows this ideology to be vulnerable and in danger of hypocrisy—Jessie's world is "invaded" by an illicit love affair between a black artist and a young woman from England who, with her white musicologist husband, is a guest in the Stilwell home. The liberal idea of openness is belied by Jessie's wish to be left to her own kind of semi-romantic isolation, and all legitimate human reactions to the situation are bedeviled by a factor the Stilwells profess not to take undue account of—skin color. In The Late Bourgeois World, the developments in The Lying Days and Occasion for Loving find a conclusion. For Liz van den Sandt, the old liberal "way of life" is already dead when the book opens—her liberal-activist former husband has just committed suicide—while her present existence is nothing more than a kind of helpless withdrawal, reflected by a particularly pallid love affair she is conducting. She faces her moment of truth when a black friend, and activist, challenges her to step outside the sealed area of sensibility and conscience, and do something to help, at considerable personal risk. Thirteen years later, in Burger's Daughter, Rosa Burger appears: she is the daughter of the generation that did in fact take the struggle further from where Liz van den Sandt was poised at the end of The Late Bourgeois World. But now the process is inverted: Rosa's father dies while in prison for Marxist "subversion," and Rosa finds herself unable simply to go on from where her father and his kind were stopped by politically repressive authority. She is heir to the failure of left-wing activism among whites in South Africa, and she settles for an occupation as a physiotherapist at a black hospital (treating Soweto riot victims), before she too is detained and committed to trial, merely on the basis of her connections with the nether-world of political dissent.
Gordimer's other major female protagonist, Hillela in A Sport of Nature, encapsulates and transcends all her predecessors. Hillela's story, told in a dingy factual and documentary manner, encompasses an upbringing in a liberal South African household, political activity in exile, and marriages to an ANC activist as well as to the leader of an African State. But the novel awkwardly mixes documentary style with picaresque form (Hillela's travels and adventures). Although Hillela completely breaks free of the barriers that had constrained her predecessors, the novel comes across as stodgy and contrived.
Gordimer's male heroes differ in that they either come in from the outside, or they represent a significantly non-liberal approach to life in South Africa. A World of Strangers, in which the new post-1948 apartheid is anatomized with great clarity, shows the rapid disillusionment of a young Englishman, Toby Hood, who comes to South Africa, determined to live a "private life." An altogether different kind of disillusionment faces the more mature and intellectually well-equipped figure of Colonel Evelyn James Bray, hero of A Guest of Honour. He returns to the newly independent African state to witness the realization of ideals of freedom for which, as a colonial civil servant, he was deported. The political situation gradually slips out of control, and Bray is killed as a result of a misunderstanding that underscores the ambiguity of any European's role in Africa.
It is as though all illusions of a meaningful political existence for whites have been stripped bare when Mehring the technologist appears in Gordimer's Booker prize-winning masterpiece, The Conservationist. This is a novel of immense symbolic power and great descriptive beauty. For once, Gordimer's main protagonist is representative of far more than just the white English liberal: he is simply white, South African, of ambiguous European heritage, rich, and politically conservative. His symbolic struggle in the book is a struggle for possession of the land against its black inheritors. Mehring (and by implication the whole of white South Africa) loses the struggle. It is thus not surprising that the protagonists of July's People find themselves being run off the land. They escape revolution by running away with, and becoming captives of, their lifelong black servant, July.
One of Gordimer's most recent male creations, Sonny in My Son's Story, is a "coloured" activist whose extramarital love affair with a white woman is reconstructed by his writer-son, Will. This is a highly readable and unusual novel for Gordimer, although the parameters of love and politics, of public commitment and personal betrayal, are shown to invade each other tellingly, as often happens in Gordimer's fiction.
Gordimer's novel The House Gun is unique in that it is her first novelistic attempt to delve into the issues—social, political, and emotional—of post-apartheid South Africa. In this work, Gordimer moves beyond the intense political engagement found in her earlier novels to the earnest attempt to expand the cultural interchange in this "new" South Africa. Through the struggles of Duncan Lindgard—on trial for murdering a gay ex-lover—and his parents, Gordimer both interrogates the persistent violence in modern society and offers a careful observation of the potential oppression that may occur as South Africa asserts its new nationhood. Gordimer's fiction may seem to be shifting its focus here, but the message it conveys is essentially unchanged: interrogate the ills and prejudices of society in an attempt to create a hybrid social blend of cultures and goodwill.
—Leon de Kock,
updated by Rima Abunasser