Nadine Gordimer will always remain a formidable presence in the world of empowering literature. Her sensitive yet overwhelmingly powerful novels and short stories not only dealt with the many layered themes of apartheid but also in a deep and meaningful way she successfully examined and revealed the human being’s obsessive need to control, dominate, segregate and destroy not just lives but values. In the same breath, one can say that her writing also had the amazing ability to reveal the human being’s capacity for compassion and positive evolution. In this her writing so epitomizes the very story of South Africa in its many shades and nuances.
In her novels, countless essays, two powerful skills are revealed. The imaginative response to the reality of her times and her engagement with the history that she was experiencing every moment of her life. However, whether it was the one or the other, one thing was certain – Gordimer neither minced her words nor watered down her ideas and beliefs. It was remarkable how she managed to negotiate the expectations of her readers, her own committed expectations of her role as a writer and the ever present shadow of censorship and oppression. Perhaps she derived a lot of inspiration from the lives of other committed writers like herself – the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, Albert Camus, Brecht, Ivan Turgenev and others.
She began with a difficult and lonely childhood and youth, lacking formal education and social skills and retreated into a world of books where she traversed landscapes of the imagination and uncovered the ability of words to not only reflect and interpret reality but to transform and empower.
It would be worth considering her early novel ‘A World Of Strangers’. This work, published in 1958, cut deep into the disturbing world of politics of that time. She succeeded in doing this not by raving and ranting and shouting from rooftops with turbulent and emotional prose but with a studied calmness of intent. Clarity, balance and incisive representation are what made the novel so impactful. In fact the novel was banned for twelve years. It tracks the story of the Englishman Tody Hood from the arrival of his ship in Mombasa and his overt reaction to ‘black people’ to a rapidly growing awareness of their humanity and their right to equality. Gordimer deftly draws out and presents his initial insular and indifferent personality and his unresponsiveness to political activism and goes on to reveal other more positive possibilities – eventually stretching him between white supremacy and black rights. In the end, after all he is just human. This is an incredible beautifully written novel that reveals Nadine Gordimer’s narrative skill and her undiluted representation of an unequal world.
Here Gordimer achieved the impossible – retained the flow of her imagination whilst sharply cutting through the muscle of social challenges with the lazer-like ability to present the truth and reality of her times. These remarkable features persisted and expanded with the making of each of her future works until she became an irrepressible presence in South Africa.