Nadine Gordimer | Critical Review by John Bayley

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Nadine Gordimer.
This section contains 1,345 words
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Critical Review by John Bayley

SOURCE: "Dry Eyes," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 23, December 5, 1991, p. 20.

In the following excerpt, Bayley discusses the stories of Jump in the context of classic stories by literary masters of narrative art.

A Jane Austen of today is barely imaginable: but if one nonetheless imagines her, and locates her in South Africa, how would she be exercising her art? Could she find any subject other than the one Nadine Gordimer writes about? A great, even a good writer does not find his subject, it takes him over: he becomes it, and the world it has brought with it. But there exist situations in which this is necessarily not the case. Not only the subject but the way to treat it is handed to the talented South African writer in the most unambiguous terms. His success must be measured, not in terms of the world he has made by his art, but by what his art reveals of a particular world.

Jane Austen's sense of the society she lived in is subject to a variety of interpretations. D. W. Harding detected her 'controlled hatred' for it, while most of her fans regard her as supremely at home in it, using it as a vehicle for amusement and perception and something like comfortable fantasy. She repels and attracts; she can be attacked and defended. Nadine Gordimer, on the other hand, can only earn a chorus of dutiful praise. It must exasperate her sometimes to read that her novel or story is 'not to be missed' by anyone who cares what has been happening in South Africa; or that by revealing what has happened she has 'earned herself a place among the few novelists who really matter'. An honourable place, of course, and earned by the demonstrational sympathy and intelligence of Burger's Daughter and My Son's Story and The Conservationist. But her real talents are compromised by this style of celebrity in a way that does not reflect on them, yet imprisons them; and that seems not to happen to a novelist like Amos Oz, whose subject is not so much Israel and its future as some vision of his own about human beings and their spiritual insides. This is not the same as 'intertwining the personal with the political', and delineating 'each shift' in the African situation as a literary keeper of records'. With fans writing that on the dust-jackets of Nadine Gordimer's books, who needs depreciatory critics?

The success of the story or nouvelle stands in particular need of an equivocation the art of the form brings into being. A real masterpiece like The Aspern Papers reveals James's own fascination with the phenomenon of greed and power: the greed of the narrator for possession of the papers, whose ownership is poor Miss Tita's only weapon in her struggle for power and for possession of him. Every touch in James's evocation of Venice, like the statue of Colleoni, the indomitable warrior and ruthless mercenary, makes its ambiguous undercover point: and yet the touchingness of the tale itself seems not to be aware of what is going on, just as the governess-narrator in The Turn of the Screw is not aware of what is going on in the children's private world. This is the freedom of the story form, and it is a freedom sadly withheld from Nadine Gordimer's searching talent and narrative skill. 'Safe Houses', one of the best stories in this collection [Jump], suffers from the parameters it cannot avoid. A white political subversive, in hiding from the Police in Johannesburg, meets a rich woman whose business husband is away on frequent trips to Germany or Japan. Their meeting on a bus—her car has broken down and she has never been on a bus before—and their subsequent affair is immaculately described; and the end is not betrayal, for she never finds out who he really is, but a succession of less glamorous safe houses and eventual arrest. The donnée of the story is of course the contrast between his own secret dedicated life and her idle and privileged one, but it is not a theme which allows room for manoeuvre, or freedom for the story to surprise us and itself.

And yet it is possible to feel the author willing it to have such a freedom, and putting her skill into two kinds of understanding of the pair. They are representative, emblems of their time and place, but they are also physically realised. Their relation is observed with the tough business-like sympathy Nadine Gordimer has developed over the several volumes of her stories. She is more at home with physical notation than with what goes on in people's minds. Her episodes are to inform rather than to move us, and this means that a story which explores its own possibilities is more likely to reach our emotional responses than one which indicates a proper way to think and to feel. These stories are trapped inside the nature of their event. In one, a white farmer accidentally shoots his unrecognised son, a black boy whom he favours and who goes everywhere with him. In another, 'Some are born to sweet delight', a London family (locations outside Africa are left deliberately vague) acquires a Middle Eastern lodger. The daughter of the family falls in love with him and gets pregnant. She goes abroad to have the child with relatives, and he gives her a plastic toy to take to them. She thinks fondly of the way he watched without taking his eyes off her as she went through the barrier into the passport and security area. The plane blows up in mid-air.

The trouble is that a story can have nothing to add to such an event. Like Mérimée or Maupassant or Somerset Maugham, Nadine Gordimer seems most at home when no commentary is necessary: most of all when even an implicit ideology can be sidetracked. 'A Find' is about a man powerful and prosperous enough to have got through two designing wives, and who then goes to take a bachelor holiday on a Riviera beach. Among the sea stones he finds a valuable ring, and decides to make use of it through an advertisement. The dénouement is admirably done, and the author seems rather disconcertingly at home in it, as if easing herself with a holiday from normal duties and commitments.

Connoisseurs of the short story will remember the use that Maupassant, Maugham and James all make of the same theme: the jewellery whose value or lack of it gives a quick print-out of individual human reactions. James is of course the one who in his tale 'Paste' ponders the notion most effectively, starting from the inheritance of some trumpery jewellery which turns out to be the real thing. The psychology of acquisition then breeds a whole new generation of victims and predators.

Nadine Gordimer wisely leaves her participants without any inner life. In her title story 'Jump' this pays off with a Science Fiction setting in which a new black world houses in conditions of privileged nightmare a white renegade, a former 'supporter'. The awful futility of the isolation is treated inconspicuously and dryly, and the ambiguity of anti-climax has spread even into the concepts of revolt and repression. The image of a jump, a leap in the dark, borrowed from Conrad's Lord Jim, is neatly turned round, so that it never seems quite time to make the final gesture, the right moment for what was once the dangerous challenge of an assignment, and would now be simply the one to bow out on, to confront extinction. Freedom-fighting necessarily takes place in a slot like the one now occupied for life by the nameless hero, a slot isolated from the other realities of Africa—hyenas on the prowl, a lioness stalking a zebra—which are the subject of the laconic 'Spoils'. Lamb chops flavoured with rosemary for camp dinner fit together, in the indefinable degradation of a 'safari park', with the excitement of watching from the safety of a jeep a carnivore devouring a herbivore….

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This section contains 1,345 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Bayley
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