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Critical Review by Richard Bausch
SOURCE: "After the Euphoria," in New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1994, p. 7.
In the following review, Bausch praises Gordimer's personal approach to social and political issues in her None to Accompany Me.
I read somewhere long ago that a good novelist is also a social historian; the operative word there is also. And while literary criticism, at least in the United States, has lately become more and more a kind of ersatz social science, where worth is judged according to social impact or a political agenda, one is always grateful for writers like Nadine Gordimer whose fiction is so often categorized as work of social significance, and who, when one actually reads her novels and stories, shows herself again and again, in the face of enormous pressures, to be insistently personal in her approach.
Ms. Gordimer is concerned, as all good writers are and always have been, with the individual cost of the events she depicts. Because she has had a long career and has been prolific, producing to date 11 novels and 9 collections of stories, her writing life creates a kind of record of her troubled country. We may turn to the historians, we may even turn to primary sources like newspapers and letters, yet it would be hard to find a more direct experience of the times through which South Africa has passed over the last 40 years than in the intimate portrayals Ms. Gordimer has given us. Now, as the country tries to re-create itself, to make the shift from repressive white rule to a democratic government with full participation by blacks, Ms. Gordimer has, once again, provided a clear window through which to witness the ramifications of these momentous changes on particular lives.
None to Accompany Me concerns two couples, one white and one black, and the people around them—their children, the men and women they work with and have lived with and loved. While we are given glimpses of events through the eyes of each of them at various points in the novel, its central figure is Vera Stark, a progressive white woman, and experienced lawyer who has abandoned a prosperous firm to become a mainstay of the Legal Foundation, which "is not a legal aid organisation in the usual sense," but "came into existence in response to the plight of black communities who had become so much baggage, to be taken up and put down according to a logic of separation of black people from the proximity of white people." As Ms. Gordimer wryly notes, "a logic can be made out of anything; it lies not in the truth or falsity of an idea, but in the means of its practical application."
Apartheid has been defeated, and efforts to forge a progressive government are under way. The black couple, once exiles are in hiding, are struggling with the many changes wrought by the new reality. Didymus and Sibongile (Didy and Sally) Maqoma have a history with Vera Stark and her husband, Bennet, an English professor. But each of the four has a private history as well, a store of memories that lies beneath the euphoria of political liberation, that cannot entirely be put aside, even when they and their friends seem "giddy with discovery."
As time passes, new tensions emerge. Didy, his wife observes, "seems to be living in the past," unable to jettison his carefully acquired habits of deference and caution. Matters are not helped by the fact that Sally is a rising star in the new political movement—or that their 16-year-old daughter, Mpho, raised in England, is out of touch with the culture her parents have sacrificed so much for. There are conflicts for Vera, too—most immediately obvious in her work, where she and her colleagues struggle over policies for the redistribution of land, seeking to return some of it to blacks who were evicted during the long repression.
But all of these conflicts, while providing an outer shell of plot, serve mainly as a kind of shifting backdrop to the central drama of the novel, which takes place in Vera Stark's soul. Here is a journey to what, at least on the surface, looks like a remote kind of personal independence, a distancing in which Vera becomes, rather oddly only her public self. Her husband is "worried about her way of life, apparently so completely involved, in public, always part of group thinking, group decision, and so withdrawn outside that." But "wherever she was now, it was not a form of escape."
Paradoxically enough, as Vera seeks to disentangle herself we become ensnared in the process—because we have been allowed to know her in the way that we know any artfully created fictional character. We have shared Vera's memories and her own assessments of her actions. We have witnessed her nightmares and her hopes for some sort of authenticity, and we have eavesdropped on her failures of understanding. We know that she left her first husband to marry Ben, and that because she allowed that first husband to make love to her one last time after the divorce, her older child, Ivan, may not be Ben's son. She has been unfaithful to Ben, and she fears that it was because her daughter, Annick, divined this in early childhood that she has grown up to become a lesbian. Vera also broods over the broken marriage that her son describes in his letters to her from London. And she feels some sense of sorrow over Ben's very constancy; she is achingly aware of what he has given up to love her, as though it were a form of imprisonment to be that important in another human being's life.
This portrait of Vera's internal turmoil is delivered with a fierce clarity in the light of the social moment, so that external events give it resonance without ever taking over. There are no puppets in Ms. Gordimer's work, no mouthpieces; her people are all afforded the dignity of human vanity and complexity. Black and white, they are neither very noble nor very bad. They are people whose failures almost always stem from lack of courage—or from their stubborn attempts to journey toward self-knowledge.
As I followed Vera's journey, I kept thinking of the old existentialist idea that we are doomed to fail in our search for authenticity because authenticity requires solitude and we exist in society. Vera manages to divest herself of so much—her family, her whole personal life, really—that we feel her hard-won freedom as being ironic and sad. Her journey ends in a solitude that finally seems rather pathetic. This passionate presence becomes a quiet lady living in an annex, a sort of docent in the museum of her own private history, a committee woman. One middle-of-the-night encounter with a young naked woman in the corridor of her landlord's house makes us feel her separation, not only from her family, but from all the sources of joy.
About midway through this capacious novel, there is a passage that reports an attack on two people who are on a fact-finding mission; one of them, we soon learn, is Vera. Here the novelist addresses us directly: "What were they doing on a road far from the site of any state land on their itinerary? To know that would be to have to enter their lives, both where they touched and widely diverged, to be aware of what they knew about each other and what they did not know; where they had expectations, obligations operating covertly one upon the other. To know at least that much."
Even as she reminds us of how little we can really know, Ms. Gordimer's every fictional gesture aims at knowing everything; the result is what is, at times, an almost blinding particularity. In the midst of her affair, we are told of Vera's fears "that when she began to grow old she would become one of those women who have a fancy for young men, that she would dye her hair and undress in the dark to hide drooping buttocks and sad belly from a lover paid with—what? Gold weights and silk shirts are only the beginning. Thank God, no sign of any taste for young men was occurring, but the passing mistrust of self projecting upon the commanding outer reality of a community only just breathing under its own rubble … what meaning could the mistrust of self have, what reality, standing against that!"
The answer to this unanswered rhetorical question provides a kind of ironic reverse image of the way Ms. Gordimer's fiction really works: what meaning could these events, for all their enormity, have without the intensely personal mirrors of personality through which they shine forth?
This section contains 1,444 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)