Nadine Gordimer | Critical Review by Philip Graham

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Nadine Gordimer.
This section contains 984 words
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Critical Review by Philip Graham

SOURCE: "On 'The Concealed Side,'" in Chicago Tribune Books, November 5, 1995, pp. 6-7.

In the following review, Graham describes Gordimer's artistic ethos as outlined in Writing and Being.

This collection of Nadine Gordimer's recent Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University [Writing and Being] offers six lucid and interconnected essays on fiction that should be read by every serious reader and writer. Throughout this slim yet intellectually hefty volume Gordimer—the distinguished South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner—succeeds in elegantly explicating her hard-won artistic ethos, a moving and fluid blend of personal discovery and commitment to the wider world.

Gordimer's first essay, "Adam's Rib: Fictions and Realities," explores with a wry eye the persistent desire of some critics and readers to play the game of "I Spy": trying to discover who a fictional character "really" might be. Such an endeavor is, of course, quixotic, for even if a writer "wanted to replicate, there is no seeing, knowing, the depth and whole of anyone, and therefore no possibility of so-and-so being you-know-who…." Yet Gordimer is unwilling to embrace the counter argument that an author's characters are wholly imagined; instead, she writes, they are an artful blend. "Imagined: yes. Taken from life: yes."

Gordimer then offers a personal account of how she imagined the lives of people she only peripherally knew for the novel that is perhaps her masterwork, Burger's Daughter. She remembers seeing outside a prison courtyard a young girl she knew, the daughter of a political prisoner. As this child—white, privileged—waited for a brief visit with her father, Gordimer wondered "What was she thinking?" The result was a novel that, in attempting to imaginatively capture a moment in the life of a single person, grew to embrace the complex moral dilemmas of her divided nation.

Not until the second essay, "Hanging on a Sunrise," does Gordimer explicitly offer her definition of literature: the "exploration of the possibilities of language, the power of insight to human behavior beneath its outward manifestation, the unending expedition into the mysteries of existence, the creation of a world of words." Fiction's crucial aim, she argues, is to uncover what she calls The Concealed Side, that elusive knowledge of the inner life that each writer must struggle to discover for him- or herself, for it has no "final containing design." Yet once achieved, each writer's truth becomes a secret home, "the final destination of the human spirit beyond national boundaries, natal traditions."

Gordimer claims that this always uneasy, always provisional understanding is a powerful source of strength, a place from which a willing writer can "counter the lie in one's society." For Gordimer, the highest form of literature is an unflinching acknowledgment of the inescapable mirroring of inner history and metahistory, "the pull between the personal and the historico-political."

To illustrate her point, she examines in her following three essays writers who have been molded by a particularly dramatic historical time and place: Chinua Achebe, Amos Oz and fellow Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz. In her lovingly detailed mappings of Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy, Achebe's The Anthills of the Savanna and Oz's Fima. Gordimer demonstrates that "where society is perceived as devious, all angles of approach to possible truth may have to be tried."

In her final essay, "That Other World That Was the World," Gordimer returns to autobiography, a moment of personal revelation which, it becomes clear, she has been leading up to all along. She describes her early years as an isolated young woman in a South African rural community and writes poignantly of the physical and intellectual confinement of South African apartheid, which, she makes clear, extended to the white world as well as the black. Only many years after Gordimer left her parents' home did she realize that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had once lived a portion of his own childhood in the black ghetto across from her white enclave. "There was as much chance of our meeting then," she writes ruefully. "as there was of a moon landing."

Because Gordimer understood intuitively that she needed to create and discover herself in order to avoid becoming "the dangling participle of colonialism," she turned to the world of books, that other world that was the world: "I ate and slept at home, but I had my essential being in books."

Literary revelations led, inevitably, to personal and political revelations. At the age of 20, Gordimer, as a member of an amateur theater company, performed The Importance of Being Earnest in a black township. At first, the audience's easy laughter seemed to bless the production with success, but then Gordimer "came to the full appreciation that the audience, those people with drama, tragedy and comedy in their own lives about which we knew nothing, were laughing at us."

When Gordimer began her first attempts at creating her own fiction, her early stories were a looking outward as well as a turning inward. "In my desire to write, in the writing that I was already doing out of my pathetically limited knowledge of the people and the country where I lived, was the means to find what my truth was." So it was imperative that her personal and artistic revolution include the political revolution of her troubled nation. "I had to be part of the transformation of my place in order for it to know me."

Because Gordimer is as rigorous a thinker as a prose stylist, following the eloquent argument that she weaves through these six essays is a pleasurable task. Some readers, however, may find Gordimer's belief that fiction should be wedded to political commitment to be unnecessarily narrow. Yet if, as Henry James once elegantly asserted, the house of fiction has many windows, then Gordimer's passionately described view is bracingly clear and inspiring particularly when she declares. "The expression in art of what really exists beneath the surface is part of the transformation of a society. What is written, painted, sung, cannot remain ignored."

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This section contains 984 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Philip Graham
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