Nadine Gordimer | Critical Review by Edith Milton

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of Nadine Gordimer.
This section contains 1,566 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Edith Milton

SOURCE: A review of Writing and Being, in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 4, June, 1996, p. 8.

In the following review, Milton comments on the themes of Writing and Being.

Nadine Gordimer is a writer whose moral vision predicates her literary one. The same could be said, to some degree, about any writer one would willingly read. But I see Gordimer's perspective on good and evil as being quite different from that of many, or even most, of the thinking writers of our day: Gabriel Garcia Marquéz, say, or Günther Grass or Doris Lessing, who are so burdened by the madness of contemporary society that they often need to break out of the confines of realism to give sufficient voice to their sense of absurdity.

By contrast, there is something almost old-fashioned about Nadine Gordimer: not only because she stays within the limits of exactness and reason—even when she writes prophetically as she does in July's People—but because she seems to have been able to balance a sober, often somber, outlook with innate respect for her neighbors and the hope that the human race may deserve a future.

Perhaps this balance stems from a well-focused vision and a sure sense of where she belongs. There are remarkably few serious writers nowadays who describe the world securely from the viewpoint of their native place in it, or even of their accustomed place. Many live in exile, either voluntary or involuntary; and if they speak for a particular landscape or for a particular country—as Tolstoy did, and Hardy did, as Hawthorne and Balzac and Austen did—it is usually from the perspective of an outsider.

Nadine Gordimer, to the contrary, was born in South Africa, and has stayed there. She lives in Johannesburg; in her writing, certainly, as well as in some more personal ways that she insists were merely modest, she took part in the struggle against apartheid, until justice, finally, seems to have prevailed—though one should be cautious about all political prophecies. Far from being alienated from her world, she is deeply involved in recovering its good health and in its survival; her moral outlook is a matter of daily life, not a literary abstraction. One could call it, simply, her conscience.

Writing and Being, which encompasses the six Charles Eliot Norton lectures Gordimer gave at Harvard in 1994, bears witness to that conscience both in Gordimer's perception of herself as having done, if anything, too little and in the generosity and admiring insight with which she reads the writers she reflects on here. It is interesting that all of them share her secure sense of place—that, like her, they have documented, passed judgment on and suffered from the political and social conditions of their native countries—which are also where they still live. Gordimer is emphatic about the fact that none of the work she is discussing "belong[s] to the main stream of Euro-American literature…. These writers," she says,

know who they are; their work is no part of the Euro-American search for identity; what it expresses is … not that the individual does not know himself, it is that as Amos Oz's character Fima says, "his place does not know him."

In her opening essay she speaks rather generally about the transactions between life and art, reader and writer, introspection and morality. The second essay becomes specific. It describes the work of several South African revolutionaries: the autobiographies of the quiet Carl Niehaus and the charismatic Ronnie Kasrils; the poetry of Jeremy Cronin, who is white, and of Mongane Wally Serote, who is black. With her third essay Gordimer arrives at the heart of her subject as she begins to draw evidence about the moral uses of fiction from the work of three writers. Her discussion centers on The Cairo Trilogy by the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, Anthills of the Savannah by the Nigerian writer and activist Chinua Achebe, and Fima by the Israeli novelist Amos Oz.

The authors she has chosen are immersed, have always been immersed, like Gordimer herself, in the cultural milieu which they document. But though these are, I suppose, political novels in a larger sense, their political bias transcends the specifics of the world in which they are so firmly placed and looks towards the common struggles and insistent failures of human history.

"These … are works that go too far, they're after Zaabalawi, looking for Home on The Concealed Side," notes Gordimer—who, it should be said, is neither at her most simple nor her most eloquent as a critic, particularly when she adapts this idiosyncratic series of borrowed metaphors and phrases to serve as her critical tools. Let me offer a translation.

Gordimer takes the concept of "going too far" from a passage in Proust, "Do not be afraid to go too far, for the truth lies beyond." The phrase becomes her touchstone for everything that is virtuous in literature. "Home" she defines as "truth … the final destination of the human spirit beyond national boundaries, natal traditions."

"The Concealed Side" translates two Aramaic words quoted by Amos Oz, and incorporates a concept I am at a loss to interpret—though one can pretty much intuit its meaning. As for Zaabalawi, he is adopted from a parable—something of a shaggy dog story, in fact—which Gordimer finds in The Cairo Trilogy. The holy man Zaabalawi, it seems, the object of a sick man's passionate pilgrimage, is so elusive that the poor invalid has fallen hopelessly asleep by the time the seer appears, sprinkles him with water and disappears again before he has woken up.

There may be a certain defensiveness in the eccentric wording Gordimer uses for her analysis: a sort of linguistic self-protection against the snobbery of more conventional criticism. But it is not without other uses. Once you become accustomed to her borrowed vocabulary, which is simultaneously homespun and global, what she says proves powerful. And you begin to feel a sort of intimacy with her, a sense of privilege both in getting to know the particular person she is and in being introduced to the vast subject she is addressing.

What she sees everywhere is incompleteness. In The Cairo Trilogy sons and grandsons struggle for political, moral and spiritual enlightenment but fail to overcome the damage caused by the primordial narcissism of the patriarchal system. In Anthills of the Savannah the battle for economic and military control—in an imaginary country much like Nigeria—stems from British colonial domination: but liberation merely contorts the already established injustice and sends violence into new and larger channels.

Gordimer describes Fima, Oz's verbally blocked and morally paralyzed poet, as suffering from "an existential heartburn the antacid tablets he's always munching after indigestible snacks are powerless to appease." Israel's suppression of the Palestinians appalls him. He is particularly disgusted by the sleights of language in which this suppression is habitually disguised. Something of an anguished clown, Fima "has chosen to fail in the terms of success his society recognizes because he believes it has lost its way …"

In Fima, Gordimer discovers emphatically two characteristics she admires: self-doubt and contradiction. She quotes a passage in which Fima meets a cockroach and, about to smash it with his shoe, recognizes himself: "He is himself the cockroach, and so are the blacks, and … the Palestinians. And he himself … is the hater, the persecutor, the one with the … raised shoe."

Her sympathies are clear. For Gordimer, one of the highest moral achievements may be an ability to disagree with oneself, an uneasy, self-contradictory humanity. Ambivalence is the attribute for which she commends Achebe when she cites his "deep distrust of Right and Left" and which she admires in Carl Niehaus, who can identify equally with the oppressed black majority for whom he is fighting, and with the white Afrikaaner oppressors who are his family and have become his enemies.

The strongest thread which runs through Writing and Being is a disdain for simplistic alliances and self-righteousness; with each essay, this thread—and the writing itself—becomes stronger. The last essay addresses colonialism—less in its conventional political and cultural dimension than as a potent state of mind. Diffidently and sketchily, Gordimer outlines her South African growing-up. She is wary of autobiography, but she paints a formidable portrait of colonialism as a species of exile. Since law and custom permit her no association with Africans, she can have no understanding of Africa. Though she is brought up on the model of the proper English schoolgirl, she has never been near England. She grows up, in effect, marooned between two societies, a dismal condition which she notes was shared by Marguerite Duras, who spent her early years in Indochina, and by Albert Camus, raised in Algeria. "Colonial: that's the story of who I am," she writes of her childhood. "The one who belongs nowhere. The one who has no national mould."

Yet it strikes me that this state of isolation she describes has given her place and purpose. In the end, her condition as outcast in her own country has served her well: she has stayed in place and her place has come to know her. When her personal triumph in the wake of South Africa's newly-found democracy leads her to declare "I am no longer a colonial. I may now speak of 'my people,'" most of us can only envy her. And remark how few writers there are, these days, with an equal sense of hope or of belonging.

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This section contains 1,566 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Edith Milton
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