Nadine Gordimer | Critical Review by Gail Godwin

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Nadine Gordimer.
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Critical Review by Gail Godwin

SOURCE: "Out of Africa and India," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 252, No. 1511, April, 1976, pp. 101-02.

In the following excerpt, Godwin discusses the changing African dimension of the characters in Selected Stories.

Reading a collection of stories by a good writer affords a pleasure quite distinct from reading a novel by the same writer. The pleasure comes from the activeness demanded from the reader, from the quick leaps of synthesis he must make as he skips around in the book, pouncing on the stories that promise to attract him most, surprising the author in a variety of themes, moods, and stances as the author moves through his own time: the writing-time of the stories. Reading a collection of stories written out of a high-quality perceptiveness is like stalking the master stalker: you can sneak up on him at any angle and watch him pursue the prey. There are no long securities staked out for you at the beginning, as in a novel. Each story is a brand-new beginning, a new hunt. But as you read on, you form a composite picture of his territory. You get to know his allurements, his hunting habits, the terrain of his mind as well.

When I finished Nadine Gordimer's collection [Selected Stories] (composed of stories she chose from the many she wrote between the ages of twenty and fifty), I felt I knew her territory ("My time and place," she states, "have been twentieth-century Africa") in a way history and geography could not purvey it. (How purvey mutability when it happens inside the minds of people who live decade after decade in the same landscape except through cumulative fictions?) And I had become related to the writer through following her consciousness through its own mutability and growth, as well. Her "territory," of course, exists nowhere in its entirety except in this marvelous collection, which she has had the good sense to arrange chronologically; the Africa of her first page, on which the white girl's relationship with a black man is that of victim and attacker, is no longer the Africa of the girl in "The Smell of Death and Flowers," with her passionate involvement in the black cause; and she, in turn, inhabits another world from the rather cynical and weary liberal in the last story, "Africa Emergent," whose long, intense work with the blacks has led him into a self-righteous bind, making him suspicious of any black who hasn't proved himself by going to jail for the cause.

Though many of the stories reflect the author's political conscience, and her awareness of the complex tangles in which single-minded devotees of good causes can trap themselves, her subject at large, her Big Game, is Africa in the sense that the great fiction writers have always stalked it: a beautiful and dangerous land of opposites, both a test and a mirror of the psyche, where Kurtz went mad and Isak Dinesen fell in love with everything, and Jung, while dancing with natives, came perilously close to being swallowed by his id. Africa, some particular aspect of African life, is often used to reveal a character's inner life. For the romantic young city woman in "The Gentle Art" (my favorite story), a crocodile hunt starts out as a deliberate form of symbolic adultery in the presence of her husband. The crocodile hunter, who has invited them to come along in his boat, is everything she fantasizes a real man should be, while her husband, whom she calls "Poor Ricks," is "shut up in a blue suit in town." But when she finds herself gazing into the eyes of a live baby crocodile, which the hunter has pulled out of the river just for her amusement, she has something much closer to a religious experience.

In "Livingstone's Companions," a foreign correspondent from London, who has been robbed, by his own "wry, understated" way with words, of his capacity for living and his sensual wonder, is revived through getting lost in a strange, out-of-the-way resort during an assignment which would have required him to retrace Livingstone's last journey. The most compelling stories in the volume are the ones of this nature, in which the sheer terror or beauty of being somewhere bigger than one's petty concerns imposes itself on a character.

But there are unforgettable moments in the "provincial" stories as well. I don't mean Nadine Gordimer is provincial. I mean her characters in these stories never realize that they are not seeing beyond the tips of their noses—or their suburban kopjes. Their plights are no less poignant, however, because of Gordimer's true artistic self-effacement. The epiphany of every character, however small, is realized with absolute fidelity, from the stale fantasy summoned by a guilty suburban housewife (in "The Life of the Imagination") whose lover has left and forgotten to lock the door (she imagines a native coming in to kill her) to the old aristocratic lady in "Enemies" who meets her aging, complaining self—the self she has never acknowledged—on a train from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and snubs her. (Her alter ego dies during the night; the survivor sends a triumphant telegram to her chauffeur the next morning: "It was not me.")

Of interest to writers as well as readers is Miss Gordimer's introduction to her story collection. It contains more wisdom about the writing process in a few pages than many entire semesters of creative-writing classes. She has answers for the feminists ("My femininity has never constituted any special kind of solitude for me…. All writers are androgynous beings"); she has answers for the accusation that a writer "uses" people ("A writer sees in your life what you do not…. Fiction is a way of exploring possibilities present but undreamt of in the living of a single life"); and she knows what a short story is, and why she writes one rather than a novel ("A short story is a concept that the writer can 'hold,' fully realized, in his imagination, at one time. A novel is, by comparison, staked out, and must be taken possession of stage by stage…. A short story occurs, in the imaginative sense. To write one is to express from a situation in the exterior or interior world the life-giving drop—sweat, tear, semen, saliva—that will spread an intensity on the page; burn a hole in it")….

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This section contains 1,053 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gail Godwin
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Gail Godwin from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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