Nadine Gordimer | Critical Review by Sylvia Clayton

This literature criticism consists of approximately 26 pages of analysis & critique of Nadine Gordimer.
This section contains 1,052 words
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Critical Review by Sylvia Clayton

SOURCE: "Saboteurs," in London Review of Books, April 15-18, 1984, p. 23.

In the following excerpt, Clayton comments on Gordimer's writing style in Something out There.

Nadine Gordimer continues to send sane, humane reports from the edge of darkness. In her finest stories she fixes authoritatively the experience of her South African characters, who exist in the shadow of a gun. They are menaced by repressive laws, unpredictable violence and a cruel historical process; their small domestic treacheries can carry a fatal undertow of danger. In this latest collection [Something Out There] her tone remains cool, diagnostic, her brilliant camera eye unfazed. Even in a few pages she produces not a tentative sketch but a finished drawing. She places her figures exactly in the landscape, and the contrast between their precarious lives and her own controlled poise yields a high imaginative tension.

The education of a middle-aged, liberal-minded divorcee, Pat Haberman, becomes, in her beautifully constructed story. 'A Correspondence Course', a taut, ironic drama. Pat has rejected her husband's money-grubbing, country-club life' for independence with her daughter Harriet, now a graduate student. 'Harriet has been brought up to realise that her life of choices and decent comfort is not shared by the people in whose blackness it is embedded … And since she has been adult she has had her place—even if silent—in the ritualistic discussion of what can be done about this by people who have no aptitude for politics but who won't live like Haberman.' An English journalist serving nine years in a maximum-security jail in Pretoria for political offences responds to an article by Harriet in an academic magazine. A regular, censored, monthly correspondence begins. Pat supports her daughter. She is proud of their shared compassionate attitude; she talks about the letters at parties; she is gleefully excited when he makes his escape with five years left to serve. But when she finds a bundle of clothes that Harriet has left out for the escaped prisoner, and when the man actually appears on the doorstep, she is overcome by terror.

The pressures of living in South Africa are revealed within this close mother-daughter relationship; the rhythm of the story unfolds them with increasing clarity. A mother's protective regard for her child is central to another brief, intense story of conflicting loyalties, 'A City of the Dead, a City of the Living'. Here everything happens inside the overcrowded little house of Moreke, a jobbing gardener. A stranger, a man with a gun, comes to lodge with Moreke, his wife and baby. Moreke feels in duty bound to give him shelter. For a week the wife watches him as she does her crochet. 'The tiny flash of her steel hook and the hair-thin gold in his ear signaled in candlelight.' Eventually, acting entirely on her own, the wife betrays him, one of her own people, to the police. The woman who keeps the shebeen spits in her face. The story leaves behind a faint doubt about the author's timing, especially about the moment she chooses to stop. Since the scene has been set and the tensions have been built up with such skill, it comes as a letdown to find no explanation of the mother's decision to turn informer and no hint as to her husband's reaction.

The stories seldom convey the sense of biting pain that charges Athol Fugard's plays about South Africa. Some vital information or necessary energy is missing. A novella, 'Something Out There', offers a panoramic view of Johannesburg, where an ape-like animal is at large in the suburbs. Young Stanley snaps it with his camera, a bar mitzvah present. The picture is printed in a newspaper; an elderly estate agent's wife welcomes the headlines as a distraction from worse horrors. Doctors at the golf club are convinced it is a baboon. It startles a couple who are having an illicit affair; it steals food from a policeman's kitchen. Meanwhile, in a run-down rented house four people, a white couple and two blacks, are planning to blow up a power station. The interlocking lives of the saboteurs as they wait, disguised as an unremarkable suburban household—two young married whites and two black servants—are watched by the author so intently that the peripheral business of an ape at large seems unnecessary packaging. She describes magisterially their movements, their irritations with each other within a conspiratorial intimacy, yet she contrives to keep a distance from their inner struggles. The young woman has decided that she will stay with her partner, even though their six-year relationship is over, because the mission has long been planned and is important. How she arrives at this decision and what cause she is supporting are not explained. All four are in deadly danger; their purpose is destruction: urbanity seems the wrong mode in which to write of their crisis.

This is a book in which Nadine Gordimer steps outside the South African territory she has made her own; her most adventurous excursion is into the past. 'Letter from his Father' is supposed to be written in self-defence by Hermann Kafka to his son, Franz. It is easy to feel that the relatives of a genius sometimes get a raw deal. There were friends of D. H. Lawrence's family who objected strongly to the portrait of his father in Sons and Lovers: they denied that he was a coarse, unfeeling husband, unworthy of his wife's long-suffering refinement. Friends of Kafka père agreed that he had much to put up with from his difficult son. It is one thing to question a character study from direct personal knowledge, quite another to impersonate the subject and pretend to be answering false accusations. Kafka wrote a letter to his father, which he never sent, perhaps never intended to, and which was published only in 1954 in a volume consisting mainly of posthumous fragments. Ms Gordimer's letter purports to be written from heaven, where Hermann, though not Franz, Kafka is to be found. Its style is stage-Jewish and the effect of its bluff reproaches is embarrassing. She is a wonderfully clear-sighted writer, innately courteous, like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala or E. M. Forster, to the creatures of her imagination. It is foolhardy of her, though, to take on Kafka, whose work remains a set text for any examination on the 20th century….

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This section contains 1,052 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Judie Newman