Nadine Gordimer, now 87, will not be producing an autobiography. Instead, the South African writer has compiled two volumes of her work as testament to her life. The first was Telling Times, her collected non-fiction writing, published earlier this year; its companion volume, Life Times, is an extraordinary, broad and searching collection of short stories written throughout her life.
It begins with "The Soft Voice of the Serpent", an almost whimsical vignette from 1952. A young man who has lost a leg is recuperating in a garden chair when he sees that the locust his wife has just swatted away has been injured in this act of violence: it, too, has lost a leg. It is an early story, but one can already see Gordimer's power as a close and unusual observer of human emotion. It is also a well-chosen story with which to start the volume, in that, in its account of a man's attempt to empathise with another's suffering – tempered by a bitter acknowledgement of the great divide between them – it reflects the themes of many of the subsequent stories.
In "The Smell of Death and Flowers", Joyce, a South African naif, becomes drunk at a Johannesburg party, is enthralled by a leading activist – a white woman like herself, but far more assured – and offers herself up to the cause. The plan is to protest by walking into a "location", a square-mile of segregated housing surrounded by barbed wire, into which whites were not permitted to enter. What should be an overtly political story turns into a tender one, about Joyce daring to cross lines – to dance with a black man at the party; to step forward in protest.
Gordimer's are stories of the human soul – regardless of the colour of the skin it comes wrapped in. "Some Monday for Sure" is narrated by a young man who lives with his sister and her husband. The husband's job is to sit on the end of the truck carrying dynamite to the mines, waving a flag to warn following drivers to keep their distance. The reader is primed for an explosion that never quite happens. The husband falls in with a plot to hijack the dynamite for the purposes of civil disobedience. While this heist on a country road would normally be the fulcrum of the plot, Gordimer turns her gaze upon the wife instead; a woman disempowered not only through being black and poor, but also by the men in her family.
Time and again, Gordimer returns to a fault line in South Africa: the awkward relationship between black and white, which may have been clearly delineated in law, but was far messier between people.
In "The Moment Before the Gun Went Off", a farmer and leader of the regional branch of the Afrikaner Party is out hunting when his gun goes off and a stray bullet kills one of his favourite black workers. It is a story of prejudice, but not in the usual sense. Here, it is the farmer who fears that the shooting will be construed as deliberate and used as a political argument against whites. In truth – or at least, in Gordimer's fiction – the farmer weeps for the man he has accidentally killed.
A collection spanning five decades, Life Times is a powerful reminder of the agonies of South Africa. Gordimer's writing is a humane intervention between two factions of what seemed, at times, a hopelessly divided society. Her characters are messengers who could cross boundaries in the imagination that would have been forbidden in reality. Not every story in Life Times is perfect, but the collection remains thrilling and daring.