Flaubert said something to the effect that masterpieces become natural events, part of the landscape. Nadine Gordimer has been part of South Africa's literary landscape for 50 years. There are two aspects of her work which intrigue me particularly. One, more often discussed than the other, is her close reading of the society in which she has lived. The other, less often discussed, is her sensuality. Her new collection of 10 short pieces, dedicated to her beloved husband Reinhold who died 18 months ago, demonstrates both aspects very clearly.
"The Mission Statement" is the story of an aid worker, Roberta Blayne (née Cartwright incidentally), who is working in an African country and has an affair with the Deputy Director of Land Affairs, Shadrack Gladwell Chabruma. He has a wife, who never attends official functions.
He himself is rather formal and meticulous - no African in Gordimer's work is ever taken lightly - and they spend some months gradually emerging as a couple. There are hints of Roberta's growing sexuality, but also of the inevitable culture clash, which comes to a head when Chabruma asks her to marry him. She assumes that he will divorce his wife, but she is told that it is perfectly normal for a man in his position to have more than one wife. She will be wife number two. This is possibly acceptable to her, but not to the aid agency. She is transferred to another project in another country. Here we see the intersection of the two classic Gordimer themes, the sensuality of African life and the rigidity, even aridity, of European assumptions.
Gordimer, I think, has always been deeply interested in the sexual and cultural assumptions of - crudely speaking - white and black society. Long ago, when many whites were thinking rugby and racial separation, she had crossed, in her mind and, by her actions, the barriers that seemed to be beyond negotiation.
Another story, as good as any Gordimer story I have ever read, is called "The Diamond Mine". A young girl, daughter of a mine manager on the Transvaal Reef, makes her first acquaintance with a boy who comes to stay. He is about to go off to the War. We can safely assume that this draws from Gordimer's own life, as the lively daughter of a mine manager in a small town near Johannesburg. The boy, by the end of the story, is about to be sent off to North Africa. In a very beautifully constructed account of their last day together, as her father pontificates about a diamond mine, probably the Cullinan Mine near Pretoria, she and the boy achieve a certain kind of intimacy under a blanket in the back of the car.
The fact that he is possibly going to be killed, or the fact that her parents, happily oblivious, are in the front seat, is far less important to the girl than her own discovery of the penetration which Gordimer is on record as saying is the essence of male/female sexuality. It reminded me of an earlier story of hers about a businessman on a plane who strikes up a mute, but sexual, relationship with a young girl in the next seat. Anyway, this aspect of the Gordimer psyche, still thriving, gives the lie to those who think she is simply a sort of fictionalised mouthpiece of the heroic doings of the ANC. "The Diamond Mine" demonstrates as clearly as any, that Gordimer is as concerned with the sensual as the "political", although what was going on in South Africa for all those years was less to do with politics than simple human rights.
It is this idea of the South African struggle as a world-historical event of enormous importance, which has added lustre - and possibly the Nobel Prize - to Gordimer's reputation. Gordimer has demonstrated that there is literary life after apartheid - as she told me in l994 there would be. I have to admit to having been sceptical. But I don't think that when future generations look at the apartheid struggle they will see it as quite the momentous literary cauldron that recent history has suggested. In fact, as well as recording the struggle for human rights, the literary account, which Gordimer has kept so faithfully and truthfully, may be seen as something of a storm in a teacup.
Of course it was true that South Africa preserved in much condensed form all the nasty prejudices and cruelties of an earlier age, and so it was of particular interest to the liberal west. How, it wondered, could something so obscenely and obviously wrong persist? But this was also obvious to every educated white person in South Africa. Certainly in my family there were never any misconceptions about the nakedly discriminatory nature of Nationalist rule from 1948-1994. Those of us who left had many motives, but one of them was a reluctance to spend our lives attacking the indefensible, particularly in Marxist terms.
The point I am making, and have been making for a few years, is that white South African writing rode a wave, whether consciously or not. The big issues that it tackled were in fact long since resolved: the South African Afrikaner government was a blind appendix loosely attached to the western digestive system. So it is greatly to Nadine Gordimer's credit that her recent fiction has plausibly explored the results of the collapse of apartheid in personal terms. A very short story, "Visiting George", contains hints of the disillusionment of the old lefties of a peculiarly South African cast, who lived abroad but continually re-lived the old struggles. Other stories, like "The Generation Gap", are - like Gordimer's terrific novel The House Gun - attuned to family tensions and expectations, something which has always been one of her strengths.
I have occasional problems with her syntax - the Gordimer style, part fractured, part lyrical, which has so influenced South African writing. But, as Flaubert suggested, mountains are inescapable facts and Nadine Gordimer is a large and permanent chunk of the South African literary landscape.
Justin Cartwright's latest novel, 'White Lightning' is published next month in paperback (Sceptre)Reuse content