Nadine Gordimer: A Brief Biography

[added by Jay Dillemuth, MFA '97]

Perhaps more than the work of any other writer, the novels of Nadine Gordimer have given imaginative and moral shape to the recent history of South Africa. Since the publication of her first book, The Lying Days (1953), she has charted the changing patterns of response and resistance to apartheid with her exploration of the place of the European in Africa, her selection of representative themes and governing motifs for novels and short stories, and her accompanying shifts in ideological focus from a liberal to a more radical position. It was in recognition of this achievement, of having borne untiring and lucid narrative witness, that Gordimer was awarded the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Born in 1923 to Jewsih immigrant parents in the South African mining town of Springs, Gordimer began writing early, from the beginning taking the pathologies and everyday realities of a radically divided society as her subject. She still lives in South Africa, in Johannesburg. Her decision to remain in the country through the years of political repression has reflected her commitment to her subject, to the society to which she feels she belongs, and to her vision of a postapartheid future.

As her nonfictional essays suggest, Gordimer self-consciously places her writing within a tradition of European realism, most notably that defined by Hungarian philosopher and critic Georg Lukacs (1885-1971). Her concern--as shown in her incisive and highly acclaimed novels of the 1970s, The Conservationist (1974) and Burger's Daughter (1979)--is to evoke by way of the oersonal and precisely observed particular a broader political and historical totality. It is this that gives her characters, and her novels themselves, their representativeness. As Gordimer has famously said, "politics is character in South Africa." Yet, throughout the long years of political polarization in that country and the banning of three of her own books, Gordimer has distanced herself from the polemics and retained a firm humanist belief in what she variously describes as the objectivity and the inwardness of the writer. Although she has referred to an engagement with politial reality as imperative and explores permutations of the question of engagement in novels like Burger's Daughter and July's People (1981), she at the same time asserts the autonomy of the writer's perspective, "the last true judgment." Narrative for Gordimer helps to define and clarify historical experience. Her keen sense of history as formation, and as demanding a continual rewriting, has ensured that her novels can be read as at once contemporary in their reference and symbolic of broader social and historical patterns, as in the paranioa surrounding the case of the buried black body on a white farm in The Conservationist, or in the psychosocial portrait of Rosa Burger in Burger's Daughter.

Gordimer has drawn criticism both for her apparent lack of attention to feminism in favor of race issues and for the wholeness and unfashionable completeness of her novels--their plottedness, meticulous scene painting, fully realized characters. However, the searching symbolism and complexity of her narratives generally work against such judgments.... A prominent feature of her writing is to give a number of different perspectives on a situation, in some cases most poignantly those of apartheid's supporters, and in this way to represent the broader anatomy of a diseased potitics. Gordimer's subject, as she emphasozes, is much more than apartheid; it is the human being in history.

[from Abrams et. al., The Norton Anthology of English Literature, sixth edition, volume 2, p.2330-31]

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