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Nadine Gordimer

1923 – 2014

by Milton Shain and Miriam Pimstone

In 1991 Nadine Gordimer became the first South African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Making the announcement, the Swedish Academy observed that “through her magnificent epic writing she has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, been of very great benefit to humanity.” This, of course, was a tribute to her role in exposing to the world the horrors of apartheid. Indeed most of Nadine Gordimer’s work centers on the impact of apartheid on the lives of all South Africans, regardless of color. In her personal life too, she identified closely with the black struggle. She supported the African National Congress (ANC) and the armed struggle, and she testified in the Pretoria Supreme Court in 1988 in mitigation of those found guilty of terrorism. When the ANC was unbanned in 1990 she became a card-carrying member.

Her first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. Since then she has published thirteen more novels, many short stories and other works of non-fiction. Her work has been translated into thirty-one languages, she has received honorary doctorates from fifteen academic institutions and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Apart from the Nobel Prize, she is the recipient of prestigious literary awards in South Africa, Britain, France, Italy, Germany and the United States of America. These include a number of annual CNA Literary Awards in South Africa, the W.H. Smith Literary Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Booker Prize and the Grand Aigle d’Or. She is a frequent contributor to prestigious publications such as the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker and is the subject of leading studies by literary scholars.

Nadine Gordimer was born on November 20, 1923 in Springs, a gold-mining town east of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, came to South Africa from Riga, Latvia at the age of thirteen. Having left school when he was eleven years old, he had learned the trade of watch-making and when he arrived in South Africa he at first made his living traveling to the different gold mines fixing watches and at a later stage opened a jewelry shop. Nadine Gordimer’s mother, Nan Myers, was born in England to an established Anglo-Jewish family and had come to South Africa with her parents when she was six years old.

Despite her father’s traditionally Orthodox upbringing in Latvia, there was no attempt to provide any kind of Jewish education in the family home in South Africa. Isidore Gordimer went alone to the synagogue on the High Holidays and Nadine learned about Judaism only when she began to study comparative religion as an adult. She identifies herself as being Jewish through birth—“a Jew forever”— but has no religious belief. For her, being a Jew is like being black—“It’s something inside you, in your blood and in your bones” (Haaretz November 14, 2005). Neither is she a Zionist; but she has visited Israel and was impressed with what she saw in the early 1980s although without feeling any personal or emotional connection. In her view, her concern and support for the black struggle had nothing to do with her being Jewish as she maintains that a social conscience does not come from being part of a persecuted race.

Nadine Gordimer had an unusual childhood in that she was removed from her school, the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy in Springs, by her mother because of a supposed heart ailment and spent the years between eleven and sixteen mainly isolated from her peers. She became deeply involved in reading and writing and at the age of thirteen had a story published in the children’s section of the Sunday Express, a Johannesburg weekly newspaper. When she was fifteen years old her first adult story was published in Forum, a liberal South Africa magazine.

After she left school she spent a year at the University of the Witwatersrand where, after the narrow and confined middle class life of Springs, she was captivated by the cosmopolitan and bohemian life of Johannesburg. Her exposure to this life and in particular to the life of Sophiatown, one of Johannesburg’s black townships, was to affect her profoundly. It was her contact with Drum, a popular black-oriented magazine, and black writers, critics and artists that brought her, as she puts it, “out of whiteness into humanity.” This emotional and intellectual awakening was to provide the springboard for her literary involvement with the destiny of South Africa and its peoples.

Her work has been described as “history from the inside” with the characters and themes of her fiction reflecting the South African historical experience from the late 1940s to the present. Through her writing Nadine Gordimer reveals the prejudices and ideologies, the tensions and stresses of life in a racially divided society and the corrupting and corrosive effects of the apartheid system.

Nadine Gordimer’s first publications were collections of short stories—Face to Face (1949) and The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories (1952). They reveal her sensitive observations of a society divided by race into the privileged and the dispossessed. Her first novel, The Lying Days (1953), is her most autobiographical, depicting as it does the central character’s childhood in a small mining town and the opening up of her world in Johannesburg. The book also introduces a theme that is repeated in many of her later novels—the issue of either committing oneself to fighting for a new and just society by remaining in South Africa, or alternatively deciding to leave.

In 1949, Nadine Gordimer married Gerald Gavronsky. Their daughter was born the following year and they were divorced in 1952. Three years later she married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who was originally from Germany, and they had a son.

As the decades passed and South Africa moved through various “stages” of its history, so the novels of Nadine Gordimer mirrored those changes. The era of the 1950s was particularly captured in The World of Strangers (1958) while Occasion for Loving (1963) reflects the increasingly repressive environment and the failure of liberalism in the face of widespread arrests and total state control. In The Late Bourgeois World Gordimer explores the dangerous underworld of political activity and the failure of middle class liberal involvement in the underground struggle. Other issues germane to the complexity of the liberation struggle provide material for her work and even after the emergence of the new, democratic South Africa, the legacy of the past is still being examined.

Since the fall of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Gordimer has also become an advocate in her country’s fight against the spread of HIV and AIDS. In 2003 she rallied twenty Nobel Prize- and other award-winning writers, including Amos Oz, Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller, to collaborate on a short-story collection whose proceeds would support HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs in southern Africa. Telling Tales, which is being published in twelve countries, was launched at the United Nations on the eve of World AIDS Day, December 1, 2004.

Nadine Gordimer’s work provides a very sensitive and acute analysis of South African society. By depicting the impact of apartheid on the lives of her character, she presents a sweeping canvas of a society where all have been affected by institutionalized racial discrimination and oppression.

Gordimer died in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 13, 2014.

 

SELECTED WORKS BY NADINE GORDIMER

Face to Face: Short Stories. Johannesburg: 1949; The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories. New York: 1952; London 1953; The Lying Days: A Novel. London and New York: 1953; Six Feet of the Country. London and New York: 1956; A World of Strangers. London and New York: 1958; Friday’s Footprint and Other Stories. London and New York: 1960; Occasion for Loving. London and New York: 1963; Not for Publication and Other Stories. London and New York: 1965; The Late Bourgeois World. London and New York: 1966; A Guest of Honour. New York: 1970; London: 1971; Livingstone’s Companions. New York: 1971. London: 1972; African Literature: The Lectures Given on this Theme at the University of Cape Town’s Public Summer School, February, 1972. Cape Town: 1972; The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing. Johannesburg: 1973; The Conservationist. London: 1974; New York: 1975; Burger’s Daughter. London and New York: 1979; A Soldier’s Embrace: Stories. London and New York: 1980; What Happened to Burger’s Daughter, or How South African Censorship Works. Johannesburg: 1980; Town and Country Lovers. Los Angeles: 1980; July’s People. London, New York, Johannesburg: 1981; Something Out There. London, New York, Johannesburg: 1984. Abridged ed. London: 1994; A Sport of Nature. London, New York, Cape Town: 1987; The Essential Gesture; Writing, Politics and Places. Edited by S. Clingman. London, New York, Johannesburg: 1988; My Son’s Story. London, New York, Cape Town: 1990; Jump and Other Stories. London, New York, Cape Town: 1991; Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics. Ben Belitt Lectureship Series, n. 13. Bennington: 1991; None to Accompany Me. London, New York, Cape Town: 1994; Writing and Being. Cambridge, Mass., London: 1995; Harald, Claudia and Their Son Duncan. London: 1996. Enlarged as The House Gun. New York, London, Cape Town: 1998; Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century. Edited by L. Calder. London, New York: 1999; Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer. New York: 2004.

Bibliography

Braude, Claudia Bathesheba (ed). Contemporary Jewish Writing in South Africa. Lincoln and London: 2001; Driver, Dorothy, comp. Nadine Gordimer: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. London: 1994; Head, Dominic. Nadine Gordimer. Cambridge: 1994; Leveson, Marcia. People of the Book. Images of the Jew in South African English Fiction, 1880–1992. Johannesburg: 2001; Newman, Judie. Nadine Gordimer. London: 1988; Roberts, Ronald Suresh. “No Cold Kitchen:” A Biography of Nadine Gordimer. Johannesburg: 2005; Scanlon, Paul, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography: South African Writers. New York: 2000; Smith, Rowland, ed. Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer. Boston: 1990; Suttner, Immanuel, ed. Cutting Through the Mountain: Interviews with South African Jewish Activists. London: 1997; They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Cape Town: 1999.

How to cite this page

Pimstone, Miriam, and Milton Shain. "Nadine Gordimer." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 21, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gordimer-nadine>.

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