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Nadine Gordimer

November 20, 1923–July 13, 2014

by Milton Shain and Miriam Pimstone, updated by Karen Lazar

Nadine Gordimer in 2010, courtesy of Bengt Oberger via Wikimedia Commons.

In Brief

When Nadine Gordimer’s depictions of apartheid earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature, she used her fame to fund HIV prevention and treatment in her native South Africa. Gordimer published her first short story in the Johannesburg Sunday Express at age thirteen. When studying at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1945, she began exploring the black townships around Johannesburg, which led her to both black literature and the fight for equality. She became active in the African National Congress and wrote about apartheid’s impacts in her fiction, beginning with her first short story collection Face to Face (1949). Gordimer dedicated the later years of her life to the AIDS crisis, creating an anthology, Telling Tales, to raise money for prevention and treatment programs.

Literary Legacy

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 treason. When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, she became a card-carrying member.

Gorimer’s first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. She subsequently published fourteen more novels, many short stories, and works of non-fiction. Her work has been translated into 31 languages and she received honorary doctorates from fifteen academic institutions and was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Apart from the Nobel Prize, she was the recipient of prestigious literary awards in South Africa, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, and the United States. 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 was a frequent contributor to prestigious publications such as the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker and has been the subject of leading studies by literary scholars.

Early Life, Family, and Jewish Identity

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 watchmaking; when he arrived in South Africa, he at first made his living traveling to the different gold mines fixing watches and later opened a jewelry shop. Nadine Gordimer’s mother, Nan Myers, was born in England to an established Anglo-Jewish family and came 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 identified herself as being Jewish through birth—“a Jew forever”— but had no religious belief. For her, being a Jew was like being black—“It’s something inside you, in your blood and in your bones” (Haaretz November 14, 2005). Neither was she a Zionist, but she 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 maintained that a social conscience does not come from being part of a persecuted group.

Childhood and Education

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 African magazine.

After Gordimer 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, affected her profoundly. Her contact with Drum, a popular black-oriented magazine, and black writers, critics, and artists brought her, as she puts it, “out of whiteness into humanity.” This emotional and intellectual awakening provided the springboard for her literary involvement with the destiny of South Africa and its peoples.

Literary Career and Family Life

Gordimer’s work has been described as “history from the inside” (Clingman, 1986), with the characters and themes of her fiction reflecting the South African historical experience from the late 1940s to the 2000s. Through her writing she revealed 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 revealed her sensitive observations of a society divided by race into the privileged and the dispossessed. Her first novel, The Lying Days (1953), was 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 was 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 Oriane 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, Hugo.

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 closely captured in The World of Strangers (1958), while Occasion for Loving (1963) reflects the increasingly repressive environment and the limits of liberalism in the face of widespread arrests and total state control. In The Late Bourgeois World (1966), Gordimer explored the dangerous underworld of political activity and the failure of middle-class liberal involvement in the underground struggle. The complexities and pull of the liberation struggle and the Black Consciousness Movement, as well as the place of white Africans on a decolonizing continent, provided material for her work in the 1970s and 1980s, and even after the toppling of apartheid and the emergence of the new, democratic South Africa in 1994. the legacy of the past was still palpable in her work.

Attitudes to Gender and Feminism

In 1981, Gordimer stated: “I am not a feminist, except insofar as I carry, still, the tattered banner of full human rights for all human beings” (Rand Daily Mail, May 14, 1981). In 1984, she described feminism as “piffling” in the face of the larger struggles of national liberation, a not unfamiliar hierarchization of priorities in South African politics, then and now.

And yet, this disavowal (which in any case she later revised) is not borne out in any simple form in Gordimer’s fiction. Her memorable female characters, including Rosa, Maureen, and Hillella (from Burger’s Daughter, July’s People, and A Sport of Nature, respectively), trace, over the course of decades, the author’s interest in constructing strong, intelligent, autonomous female protagonists, whose depictions display her endlessly varied grasp of power: between individuals, between men and women, between communities, between epochs. Some of her less likeable women’s liberal sentiments and white privilege compound the historical complicities and complexities of their embodied positions. Gordimer herself was never unaware of her own complex position as a white African, nor of the tenacity of Black and White patriarchy, nor of the reciprocal politicization of sex and sexualization of politics in South Africa and further afield. Gordimer commented: “In South Africa, even the most private moments are penetrated by the effect of politics” (The Listener, 1985). She deemed fiction, long or short, an apt container for both this privacy and its permeation by politics. Gender and sexuality could not but be sites of contestation within this dialectic.

Activism and Advocacy

During the struggle years in South Africa, Gordimer was an activist against literary and other censorship as well as a leading member of COSAW (the Congress of South African Writers), which strove to develop young Black writers and to promote alternative cultural expression. After the fall of apartheid and South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, Gordimer also became an advocate in her country’s fight against the pandemic 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 was published in twelve countries, was launched at the United Nations on the eve of World AIDS Day, December 1, 2004.

Impact of Gordimer’s Work and Common Themes

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 characters, she presents a sweeping canvas of a society where all are affected by institutionalized racial discrimination and oppression.

Readers encounter the relationship between politics and writing in her work. Contemporary literary critic, professor, and scholar of South African literature Stephen Clingman’s key framework (1986), via Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs, understood Gordimer’s novels as “history from the inside,” as texts that mirror and construct the changing tides of South African history by typifying South Africa through a lens both bigger and smaller than its subject.

Gordimer establishes a subtle but robust connection between aesthetics and ethics, through her long career.

Yet the proliferation of critical work on the relationship between politics and writing in Gordimer’s oeuvre sometimes comes up against another seeming disavowal. In a 1985 conversation with Susan Sontag, Gordimer said, “I don’t choose apartheid as a subject. I don’t go out and look for it. I write from what I know and see and feel, and from what I absorb from the life around me. It seeks me out, I don’t seek it” (The Listener, 1985).

Gordimer balances this seeming inevitability with a dialectic between “service” and “the word.” Again the phrase “insofar,” as above in relation to feminism, qualifies this point in her 1992 Nobel speech “Writing and Being”: “The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word.” Further, she supports Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombian novelist and winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature) in the conviction that “the best way a writer can serve the revolution is to write well.”  However immanent politics is in her fiction, in the final instance, Gordimer’s first commitment, in her own mind, was to her craft: “I think my purpose in life has never changed, it has been set simply on trying to write well, on trying to become a writer. But at the same time I am also a human being. Writing is what I can do and I have put everything into it, whereas the things outside the writing, well, there are calculations there, those things are not done unreservedly” (Nobel Speech, 1991).

Many readers prefer the more disciplined, elegant craft of Gordimer’s short stories to the more epic, often convoluted style of her novels. Either way, none can deny her “unreserved” commitment, both to social justice and to the power of global literature to reach minds, if not to change them.

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

Selected Works by Nadine Gordimer

Face to Face: Short Stories. Johannesburg: Silver Leaf Books, 1949.

The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952. London: Gollancz, 1953.

The Lying Days: A Novel. London: Gollancz, 1953, and New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953.

Six Feet of the Country. London and New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

A World of Strangers. London and New York: Gollancz, 1958.

Friday’s Footprint and Other Stories. London and New York: Gollancz, 1960.

Occasion for Loving. London and New York: 1963.

Not for Publication and Other Stories. London and New York: Gollancz, 1965.

The Late Bourgeois World. London and New York: Gollancz, 1966.

A Guest of Honour. New York: Viking Press, 1970. London: Jonathan Cape, 1971.

Livingstone’s Companions. New York: Viking, 1971. London: Jonathan Cape, 1972.

African Literature: The Lectures Given on this Theme at the University of Cape Town’s Public Summer School, February, 1972. Cape Town: Board of Extra-Mural Studies, University of Cape Town 1972.

The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing. Johannesburg: Spro-Cas/Ravan, 1973.

The Conservationist. London: Jonathan Cape, 1974. New York: Viking, 1975.

Burger’s Daughter. London and New York: Jonathan Cape, 1979.

A Soldier’s Embrace: Stories. London and New York: Viking, 1980.

What Happened to Burger’s Daughter, or How South African Censorship Works. Johannesburg: Taurus, 1980.

Town and Country Lovers. Los Angeles: Sylvester & Orphanos, 1980.

Rand Daily Mail May 14, 1981.

 July’s People. London, New York, Johannesburg: Viking, 1981.

Something Out There. London, New York, Johannesburg: Viking, 1984.

“Even the most private aspects of life are penetrated by politics: Nadine Gordimer in conversation with Susan Sontag.” The Listener May 23, 1985.

A Sport of Nature. London, New York, Cape Town: Alfred A. Knopf, 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: Knopf, 1990.

“Mike Nicol/Nadine Gordimer,” with Michael Nicol. South African Literary Review Vol. 1, No. 2 (1991).

Jump and Other Stories. London, New York, Cape Town: Bloomsbury Publishers, 1991.

Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics. Ben Belitt Lectureship Series, n. 13. Bennington: 1991.

“Nobel Lecture: Writing and Being,” reprinted in Staffrider 10.2:5-10, 1992.

None to Accompany Me. London, New York, Cape Town: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994.

Writing and Being. Cambridge, Mass., London: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Harald, Claudia and Their Son Duncan. London: Bloomsbury Publishers, 1996. Enlarged as The House Gun. New York, London, Cape Town: Bloomsbury 1998.

Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century. Edited by L. Calder. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 1999.

Telling Tales, edited by Nadine Gordimer. New York: Picador, 2004.

Bibliography

Braude, Claudia Bathesheba (ed). Contemporary Jewish Writing in South Africa. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

Clingman, S. History from the Inside: The Novels of Nadine Gordimer. London: Ullen and Unwin, 1986.

Driver, Dorothy, comp. Nadine Gordimer: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources. London: Zell, 1994.

Gramsci, A. The Prison Notebooks edited and translated by Q. Hoare and G. Nowell Smith.  New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Head, Dominic. Nadine Gordimer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  1994.

Lazar, Karen. “Feminism as Piffling: Ambiguities in Nadine Gordimer’s short fiction.” Current Writing Vol. 2, no. 1 (1990).

Leveson, Marcia. People of the Book. Images of the Jew in South African English Fiction, 1880–1992. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2001.

Newman, Judie. Nadine Gordimer. London: Routledge, 1988.

Roberts, Ronald Suresh. “No Cold Kitchen:” A Biography of Nadine Gordimer. Johannesburg: STE Publishers, 2005.

Scanlon, Paul, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography: South African Writers. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 2000.

Smith, Rowland, ed. Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1990.

Suttner, Immanuel, ed. Cutting Through the Mountain: Interviews with South African Jewish Activists. London: Viking, 1997.

They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 1999.

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How to cite this page

Shain, Milton and Miriam Pimstone and Karen Lazar. "Nadine Gordimer." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 13, 2022) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/gordimer-nadine>.