Nadine Gordimer (born 1923) was the Nobel Prize winning author of short stories and novels reflecting the disintegration of South African society. While her early works were in the tradition of liberal South African whites opposed to apartheid, her later works reflect a move toward more radical political and literary formulations.
Nadine Gordimer was born on November 20, 1923, in Springs, a mining town on the Eastern Witwatersrand, South Africa. Of Jewish heritage, her mother was from England and her father, from Russia. He worked in the gold mines, first as a mining engineer and later as secretary. Most of Nadine's life, apart from a brief period in Zambia in the middle 1960s, was spent in South Africa and the Witwatersrand, and it was here that she received her education, first as a day scholar at a convent and later as a student at the University of the Witwatersrand.
From the time her first short story, entitled "Come Again Tomorrow," was published in the Johannesburg magazine The Forum in November 1939, Gordimer became a prolific author of short stories and nearly a dozen novels. Firmly opposed to notions of racial segregation and apartheid, she wrote in an increasingly polarized and isolated society. This resulted in innovative attempts at developing the South African English novel beyond its conventional tradition of realist literary depiction by exploring the isolated consciousness and experience in what she perceived as a progressively disintegrating society.
In 1953 Gordimer wrote her first novel, The Lying Days, which depicts the adolescent awakening of a white South African girl, Helen Shaw. This was followed in 1958 by the more complex portrait of the Johannesburg world of the middle 1950s seen from the standpoint of a young English newspaperman, Toby Hood, called A World of Strangers. The novel is an important historical portrayal of the short-lived era of multi-racial parties and social contact before the government clampdown on opposition politics after the Sharpeville shooting in 1960 and the resulting banning of Black nationalist movements.
In the early 1960s Gordimer felt increasingly isolated as a white writer in South Africa, and this was especially reflected in The Late Bourgeois World in 1966 in which her central character, Elizabeth Van Den Sandt, sought to forge a new identity for herself after the suicide of her husband, who had been an unsuccessful political activist. The controlled use of time in this novel also indicated a search for an alternative to the conventional novel form as "the bourgeois world" that lay behind this novel tradition appeared to be coming apart.
A short period spent in Zambia with her husband formed the backdrop to her next novel, A Guest of Honour, which was distinctive in being set in a fictitious African country outside South Africa. Her central character, Jeremy Bray, was also a former British colonial official, and the novel embraced a wider set of themes involving the counterpoising of the dead and static society of post-imperial Britain with the vital landscape of Africa in the era after independence.
In The Conservationist (1974), however, Gordimer returned to more conventional South African themes, though the technical virtuosity of its writing led some critics to see this as the finest of her novels. Dealing with the estrangement of an industrialist turned part-time farmer, the novel focuses on the estrangement of South African whites from the African landscape and so takes up a theme that can be traced back to Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm.
By the 1970s Gordimer had moved out of the mainstream liberalism of most South African whites opposed to apartheid and had begun moving toward more radical political and literary formulations. The wide scope of her next novel, Burger's Daughter (1979), set in France and England as well as South Africa, reflected a desire to internationalize many of the political issues in South Africa, which were seen as less ones simply of "race" but also of "class" and class conflict. This central character is a jailed white South African communist whose name evokes the memory of Rosa Luxemburg. The novel was for a period banned in South Africa, as had been the case previously with Occasion for Loving (1965), banned for its depiction of a sexual relationship between white women and black men, and The Late Bourgeois World.
In July's People (1981) Gordimer departed from the question of anchoring the white identity in the South African past and confronted the question of the future as a white couple flee Johannesburg after a rocket attack and hide in the African bush where they become increasingly beholden to their former servant, July. As a penetrating study of the element of power that underpins Black-White relations in South Africa the novel links the private realm of the personal with the wider dimension of political institutions and structures.
A collection of her short stories, Something Out There, was published in 1984, another insightful novel of South Africa's people, A Sport of Nature was published in 1987 and Gordimer's look at post-apartheid South Africa, None to Accompany Me in 1994. Nadine Gordimer received the Alfred B. Nobel Prize for literature in 1991.
Further Reading on Nadine Gordimer
A bibliography of Nadine Gordimer's work up to 1964 was complied by Racilia Jillian Nell and can be obtained from the Department of Bibliography, Librarianship and Typography, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. For a study of Nadine Gordimer's work see Michael Wade, Nadine Gordimer (1978). Further discussion can be found in Kenneth Parker (editor), The South African Novel in English (1978); Stephen Gray, Southern African Literature: An Introduction (1979); and Landeg White and Tim Couzens (editors), Literature and Society in South Africa (1984). See also Richard Peck's, "Nadine Gordimer: A Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources 1938-1992," Research in African Literatures (March 1, 1995).