Obituary: Nadine Gordimer 1923-2014
15th Jul 2014
Nadine Gordimer was born on 20 November 1923, in Springs, 45 miles southeast of Pretoria. Her father was a Lithuanian refugee, her mother was a Londoner, and Gordimer’s passion for civil rights came from her mother, who started a creche for black families in response to the ingrained poverty and discrimination she witnessed every day.
Gordimer was officially educated at a Catholic convent school, but was in fact largely home-bound because her mother erroneously believed young Nadine had a weak heart. Her time was hardly wasted: she had her first story published when she was 15, and her first full collection only seven years later.
In 1953 she published the first of what would become 15 novels: The Lying Days is a bleak first-person account of the life of Helen, a middle-class white girl from Johannesburg, and sets the tone for much of Gordimer’s output: an activist for her entire adult life, Gordimer is one of the 20th century’s most important political novelists.
Unlike many fellow white anti-Apartheid South Africans who showed their disgust by emigrating, Gordimer and her beloved husband Reinhold stayed to work towards equality from within the system.
She was an outspoken member of the ANC, and her politics put her in activism’s inner circle. She was close to Nelson Mandela’s defence lawyers, and was one of the first people Mandela wanted to see when he was released.
Talking about her Nobel win, she said that the Prize’s global nature made it ‘a very, very good thing’. The ugly truths in her fiction led to several of her books being banned, including a book of poetry by black writers and Burger’s Daughter (1979), the story of a girl whose parents are caught up in the liberation struggle. The idea for Burger’s Daughter came to her when she was visiting her activist friend Bettie du Toit in jail.
Interestingly, one of the causes she did not embrace was feminism: she refused her Orange Prize nomination because the award excluded men.
In the 1990s, the apartheid struggle at least nominally over, Gordimer established herself as a fervent HIV/AIDS campaigner, and secured the services of 20 writers for Telling Tales (2004), a book of stories that raised money for education and treatment. She was outspoken about the problem of HIV education in South Africa, stating that Jacob Zuma’s AIDS policies were her only problem with his presidency.
Gordimer expressed her love of her country and her problems with its politics through a body of fiction that, despite recurring themes of love and society, moved with its times and always had something new to say.
Her beautiful use of language and the importance of her stories won her the Booker Prize for 1974’s The Conservationist, and in 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Talking about her Nobel win, she said that the Prize’s global nature made it ‘a very, very good thing’, though she disputed whether it gained many authors a wider readership after the next book.
Her last novel was No Time Like the Present, a story of apartheid survivors, published in 2012 when she was 88. Hers was an indefatigable and uniquely special voice within the global struggle for liberties; we should be grateful that we have seven decades worth of it to read.
Nadine Gordimer, 20 Nov 1923 – 13 July 2014
Recommended for starters:
The New Yorker archive of Gordimer’s short fiction