Nobel laureate who wrote about injustices of apartheid

Nadine Gordimer: November 20th, 1923 - July 13th, 2014


Nadine Gordimer, who has died in Johannesburg aged 90, was a writer whose literary ambitions led her into the heart of apartheid and brought her a Nobel Prize.

As a young writer, Gordimer did not choose apartheid as her subject, she insisted, but she found it impossible to dig deeply into South African life without striking repression.

“I am not a political person by nature,” she said years later. “I don’t suppose if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”

Through Gordimer’s novels and stories, international readers learned the human effects of the “colour bar” and the punishing laws that systematically sealed off each avenue of contact between races.

Her books are rich with terror. In her stories the fear of the security forces pounding on the door in the middle of the night is real. Freedom is impossible; even the liberated political prisoner is immediately rearrested after experiencing the briefest illusion of returning to the world. Critics have described the whole of her work as constituting a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it.

Banned works She was the author of more than two dozen works of fiction, including novels and collections of short stories in addition to personal and political essays and literary criticism. Many were banned in her own country. Her first book of stories, Face to Face, appeared in 1949, and her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953. In 2010, she published Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008, a weighty volume of her collected nonfiction.

Gordimer was never detained or persecuted for her work, though there were always risks to writing openly about repression. One reason may have been her ability to give voice to perspectives far from her own, like those of colonial nationalists who had created and thrived on the system of institutionalised oppression that was named the “grand apartheid” when it became law.

Her ability to slip inside a life completely different took her beyond the borders of white and black to explore other cultures under the boot of apartheid. In the 1983 short story “A Chip of Glass Ruby”, she entered an Indian Muslim household, and in the novel My Son’s Story (1990), she wrote of a mixed-race character. She won the Booker Prize in 1974 for The Conservationist, which had a white male protagonist.

Nadine Gordimer was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Springs, a mining town in a vast, largely rural area now known as Gauteng. Her father, Isidore, was a watchmaker who had been driven by poverty to emigrate from Lithuania.

Withdrawn from school because of the perceived fragility of her health, she later thrived in what she called the “nursery bohemia” of university life, studying literature and deciding to pursue a writing life.

In 1949 she married a dentist, Gerald Gavron, and they had a daughter, Oriane. The marriage ended in divorce in 1952. Two years later she married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who had fled Nazi Germany and was a nephew of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Their son, Hugo, was born in 1955.

Gordimer said little about her personal life in interviews. Journalists commonly noted her impatience with certain personal questions, sometimes describing her response as disdainful and irritable. Flirtations She did mention flirtations on occasion. “My one preoccupation outside the world of ideas was men,” she once said, without providing details.

A controversial biography published in 2005 painted her as a hypocritical white liberal with a paternalistic attitude toward black South Africa. When the Nobel committee awarded her the literature prize in 1991, it took note of her political activism but observed that “she does not permit this to encroach on her writings”.

That sentiment was one she said she clung to throughout her career: “The tension between standing apart and being fully involved; that is what makes a writer,” she wrote.

Some of her most difficult moments came in the 1970s, when the black consciousness movement sought to exclude whites from the fight for majority rule. That period cut her off from many intellectuals and artists and saw her work criticised by many black Africans who contended that a white author could never authentically tell a story through the eyes of a black character.

During the exhilarating period when Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress party regained legal standing, Gordimer, who had been a secret member of the party, paid her dues in person and got a party card. It was then, after the release of the man who would be president within a few years, that she won the Nobel Prize.

“Mandela still doesn’t have a vote,” she noted at the time.

Gordimer went on writing after apartheid, though some critics thought she had lost her bearings. Politically, she eventually embraced other causes, among them the fight against the spread of the HIV virus and Aids in South Africa and a writers’ campaign against the country’s punishing secrecy law.

She is survived by her son and daughter.