Article written

  • on 15.07.2014
  • at 12:30 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Farewell Nadine Gordimer 0

South Africa – A day after Nadine Gordimer’s death, Daily Maverick’s J. Brooks Spector contemplates the complex interrelationship between the country’s politics and history and her astonishing literary career.

The voice on the telephone was in English but Scandinavian, slightly hesitant, ever so slightly apologetic and polite. The voice explained he was the deputy ambassador of the Swedish Embassy in Pretoria, and that he had a rather delicate matter to discuss with us in our capacity as an American diplomat. Uh oh.

The Swedish Academy had just informed him that they had decided to award Nadine Gordimer the Nobel Prize for Literature – but, before they announced it to the world, there was this small matter of speaking with her first, to make certain she would actually accept the prize. (There had been a couple of times when a recipient, like Boris Pasternak, had actually been forced to turn down a Nobel Prize, and they couldn’t have the embarrassment again.) The Academy had asked Swedish Embassy staff to speak with her first – just to make sure everything was okay.

The voice had tried to reach her at her home in Johannesburg, but she wasn’t in, and the person who had answered the phone had said that she was away – perhaps she was in America. Could this writer please help them out with this small problem?

There was the ever so slight tinge of the frantic in the voice on the phone.  In response, the answer was, ah, yes, well, she was in America; she wasstaying with her son, Hugo, in New York City; but his surname wasn’t Gordimer, of course. Pre-Internet, we chased down some New York City phone books in our embassy. Fortunately there was only one H Cassirer listed in the Manhattan directory. Bingo. We gave them the phone number, wished them good luck in reaching her, and reminded them to at least wait until it was sunrise on the East Coast of the US before calling to wake up everyone in that household. Then, ever so politely, asked in return: When the Swedes gave a great reception in her honour over this prize, we would also crack their guest list for the event. And that is the way Nadine Gordimer learned she had received South Africa’s first Nobel Prize for Literature, back in 1991.

When she finally received that honour, Sture Allen of the Swedish Academy had said of her, “She makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation. In this way, artistry and morality fuse.” In response, in her Nobel lecture, Gordimer could offer a political and literary credo in which she said, “This aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him. Then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.”

This reporter was fortunate to have first become acquainted with her, years before that, back in the 1970s. Her international literary and political impact was already well in the ascendant but she could move easily throughout the city without difficulty. Her novels and short stories were already being critically acclaimed and embraced by international readers even as the South African government had banned a number of her novels.

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By J. Brooks Spector – Daily Maverick

Photo credit: Index

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