Gordimer’s Standard Writing Themes

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By Karina
Magdalena Brink

SHORTLY before the political changeover in 1994, Gordimer told Karen Lazar: “I have a theory: that we all write only one book … it’s a kind of jigsaw that you’re putting together. If you look back at a writer’s work, you will see how it has returned in a different way to similar themes.”

In all her post-1994 novels – None to Accompany Me (1994), The House Gun (1998), The Pick-up (2001), and Get a Life (2005) –
Gordimer returns to many of her standard themes, such as belonging, search for identity, responsibility, the political and personal, etc. and puts her own “jigsaw” together. It is not done by way of repetition.

She returns to re-imagine the specific themes from fresh perspectives and with new psychological, historical or political insights, often verging – as I have pointed out – on the prophetic. She also expands these themes, as in a visual collage, to include new interests and to offer an understanding of the new South Africa: its diversity, its developments and its challenges.

It comes as no surprise that Gordimer’s post-apartheid novels centre on discussions concerning the new South African Constitution, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, migration, and Gordimer’s latest concern: environmentalism.

While reading Gordi-mer it becomes apparent how strongly the present historical events and developments feature in her post-apartheid writing. However, as Kader Asmal pointed out, “[t]hroughout [her…] fiction, politics remains merely a brash passenger in a delicate journey through human emotions.”

This is the aspect of Gordimer’s work I have been mostly drawn to as a reader. She sees art, especially literature, as a means of understanding humanity, as a means, in her own words of ‘making something coherent out of life’. This is precisely my personal reason for having studied literature.

For me, literature of any kind is a mirror of society. Admittedly, the reflection this mirror offers us is very often fractured, dimmed or distorted, but by studying it, ie by studying literature, we learn to decipher, interpret, and understand these literary fractures, shadows and distortions, and arrive at a fuller understanding of what it means to be human.

Gordimer’s writing, whether fictional or non-fictional, is difficult to read. Her use of the mirror’s reflection – to continue with the metaphor – is highly elaborate. She is just as much a writer as she is an intellectual, and it requires hard work to appreciate the full spectrum of her craft-woman-ship.

Yet, if one takes the trouble and allows her to take one on the literary journey she offers, one emerges not only a wiser but also a humbler human being – in the words of the Nobel Prize committee, Gordimer’s work has “been of […] great benefit to humanity”, and it is not only because of her writing’s political thrust, but rather primarily, because of its private, individual dimension.

Gordimer’s first novel to be published after apartheid, None to Accompany Me (1994), deals with the end of the so-called interregnum phase in South African history, the early 1990s: the return of exiles to the country, shifts in political power as well as in gender and race roles, new policies of land distribution, sexual liberty and, on a larger scale, ageing – not only of people but of systems, too. Here, as elsewhere in her fiction, Gordimer addresses all these issues in her usual trenchant fashion by focussing on the private lives of a handful of individuals to illustrate the broader implications.

The next novel, The House Gun (1998), discusses potential and real violence in South Africa, its influence and consequences on individual lives. At its centre is the debate about the death penalty, which was abolished in the New South Africa, and the freedom of choice concerning sexual identity (many characters in Gordimer’s post-apartheid fiction are homosexual).

The Pick-up (2001) takes up the question of migration and its influence on South Africa. It is a novel of belonging, of asking again the same questions that Gordimer had to face in her own life: what is “my country”, who are “my people”? Now, for Julie Summers, the protagonist of the novel, the question arises in post-apartheid South Africa and in an Arabic country to which she follows her husband and where she eventually decides to settle.

Gordimer’s post-apartheid fiction can be seen as a kaleidoscopic study of the new South African Constitution that is considered to be one of the most liberal and democratic constitutions of the world.

She picks up the pieces of the new society around her and with a magic turn of her pen rearranges them again and again into fiction. Gordimer “exemplifies a belief, now seemingly forgotten in a literary culture which has been under attack by the ubiquity of the sensational and the superficial, that a writer can be the mouthpiece of a time, a spokesperson for a crusade, and a tireless examiner of moral and psychological truth.”

In imaginative terms, she continues to do what she is best at: observing and trying to grasp the developments taking place in her country and the world. Influenced by globalisation and the freedom that the post-apartheid world order brought with it, in her recent writing Gordimer also turned to broader, more international topics, also setting her stories more prominently in Europe and other African countries.

The short story collection Loot (2003), especially the short stories “Visiting George”, “L, U, C, I, E.”, “History”, or “Allesverloren”; or the novella “Karma” included in Loot, but also The Pick-up and at times her last novel Get a Life, clearly exemplify this move.

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