November 5, 2010 5:45 pm

Life Times

Illustration of an African man watering plants behind a fence
 

Life Times: Stories 1952-2007, by Nadine Gordimer, Bloomsbury £30, 549 pages

Nadine Gordimer is 87. That familiar, elegant, oval face, which never looked young, is still – if the photograph on the jacket is at all recent – not that of an old woman. She seems timeless and, in the same way, her prose seems to have arrived fully fledged; the earliest stories in this collection that spans 50 years are as confident, as honed, as the last ones. There are 38 stories here, sifted from 10 of her collections, clumped according to collection but not dated. This is tiresome because, like so much of her work, they chart the political history of South Africa over the last century and, reading, you want to match them to events, to remind yourself what was going on.

All the familiar language of apartheid is here – passes, Group Areas, townships, Protectorates – but now sounding curiously archaic, embedded in the turbulent past that has prompted such a wealth of writing. There is an awful irony here: the worst of circumstances – South Africa, Northern Ireland, the trenches – serve up the most powerful literature.

That said, Gordimer does not always write of politics – far from it. There is a whole spectrum of experience here: many marriages, minutely inspected, the child’s eye view, rich people, poor people, black, coloured, Indian, white. She was always bold, herself the child of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, but, as a writer entering worlds that can only have been known to her by observation and empathetic imagination, apparently as comfortable describing the life of an African village as that of an Afrikaner housewife in her “lovely home”.

“Something Out There”, the story inhabited by this last character, is the longest, more a novella than a short story. A mysterious creature scares the residents of a prosperous Johannesburg suburb while, out in the bush, a group of young saboteurs are holed up in a rented farmhouse, awaiting their moment. The creature turns out to be nothing but a baboon, the saboteurs die, or disappear, but the combination of realism and invention makes for a compelling allegory.

There are some very short stories as well: one told entirely from the point of view of a tapeworm – a jeu d’esprit – and a grim parable in which Christ returns to earth to find the place ravaged, all life extinguished, the sea itself dead. Not all the stories are compelling, at least for me. I couldn’t be doing with one of the most recent, in which Gordimer recounts a “dreamed” meeting in a Chinese restaurant with three dead friends – Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Anthony Sampson – and gives us their conversation. It is meant, I am sure, as a tribute to lost and admired friends but it makes for the most uncomfortable reading. And there is the occasional story which fails entirely to hold the attention, and seems perhaps not to have held hers, as though perhaps sometimes she just wrote too much.

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Did she? These 38 stories are chosen out of many more. And then there are the 14 novels, and the other writings: substantial essays and commentaries. It would be surprising if there were consistency of achievement. What matters is that when she shines, she is very good indeed.

Her talent, for me, is an extraordinary capacity to summon up a time, a place, a people. I have never been to South Africa but I feel as though I have. Courtesy of Gordimer, I have a Johannesburg street scene in the mind’s eye, with that racial kaleidoscope. I have some inkling of the precarious, insidious, betraying complexities of defiant interracial socialising in the heyday of apartheid, from her account of the clumsy manoeuvring of a visiting liberal journalist at a party. A run-down, remote hotel is so exquisitely evoked in “Livingstone’s Companions” that you feel as though you know it well, from the slummocky girl receptionist to the “air of convalescence” that the place has after a raffish night of partying.

Her style has two distinguishing features above all else: close observation reflected in felicities of phrase (sunshine marbled with cigarette smoke, the snakeskin trail of bicycle wheels in sand) and the piling up of sentence upon sentence to reach a final telling line, the unexpected sting in the tail. And she has that essential gift of jumping straight in, grabbing the reader with the first line.

There is no question that at her best, Nadine Gordimer is a fine short story writer. This collection demonstrates her ease with the form, from short mood pieces to the few long narratives that, one feels, might well have become novels had she so wished. I dipped back into a few of the novels, and found myself caught up again and again, wanting to go on. July’s People, from 1981, a short novel with a scenario that crops up also in the stories – the country taken over by black insurgents, in which whites are on the run –has an intensity and drive that make it essential reading. Hers is a remarkable body of work.

Penelope Lively is the author of ‘Family Album’ (Penguin)

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