Obituary: Nadine Gordimer / Nobel laureate who chronicled apartheid

Nov. 20, 1923 - July 13, 2014

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Nadine Gordimer, the crusading Nobel laureate for literature who won fame as the finest chronicler of apartheid in South Africa, died Sunday in Johannesburg after a short illness, her family said. She was 90.

A prickly, astute writer who quoted Franz Kafka in calling literature “an ax to break up the frozen sea within us,” Ms. Gordimer condemned the racist system that for decades was imposed by a white minority on a black majority, saying it cauterized the human heart.

She supported the African National Congress’ liberation struggle, and when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Ms. Gordimer was among the first people he met. She later turned against the party, accusing it of corruption.

Her life’s theme was the exploration of how injustice, corruption and abuses of freedom echo in small, ordinary lives. Her 16 novels, including “A World of Strangers,” “The Conservationist” and “July’s People,” illuminated the effect of apartheid on people’s lives and decisions. Three of her books were banned under apartheid.

In 1991, Los Angeles Times correspondent Scott Kraft wrote of how “this unassuming, strong-willed white woman has used her manual Hermes typewriter to give the world some of the most perceptive and uncompromising works of fiction ever written about her homeland, South Africa.”

But after apartheid, some black critics derided her as a white liberal, belittling her role in helping the world understand what the barbaric apartheid system did to the human heart. In 1998, four years after the first free elections, “July’s People” was banned from study at schools by the ANC government of the country’s most populous state, Gauteng, which deemed the book “deeply racist, superior and patronizing.”

In her later years, she bitterly castigated the ANC government over a controversial secrecy bill, and wrote about its corruption and betrayal of its people.

Born Nov. 20, 1923, Ms. Gordimer was the child of Jewish immigrants. Her father had arrived as a threadbare teenager from Lithuania (he was relieved, Ms. Gordimer once said, that as a white in South Africa at least some people were lower than him on the social order), and her mother was a middle-class woman from Britain (who felt charitable concern for the plight of blacks “all in a Lady Bountiful context,” Ms. Gordimer later said).

Nadine Gordimer was raised in a mining town, Springs, and educated at a Catholic convent school and at the University of Witwatersrand. She began writing as a child and sent her first short story to a magazine at 15, passing herself off as an adult, not revealing her age. To her amazement, the magazine published it.

“Now that was an immense thrill, never mind the Nobel Prize,” she later said. “That was when I knew I would be a writer.”

But it was not until apartheid became law in 1948 that her writings achieved their full force. Her first novel, “The Lying Days,” was published in 1953. About 20 years later, in 1974, she won the Booker Prize for “The Conservationist,” considered by some to be her finest work.

When she won the Nobel Prize in 1991, the battle against apartheid was almost won. Mr. Mandela had been released from prison and negotiations on the deal that would secure democratic elections and majority rule were underway.

“Gordimer writes with intense immediacy about the extremely complicated personal and social relationships in her environment,” the Swedish academy that bestows the award wrote. “At the same time as she feels a political involvement, and takes action on that basis, she does not permit this to encroach on her writings. Nevertheless, her literary works, in giving profound insights into the historical process, help to shape this process.”

Though she conceded that it was “nice” to have recognition, she said at the time: “I never thought about the prize when I wrote. Writing is not a horse race.”

She once said she was “not nearly as brave as being a South African has turned out to require” and in another instance described the pain of sitting alone to write while friends from the liberation movement were arrested or had to flee apartheid’s assassins.

“You have to become involved with life, not only in personal relationships but for social causes. But at the same time, you have to stand apart to pursue your writing, to struggle with words to define the whole question of being and existence,” she told an interviewer after winning the Nobel.

An irony was that her books, extolled overseas particularly after the Nobel Prize win, were not widely read in South Africa, where educationists bemoan the lack of a reading culture. The impoverished, poorly educated black majority didn’t know her work, and some black intellectuals scorned it.

But she hoped her work would remain as a powerful legacy for future generations to discover.

Africa - South Africa - Southern Africa - Nelson Mandela - Jacob Zuma - South Africa government - Johannesburg - Nadine Gordimer - Robyn - Franz Kafka - Jane Austen


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