Born in 1923, Gordimer grew up in a small mining town outside of Johannesburg with a Latvian father, an English mother, and a growing sense of unease that something was very, very wrong with society, an unease which she has been exploring ever since.
Chronicling her country’s turbulent 20th century with courageous honesty, Gordimer is rivalled only by JM Coetzee on the South African literary scene, while, on the world stage, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991. The Nobel Committee cited her work as being “of very great benefit to humanity”, recognition of both her achievements as a writer and her outspoken political commitment.
Joining the ANC at a time when it was still outlawed by South Africa’s apartheid government, Gordimer and her husband offered their home as a safe house for many black leaders and activists. Her contribution was such that, on Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, Gordimer was one of the first people he went to see. Recently, she has used her profile to protest Thabo Mbeki’s stance on the Aids crisis, though, as she is fond of saying, “the best way a writer can serve a revolution is by writing as well as they can”.
The fruit of this belief can be found in stories like Town and Country Lovers, one of several pieces here which tackle the subject of interracial relationships. The protagonist is a geologist who takes a local shop-girl as a lover and thus contravenes the Orwellian separation of blacks and whites known as the Immorality Act. The story exudes a documentary feel, which is at once a positive and a negative; it feels like a real event but it is difficult to connect with the characters, unable to challenge the grim and perverse inevitability of South Africa’s impossible logic.
A more lengthy treatment of this is found in Something Out There, a novella more than a short story, and a deep, intricate portrait of suburban life in a city divided along racial and economic lines. Beyond comfortable living rooms, some kind of wild animal is prowling the neighbourhood, a creature which is naturally a metaphor for the Europeans’ dread of the native Africans “back in the days before the newspapers started calling blacks ‘Mr’ and publishing the terrible things the communists taught them to say about the white man”.
This overarching racial dichotomy informs the architecture of almost all of the stories here. Six Feet of Country investigates the messy complexities of the South African land question, a topic which ought to have an historical resonance for an Irish readership, while The Ultimate Safari is a devastating critique of how the nation sells itself abroad, a tourist paradise which can never acknowledge the tented refugees displaced by the electric fences of Kruger Park.
While many of these are long stories, the selection nonetheless feels quite busy overall, and one of the difficulties with a volume like this is the variety of styles on display, from longer realist narratives of ordinary people to shorter, more experimental pieces (Gordimer is an avowed follower of James Joyce).
The thematic unity of the original collections is lacking here, and, at 550 pages, this is a selection you dip in and out of rather than read straight through. And therein lies the risk.
After all, Life Times is a heavy book in all senses of the term, one which wears its seriousness as a badge of honour. It is often difficult to enjoy reading it, the entertainment value of doing so subsumed beneath Gordimer’s considerable aesthetic socio-economic concerns, the kind of fiction which is too often praised automatically by critics and academics. At its best, Gordimer’s writing captures “the flash of the fireflies”, yes, but at its worst it can be staid and laboured. The trouble with Life Times is that, in a selection of this length, there are plenty examples of both extremes.
Indeed, shades of overwriting — curse of the literary fiction genre — can often hamper the reader’s enjoyment. There are passages in Life Times, like this from Friday’s Footprint, which feel like they will never reach the point:
“Rita Cunningham did not always see nothing when she turned to look at the water. Sometimes (what times? she struggled to get herself to name — oh, times; when she had slept badly, or when — things — were not right) she saw the boat coming across the flooded river. She looked at the wide, shimmering, sluggish water where the water lilies floated shining in the sun and she began to see, always at the same point, approaching the middle of the river from the other bank, the boat moving slowly under its heavy load …”
Padding like this is not helped by the eclectic use of brackets, dashes, and semi-colons which disrupt Gordimer’s writing more and more as the years progress. Combined with the hard-hitting subject matter, this makes Life Times a book which is all too easy to put down and not pick up again. Gordimer would perhaps have been better served by several shorter selections or by reissues of her original collections.
Yet the real gems here are the pieces from the 1970s and ‘80s, stories such as A Soldier’s Embrace and At the Rendezvous of Victory which fashion a unique pidgin history from the shared experience of blacks and whites alike. Gordimer’s ‘why can’t we all just get along’ philosophy may have left her open to accusations of simplistic white liberalism, but that doesn’t mean that she’s wrong.
Openly politically, and self consciously literary in the Booker/Nobel fashion, Life Times is certainly not a volume to lose oneself thoughtlessly in. It depicts the cold face of prejudice in a manner which cannot be ignored and offers dispatches from a society few Europeans will every truly understand. Most importantly it challenges both the establishment and the individual to confront the implicit darkness of human nature, the potential for hatred and abuse which lies within each one of us. Life Times is an achievement, surely, but one which is not for everybody.
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