- Rereading Nadine Gordimer
Kathrin Wagner’s study of Nadine Gordimer is avowedly revisionary, setting out to examine the survival in her novels of cultural and ethnic stereotypes of a conservative, Eurocentric or settler nature, stereotypes which conflict with the intended ideological message, and therefore qualify Gordimer’s engagement (or engagément in Wagner’s spelling). Some 250 pages later she concludes that Gordimer encodes at subtextual level the mental perspectives and mindsets which underlie the prejudices which she overtly rejects. Along the way Gordimer is convicted of anti-feminism, Liberalism, idealization of blacks, ignoring class realities, emotional coldness and various forms of thoughtcrime.
Even allowing for the current fashion of writing books about [End Page 383] writers of whom one (rigorously and critically, of course) disapproves, the persistent carping and nit-picking make for depressing reading. Stephen Clingman (The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History From the Inside, 1992) has already made a powerful and subtle case for Gordimer’s work as marked by her specific historical situation. Wagner’s “history from the inside” however is not so much the response to great men or movements but the product of D. H. Fischer’s “furtive fallacy”: submerged guilts, fears and repressions. As a result it fails on several counts. Where Wagner argues for a suppressed subtext which Gordimer has “internalised and expressed,” others might well substitute “externalised and satirised.”
That Gordimer might actually know what she is doing is suggested by the conscious marking of intertexts in the fiction by the use of precise citation, or unmistakably overt reference (that is, the subtext in The Conservationist signaled by quotations from Callaway). Wagner describes My Son’s Story as displaying insistent references to the great icons of Western culture (that is, Shakespeare) as if that were sufficient to convict of Eurocentrism. Julius Nyerere’s Mabepari wa Venisi (The Capitalists of Venice), is enough to demonstrate the reverse. Wagner also concentrates entirely on novels in part because (in her view) the greater complexity of the form allows contradictions and gaps to emerge more clearly than in the more “controlled” form of the short story. In the first place the argument that Gordimer’s Freudian slip is more likely to be showing in the novels is dubious (repression is repression is repression.) And secondly the stories offer counterevidence to Wagner’s argument. To take one example: “Something Out There” (a novella, and therefore arguably also within Wagner’s purview) takes the “naked ape” stereotype as its subject matter and demolishes it with careful reference to racist ethology, archaeology and anthropology. Wagner argues that political action in Gordimer’s work is always tentative or potential; in “Something Out There” four saboteurs blow up a power station. For Wagner, Gordimer romanticizes the African connection to the land in terms of pastoral nostalgia; “Something Out There” closes with a depiction of pre-settler African mine-workings, deliberately evoking a complex industrial history. To take another example, Wagner emphasizes Gordimer’s representation of the townships as places of teeming human warmth, vitality and affection; in “A City of the Dead, A City of the Living” township noise [End Page 384] and overcrowding culminate in betrayal. (The point may be valid vís a vís A World of Strangers but as Wagner’s study is not chronological the distinction is lost.) Similarly, Wagner argues that the oppression of servants is elided in the novels-but even a cursory glance at the short stories disproves the point. (Did Wagner expect Gordimer to keep repeating herself?)
Even within the limits of a novel-only study Wagner’s arguments lack specificity. There is little sense of the structure of individual works or of narrative voice. The reader is told that “the emphasis” on Rosa Burger as looking about fourteen characterizes her as a victim. But who sees her as fourteen? The novel plays with very different narrative voices-including that of official surveillance. Wagner tends to ignore the invisible citation-marks of voice. The absence of comparative material is also...