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  • The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside
  • Timothy Brennan
Stephen Clingman. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside. London: Allen, 1986. 279 pp. $29.95.

If you have not read Gordimer's novels and do not know South African history, this volume is an excellent place to start. Clingman has unloaded great mountains of facts and systematically traced out their incorporation into Gordimer's novels. Her own political evolution from liberal humanism, to despair, to intransigent antiapartheid opposition is sketched out fully, and in such detail that the march of South African events actually dwarfs her. That particular disproportion is, however, welcome, because it places the emphasis where it belongs: on that ugliest of all colonial settler states in Africa.

A native South African with formal training in the teaching of history, Clingman recreates well the stages of sympathy, interaction, and collective organizational work that took place among white and black intellectuals in the generations following World War Two. Set against the evolving policies of the Boer regime as it progressively fine-tuned its apartheid strategy in a series of legal decrees in the 1950s, the trajectory of Gordimer and her contemporaries is mapped out diligently. We learn of the Bantu Education Act, the rise of the pass law system, and the various popular responses to these measures: the Defiance campaign of 1952-1953, Nelson Mandela's Umkhonto we Sizwe ("The Spear of the Nation"), and the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s, which culminated in the Soweto uprisings of 1976. In a general sense we get an idea of how these historical "moments" shaped the mentality of Gordimer and how, for example, at one stage, the black intellectuals working on Drum magazine and The Golden City Post in the 1950s (Lewis Nkosi, Ezekial Mphahlele, Nat Nakasa, and others) formed a common front that was to flower later in the multiracial opposition of the Congress Alliance—the spiritual and political homeland of Gordimer's fiction.

But the book has a very serious problem, and it is that Clingman's attempts [End Page 756] to theorize "history" are breathtakingly banal. Extremely useful as an overview of Gordimer's South Africa, and perfect for locating the events and debates that Gordimer had in mind when writing her novels, the book is not able to find a rhetoric that captures the creative tensions between fiction and history. In general, ideas sit on the page waiting for their moment to be linked to the string of events mentioned earlier in the book. Ideas are incorporated without necessarily resulting from the structuring of the information. The reader is always asking him/herself "as opposed to what?" Thus, for example, Gordimer is singled out for being uniquely appropriate to a study such as this because "her novels maintain an extraordinarily close observation of the world in which she lives." As opposed to what? Isn't that what novels do? Or that Lucien Goldman's study of the Jansenist worldview in The Hidden God perfectly matches the concerns of Gordimer because of her work's "'tragic' vision and the prominence within it of paradox." Or, finally, the point that "there is between the novel and the historical world to which it responds a fairly direct transitional and transformational medium—none other than the social history of the author herself, and the implicit social history of her text."

There is a kind of triumphal air about these observations that are presented as analytic "discoveries" and are presented this way over and over again. It's very odd—almost as if the historian were meeting the literary critic for the first time and had made the blunder of saying that tragedy, paradox, and the fictional presence of the author's social history were the distinguishing features of this author, when they are almost as common as the use of words. The line of argument against Clingman's work should not be that it naively assumes a break between "real" history and "invented" fiction—the kind of attack developed perhaps in the writing of Lyotard, Hillis Miller, or Paul de Man—but that the thousands of theorizations of "history" as a construct within fiction...


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