A tribute to Nadine Gordimer

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Nadine Gordimer (Photo: Jannie Coetzer – LitNet)

"And then took up her way, breath scrolling out, a signature before her." The last sentence of Nadine Gordimer’s None to Accompany Me (1994), my favourite of all her novels, still takes my breath away. It is a "biting ebony-blue" winter night when Vera Stark, the narrative’s protagonist, steps into the garden of her new home. Everything is "stripped" outside, bare and clear.

The night Nadine Gordimer died I dreamt of wanting to visit my grandmother. I was walking up the staircase to her flat when I realised that I could no longer see her because she had been dead for several years. I woke up unsettled. The dream was so vivid that it scared me on the morning of the day when my husband André was to undergo surgery. It also made me think about all the precious people in my life.

André was coming out of anaesthetics in the late afternoon when my friend, the writer SA Partridge, sent a message to say that Gordimer had died. A stranger comforted me in the clinic’s reception when he saw me crying. He stopped reading his book to do so. I remember thinking beforehand how unusual it was to see someone else apart from me reading while they were waiting. Sadly, it doesn’t happen often.

Since the news has reached us, the world has taken on a "biting ebony-blue" sheen; it feels "stripped". A dear friend, a comrade, a literary giant, a national treasure, Grande Dame of Literature, Nobel Laureate, World Elder – the list of endearments and accolades is long – has left us, but her astounding, inspiring oeuvre is before us, a life-affirming signature on every page.

A signature is what defines you. At the end of None to Accompany Me Vera Stark has made a new life for herself, on her terms, assuming full responsibility for her actions, refusing any that is not her own.

When I first read None to Accompany Me in a course on contemporary South African literature at the University of Salzburg, it shook me to the core. Not because of its acute analysis of the socio-political climate in South Africa around the first democratic election, but because of an unequivocal personal decision Vera makes. When her husband tells her that he can’t live without her, she leaves him. Not being able to live without someone is not the same as gratitude for being able to share one’s life with that person. Not many comprehend the difference. It takes a lot of guts to be so brave, not to compromise on one’s principles. Those who take issue with Gordimer’s refusal officially to take up the feminist cause haven’t read her fiction. One doesn’t have to look further than Hillela in A Sport of Nature, Julie in The Pickup, or Vera to see where Gordimer’s sentiments concerning women, empowerment and equality lie.

In the late 1980s, JM Coetzee applied Anna Akhmatova’s phrase about the artist as "a visitor from the future" to Gordimer’s writing. Looking at South Africa today and remembering None to Accompany Me, one cannot help being reminded of Gordimer’s unique ability not only to chronicle the present but to understand the consequences of the choices we make. Her observations on the pivotal role the lack of personal and political responsibility will play in the evolution of the new democracy are in retrospect staggeringly accurate. She understood that nepotism and cronyism threatened the integrity of the ANC. What Gordimer showed through the lives of her characters and exemplified through her own actions is that blind loyalty is unacceptable. True loyalty lies in the right to criticise. And she never shied away from a cause she believed in, fighting injustice in every form throughout her life. Unwavering, she has been campaigning against the most recent threats of censorship until shortly before her death. Her own integrity and courage have shone a guiding light for decades.

Many will remember her as a political writer, but focusing on that aspect of her work deprives the reader of that other dimension that is far more crucial: the everyday, the deeply personal and intimate, those small moments in life when everything changes, not only under the pressure of the powers that be, but from within the human soul.

Nadine Gordimer changed my life. One of her short stories triggered my interest in South African literature. Her other short stories inspired me to write my own. She was an incisive essayist with the power to enrich our understanding of the world. I learned so much about literature, the human heart, South Africa and beyond through her writing. None to Accompany Me helped me figure out what kind of woman I wanted to be. I spent six intense years reading Gordimer’s work and its criticism for my doctoral thesis and I did not regret my choice of topic for a single day. I return to her work with eagerness and pleasure since then.

I was a green PhD student from a small English Department at an Austrian university when I dared to send her a letter, asking for an interview. I did not raise my expectations too high, but not long after my visit to the post office my father’s fax machine spit out a positive reply, setting the date. She was generous that way. And she was kind to me despite my inexperience and clumsiness when I arrived at her doorstep a decade ago with a faulty recorder and trembling hands. We spoke for an hour about her work and South Africa and she made me feel welcome.

Small of stature, her presence towered in every room. Always elegant, she was a beautiful woman, even in her eighties. That too I found truly inspiring. Before I left her home that first time she told me to read Wally Mongane Serote. I still do. His Revelations (2011) is one of my favourite novels. She would recommend other authors or artists on every subsequent occasion we met (the highly talented Thando Mgqolozana and Craig Higginson during our last interview in 2011). Always eager to bestow praise where it was due, throughout her career she had supported countless others on their artistic journeys.

Some readers find her work stylistically too experimental and inaccessible. The mark of every great writer is to push boundaries, to find their own voice, not to be afraid to make mistakes. To follow them on their path is not always easy, but in the case of such a master of rhythm and expression as Gordimer, the effort is nearly always rewarded with deeper appreciation of what she is trying to communicate. Hidden layers of meaning are revealed and add delight to our reading experience. Like the writer in her poignant short story "Loot" (Loot and Other Stories, 2003), she "knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination".

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