Stories Echoing a Long Career; Ten Stories from the South African Nobel Laureate

Article excerpt

Byline: Colin Walters, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Nadine Gordimer's novels and short stories have provided one of the more sustained and rich reading experiences over the past half a century since her first novel, "The Lying Days," came out in 1953. This short new book, "Loot, and Other Stories," might be read as a sampler of all that has gone before in the South African Nobel (1991) laureate's long string of works.

One of the shorter tales in the collection of 10 is called "Visiting George," and has the narrator and a conference colleague mingling with the London crowds and glimpsing George, an old comrade from the South African movement days. On impulse, they look in at George's apartment, but are told by the stranger there that he has been dead for several years. A parting reflection is very much in the mood of these stories:

"If I dreamt this, while walking, walking in the London streets, the subconscious of each and every other life, past and present brushing me in passing, what makes it real?

"Writing it down."

Miss Gordimer went to a convent school until she was 10, when a heart ailment resulted in her being tutored at home for the next several years. It was during this time that solitude and dissatisfaction with the company available led her to begin writing down her thoughts. A first short story, "Come Again Tomorrow," was published when she was 15.

In her 20s, the writer married and had children, a son and a daughter, coming away with the sensitivity toward family life and the domestic round that has always been one of her great strengths. Whatever else, politics, race and so on, may be at issue in a Gordimer novel or story, the personal gets woven in, lending intimacy to more socially wide ranging dramas.

Throughout these stories, the trait is on display, perhaps most affectingly in "The Generation Gap." Four siblings, responsible Virginia and Barbara, their somewhat detached brother Matthew living in Australia, and Jamie, the youngest and a bit of a ne-er-do-well, react individually and together to a family crisis. Their affectionate father, at age 67, has left their mother for a young violinist, a woman never married but with a child.

The shared trouble brings the siblings back to each other from their variously scattered lives, and they are resolved to correct the outrage that has occurred. Grief and anger color the two sisters' talk and actions Virginia and Barbara go to a concert to see the woman perform, they resent their father's presenting his relations with her as somehow normal.

Race hovers in the background of the other resentments; among the siblings Virginia had a love affair with an Indian boy when she was young, a matter about which her parents, for all their white liberal sympathies, could never be told when it came to one of their own daughters.

Miss Gordimer once said that she might never have got into writing about politics, had she not stayed in South Africa under the rule of apartheid.

As matters turned out, it is in her studies of subjects like inter-racial love and persecution, labor relations and the legacies of colonialism that her mature reputation was made. In recent years, it has been a matter of keen interest to see her dealing like Andre Brink, John Coetzee and other South African writers with apartheid's aftermath.

Several stories in these pages confront the changing situation in South Africa and farther afield. One view of the racial divide is given an updated face in the story, "Mission Statement," at 60 or so pages one of the longest here. Rebecca Blayne, 46 and divorced, is posted to an African nation "in transition," to work for an aid program with offices in New York and Geneva. Roberta has worked in other countries, though never before in Africa. All in all both she and Alan Ferguson, her chief, have spent enough time in former colonies to be no longer conscious of themselves as being white. …