Magazine article The Spectator

Positively Kafkaesque

Magazine article The Spectator

Positively Kafkaesque

Article excerpt

Life and Times: Stories 1952-2007

by Nadine Gordimer

Bloomsbury, £30, pp 549,

ISBN 9780747592631

This is a companion to a collection published earlier this year of Nadine Gordimer's nonfiction, called Telling Times. Short stories are, of all her endeavours, the most successful. Their heyday was in the Seventies, when they perfectly realised the awful but fascinating contrasts of South African life.

As a boy I lived in Johannesburg just two streets away from Gordimer. She was a towering figure, known to be very close to the ANC. Her presence cast a certain penumbra over our modest house. She had run, it was said, certain missions for the ANC, although when I asked her about this a few years ago, she suggested that she had just helped leading figures like Albert Luthuli pass messages to others. It was extraordinarily difficult for black activists to move safely or convene under the constant threat of arrest. Whatever her protestations, the consequences would have been terrible if she had been caught. She has never been one to flinch.

Now, here's an oddity. A few years ago I wrote a short story for this magazine, which imagined the bitter letter Franz Kafka's father, Hermann, would have written in reply to the famous letter - Brief an den Vater- that his son wrote to him, but never posted. In it Kafka Jnr explains in effect how his father sucked all the life out of him.

To my astonishment Gordimer has a story, 'Letter from his Father', also imagining Hermann's answer to his neurasthenic son. Her letter is written from beyond the grave, but otherwise deals with much the same matter.

I wondered if I had, unconsciously, borrowed it from her, but I am sure I have never read it or seen the title. My own interest in Kafka's letter came about when I was writing an article on Peter Ginz, the boy novelist held in Terezin, not far from Prague, and exterminated in Auschwitz by the Nazis.

The Ginz family were from more or less the same milieu as the Kafkas. The only possible connection I can see is that anyone brought up in apartheid South Africa finds Kafka absolutely seminal. There is nothing more disturbing than a society in which rationality has been discontinued.

Because of the arrangement of this book it is easy to see the change over the years in Gordimer's writing style. She has developed a number of tics, of repetition and ellipsis. Take this sentence from a late story, when Gordimer imagines meeting her dead friends, including Edward Said whom she revered:

I don't know why it was a Chinese restaurant - ah, no, the choice is going to come clear later when a particular one of the guests arrives. …

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