Family Plots

By Brenkman, John | Artforum International, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Family Plots


Brenkman, John, Artforum International


Talking with Nadine Gordimer

BF: In your new novel, The House Gun, Duncan discovers his lover Natalie having sex with his ex-lover Carl Jesperson. The next day he murders Carl, but it's not a crime of passion, certainly not a fit of jealousy. What led you to this character and this act?

Is there a difference between jealousy and a sense of betrayal? I think there is. It's a combination - it's a profoundly sexual betrayal, it's an emotional betrayal - because he was really committed to the other man. But obviously he didn't understand that this was just one in a series of passing relationships to him. I think the shocking thing for Duncan, and for me and for anyone who reads it, is the nature of this betrayal. The mystery is: did these two - the couple [Natalie and Carl] - have, even in the back of their minds, some kind of revenge on Duncan?

BF: It's the unanswered question. Did they know they would be found?

Yes, but there's the suggestion, isn't there, from the lawyer, that the way it was done they wanted to be found, because that would be the point.

BF: You provide a glimpse of the gay world through the household Duncan, Carl, and the others share, yet that world seems very central to the situation of the crime. I'm thinking of how much hinges on Carl's callousness and offhandedness.

Yes, but I hope that won't be taken as characteristic of somebody who is gay. You've got, on the other hand, the black man, Khulu, who becomes a real prop, and somebody that Harald and Claudia depend on.

BF: And who seems to see more than anybody else does.

I think that whether you're straight or whether you're gay doesn't mean to say that you're an angel in every other way - any more than if you're black or white it means that everybody black is an angel and everybody white is a devil or vice versa.

BF: Do you associate Carl's callousness with his promiscuity?

I suppose I do, because in this context I associate the promiscuity with a lack of commitment and care - you can call it love if you like.

BF: The moment of the crime is a kind of blackout - the thing that cannot be narrated as "I did this" or, from the parents' point of view, "he did this."

And of course the sense that, because he was their child, produced from them, it was their act.

BF: In many of your novels there is a poignant focus on how parents, through love and anxiety, look at and try to comprehend their children.

I think that's because, you know, first of all you are a child yourself, and suffer from your parents, and then you become a parent, and this starts to turn around. It's a mysterious relationship. It's also that one realizes - from a personal point of view when you have children - that as they grow up, even as they turn to almost middle-age, you never lose the sense of responsibility for them.

BF: Duncan and his parents, Harold and Claudia, are a family that had escaped the conflicts of the apartheid era.

They're what I would call a totally inadequate, nice liberal family who didn't face up to what apartheid meant. It took this tragedy in their lives to make them realize, at least Harald realizes, how inadequate he and Claudia have been in the situation in which they live.

BF: And Duncan has had very little direct experience with violence.

Yes, he's been sort of sheltered, hasn't he? There is only that one incident in his childhood - when the boy hangs himself.

BF: An episode that also happens in A Sport of Nature, where there's a schoolchild who hangs herself.

It shows that it's something that haunted me. But it might interest you, since you brought it up - you know, writers, we're very wary about confessing things. I'm not a writer who draws on my own life, except my perceptions of what goes on around me and inside myself, but one thing that is based on a real fact is indeed the fact of a schoolboy hanging himself. …

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