Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Novelist, Is Dead

By Verongos, Helen T | International New York Times, July 15, 2014 | Go to article overview

Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Novelist, Is Dead


Verongos, Helen T, International New York Times


She found her themes in the injustices and cruelties of South Africa's policies of racial division, and she left no quarter of the society unexplored.

CORRECTION APPENDED

Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer whose literary ambitions led her into the heart of apartheid to create a body of fiction that brought her a Nobel Prize in 1991, died on Monday in Johannesburg. She was 90. Her family announced her death in a statement.

Ms. Gordimer did not originally choose apartheid as her subject as a young writer, she said, but she found it impossible to dig deeply into South African life without striking repression. And once the Afrikaner nationalists came to power in 1948, the scaffolds of the apartheid system began to rise around her and could not be ignored.

"I am not a political person by nature," Ms. Gordimer said years later. "I don't suppose if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all."

But whether by accident of geography or literary searching, she found her themes in the injustices and cruelties of her country's policies of racial division, and she left no quarter of South African society unexplored -- from a hot, crowded cinder-block neighborhood in a black township to the white colonial world of sundowner cocktails, poolside barbecues and hunting parties.

Critics have described the whole of her work as constituting a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it.

When the Nobel committee awarded Ms. Gordimer the literature prize, it took note of her political activism but observed, "She does not permit this to encroach on her writings."

About her own life Ms. Gordimer told little, preferring to explore the intricacies of the mind and heart in those of her protagonists. "It is the significance of detail wherein the truth lies," she once said.

Nadine Gordimer was born to Jewish immigrant parents on Nov. 20, 1923, in Springs, a mining town in the Transvaal, the vast, largely rural area in the northeast settled by Afrikaner farmers. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, a watchmaker who had been driven by poverty to emigrate from Lithuania, eventually established his own jewelry store. Her mother, the former Nan Myers, had come with her family from Britain and never stopped thinking of it as home.

"I suspect she was sometimes in love with other men," Ms. Gordimer said in an interview in 1983 with The Paris Review, "but my mother would never have dreamt of having an affair." Instead she poured her energy, sometimes to a smothering degree, into raising Nadine and her older sister, Betty.

Scholars and critics have found threads from Ms. Gordimer's childhood running through her fiction. John Cooke, in his book "The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes," saw "the liberation of children from unusually possessive mothers" as a central theme in Ms. Gordimer's work. In novel after novel, he wrote, "daughters learn that truly leaving 'the mother's house' requires leaving 'the house of the white race."'

In 1949 Ms. Gordimer married a dentist, Gerald Gavron, and they had a daughter, Oriane. The marriage ended in divorce in 1952. Two years later she married Reinhold H. Cassirer, an art dealer who had fled Nazi Germany and was a nephew of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Their son, Hugo, was born in 1955. Reinhold Cassirer died in 2001. Her son and her daughter survive her.

Ms. Gordimer was the author of more than two dozen works of fiction, including novels and collections of short stories in addition to personal and political essays and literary criticism. Her first book of stories, "Face to Face," appeared in 1949, and her first novel, "The Lying Days," in 1953. …

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