Almost 70 years after her first publication, Nadine Gordimer is still breaking new ground as a writer — and a reader. John Freeman meets the Nobel laureate
Nadine Gordimer has been doing some re-reading lately. Since last November, when the 83-year-old Nobel laureate first convened with Colm T`F3ib`EDn and Elaine Showalter, her fellow judges on the second Man Booker International Prize committee, she has read through a small library of work by the 15 finalists, from Don DeLillo and Doris Lessing to Carlos Fuentes and Alice Munro. The winner will be announced this month. "I made a plan to read, say, the first two books by each author, one a bit further on, and then the book I thought was the work," says Gordimer of her judging strategy. "Then I'd catch up to the modern day. So I could see a progression." It was a labour of love, she says, but it led to a minor discovery.
"In two cases, the book I thought was the book turned out to be even more extraordinary than I remembered, because I had changed," says Gordimer, sitting in a hotel suite in New York, where she has travelled from South Africa for the PEN World Voices Festival. "I had lived more," she continues, "I had experienced more. And there were things in those books that I understood now, that I didn't then. If you read a book at your age now, read it again in 20 years, and you'll get something else."
At Gordimer's age, if they are lucky to have lived so long, many writers have stopped writing, or at least reassessing older books. But, stubbornly, Gordimer has refused to stop evolving. Born in 1923 in Springs, Transvaal, she read her way into political awareness. Not much later, she wrote her way into anti-racist activism, winning the Booker Prize for her 1974 novel, The Conservationist. When apartheid fell apart, it was speculated that her work would lose a certain vitality. Yet since 1994, the year South Africa had its first free elections, she has published eight books, adapting her focus, again, as the country's problems shifted to the Aids epidemic, poverty and crime.
Sitting on a sofa in her hotel suite, dressed in elegant shades of cream and grey, her hair expertly coiffed, she hardly presents the portrait of such a flexible artist. She has perfect posture and a sharp ear. To hear her speak is to experience a powerful generational dissonance: the clipped diction and perfect sentence structure have become a thing of the past, but her concerns — guns, the Virginia Tech shooting, the war in Iraq, South Africa's creaking move forward — could be ripped right out of the headlines.
"Graham Greene said, 'Wherever you live, whatever the form of violence is there, it becomes simply part of your life and the way you live'," says Gordimer. And so it has been with her and the gun. She was spooked to discover resonances between the Virginia Tech shooting and her 1998 novel The House Gun, in which a young man is driven to a crime of passion. What she omits is that in other fiction - Get a Life, in 2005 - she predicted something else. Last autumn, she was attacked in her home by three unarmed intruders, who robbed her of cash. "These men should have something better to do than to rob two old ladies," she said at the time.
Gordimer seems to take this event in her stride, refusing to allow it to spoil her notion of her country. "I think we were a little surprised by how much would have to happen after the change," she says of life after apartheid. "We had the apartheid walls coming down, and we had parties, and then we had to face each other — and I must say it was with a lot of courage and determination. Many things are wrong, but a great many things have been done to overcome the past in South Africa. But we now have the headache of the morning after."
Unlike fellow Nobel laureates such as G`FCnter Grass, Wole Soyinka or Dario Fo, all of whom have published memoirs which revisit their political education, Gordimer will not be following suit, now or ever. "I don't like to talk of things that my husband and I did as activists," she says, her face crinkling into a frown. "As a writer, three of my books were banned. But I lacked that final courage to go to the front line. So for me, to write such a book, it would require examining my private life and revealing it, and I feel that has got nothing to do with anybody else. And to me, all that could be of any interest of my existence in this world to other people is my books."
Aside from this difference, it's clear that in Grass, Gordimer sees something of a kinsman, a man who warned that reunification in Germany would be harder than admitted. Gordimer recognises her country as dealing with a similar problem. Soldiers out of work after the fall of apartheid got into contracting, so a large number of mercenaries in Iraq come from South Africa. The country is also awash with guns left over from surrounding wars. It is easy to get an AK-47 in Johannesburg. "I say, a gun is now like the house cat," says Gordimer. "It's sitting there on a shelf somewhere. And it can't be locked up, since if someone comes into your home, you have to get it quickly. So it becomes an ordinary object. And you get cases, we had one recently — a pupil, angry with his teacher, took the house gun and shot the teacher."
Questions of race remain, too, and they will be part of her forthcoming collection of stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (due from Bloomsbury in November). The title comes from something she heard on the radio. "Sometimes the ravens feed you," she says, flashing a smile. "I was listening to a classical music station, and there are these people who do that old disc-jockey thing and explain. Introducing one of his works, the announcer said, 'By the way, Beethoven was one-sixteenth black.' This fact, this DNA fact, really intrigued me."
So, as she approaches 84, Gordimer will be publishing her 18th work of fiction, a neat 70 years after she made her debut in the Sunday pages of a newspaper in South Africa in 1937. She's hardly celebrating. Right now, all of her focus is on pushing another writer forward for the Man Booker International. "We've got one more meeting. It will be in Dublin, where it'll really come down to the nitty-gritty. There will be each of us three judges, and each of us will have a particular favourite. One of the good things about this is it's been a monumental task of reading. We had to do our homework."
— By arrangement with The Independent