Book Review: ‘Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008’ by Nadine Gordimer

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Los Angeles Times

The list of Nobel literary laureates is long on writers fated to be forgotten. Nadine Gordimer is not among them.

“Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008” brings together 91 pieces of her nonfiction written over 55 years: This is a collection that often inspires and seldom fails to reward. Gordimer, 86, is the most distinguished of the South African writers who bore witness to the grinding evils of Apartheid and sought its end. She was born in one of South Africa’s Transvaal mining towns, the daughter of Jewish immigrants — her father, a watchmaker from Russia, her mother a London-born opponent of segregation, who founded a crèche for local African children. Her mother’s anxiety — misplaced, as it turns out — over her daughter’s health made Gordimer’s formal education spotty, including a brief stint in a Catholic convent and a year at university.

Gordimer book review: A review in Wednesday’s Calendar section of Nadine Gordimer’s nonfiction collection “Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008” misspelled the last name of her fellow South African author Alan Paton as Patton. —

Gordimer’s real school, as she would later say, was the local library, and some of the finest pieces in this collection bear witness to that fact. She once dreamed of being a ballerina but became a literary prodigy, publishing stories in South African young people’s magazines and, only a short while later, in the New Yorker, which has long championed her work.

“A writer,” Gordimer has said, “is ‘selected’ by his subject — his subject being the consciousness of his own era.”

Inevitably, Apartheid became the backdrop of her own fiction and opposition to it the animating principle of her political conscience. She joined the African National Congress and was among the first people Nelson Mandela asked to see on his release from the infamous prison on Robben Island. Much of her work was censored, and some books were banned outright. Throughout, she remained in South Africa, her choice the one Anna Akhmatova made in Stalin’s Russia:

No foreign sky protected me,

no stranger’s wing shielded my face.

I stand as witness to the common lot,

survivor of that time, that place.

“Art is on the side of the oppressed,” Gordimer would write, and hers came to include 14 novels, 10 collections of short stories and, now, seven of nonfiction. In 1991, the Swedish Academy awarded her the Nobel Prize for Literature because, in the words of the citation, “her magnificent epic writing has — in the words of Alfred Nobel — been of very great benefit to humanity.”

That year, the academy’s secretary — Sture Allen — would also point out in a lecture that Gordimer “had the courage to write as if censorship did not exist, and so has seen her books banned, time after time.

“Above all, it is people, individual men and women, that have captured her and been captured by her. It is their lives, their heaven and hell, which absorb her. … She feels political responsibility, and does not shy away from its consequences, but will not allow it to affect her as a writer …”

Among the sentences from Gordimer’s work that Allen quoted are “People are more important than principles” and “A truly living human being cannot remain neutral.”

One can sift through this striking new collection for edifying political insight and reflections on travel from the Congo to Cuba, but perhaps the most revelatory and, in some deep sense satisfying, pieces are those on other writers. Great writers often are great readers, and Gordimer is a particularly fine one. “Telling Times” contains wonderful meditations on writers as various as her fellow South Africans J.M. Coetzee, Alan Patton, William Plomer and Breyten Breytenbach as well as on Patrick White, Wole Soyinka, Kenzaburo Oe, Octavio Paz, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, Philip Roth, Chinua Achebe and Naguib Mahfouz.

An essay on the relevance to our time of Machiavelli and Erasmus is particularly fine, as is her exploration of Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illich” which convincingly answers the question at the heart of the narrative: What was the cause of Illich’s death? “He was,” she concludes, “sickened by his times.”

Gordimer is particularly good on the significance of Salman Rushdie and on the scandal of the fatwah — or death sentence — imposed on him following publication of “The Satanic Verses.” It was, she recalls in the essay “Faith, Reason and War,” “writing on our wall by the hand of fundamentalisms that in our contemporary world threaten and operate not only against freedom of expression, but in many other areas of contemporary life.”

In a moving memorial essay near the collection’s close, Gordimer quotes her great friend Susan Sontag: “To be a moral human being is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.” That Gordimer certainly has done with fervor throughout a long, tumultuous and dazzlingly productive life in which she has faultlessly maintained her writing’s integrity.

It’s fascinating and — off the evidence in “Telling Times” — somehow unsurprising that she did not find the astonishing strength for that persistence in the examples of political leaders or in philosophy, but in other writers. Albert Camus, whom Gordimer has said “liked individuals who take sides more than literatures that do,” was one of those, and she cited his caution to other writers in her Nobel lecture: “‘One either serves the whole of man or does not serve him at all. And if man needs bread and justice, and if what has to be done must be done to serve this need, he also needs pure beauty which is the bread of his heart.” Gabriel García Márquez is another of her exemplars, and she has lived out his famous admonition: “The best way a writer can serve a revolution is to write as well as he can.”

Anyone who still doubts that proposition and insists that a writer’s engagement with history demands otherwise must now deal with the utterly convincing example of Nadine Gordimer.