Nadine Gordimer, who died Sunday at the astonishing age of 90, was one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century. She had an instantly recognizable touch: her sentences form a verbal slipstream, a kind of continuous pressure of thought, both deliberative and quick, and often surprising. You wouldn’t expect the winner of a Nobel Prize to devote time to a short bagatelle from the point of view of a tapeworm, but she followed the fiction writer’s dictum that any perspective is worth our consideration:
“My place was warm and smooth-walled, rosy-dark, and down into its convolutions (about thirty coiled feet of it) came, sometimes more regularly than others, always ample, many different kinds of nourishment to feed on, silently, unknown and unobserved. An ideal existence!”
This is from Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, her last new collection of short stories, published in 2007.
In the US we tend to view “political novelists” as writers we read out of a sense of obligation rather than pleasure. But no novelist writes in a—political, historical, ideological—vacuum. You either choose to see the ramifications of the lives you describe, or not. Gordimer chose recognition. More importantly, she used her vocation as a fiction writer as a path toward a liberated consciousness—her own consciousness and, through that window, in a partial, biased, fallible way, the consciousness of all Africans. Her work is beautiful, painful, complicated, at times self-indicting. It’s as vital today as it was at the height of apartheid. Here are four of her books everyone should read.
The Conservationist, which won the Booker Prize in 1974. A meditative, absorbing novel about a single wealthy white South African who clings to a failing farm in a remote corner of the country, unable to give up his claim on the land itself, even as it rejects him.
The best of her many collections of short stories. I’ve read and re-read this book more than any other book of stories. A textbook in the endless possibilities of the form.
Probably the best of all of her novels, and the last of her books to be banned by the apartheid regime: a portrait of a jailed white South African communist couple through the eyes of their daughter, who is left to enter adulthood entirely alone. What I love about this book is how rigorous and unsentimental Gordimer’s prose remains throughout—there’s not a single predictable sentence in it.
Gordimer published several collections of essays and lectures in later life, but this is the one to start with. It includes all of her political writings throughout the apartheid years and reflections on the art of the novel and the short story—a portrait of a rich and intensely complicated life, and a window onto her own emerging radicalization as an opponent of her own government, and, in many ways, her own culture and upbringing.