Nadine Gordimer has never been one to mince her words. As one of the most vocal witnesses to the turbulence of her native South Africa, Gordimer has made a career of finding a place for literature between the broad strokes of politics and the minutiae of human lives. Her latest story collection, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories continues the trajectory of her more recent work, which has seen Gordimer’s bold themes of race and history receding into the background of her characters’ more personal dramas. The confrontational (and terrible) title notwithstanding, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black is a subtle offering. It is difficult to find in its eclectic milieu any single, unifying current, but if anything, the stories seem to share an awareness of how the past seeps inescapably into the present. The grander tides of South African history that Gordimer has favored in novels like Burger’s Daughter are here supplanted by history’s more individual incarnation — that of memory.
To dwell so much on place is the natural right of an author for whom the exigencies of location have been so deeply vital. Yet South Africa, such a prominent part of Gordimer’s fictional repertory that it sometimes seems its own character, steps out of the limelight for the majority of the stories in Beethoven. With the exception of its place in the title story, the legacy of apartheid becomes a bit player, a quiet, if permanent, reality that can go almost, but never quite, unnoticed. In “Mother Tongue,” for instance, when a young South African man meets his future wife during a business trip to Germany, his origins give rise to automatic associations:
It was of course still raining, and he was able to make conversation with his cobbled-together vocabulary in the country’s language, remarking that you didn’t have days on end like this where he came from; that’s how she learnt: from Africa. South Africa. Mandela. The synapses and neurons made the identifying connection in the map of every European mind.
Even when one moves across languages and borders, South Africa conjures up in the minds of foreigners the specificities of its racist past. Later, in the same story, it is observed in a cutting aside that black professionals are starting to fix up old real estate “in what was called the new dispensation — civic term for what used to be called freedom.” The facts of this troubled history are more setting than subject, and in the foreground, Gordimer has turned her attention to her characters’ own individual hauntings.
One of the most poignant stories, “Allesverloren” — a phrase that one of the characters translates roughly from the Afrikaans as “everything’s lost” — finds a grieving wife paying a visit to her dead husband’s gay lover from before their marriage. “But now that her man can exist for her survival only through piecing him together in what is available for recall,” Gordimer writes, “there is a gap — yes, a blankout. She can make the re-creation for herself whole only if she can recall what is not hers to recall.” The notion that one’s own identity can only be fashioned from the set of materials that the past makes available recurs again and again across the different stories. Most notably, the title story outlines Gordimer’s preoccupations in an overtly politicized light: “Once there were blacks wanting to be white. Now there are whites wanting to be black,” it announces. The story follows Frederick Morris, a middle-aged professor obsessed by the mysteries of his own genealogy, as he tries to find proof of black blood in his family’s lineage. Gordimer’s interest in how the past reasserts itself is on display most bluntly here — insofar as these stories have a governing thesis, it takes the form of an offhand observation that “The past is only valid in relation to whether the present recognises it.”
This elliptical tale, placed first in the collection, seems to double as Gordimer’s conceptual roadmap for what is to follow, although it is actually among her weaker entries here. On the whole, Beethoven is slow to gather momentum, in part because the second story, “Tape Measure,” is an utterly disposable, and vaguely nauseating, throwaway written from the perspective of an ingested tape worm. (This, suffice to say, is not where Nadine Gordimer’s real strengths as a writer are best put to use.) In contrast to the brutal power of some of her earlier work, in Beethoven Gordimer draws her force from the quieter moments that transpire between people, and between couples in particular. The collection is at its best when dealing with the intimacies, and disconnects, of couples. Like “Allesverloren” and “Mother Tongue,” “A Beneficiary,” examines the inevitable failure of couples to truly possess each other. The latter finds Charlotte, a young woman of 28, reconfiguring the unlikely marriage of her estranged parents in the wake of her mother’s death; the quest threatens to undermine her closeness with her father and calls into doubt his very paternity. In each of these stories, the disparate histories — professions, languages, curiosities, romances — that husband and wife bring to the table are the source of ruptures both momentary and lasting. Identity, for Gordimer, simply isn’t something that can be shared.
The author’s long-running fascination with marriage comes to a head in the final three stories, an interconnected sub-collection called “Alternative Endings.” More explicitly than any of the other stories, these three are built from a uniform premise: a marriage roiled by infidelity when one spouse’s life takes on a shape altogether separate from their common existence. At the core of each is a different sense — sight, sound, scent — responsible for exposing the gradual clues that imperil the three circumstantially distinct marriages. What in lesser hands might feel like a mere student exercise here lends the arc of Beethoven a firm cornerstone. As Gordimer explains in her short introduction to this triptych, “A writer picks up an imagined life at some stage in the human cycle and leaves it at another?The continuity of existence has to be selectively interrupted by the sense of form which is art.” Just as Gordimer enters into and out of her characters’ lives for only a fractional segment of the whole, so too the couples she describes experience each other’s lives for only an arbitrary juncture. For author and subject alike, the past remains inscrutable.