Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories

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by Nadine Gordimer
     
 

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"You're not responsible for your ancestry, are you . . . But if that's so, why have marched under banned slogans, got yourself beaten up by the police, arrested a couple of times; plastered walls with subversive posters . . . The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognizes it."

In this collection of new stories

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Overview

"You're not responsible for your ancestry, are you . . . But if that's so, why have marched under banned slogans, got yourself beaten up by the police, arrested a couple of times; plastered walls with subversive posters . . . The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognizes it."

In this collection of new stories Nadine Gordimer crosses the frontiers of politics, memory, sexuality, and love with the fearless insight that is the hallmark of her writing. In the title story a middle-aged academic who had been an anti-apartheid activist embarks on an unadmitted pursuit of the possibilities for his own racial identity in his great-grandfather's fortune-hunting interlude of living rough on diamond diggings in South Africa, his young wife far away in London. "Dreaming of the Dead" conjures up a lunch in a New York Chinese restaurant where Susan Sontag and Edward Said return in surprising new avatars as guests in the dream of a loving friend. The historian in "History" is a parrot who confronts people with the scandalizing voice reproduction of quarrels and clandestine love-talk on which it has eavesdropped."Alternative Endings" considers the way writers make arbitrary choices in how to end stories--and offers three, each relating the same situation, but with a different resolution, arrived at by the three senses: sight, sound, and smell.

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Editorial Reviews

Siddhartha Deb
These stories aren't mere exercises. Even as variations, with a fixed set of characters confronting similar situations, they create discrete, pulsating worlds. None of the characters are aware that their situations echo a common theme. Their lives are unique, and the endings they stumble toward are all-encompassing, complete, inevitable. It is Gordimer's special skill that she can both make us feel the distinct yearnings of these characters, where nothing else matters, and allow us to stand back and perceive the parts they play in a larger collective pattern. As she always has, Gordimer offers her readers a rare combination of intimacy and transcendence.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Thirteen stories from South African Nobel Prize-winner Gordimer offer a staccato demonstration of how people's origins, inheritances and histories-and the loss of them-are inescapable. The title story centers on the white, twice-divorced academic descendant of a London diamond prospector who visits his forebear's mine in Kimberly, South Africa, and wonders about who in the township, black and white, he may be related to. The narrator of "Dreaming of the Dead" is haunted by famous former companions (the late intellectuals Edward Said and Susan Sontag), while the grieving widow of "Allesverloren" (or "All Is Lost") seeks out her husband's former lover to unearth a message from him. The daughter of "A Beneficiary," meanwhile, finds an unsettling letter among the effects of her late mother, an actress. Cultural inheritance shadows the marriage of a Hungarian couple that emigrates to South Africa in "Alternate Endings: Second Sense," and also the son of "A Frivolous Woman," who resents his flamboyant German-Jewish émigré mother's easy adaptability. Again and again, Gordimer puts big, sweeping disasters (the Holocaust, apartheid) in the pasts of flawed, ill-equipped characters and shows how their choices have been little more than wing beats against history. The results are terrifying, sometimes acidly funny and often beautiful. (Dec.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In these tantalizing and provocative short stories, Nobel prize-winning South African writer Gordimer (The Pickup) experiments with various unusual points of view. The narrator in "Tape Measure," for example, is a tapeworm. "Dreaming of the Dead," meanwhile, is a dream about a fascinating conversation at a Chinese restaurant among the sleeper and the late Susan Sontag and Edward Said. In "Gregor," a narrator who admits to reading Kafka's diaries night after night sees a roach on the display screen of her electronic typewriter, and, with the help of a neighbor, dismantles the screen and destroys the roach. Gordimer raises the question: "What happens if something from fiction is not interiorised, but materializes? Takes in independent existence?" She can be quite playful, e.g., in "Historian," a parrot continually comments on the patrons of the restaurant where his cage hangs. The last three stories, though they all deal with the issue of adultery, arrive through the senses of sight, sound, and smell at three different outcomes. With Gordimer's exquisite use of language, keen insight into social relationships, and elegant writing style in full form, this work is recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ8/07.]
—Lisa Rohrbaugh

Kirkus Reviews
Ironic what-ifs and narrative legerdemain are featured in the 1991 Nobel laureate's 11th story collection. Several of its 11 pieces are fragmentary, and one suspects they're embryos of fuller stories left unwritten. For example, "A Frivolous Woman" depicts the trouble caused by a German Jewish woman ("A grandmother who'd never grown up") who escapes death at the hands of the Nazis despite refusing to scale back her hyperactive social life, and "Safety Procedures" describes a turbulent airplane flight which nevertheless offers the spectacle of a woman passenger possessed of a preternatural inner calm. In the inchoate title story, Gordimer envisions a future in which whites proudly claim, rather than attempt to conceal, evidence of African descent. She seems to enjoy herself in a nondescript tale ("History") of people whose secrets are revealed by a parrot with a "relentless memory," and a rather better one ("Gregor") that riffs amusingly on Kafka's The Metamorphosis. There's little more than affectionate tribute in "Dreaming of the Dead," which imagines a conversation on "policies and ideologies" conducted in a Chinese restaurant by the late Susan Sontag and Edward Said, joined by South African newspaper editor Anthony Sampson. Gordimer surprises us with "Tape Measure," in which a tapeworm narrator discusses with compressed allegorical ingenuity the strategies of surviving in an unfriendly host (country?), and the perfectly titled "Allesverloren," about a widow who recaptures an ampler understanding of her late husband's life by meeting with his former gay lover. At first appearance a stunt, this beautifully articulated story becomes increasingly dramatic, tense and achingly sad: It's anear-perfect miniature. The volume concludes with "Alternative Endings," which gathers three thematically similar stories whose developments are shaped by the physical senses of sound, sight and smell. It's labored and uninvolving. Mostly finger exercises (think Mozart's shorter works), but the best of them are executed with finesse and power.
The New York Times Book Review
It is Gordimer's special skill that she can both make us feel the distinct yearnings of these characters, where nothing else matters, and allow us to stand back and perceive the parts they play in a larger collective pattern. As she always has, Gordimer offers her readers a rare combination of intimacy and transcendence.
The Los Angeles Times
On nearly every page there's evidence of Gordimer's intellectual rigor, as well as the upright discipline all serious writers possess.
The San Francisco Chronicle
The pages in Nadine Gordimer's slim new collection of stories truly contain multitudes, so rich are they with invention, insight, and artistry.... Gordimer shows that in her 80s she is actually still growing as a writer—what a rare and admirable feat.
Dallas Morning News
Like John Le Carre, another fine writer from this generation, [Gordimer] has gone on to explore the world after the demise of the material she was best-known for with intelligence, grace and power . . . brief glimpses into the mind of one of Africa's great modern literary geniuses ... the overall effect here is that of lasting mastery of the mode.
Newark Star-Ledger
[Gordimer's] voice travels across the page, darkening certain regions, changing barometric pressure in others—and then, just as quickly as it arrived, the voice moves on, leaving you with the memory of an occurrence so vivid and yet ephemral that it takes on the lived quality of real experience.
Washington Times
Gordimer still has a canny eye for the world's vastness and complexity, and her expert fiction goes far in bringing us close to the mystery and value of it all.
Financial Times
At 84, [Gordimer] remains deeply engaged with literature's role as a bellwether of current affairs and a corrective to ideological laziness.
Vanity Fair
Nadine Gordimer pushes buttons and the boundaries of race, politics, and sex.
Elle magazine
Gordimer is a precise, politically astute writer whose novels, story, and nonfiction works are charged with sprightly humor, sudden insights, and fearless candor.
Bookforum
Peppered with parentheses, dashes, and incomplete clauses, her writing is deceptively tight, and a story's resolution often hinges on one or two lines . . . Kafka's influence has inspired its own metamorphosis, alive on her page—an 'ectoplasm of my imagination.'
Booklist
Gordimer has been writing about her native South Africa for more than 50 years, and in this lively collection, she continues to tell the contemporary stories of people 'going about their own affairs within history's fall-out' . . . No slick irony, no heavy messages; as always, the mix of intimacy and politics stirs everything up.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780143114239
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/28/2008
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
192
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black

And Other Stories
By Gordimer, Nadine

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2007 Gordimer, Nadine
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780374109820

Chapter 1
Beethoven was one-sixteenth black
the presenter of a classical music programme on the radio announces along with the names of musicians who will be heard playing the String Quartets no. 13, op. 130, and no. 16, op. 135.
Does the presenter make the claim as restitution for Beethoven? Presenter’s voice and cadence give him away as irremediably white. Is one-sixteenth an unspoken wish for himself.
Once there were blacks wanting to be white.
Now there are whites wanting to be black.
It’s the same secret.
Frederick Morris (of course that’s not his name, you’ll soon catch on I’m writing about myself, a man with the same initials) is an academic who teaches biology and was an activist back in the apartheid time, among other illegal shenanigans an amateur cartoonist of some talent who made posters depicting the regime’s leaders as the ghoulish murderers they were and, more boldly, joined groups to paste these on city walls. At the university, new millennium times, he’s not one of the academics the student body (a high enrolment robustly black, he approves) singles out as among those particularly reprehensible, in protests against academe as the old white male crowdwho inhibit transformation of the university from a white intellectuals’ country club to a non-racial institution with a black majority (politically-correct-speak). Neither do the students value much the support of whites, like himself, dissident from what’s seen as the other, the gowned body. You can’t be on somebody else’s side. That’s the reasoning? History’s never over; any more than biology, functioning within every being.
One-sixteenth. The trickle seemed enough to be asserted out of context? What does the distant thread of blood matter in the genesis of a genius. Then there’s Pushkin, if you like; his claim is substantial, look at his genuine frizz on the head—not some fashionable faked Afro haloing a white man or woman, but coming, it’s said, from Ethiopia.
Perhaps because he’s getting older—Morris doesn’t know he’s still young enough to think fifty-two is old—he reflects occasionally on what was lived in his lifeline-before-him. He’s divorced, a second time; that’s a past, as well, if rather immediate. His father was also not a particular success as a family man. Family: the great-grandfather, dead long before the boy was born: there’s a handsome man, someone from an old oval-framed photograph, the strong looks not passed on. There are stories about this forefather, probably related at family gatherings but hardly listened to by a boy impatient to leave the grown-ups’ table. Anecdotes not in the history book obliged to be learned by rote. What might call upon amused recognition to be adventures, circumstances taken head-on, good times enjoyed out of what others would submit to as bad times, characters—‘they don’t make them like that any more’—as enemies up to no good, or joined forces with as real mates. No history-book events: tales of going about your own affairs within history’s fall-out. He was some sort of frontiersman, not in the colonial military but in the fortune-hunters’ motley.
A descendant in the male line, Frederick Morris bears his surname, of course. Walter Benjamin Morris apparently was always called Ben, perhaps because he was the Benjamin indeed of the brood of brothers who did not, like him, emigrate to Africa. No-one seems to know why he did; just an adventurer, or maybe the ambition to be rich which didn’t appear to be achievable anywhere other than a beckoning Elsewhere. He might have chosen the Yukon. At home in London he was in line to inherit the Hampstead delicatessen shop, see it full of cold cuts and pickles, he was managing for another one of the fathers in the family line, name lost. He was married for only a year when he left. Must have convinced his young bride that their future lay in his going off to prospect for the newly discovered diamonds in a far place called Kimberley, from where he would promptly return rich. As a kind of farewell surety for their love, he left inside her their son to be born.
Frederick surprises his mother by asking if she kept the old attaché case—a battered black bag, actually—where once his father had told him there was stuff about the family they should go through some time; both had forgotten this rendez-vous, his father had died before that time came. He did not have much expectation that she still kept the case somewhere, she had moved from what had been the home of marriage and disposed of possessions for which there was no room, no place in her life in a garden complex of elegant contemporary-design cottages. There were some things in a communal storeroom tenants had use of. There he found the bag and squatting among the detritus of other people’s pasts he blew away the silverfish moths from letters and scrap jottings, copied the facts recorded above. There are also photographs, mounted on board, too tough for whatever serves silverfish as jaws, which he took with him, didn’t think his mother would be sufficiently interested in for him to inform her. There is one portrait in an elaborate frame.
The great-grandfather has the same stance in all the photographs whether he is alone beside a photographer’s studio palm or among piles of magical dirt, the sieves that would sift from the earth the rough stones that were diamonds within their primitive forms, the expressionless blacks and half-coloured men leaning on spades. Prospectors from London and Paris and Berlin—anywhere where there are no diamonds—did not themselves race to stake their claims when the starter’s gun went off, the hired men who belonged on the land they ran over were swifter than any white foreigner, they staked the foreigners’ claims and wielded the picks and spades in the open-cast mining concessions these marked. Even when Ben Morris is photographed sitting in a makeshift overcrowded bar his body, neck tendons, head are upright as if he were standing so immovably confident—of what? (Jottings reveal that he unearthed only small stuff. Negligible carats.) Of virility. That’s unmistakable, it’s untouched by the fickleness of fortune. Others in the picture have become slumped and shabbied by poor luck. The aura of sexual virility in the composure, the dark, bright, on-the-lookout inviting eyes: a call to the other sex as well as elusive diamonds. Women must have heard, read him the way males didn’t, weren’t meant to. Dates on the scraps of paper made delicately lacy by insects show that he didn’t return promptly, he prospected with obstinate faith in his quest, in himself, for five years.
He didn’t go home to London, the young wife, he saw the son only once on a single visit when he impregnated the young wife and left her again. He did not make his fortune; but he must have gained some slowly accumulated profit from the small stones the black men dug for him from their earth, because after five years it appears he went back to London and used his acquired knowledge of the rough stones to establish himself in the gem business, with connections in Amsterdam.
The great-grandfather never returned to Africa. Frederick’s mother can at least confirm this, since her son is interested. The later members of the old man’s family—his fertility produced more sons, from one of whom Frederick is descended—came for other reasons, as doctors and lawyers, businessmen, conmen and entertainers, to a level of society created from profit of the hired fast-runners’ unearthing of diamonds and gold for those who had come from beyond the seas, another kind of elsewhere.
And that’s another story. You’re not responsible for your ancestry, are you.
But if that’s so, why have marched under banned slogans, got yourself beaten up by the police, arrested a couple of times; plastered walls with subversive posters. That’s also the past. The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognises it.
How did that handsome man with the beckoning gaze, the characteristic slight flare of the nostrils as if picking up some tempting scent (in every photograph), the strong beringed hands (never touched a spade) splayed on tight-trousered thighs, live without his pretty London bedmate all the nights of prospecting? And the Sunday mornings when you wake, alone, and don’t have to get up and get out to educate the students in the biological facts of life behind their condomed cavortings—even a diamond prospector must have lain a while longer in his camp bed, Sundays, known those surges of desire, and no woman to turn to. Five years. Impossible that a healthy male, as so evidently this one, went five years without making love except for the brief call on the conjugal bed. Never mind the physical implication; how sad. But of course it wasn’t so. He obviously didn’t have to write and confess to his young wife that he was having an affair—this is the past, not the sophisticated protocol of suburban sexual freedom—it’s unimaginably makeshift, rough as the diamonds. There were those black girls who came to pick up prospectors’ clothes for washing (two in the background of a photograph where, bare-chested, the man has fists up, bunched in a mock fight with a swinging-bellied mate at the diggings) and the half-black girls (two coffee one milk the description at the time) in confusion of a bar-tent caught smiling, passing him carrying high their trays of glasses. Did he have many of these girls over those years of deprived nights and days. Or was there maybe a special one, several special ones, there are no crude circumstances, Frederick himself has known, when there’s not a possibility of tenderness coming uninvited to the straightforward need for a fuck. And the girls. What happened to the girls if in male urgencies there was conception. The foreigners come to find diamonds came and went, their real lives with women were Elsewhere, intact far away. What happened? Are there children’s children of those conceptions on-the-side engendered by a handsome prospector who went home to his wife and sons and the gem business in London and Amsterdam—couldn’t they be living where he propagated their predecessors.
Frederick knows as everyone in a country of many races does that from such incidents far back there survives proof in the appropriation, here and there, of the name that was all the progenitor left behind him, adopted without his knowledge or consent out of—sentiment, resentment, something owed? More historical fall-out. It was not in mind for a while, like the rendezvous with the stuff in the black bag, forgotten with his father. There was a period of renewed disturbances at the university, destruction of equipment within the buildings behind their neo-classical columns; not in the Department of
Biology, fortunately.
The portrait of his great-grandfather in its oval frame under convex glass that had survived unbroken for so long stayed propped up where the desk moved to his new apartment was placed when he and his ex-wife divided possessions. Photo-graphs give out less meaning than painted portraits. Open less contemplation. But he is there, he is—a statement.
One-sixteenth black.
In the telephone directory for what is now a city where the diamonds were first dug, are there any listings of the name Morris. Of course there will be, it’s not uncommon and so has no relevance.
As if he has requested her to reserve cinema tickets with his credit card he asks his secretary to see if she can get hold of a telephone directory for a particular region. There are Morrises and Morrisons. In his apartment he calls up the name on the internet one late night, alone. There’s a Morris who is a theatre director now living in Los Angeles and a Morris a champion bridge player in Cape Town. No-one of that name in Kimberley worthy of being noted in this infallible source.
Now and then he and black survivors of the street marches of blacks and whites in the past get together for a drink. ‘Survivors’ because some of the black comrades (comrades because that form of address hadn’t been exclusive to the communists among them) had moved on to high circles in cabinet posts and boardrooms. The talk turned to reform of the education system and student action to bring it about. Except for Frederick, in their shared 70s and 80s few of this group of survivors had the chance of a university education. They’re not inhibited to be critical of the new regime their kind brought about or of responses to its promises unfulfilled. —Trashing the campus isn’t going to scrap tuition fees for our kids too poor to pay. Yelling freedom songs, toyi-toying at the Principal’s door isn’t going to reach the Minister of Education’s big ears. Man! Aren’t there other tactics now? They’re supposed to be intelligent, getting educated, not so, and all they can think of is use what we had, throw stones, trash the facilities—but the buildings and the libraries and laboratories whatnot are theirs now, not whitey’s only—they’re rubbishing what we fought for, for them.—
Someone asks, your department okay, no damage?
Another punctuates with a laugh. —They wouldn’t touch you, no way.—
Frederick doesn’t know whether to put the company right, the students don’t know and if they do don’t care about his actions in the past, why should they, they don’t know who he was, the modest claim to be addressed as comrade. But that would bring another whole debate, one focused on himself.
When he got home rather late he was caught under another focus, seemed that of the eyes of the grandfatherly portrait. Or was it the mixture, first beer then whisky, unaccustomedly downed.  Excerpted from Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black by Nadine Gordimer. Copyright © 2007 by Nadine Gordimer. Published in October 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Excerpted from Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black by Gordimer, Nadine Copyright © 2007 by Gordimer, Nadine. Excerpted by permission.
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