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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"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

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. This 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 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. --Amelia Atlas

Amelia Atlas's reviews have appeared in the New York Sun, 02138, and the Harvard Book Review.

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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 crowd who 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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Meet the Author

Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is the author of fourteen novels, nine volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014), the recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, was born in a small South African town. Her first book, a collection of stories, was published when she was in her early twenties. Her ten books of stories include Something Out There (1984), and Jump and Other Stories (1991). Her novels include The Lying Days (1953), A World of Strangers (1958), Occasion for Loving (1963), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), A Guest of Honour (1971), The Conservationist (1975), Burger's Daughter (1979), July's People (1981), A Sport of Nature (1987), My Son's Story (1990), None to Accompany Me (1994), The House Gun (1998), The Pickup (2001), Get a Life (2005), and No Time Like the Present (2012). A World of Strangers, The Late Bourgeois World, and Burger's Daughter were originally banned in South Africa. She published three books of literary and political essays: The Essential Gesture (1988); Writing and Being (1995), the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures she gave at Harvard in 1994; and Living in Hope and History (1999).

Ms. Gordimer was a vice president of PEN International and an executive member of the Congress of South African Writers. She was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in Great Britain and an honorary member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also a Commandeur de'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France). She held fourteen honorary degrees from universities including Harvard, Yale, Smith College, the New School for Social Research, City College of New York, the University of Leuven in Belgium, Oxford University, and Cambridge University.

Ms. Gordimer won numerous literary awards, including the Booker Prize for The Conservationist, both internationally and in South Africa.

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Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
This thirteen short story anthology focuses on the theme of how people identify themselves more from a need to belong today than from heritage and family history especially if the backdrop is horrific like the Holocaust as the past vanishes like an ¿etchosketch¿. Each of the fascinating entries will leave the audience pondering what it means to be a third generation living in a ¿foreign¿ land that is home in every connotation even if it is the same land your ancestors occupied. What occurred to one¿s ancestors in the mother country a few generations ago only matters if the present makes it matter as roots are irrelevant unless today¿s descendents make it otherwise. All the contributions are well written and adhere to the basic concept. The most mesmerizing is ¿Alternate Ending¿ in which Nadine Gordimer tells the same tale from the ¿First Sense¿, ¿Second Sense¿ and ¿Third Sense¿ perspective is everything. The title track is also terrific as a Londoner goes to Kimberly, South Africa pondering who he is related to as race is irrelevant. This is a thought provoking winner as never forget atrocities may be significant, but the present conditions rule. --- Harriet Klausner