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Gordimer tells the story of two couples, one white, one black, whose relationships evolve as their homeland, South Africa, heads toward majority rule. At the center is Vera Stark, a woman whose internal world reflects the changing political landscape of her country. This is a complex portrait of a society and its people in transition.
"A radical and complex novel, rich with the weight of story and the challenge of hard questions. Gordimer demonstrates again that when her imagination transforms experience, the result is a literature for the world."—-San Francisco Chronicle"Nadine Gordimer brilliantly delivers individual personalities distorted or enriched by the workings of a collective will. There is no contemporary writer better armed than Gordimer—-with fierce moral intelligence and artistic integrity."—-Chicago Sun-Times
And who was that?
There’s always someone nobody remembers. In the group photograph only those who have become prominent or infamous or whose faces may be traced back through experiences lived in common occupy that space and time, flattened glossily.
Who could it have been? The dangling hands and the pair of feet neatly aligned for the camera, the half-smile of profile turned to the personage who was to become the centre of the preserved moment, the single image developed to a higher intensity; on the edge of this focus there’s an appendage, might as well trim it off because, in the recognition and specific memory the photograph arouses, the peripheral figure was never present.
But if someone were to come along—wait!—and recognize the one whom nobody remembers, immediately another reading of the photograph would be developed. Something else, some other meaning would be there, the presence of what was taken on, along the way, then. Something secret, perhaps. Caught so insignificantly.
Vera Stark, lawyer-trained and with the impulse to order that brings tidiness with ageing, came upon a photograph she had long thought thrown out with all she had discarded in fresh starts over the years. But it wasn’t any print she had overlooked. It was the photograph she had sent to her first husband in his officers’ quarters in Egypt during the war—their war, the definitive war, not those following it which spawn without the resolution of victory parades. He must have kept the photograph. Must have brought it back in his kit. It was a postcard—the postcard—she had sent when on a trip to the mountains; a photograph of the little group of friends who made up the holiday party. What she had written on the back (turning it over now, the lifting of a stone) was the usual telegraphic few lines scribbled while buying stamps—the weather perfect, she was climbing, walking miles a day, swimming in clear pools, the hotel was as he would remember it but rather run-down. Best wishes from this one and that—for those linking arms were their mutual friends, there was only one new face: a man on her left, a circle round his head. He was identified by name in a line squeezed vertically alongside her account of the weather.
What was written on the back of the photograph was not her message. Her message was the inked ring round the face of the stranger: this is the image of the man who is my lover. I am in love with him, I’m sleeping with this man standing beside me; there, I’ve been open with you.
Her husband had read only the text on the back. When he came home he did not understand it was not to be to her. She defended herself, amazed, again and again:—I showed you, I ringed his photograph next to me. I thought at least we knew each other well enough … How could you not understand! You just refused to understand.—
But yes, he must have brought it back in all innocence with his other souvenir knick-knacks, the evidence of his war, brought it back and here it was, somehow hadn’t been torn up or thrown away when they divided their possessions in the practical processes of parting in divorce. After forty-five years she was looking at the photograph again and seeing there in its existence, come back to her and lying on a shelf under some old record sleeves, that it was true: the existence of his innocence, for ever.
Vera and Bennet Stark gave a party on one of their wedding anniversaries, the year the prisons opened. It was a season for celebration; sports club delegations, mothers’ unions and herded schoolchildren stood around Nelson Mandela’s old Soweto cottage queueing to embrace him, while foreign diplomats presented themselves to be filmed clasping his hand. The Starks have been married so long they don’t usually make an occasion of the recurrent day, but sometimes it suggested an opportunity to repay invitations, discharge all we owe in one go, as Vera says, and on this year of all years it seemed a good excuse to go further than that: to let themselves and their friends indulge a little in the euphoria they knew couldn’t last, but that they were entitled to enjoy now when, after decades when they had worked towards it without success, change suddenly emerged, alive, from entombment. There were her Legal Foundation colleagues, of course; and white men and women who had been active in campaigns against detention without trial, forced removals of communities, franchise that excluded blacks; student leaders, ganged up under a tree in the garden drinking beer from cans, who had supported striking workers; a couple of black militant clergymen and an Afrikaner dominee excommunicated for his heresy in condemning segregation; a black doctor who hid and treated young militants injured in street battles with the police and army; black community leaders who had led boycotts; one or two of the white eternals from the street meetings of the old Communist Party, from the passive resistance campaigns of the Fifties and rallies of the Congress Alliance, the committees of any and every front organization during the period of bannings, who had survived many guises. And there were some missing. Those who were Underground were not convinced it was safe to come up, yet. Negotiations with the Government on indemnity for political activists were not decisive. One of their number made a surprise appearance—a late-night cabaret turn bursting into the company in a purple-and-yellow flowered shirt, gleeful under the peak of a black leather cap. There were wrestling embraces and shoulder-punching bonhomie from his brothers-in-arms Above Ground, and the hostess reacted as she used to when she didn’t know how to show her son how moved she was by the pleasure of having him home from boarding school—she brought her best offerings of food and drink.
The occasion was already marked by the presence of that son—Ivan, on a visit from London, where he had made his way to become a successful banker. With his aura-he wore what Jermyn Street called leisure clothes, silky suede lumber jacket, Liberty cravat and tasselled loafers—he seemed an unacknowledged yet defensive embarrassment to his mother (his father never showed his feelings, anyway) in the illusion that he was one of the colleagues and comrades; that coming home meant the matter of taking a plane. If the party was supposed to be for him as well as to celebrate an enduring marriage (and who would remember, of that extraordinary era, what occasioned what) it became a clandestine welcome for one of his mother’s mysterious friends. Music began to shake the walls and billow out into the garden; political argument, drinking and dancing went on until three in the morning. Ivan danced wildly, laughing, with his mother; it was as if their resemblance to one another were a shared source between them. When the man who had come up from Underground was found to have gone as he had come, from where and to where, no one would ask, it was as if the music stopped abruptly. He left a strange hollow silence behind; the echo chamber of all those years, now closing, silence of prisons, of disappearance, of exile, and for some, death. Over? The guests driving away to sleep, the hosts collecting dirty glasses, could not answer themselves.
Vera opened the door to a ring at ten o’clock at night—no fear of muggings back in those days of the Forties. He stood, still in his uniform, come to see if he could find some keys missing in the possessions he had packed up and taken away to the hotel where he was living.—Can’t lock my suitcases, damn nuisance as everything’s still lying about stored here and there.—He didn’t have to apologize for turning up unannounced at that hour because, of course, he knew her habits, she stayed up late, sometimes even after he had gone to bed he used to wake from first sleep and feel her sole sliding down his naked leg.
She kept him standing a few moments in the doorway as if he were a travelling salesman, and then stalked before him into their old living-room, now hers. He rummaged through the desk; she stood looking on. He might have been a plumber mending a pipe. She made a few offhand, low-voiced suggestions of where the keys might be. He had come prepared to meet, in the civilized way already established between the three of them, her lover with the thick smooth black hair like the coat of some animal, a panther, maybe, and the clear ridged outline of turned-down lips—how was it he hadn’t taken notice of these striking features in a photograph? Poor stupid trusting bastard that he was! But the lover wasn’t there, or he hadn’t come ‘home’ yet.
—They just might be in the (he didn’t say ‘my’) old tallboy in the bedroom—I left some stuff I thought you might still want. D’you mind if I go in?—
He turned to her politely.
Suddenly she peaked the stiff fingers of her hands in a V over her mouth and couldn’t suppress snorts of laughter.
He smiled, the smile broadening, sending ease between them like circles from the broken surface of water.
They entered together. She behaved as if their bed weren’t there, walking past it as something she didn’t recognize, and pulling out drawers for him.—I haven’t got round to going through this—
He held up papers.—Your old school reports, believe it or not. I thought you might want to keep them.—
—Good god, what for? I’m sure I would have thrown them in the bin, it must have been you who stuck them away.–
She made a gesture of refusal, not interested.
—Maybe I did rescue them from you some time. You still want to become a lawyer?—
Her chin jerked vigorously towards her sternum, with the vehemence of a child whose determination is beyond words. And at once she casually deflected this intrusion of past confidences. —Why are you still in that outfit?—
—Not yet demobilized.—
Perhaps the remark was not so casual; a subconscious rebuttal of unease she had never admitted to herself—‘that outfit’, referred to as if it were some form of affected fancy dress, had never been taken on by her civilian lover.
There grew between them the silence of nothing left to say. Nothing of their boy-girl love affair, their clumsy assumption of adulthood together, when she was seventeen, in a marriage interrupted by war. Absently he took off to toss to a chair the jacket with its epaulettes and insignia, its strip of campaign ribbons, and got down on his hunkers, searching through the lowest drawers of the piece of furniture. She opened a window to establish that the closeness in the room was lack of air.
Arms crossed, she stood there, watching as he set aside papers in sorted piles, and his back with its muscles moving under the stretched cloth of the shirt, the unawareness of her expressed in the nape grained with sunburn and clipped pale hair bared before her, the warmth of the flesh releasing the smell of a clean, creased shirt—she could not believe the sensation this was bringing her. She fled from it to the kitchen and poured two glasses of fruit juice, but as she was lifting the tray went to the living-room, took a bottle of whisky, came back to the kitchen and in two fresh glasses poured the liquor slowly over ice. She returned to the bedroom with harmless words ready: I think you need a drink. But she approached that warm and redolent back, forgotten, familiar, discovered anew, and touched the shoulder with the hand that held a glass. He turned at the nudge and lifted eyebrows in acknowledgement of the welcome drink, getting to his feet with weight supported on one palm.
Nothing to say.
She tried to let the distraction of alcohol in her blood overcome the insistence that, clear of circumstance, unwanted, unreasonable, her body urged to her. She could not stop it from reaching him from her, as the flesh and soap smell of his shirt came from him to her. It took him by surprise; his face changed, resistance or pain passed across it, but swiftly. He took the glass out of her hand and put it down behind him. They stood, arms helpless at their sides, looking at each other in restless contradiction. He took her against his chest, her face pressed into the odour of the shirt. They made love for the first time in two years, on the floor among the papers, not on the bed where she belonged with the lover, now.
And what if the lover had walked in on them, he must have the key of the door, what change in direction would have happened then?
Vera was awarded the house in her divorce settlement and her lover Bennet Stark became her husband the day after her divorce was final. She gave up the wartime job she had had as secretary to someone in the set she had mixed with in her previous life, got herself articled to a legal firm and registered as a part-time law student at the university. There were no children of her previous marriage and, having lived with her lover in confident anticipation that they would be able to marry soon, she entered the second marriage already pregnant. The child—it was Ivan—grew inside her, her lover was secured as her rightful possession, she was working and studying to fulfil the ambition she had been deflected from in the rosy feminine submissions of a first marriage, but that had been hers since she was a schoolgirl. She sang as she lumbered heavily about the house. At night between the arms of her chosen man, with all the possibilities of her life envisioned in the dark, refrains of precise legal formulations she was learning ribboned pleasingly through her mind on the way to sleep. She saw her happiness as conscious and definitive. Once, in the first months when she was appearing in public with her lover as husband, a woman she did not know turned to her girlishly: ‘Who’s that terribly handsome guy talking to the woman in the red dress?’
He-hers. Sometimes when she woke before he did she would raise herself carefully on one elbow to gaze at his profile, the red bevelled scroll of his closed lips, the delicate hollow scooped beside the high bridge of his beautiful curved nose, the clear black shape his hairline cut against his white brow and temples, and, as if reflected, its blue shadow, the dark beard that was growing under the skin of the finely-turned shelf of jaw. If he stirred and the eye opened, black diamond mined from the depth of the subconscious, unfocussed, she suddenly was able to see him as the woman stranger had, existing in the eyes of others, her adoration—her luck—compounded by this. And there were times when, in the release of love-making, after the marvels he had first introduced her to in the mountains, caresses that had singled him out for her with an inked circle, Vera sobbed and huddled as if ecstasy were remorse or fear. Despite the extreme sensuality of his looks and the fascination it had for women, Bennet had not had much to do with them, inhibited by fastidiousness until he met this woman who, although so young, already had had the experience of marriage, abandoned a life, another man, chosen him. He understood that the passion she roused and they shared might find unexplained outlets of emotion through her; he would soothe her gently, unquestioningly. But she would take and roughly thrust his hands here and there on her distended breasts and swollen belly and between her legs so that he lost his head and they coupled wonderfully again, while he feared for the child tossed so wildly inside her.
The baby was born strong and healthy. His mother’s gaze during his gestation had been so concentrated on his father that he might have been expected to be imprinted with his father’s Celtic or Semitic beauty; but he came out favouring his mother, exactly, from his infant days; in Vera’s image, alone.
Mrs Stark is a fixture at the Legal Foundation. Although she has refused to take the executive directorship which has been offered to her, preferring—selfishly, she says—not to spend time on administration, no one can imagine the Foundation running without her. Her quiet acerbity at meetings, when she disagrees with aspects of policy (and the fact that she’s so often proved right), her ability, sitting back with her head in its close-cut cap of white-streaked dark blond hair held immobile in attention, the left corner of her mouth sometimes tucked in (the cleft could be expressing impatience or understanding) to recognize and separate the truth, or as she would qualify, the facts from the fantasies born of poverty and powerlessness in applicants for the Foundation’s intervention—these combine to make her the colleague to whom everyone from the director to the telephonist turns for the last word.
Nobody can con Vera, her colleagues agree with satisfaction. The Foundation is not a legal aid organization in the usual sense, it does not provide legal representation in the courts for individuals who cannot afford to hire lawyers. It came into existence in response to the plight of black communities who had become so much baggage, to be taken up and put down according to a logic of separation of black people from the proximity of white people. A logic can be made out of anything; it lies not in the truth or falsity of an idea, but in the means of its practical application. As part of their schedule of work for this week or that, Government officials commandeered the appropriate personnel from the appropriate department and went off to bulldoze the homes of a community, pack the inhabitants and their belongings onto trucks drawn, like any other government equipment, from the State’s stores, and transport them to an area designated by the appropriate department. There they were supplied with tin toilets, communal taps, and sometimes, if these could be drawn from the stores department, tents. Sheets of corrugated tin might be supplied for them to begin building shacks. They might be allowed to bring along bits and ends left intact by the demolition of their houses—a window-frame or some boards—but cows and goats had to be left behind; what would the beasts feed on, in a stretch of veld cleared and levelled for the barest human occupation?
All this process was perfectly logical, Mrs Stark would remind her colleagues; we have to come to terms with the fact that in the Foundation we are not dealing with the only real means to defend these people, which is to defeat the power that creates and puts the idea into practice—we are not tackling that at all, at all, let’s not kid ourselves—we are only grappling with its logical consequences, looking for the legal loopholes that will delay or frustrate or—occasionally—win out over that logic. They would smile in appreciation of her hard-headed sense of proportion, quite difficult to keep when confronted with the sort of trusting wretchedness facing them in supplicants every day.
Now that the Act that put the Idea into practice has been abolished by the beginning of political defeat of that power, the Foundation has not, as might be expected, become redundant. Mrs Stark was not entirely right—or rather she and her colleagues, absorbed in pragmatic strategies while the Act was in force, had no time to think how far beyond its old promulgation and logical enactment, beyond its abolition, its consequences would become yet new consequences. Now communities whose removal the Foundation had been unsuccessful in stalling are coming to present the case for having restored to them the village, the land, their place, which was taken from them and allotted to whites. The same old men in stained worn suits, taking off hats in hands that seem to be uprooted from earth, sit on the other side of the interviewer’s desk. There is the same patient alertness needed to listen to the tale and, while it is being told, assess where, out of desperation and guile, it is omitting something the emissary thinks might prejudice his case, where it is being exaggerated for sympathy, and where the facts and their truthful interpretation are the strength of the case, something to work on.
Although Mrs Stark is the one who prepares the yearly report for publication—it has to be both comprehensive and persuasive, because it goes out to existing and prospective donors—and she sometimes travels abroad as a fund-raiser, she does her share of interviewing and investigation. Nobody can con Mrs Stark, no. To some she seems forbidding—and what white person, who among all those whites who still have to be approached and convinced before you, a black, can come into what you are now told is your own, is not forbidding, still there, on the other side of the desk, just as before? But although with her discouraging coldness she doesn’t patronize these applicants struggling to express themselves in English—the language of the other side of the desks-and although she doesn’t try to ingratiate herself chummily, as many whites feel obliged to do, with the blacks among her colleagues, she has—how to categorize this?-connections with some of these colleagues that have come about rather than been sought and even, over the years, with individuals who to others would be scarcely distinguishable from any in the endless trudge of dispossessed in and out of the Foundation’s premises. The young clerk named Oupa will saunter into her office eating from his lunch packet of chips or takeaway of curried chicken, and sit there, sometimes in easy silence while she reads through notes she’s taken in an interview just concluded, a silence sometimes broken by talk between her bites at an apple and sips of yoghurt. He’s studying at night for a law degree by correspondence and started off by coming to ask her for an explanation of something he didn’t grasp; it was her very reserve itself that in his naïvety made him think she would be better qualified to give him the right answers than any of the other lawyers on the premises. She was the figure of the schoolmistress missing in his lonely self-education, she was the abstract image of authority that, resented all your life or not, you had to turn to in your powerlessness. Then he began to talk to her about his four years on Robben Island, seventeen to twenty-one. It was everyone’s prison story, of his kind and generation, but he found himself telling it differently to this white woman, not censored or touched up as he was drawn out to tell it to other whites eager for vicarious experience. He broke off and returned to it on other days, remembering things he had forgotten or not wanted to remember; not only the brutality and heedless insult of walls and warders, but also the distortions in his own behaviour he now looked back on. Sometimes with disbelief, talking to her, sometimes with puzzlement, even shame. There was the comradeship, the real meaning of brother (as he put it).—But you suddenly hate someone, you can hardly keep your hands off his throat—and it’s over nothing, a piece of string to tie your shoe, one time a fight in the shower about whose turn it was! And the same two people, when we were on hunger strike, we’d do anything for each other … I can’t think it was me.—
What did she say? He was a gentle person forced, too young, to see another version of himself that it needed only violence against him, degradation in suffering the lack of humanity in others, to bring to life. She didn’t console, didn’t assure him that that individual, that self, no longer existed.—It was you.—
He reached for a tissue from the box on her desk with a gloomy tilt of the head and the answering tilt of her head said it was not necessary to ask. He was wiping chicken-wing-greasy fingers. She passed him the waste-paper bin, dropping her apple core into it on the way.
Oupa doubled as driver of the Foundation’s station-wagon battered by the lawyers’ trips into the backveld to consult with communities under threat of removal. One day when Mrs Stark’s car had been stolen he gave her a lift home, and the theft revived something else. Before he went to the Island, he was awaiting trial on the mainland in a cell with criminals.—Murderers, man! Gangsters. I can tell you, they were brilliant. Nothing to touch them for brains. The things they’d brought off-robberies, bank hold-ups. And they’d play the whole show through for us. Exactly how they did it. Prison means nothing to them, they had the warders bribed and scared of them. Even whites. They had all their stuff waiting for them outside, for when they’d done their time. I tell you, those guys would make top-class lawyers and big businessmen.—He grinned, chin lifted as he drove.
Again Mrs Stark was comfortably silent, if she noted, she made no remark on what he had just innocently confirmed: something of the unacknowledged self that came into being in prison still existed within him, a pride in and defiant community with anyone, everyone, who had the daring to defy the power of white men, to take from them what was not theirs, whether by political rebellion or by the gangster’s gun; silent because this was a self that, by nature of what she was, could not exist among her selves.
—You ever come across any of them again, outside?—
Oupa pressed his elbows to his ribs and brought his shoulders up to his ears.—Those people! Man! Je-ss-uss! I’d be terrified.—
Copyright © 1994 by Felix Licensing, B.V.
ABOUT THE TITLE
None to Accompany Me, Nadine Gordimer's eleventh novel, takes place in a tumultuous South Africa in the final throws of apartheid, in the year when the old life comes to an end. The upheaval is reflected in the life of Vera Stark, a white civil rights lawyer who gradually sheds the trappings of her married life in pursuit of a small space in existence...to be traversed by herself: herself a final form of company discovered. Tracing Vera's transition along with her country's, None to Accompany Me is a lyrical exploration of radical social change as a possibility of changing oneself.
Both pragmatist and sensualist, wife and mother, lover and political activist, Vera is one of Gordimer's most complex and intriguing creations. The novel's secondary characters more than hold their own, though: Vera's handsome husband Bennet, a would-be sculptor now reduced by the desire to provide for her to selling so-called prestige luggage; their children Ivan, a London banker, and Annie, a gay South African doctor; Didymus and his wife Sibongile Sally, black revolutionaries returned from exile abroad to find their public roles reversed: Didymus sidelined and Sibongile on a hit-list of high-profile politicians; their lovely daughter Mpho, half-Zulu, half-Xhosa, and all-London teenager; Vera's co-worker Oupa, former prisoner on Robber Island, bursting with hopes and plans for South Africa; and Zeph Rapulana, one of the new black men with the skills and personal power to help bring those hopes and dreams to fruition.
This new South Africa is not romanticized: there are deaths by violence, desperate housing shortages, hints of corruption, political rivalries. Asked by Newsweek what readers should learn from None to Accompany Me, Gordimer replied, "I hope they will take away a sense of the true realities of South Africa, of the wonderful achievements of freedom in [a] few short months, and also understand that there are enormous tasks for people to tackle, and that we need help."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in Springs, a small gold-mining town thirty miles from Johannesburg. Her parents were Jewish ÈmigrÈs, her mother from England and her father from Latvia; he ran a jewelry store in town where Gordimer attended an all-white convent school. Gordimer credits Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, about oppressed Chicago meatpackers, with opening her eyes to the plight of the black mine workers in Springs. Her focus, though, in life as well as work, has always been on the individual experience. In a 1991 interview in The New York Times, Gordimer describes being "drawn into politics not through ideas but through friendships with many black people through the years. Little by little, I began to see what I was a part of."
Gordimer's first short story was published when she was fifteen. Her writing career took off when The New Yorker printed a story in 1946, and her first collection appeared three years later. She has since published seven volumes of short stories and eleven novels, which have been translated into twenty languages. Gordimer has won some of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. A vocal member of the long-outlawed African National Congress, she is also a founder of the predominantly black Congress of South African Writers.
One of apartheid's fiercest critics, Nadine Gordimer has long been considered a preeminent interpreter of South Africa, and also its conscience. Her life is a vivid portrait of, in her words, what apartheid means in human terms.
A superb stylist, Nadine Gordimer has no need for polemic or finger-wagging. Firmly grounded in physical and psychological detail, memorably evoking the texture of daily life for South Africans of every stripe, her books have earned world-wide acclaim. In the words of The New York Times Book Review, "Gordimer... can not only capture but express in the lives of human beings those moments which are so fleeting, so impalpable, as well as so common that they are overlooked by all but a very rare artist." She spoke to us on May 1, 1995, from her home in Johannesburg.
Q: None to Accompany Me is your first novel set in post-apartheid South Africa. It seems to me that your canvas is now more complex and ambiguous. Is that true?
A: I think it's quite true, and also immensely interesting and challenging. For example, take a simplistic idea we all had: that people in exile were longing to come home, had been dreaming about it for many years. Then they came home and the dream of home is different from the reality. There's the very fact that you can now live differently - there's no more residential segregation. Those who can manage it simply move into the equivalents of Greenwich Village, Soho, nice white suburbs. It means a whole new pattern of living. I have young friends, my children's ages, mad keen to move into the city. They move, mostly into apartments in very heavily populated parts of the city, thinking that all the things that oppressed them in the townships - crime, overcrowding - will now be solved. But the fact is that there are other forms of predators in these heavily populated neighborhoods, lots of muggings, all sorts of confidence men just waiting to take in the gullible. There's also a complete loss of neighborliness. In Soweto, your neighbors would look after a sick kid if you had to go to work; there was a wonderful sense of solidarity you don't have in the city. To a certain extent this experience is portrayed by Oupain in None to Accompany Me.
Now we have illegal immigrants from Korea and mainland China, you walk down the street and suddenly hear black Zairians talking to each other in French, there are Nigerians running a big drug racket. All these new phenomena will come into the work of writers.
Q: A few years ago, you commented that censors "don't even bother with nonfiction books now. They go after the news media and they accomplish their ends by controlling coverage." Do you think that fiction is even less influential than nonfiction?
A: I think fiction influences lots of people. It certainly contributed to anti-apartheid movements abroad, and to the understanding of apartheid. What fiction did that TV news couldn't do, that newspaper headlines couldn't do, was to show through the lives of fictional characters - drawn, of course, from real life - what apartheid meant in terms of distorting those lives. The TV screen shows the raid, the moment of crisis, children advancing against tear gas, shots fired. You didn't see what happened afterwards, what they went home to, how they put their lives together again. That is the dimension of fiction.
Certainly they underestimated the power of fiction. What people saw in the media was just a moment of sensation. We wrote about the lives of people, and that roused a lot of consciousness about what was happening in South Africa.
Q: Do you see a lot of young South Africans like Mpho, very much a product of two cultures? Do they feel dispossessed?
A: There are lots of Mphos around. They're usually fortunate to have had a decent education outside; they tend to belong to an elite here. In another way they have some difficulties in establishing themselves as part of the black population. Some, unlike my Mpho, have at least a smattering of their parents' language because their parents kept it up wherever they happened to be exiled.
Q: When Didymus realizes that Sally was ashamed that he had served as an interrogator, he rationalizes that, "she was a woman, after all; she could understand the revolution but she didn't understand war." Why the distinction?
A: I think it was very much a male view. He decides she can't understand what he might have done because it's not a woman's business. She hasn't been to war. Didymus is prepared to assume that his experience is alien to her. The ugly things that come along with war, she balks at, and he thinks that's a feminine characteristic.
Q: Do you?
A: I don't know. She is a revolutionary. But it's like people who can eat meat but don't want to think about the abattoir.
Q: Is she any less realistic than he?
A: No. But human beings have their blind spots, their failings. Perhaps he's right, that this is what she does feel, but he doesn't confront her. But I don't necessarily think what my characters think.
Q: Some questions about marriage and romantic love in None to Accompany Me. The marriage of Vera and Bennet is one of the axes of the book. In the end Bennet sees "that Vera never ever really wanted a husband-- only for a time, when it excited her to have her lover domesticated." Do you think some people are temperamentally suited for marriage and others are not?
A: Definitely. We all know people who really are very good at marriage, others who in many ways are immensely capable, adaptable, but simply not good at marriage.
Q: In the end, Vera is repulsed by Bennet's need for her. Can there be love without need, marriage without possession?
A: No, I don't think so. It's often part of the battle that comes in marriage. Another common thing, also with Vera and Bennet, is that one partner moves on in one direction and the other goes in another. Or worse still, is left behind. That is what happens to Bennet. Vera feels that this puts too much pressure on her.
Q: In the book you talk about sex as a way to shed the burden of self, to achieve the illusion of belonging to someone else. Do you think men look at sex the same way as women do, to achieve that same purpose?
A: I think so, I think this is a universal. The burden of self is a very heavy thing.
Q: Is everyone's life a journey to the self?
A: Everyone's is. Not all admit it, or want to recognize it. But it is there, unavoidable.
Q: Vera thinks she's made Annie a lesbian because her own sexuality asserted it over the needs of her daughter. That seems a guilty sort of logic.
A: You're right. She's full of guilt there, wishes to free herself, but like most people, finds it extremely difficult. She accepts Annie's homosexuality more than Bennet does, because she comes out with it honestly in that conversation.
Bennet is really rather cowardly. When you make people awful phrase, you do it very often in an objective way because that's the only way it has any value. Otherwise you are going to superimpose your own heroes, so to speak, on the contradictions that are in human nature. If you look at Ben one way, he's a good man, loyal, loving. But is that always a good thing if it's taken, as in his case, to excess? Novelists ask questions, they don't give answers. So that's a question about Ben. It's not even that easy, because if he's such a loving person, why does he ignore what turns out to be the need that Annie solves in her own way? He doesn't wish to see or understand her life.
Q: Do you think parents really shape their children's sexuality in that way?
A: I don't know. My point is that Vera believes it, not really rationally but out of her own sense of guilt. She feels she's made her daughter miss something because she herself is so wholly and fundamentally heterosexual. She is a great lover of men.
Q: At the end, Vera is blinded by the stars and freezing cold. Has she "gone too far?"
A: No, she hasn't. There's some exaltation there.
Q: What's the purpose of her late-night encounter with the woman in Rapulana's house?
A: It shows her acceptance that Rapulana still has that side to his life, that kind of pleasure and fulfillment, and that her relationship with him is such that she's glad of it.
Q: How much of your own experience is reflected in Vera's life, in the nature of her work?
A: None. Because I'm not a lawyer. She's involved professionally. My political involvement, oddly enough, has been on a much more personal level than hers. I've never done any work like hers to bring me into the kinds of contexts she has.
Q: I read an article describing a lonely childhood in which you spent long hours alone in the library. Is that true?
A: I didn't spend them in the library, I took the books home with me. But that library did mean everything in the world to me.
Q: Did you have a favorite childhood book?
A: I read the usual things, very much centered on a world I knew nothing about: Arthur Ransome, the Dr. Doolittle books, those rather awful books that came from Canada, I believe, the Anne of Green Gables books. But from the age of about twelve, I just wandered around, picking stuff off the shelves. Nobody stopped me. I read Gone With the Wind, which came out that year, 1936, and Pepys Diary with equal pleasure. Nobody said, This is good, that is not so good. I just followed my own tastes and needs, and I think it was lucky and very valuable.
Because so many people are semi-literate, there's a movement here encouraging people to produce simplified versions of books, with smaller vocabulary. I'm totally against this, because I was always reading books that were too difficult. The only way you learn to read with true comprehension is from context. You learn vocabulary the way you never could from just looking up in the dictionary. I think it's condescending to simplify, to assume that people won't make the effort to understand a word or phrase that doesn't come to them immediately.
Q: You never discuss your work in progress with anyone. Why?
A: Never. I'm sort of superstitious about it. I have no desire to. You've got to do it on your own; it's only confusing to get other opinions while it's in progress.
I've just been re-reading that rather marvelous book called Genesis of a Novel, by Thomas Mann, written when he was in exile in California writing Dr. Faustus. I was amazed to see that he was constantly reading chunks aloud to family and friends, getting their views, occasionally - even following their advice. I was really astonished at this. So every writer works in his or her own way.
Q: When readers of None to Accompany Me want more Gordimer, which of your books would you recommend?
A: I'd like people to read a rather fat and ignored novel of mine, called A Guest of Honor, which I wrote in the early seventies. It's not set in South Africa, but in an imaginary African country. In terms of some of the post-colonial situation, if you're looking at the book's political side, A Guest of Honor has been in a sense prophetic.
The other book that I would rather like people to read is my novel The Conservationist; it's my most lyrical novel. When I write a novel, I always have to hear it in my head in the right voice. Is it going to be in the first person? Is it all going to be in the past tense, or will that alternate with the present tense? Will it also alternate between different voices? The main part of The Conservationist is seen from the interior of a male character who is completely removed from me, quite antipathetic, though not a villain. Things are very much seen through his eyes, and I didn't make any concessions to the reader. I require that they make a leap of the imagination with me. It was a very difficult book to write, and that's probably why I have a feeling for it, because I think I pulled it off.
"A sustaining achievement, proving Gordimer once again a lucid witness to her country's transformation and a formidable interpreter of the inner self." - Chicago Tribune
"This post-Nobel, post-apartheid novel - Gordimer's least political and most emotionally intricate - may well be the finest she has ever produced." - The Washington Post Book World
"None to Accompany Me is a radical and complex novel, rich with the weight of story and the challenge of hard questions. Gordimer demonstrates again that when her imagination transforms experience, the result is a literature for the world." - San Francisco Chronicle
A Guest Of Honor
An English colonial administrator returns to the African nation from which he was expelled. "A magnificent literary feat." - Cleveland Plain Dealer
"In this brilliantly realized work, Gordimer unfolds a riveting history of South Africa and a penetrating portrait of a courageous woman." - The New Yorker
"An unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites in South Africa. Gordimer knows this complex emotional and political territory all too well and writes about it superbly." - Newsweek
Jump and Other Stories
"Gordimer has rarely been more profound or more quietly brilliant than in these exquisitely subtle stories." - Publishers Weekly
My Son's Story
In this tale of sexual jealousy between father and adolescent son, Gordimer offers wrenching, passionate insight into the worlds of political and erotic liberation.
This fascinating portrait of a reckless and calculating man is a subtle and detailed study of South Africa today.
Posted August 22, 2011
No text was provided for this review.