Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008

Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008

by Nadine Gordimer

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An extraordinary achievement, Telling Times reflects the true spirit of the writer as a literary beacon, moral activist, and political visionary.

Never before has Gordimer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, published such a comprehensive collection of her nonfiction. Telling Times represents the full span of her works in that


An extraordinary achievement, Telling Times reflects the true spirit of the writer as a literary beacon, moral activist, and political visionary.

Never before has Gordimer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, published such a comprehensive collection of her nonfiction. Telling Times represents the full span of her works in that field—from the twilight of white rule in South Africa to the fight to overthrow the apartheid regime, and most recently, her role over the past seven years in confronting the contemporary phenomena of violence and the dangers of HIV.

The range of this book is staggering, and the work in totality celebrates the lively perseverance of the life-loving individual in the face of political tumult, then the onslaught of a globalized world. The abiding passionate spirit that informs “A South African Childhood,” a youthful autobiographical piece published in The New Yorker in 1954, can be found in each of the book’s ninety-one pieces that span a period of fifty-five years.

Returning to a lifetime of nonfiction work has become an extraordinary experience for Gordimer. She takes from one of her revered great writers, Albert Camus, the conviction that the writer is a “responsible human being” attuned not alone to dedication to the creation of fiction but to the political vortex that inevitably encompasses twentieth- and twenty-first-century life. Born in 1923, Gordimer, who as a child was ambitious to become a ballet dancer, was recognized at fifteen as a writing prodigy. Her sensibility was as much shaped by wide reading as it was to eye-opening sight, passing on her way to school the grim labor compounds where black gold miners lived. These twin decisives—literature and politics—infuse the book, which includes historic accounts of the political atmosphere, firsthand, after the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 and the Soweto uprising of 1976, as well as incisive close-up portraits of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, among others. Gordimer revisits the eternally relevant legacies of Tolstoy, Proust, and Flaubert, and engages vigorously with contemporaries like Susan Sontag, Octavio Paz, and Edward Said. But some of her most sensuous writing comes in her travelogues, where the politics of Africa blend seamlessly with its awe-inspiring nature—including spectacular recollections of childhood holidays beside South Africa’s coast of the Indian Ocean and a riveting account of her journey the length of the Congo River in the wake of Conrad.

Gordimer’s body of work is an extraordinary vision of the world that harks back to the sensibilities—political, moral, and social—of Dickens and Tolstoy, but with a decidedly vivid contemporary consciousness. Telling Times becomes both a literary exploration and extraordinary document of social and political history in our times.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Politics and literature intersect in this comprehensive—sometimes too comprehensive—collection of nonfiction writings by the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist and antiapartheid activist. Covering five decades, these short pieces run the gamut: autobiographical sketches; chiaroscuroed travelogues that wander from the Congo to Cairo; literary essays on novelists from Tolstoy to Chinua Achebe and Philip Roth; profiles of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu; op-eds on issues like AIDS and water shortages; the odd dispatch from the Cannes film festival and a retrospective on the 20th century. At the vital core of the volume are Gordimer's gripping reports from the battle against apartheid, in which she dissects the hypocrisy and brutality of South African racism and ponders her responsibility as a white liberal “minority within the minority.” The more polished of these pieces brim with subtle insights and evocative landscapes and characterizations. Others, culled from after-dinner speeches, letters, and other odds and ends, have a tossed-off feel; the tome is large enough to require and reward judicious browsing. At its best, Gordimer's writing is both consummately artful and deeply engaged; she shows us that “the truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is.” (June)
The New York Times Book Review
“The reader shares in Gordimer’s 'euphoria' when Mandela is released from prison, and the cause of her lifetime finally triumphs. Fittingly, these years also mark the climax of Telling Times.... Gordimer’s writing reveals the power of 'engagement,' in the broad and humane sense in which she defined it: 'the writer’s exploration of the particular meaning that being has taken on in his or her time and place.'”
Library Journal
Nobel laureate Gordimer believes that within the next century a printed book will be ignored as simply "a stone tablet," and she is "relieved to know" that she "won't be around" to witness this world. The reading and writing of books has been Gordimer's universe for nearly 80 years, and this collection of her nonfiction is a brilliant example of the power of the written word. This massive volume includes essays, letters, and speeches and reflects the continuing themes of her life—being a white South African, fighting apartheid, resisting censorship, and promoting writers and writing. Other essays explore the physical and material landscape of South Africa, such as the gold mining towns, African pots, and coal dumps, while her most recent work concerns the challenge of voter education, the effects of globalization, and the scourge of AIDS. VERDICT Pieces are grouped by the decade in which they were written and include the date of publication but not a complete bibliographic citation—a disappointing omission. An introduction by the author would have been useful; however, Gordimer fans as well as readers interested in literature, literary criticism, and South Africa will still value this collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/10.]—Kathryn R. Bartelt, Univ. of Evansville Libs., IN
Kirkus Reviews
A massive collection of nonfiction by the South African Nobel Prize winner and longtime critic of apartheid. This omnibus of essays by Gordimer (Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, 2007, etc.) runs chronologically. Though it's only intermittently autobiographical, it begins with her early years: In "A South African Childhood," she describes growing up in comfort but never far from the mining industry that introduced her to her homeland's institutionalized racism. Gordimer addresses apartheid from several angles: as a literary critic, considering the works of black authors who were routinely banned by the state; as a dissident, protesting the racist policies that prompted jailings, violence and uprootings of communities; and as a keen social observer who took note of the intimate bonds that connected blacks and whites when they could meet away from the authorities' eyes. Her tone on the subject is stern, chastising, mournful, mocking and, once apartheid began to collapse in 1990, jubilant. But what consistently defines her prose is a fierce commitment to addressing the subject openly and in plain speech. Even after the end of apartheid she wrote thoughtfully on the steps that both blacks and whites needed to take to achieve social parity. Telling Times also includes Gordimer's essays on other topics, mainly literature and philosophy. She had a youthful affinity for French existentialists, and there are numerous close readings of fiction writers from South Africa (J.M. Coetzee, William Plomer), the Middle East and the United States. Away from political or literary concerns, though, the author has a more difficult time finding her footing. Her travel pieces on the Congo, Botswana and Madagascar are meandering and surprisingly unevocative for a writer who has imagined Africa so powerfully in her fiction. Though her political commitment persists, there's less force in her later work, mostly briefer articles of the op-ed and keynote-speech variety. Nonetheless, a much-deserved tribute to Gordimer and a firm reminder of her country's difficult path to liberation.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Nadine Gordimer (1923—2014) won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991. Her nonfiction appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and publications all over the world.

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