Writing and Being


Whether talking about her own writing, interpreting the works of others, or giving us a window on the world that "we in South Africa are attempting to reconstruct," Nadine Gordimer has much to tell us about the art of fiction and the art of life.

In this deeply resonant book Gordimer examines the tension for a writer between life's experiences and narrative creations. She asks first, where do characters come from?to what extent are they drawn from real life? We are touching on ...

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Whether talking about her own writing, interpreting the works of others, or giving us a window on the world that "we in South Africa are attempting to reconstruct," Nadine Gordimer has much to tell us about the art of fiction and the art of life.

In this deeply resonant book Gordimer examines the tension for a writer between life's experiences and narrative creations. She asks first, where do characters come from—to what extent are they drawn from real life? We are touching on this question whenever we insist on the facts behind the fiction, Gordimer suggests, and here she tries to unravel the mysterious process that breathes "real" life into fiction. Exploring the writings of revolutionaries in South Africa, she shows how their struggle is contrastingly expressed in factual accounts and in lyrical poetry. Gordimer next turns to three writers linked by their search for a life that transcends their own time and place: in distinctive and telling ways, Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Oz defy accepted norms of loyalty to the mores and politics of their countries. Their search in Egypt, Nigeria, and Israel for a meaningful definition of home testifies to what it must be: the destination of the human spirit beyond national boundaries. Ending on a personal note, Gordimer reveals her own experience of "writing her way out of" the confines of a dying colonialism.

In this deeply resonant book, Nobel Prize laureate Nadine Gordimer examines the tension for a writer between life's experiences and narrative creations, investigating where characters come from--to what extent are they drawn from real life?--and using the writings of South African revolutionaries to show how their struggle is contrastingly expressed in factual fiction and in lyrical poetry.

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Editorial Reviews

Bloomsbury Review
A list of the best writing on writing would have to include [this] beautiful book...[It is] true criticism, which means it is a work of art. [Writing and Being] overflows with music that could melt the stars.
— James Hepworth
Jewish Chronicle
[A] beautifully written short collection.
— Gerald De Groot
A satisfying and redemptive book. The opening and closing [essays] frame her discussions of South African writers of the 'Age of Revolution' and of three novelists--Naguib Mahfouz, Amos Oz, and Chinua Achebe--who constitute a company of writers who arrive at 'the Forgotten Promised Land where their peoples could appease an embittered history.'
— Maureen Howard
Oxford Quarterly Review
Nadine Gordimer offers a compelling and insightful narrative of the emergence of her postcolonial identity and her new sense of national belonging. As such, she offers more food for thought on her favourite subject: the healing mysteries of writing and being in South Africa.
— Daryl Lee
Gordimer has much to tell us about the art of fiction and the art of life...She is unfailingly interesting on the mysterious process that both turns 'real' life into fiction and then breathes new life into it as language on the page...These lectures, like her novels and stories, are not about 'protest'. What they are is work that is itself so gloriously free that it shows up unfreedom by its sheer joy. Gordimer is a writer of courage, as well as one of natural gifts, and she deserves the compliment of clear, attentive, unpatronising reading by all who care to read books for themselves.
— Robert Nye
The Observer
Gordimer's key concern in these six essays is the relationship between experience and fiction, how truth can be achieved despite the confines of place and politics. The major part of the book is given over to examinations of three writers whom Gordimer considers to have transcended the boundaries of their experience precisely by concentrating on issues of race, country and religion: Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe and Amos Oz. Intelligent and impassioned though these studies are, it is Gordimer's two essays on the nature of her own fictional enterprise which really excite, and her description of an intellectual journey from childhood in a small gold-mining town to becoming one of the most eloquent voices in the fight against apartheid.
Times Literary Supplement
Her own experiences as a South African writer in protest against her country's situation...are among the best [pages] she has ever written. In fact what she says about herself as a young writer...affirms the greatness and importance of her own work as artist and citizen...This book is a wonderful document of the human spirit at its most attractive and serious.
— Edward Said
Washington Post Book World
Gordimer's addresses cover a variety of themes and topics, all examined with the fierce honesty that has come to be expected of her.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Drawing on lectures delivered at Harvard, Nobel laureate Gordimer, musing on the links between life and literature, offers some fascinating personal reflections as well as thoughts on fellow writers in South Africa and other countries. Her characters, she asserts, are both imagined and taken from life; she discloses, however, that the protagonist of one of her novels (unnamed, but clearly Burger's Daughter) found the book uncannily accurate. The recently published memoirs of several South African revolutionaries not only describe the path to political consciousness, she notes, but also stimulate the conditions for societal reflection. She offers sympathetic, close readings of the works of writers Naguib Mahfouz, Chinua Achebe and Amos Oz-``the Arab, the African, the Jew.'' She concludes her brief book by reflecting on her own road to politics and literature-``I think I have been fortunate in that I was born into the decadence of the colonial period''-and on South Africa's extraordinary recent transition to a country that is now whole. (Oct.)
Library Journal
In her established role as a social commentator and literary artisan, South African writer Gordimer (winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for literature) offers six essays analyzing the reciprocal link between a writer's life and the narratives he or she creates. Gordimer interprets the writings of fellow South African revolutionaries, showing how their testimonial prose and poetry document and allay the crippling effects of apartheid. She then surveys three additional non-European American novelistsEgyptian Naguib Mafouz, Nigerian Chinua Achebe, and Israeli Amos Ozall of whom faced censorship in ethnically intolerant societies. The final essay is a personal account of Gordimer's own awakening and the transformation of her homeland, an experience she was able to realize fully and proclaim through her writing. An earlier, similar collection is her Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, LJ 10/15/88. Recommended for informed readers with an interest in the craft of fiction, political history, and comparative literature.Carol A. McAllister, Coll. of William and Mary Lib., Williamsburg, Va.
Hazel Rochman
Born and raised in South Africa, Gordimer has written about the place where she lives in astonishing fiction and essay that have won her the Nobel Prize in literature. Yet, as a white dissident under apartheid, she has never felt at home anywhere--until now. Her unifying theme in these Harvard lectures is the writer's search for "a place that knows you." She looks in detail at three novelists outside the Euro-American mainstream--the Israeli Amos Oz, the Nigerian Chinua Achebe, and the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz--as well as at several South African writers, and she shows that their search for identity is not for self-knowledge but for home beyond walls and borders. These writers feel they are both Them and Us. Gordimer's final essay is an intensely moving account of her own journey from alienation in a white cozy enclave to a country where she belongs. She speaks of being born again, not in the religious sense, but in a new world of freedom beyond price or reckoning. Like the lyrical black poet Mongane Wally Serote, she says, "We are . . . wounded, precarious, yet hanging on a sunrise."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674962323
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/1998
  • Series: Charles Eliot Norton Lectures Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 6.27 (w) x 9.29 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and a number of other major literary prizes, is the author of nine collections of stories and eleven novels, most recently None to Accompany Me. She lives in South Africa.

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Table of Contents

1 Adams's Rib: Fictions and Realities 1
2 Hanging on a Sunrise: Testimony and Imagination in Revolutionary Writings 20
3 Zaabalawi: The Concealed Side. The Cairo Trilogy, Naguib Mahfouz 43
4 To Hold the Yam and the Knife. Anthills of the Savannah, Chinua Achebe 70
5 Forgotten Promised Land. Fima, Amos Oz 94
6 That Other World That Was the World 114
Notes 137
Index 143
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