Inarguably, Nadine Gordimer, who died recently, is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. She is not an easy writer to read. I should know since I teach her books often. Most of my students, undergraduate and graduate, have to be taught to appreciate novels like Burger’s Daughter—brilliant, dense, formally and politically challenging novels that demand the reader work to comprehend (for in Gordimer comprehending cannot be separated from working).
Gordimer, to my mind, is a writer’s writer. You could do worse than read her to learn the craft of writing. No doubt, in the school of Gordimer you would not learn “workshop” prose—none of that apolitical realism written in smooth prose taught in creative writing workshops. Alongside stunning feats of technical virtuosity, you would find a certain kind of didacticism. You would learn about being didactic in all the right ways, in ways we have ceased to expect of our “literary fiction,” which we have exiled to professionalized creative writing programs.
Gordimer’s unfamiliar marriage of ethics and aesthetics, earnestness and nuance, is part of her toughness. In Gordimer, didacticism is not the enemy of art. On the contrary, unlike the bad variety, Gordimer’s didacticism is internal to her aesthetic vision. I think this is what she means when she says in interviews that her writing took her to politics rather than the other way round. If your artistic vision helps you produce richly imagined political characters or, for that matter, apolitical characters confronted by deeply political situations, politics will necessarily enter your novel. And then you as a novelist have no need to be didactic, for your characters are didactic for you. This is what I try to get my students to see with a novel like July’s People, beginning with that didactic epigraph from the great Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.
Gordimer often said that she did not set out to be political. Rather, politics entered her work because of the nature of her preeminent subject matter—life in apartheid South Africa. She is an unusual postcolonial writer—a white writer fully deserving of the term. This too provides great opportunities in the classroom. It is instructive to teach her alongside her peers Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ousmane Sembene—extraordinary African contemporaries who too in very different ways struggle with the tension between art and politics.
Wherever the art of the word is honored as a challenging and deeply ethical practice, Nadine Gordimer will continue to be read.