Showing Us a Different World–Nadine Gordimer

Books can erase the barriers of both time and place and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer is a novel that speaks to us today just as clearly as it spoke to readers when it was first published in 1981. This story about clashing cultures in South Africa almost forty years ago seems highly relevant to life in America in 2020.  

Nadine Gordimer

July’s People is set in a future that never happened, at least never quite in the way Gordimer describes it. A sudden, violent uprising by black Africans against the colonial rulers who dominate their country has led to the flight of Bam and Maureen Smales, a white couple from the wealthy suburb of Johannesburg where they have always lived a comfortable life. When violence breaks out and there is shooting in the streets, they finally realize they must leave. At the invitation of their servant, July, Bam and Maureen flee to the small rural village where July’s family lives. When the couple with their three young children settle into the village, they find welcome and safety. They also find an almost unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the villagers whose language they don’t understand, and whose way of life they have never experienced.

Gordimer’s exquisite language makes an unfamiliar place and culture both believable and important. Her vivid descriptions of the minute details of life in a South African village lets us feel the oppressive heat and see the unfamiliar scenes. As Maureen walks through the village, she notices things she has never seen before. Now we see them through her eyes:

Ants had raised a crust of red earth on the dead branches that once had formed a cattle-pen. With a brittle black twig she broke off the crust, grains of earth crisply welded by ants’ spit, and exposed the wood beneath bark that had been destroyed; bone-white, the wood was being eaten away, too, was smoothly scored in shallow running grooves as if by a fine chisel. She scraped crust with the aimless satisfaction of childhood, when there is nothing to do but what presents itself…

Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in South Africa to immigrant parents. Like other white citizens of South Africa, she lived a privileged life in a colonial society. She attended a private school as a child but was often kept home because her mother worried about Nadine’s health. Growing up isolated from other children, she read avidly and decided to become a writer. Later she attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she met many activists determined to change the injustices and racial inequalities of South Africa. She started publishing stories in South African magazines, and when one of her stories was accepted by the New Yorker in 1951, she became an internationally admired writer.  

Gordimer’s life was devoted to both writing and social activism. She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and other African leaders and traveled the world giving speeches about her books and about life and injustice in South Africa. Although her books were sometimes banned in South Africa, she became world famous, winning the Orange Prize, the Booker Prize and many others. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of her best-known books are Burger’s Daughter, The Conservationist, and The Pickup. Each of her books gives insight into life in Africa during the turbulent years of the late twentieth century. July’s People is a good place to start the journey through her world. I don’t think you’ll ever forget the trip.

Nadine Gordimer died in 2014. 

Revisiting Favorite Books–May Sarton

Now that Christmas and the other gift-giving holidays are over, it is time to look back on the gifts we received and savor them. For me, this was a very book-heavy year. One of the books I received was a collection of essays and reviews by Ursula Le Guin called Words Are My Matter: Writings on Life and Books (2016). The essays cover a wide range and reintroduced me to several writers I had read in past years but had not revisited. To start the year off, I decided to go back to some writers I remember enjoying years ago. One was May Sarton, a favorite of earlier years, who has faded from public notice since her death in 1995. She is well worth revisiting.

May Sarton

Reading Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) now is like revisiting another world. I felt as though I was watching an old movie; cigarettes are lit every few pages, people drink cocktails before meals and wine at dinner while wives uncomplainingly cook and serve meals to preoccupied academic husbands. At Harvard, where this story takes place, students revere their professors, male students humbly call for the female students at their dormitory doors, and the suicide of a literary scholar is front-page news across the country.

But behind the propriety of this quiet life, political issues are as divisive as they are today. The time is the late 1940s and the scholars are deeply involved in the postwar struggles between Russia and the West. Sarton mentions the tremendous shock to American intellectuals caused by the suspicious death of Jan Masaryk, president of Czechoslovakia. His death—which could have been either suicide or murder—led to Czechoslovakia’s fall into Russian-style communism. The disillusionment of American liberals at the country’s fall from democracy is a potent force in this story.

Jan Masaryk

A dramatic clash at a quiet meeting of the local Civil Liberties Union signals the beginning of a painful confrontation between the close-knit group at Harvard. Edward Cavan, a professor of American literature, refuses to sign a letter certifying that all the leaders of the group are free of Communist taint. His refusal leads to arguments and threatens long-standing friendships. When Cavan commits suicide, his friends and students try to discover why they could not understand his pain and were unable to help him.

Most of the story is told through conversations between friends of Cavan and his sister who comes from California to arrange his funeral. The contrast between academia and the world of successful medical doctors appears very sharp. How much does family background and childhood experiences influence Cavan’s political ideas and personal decisions? Every reader will have to decide individually. Sarton includes a postscript chapter covering the day five years after the suicide when unforeseen political changes shed new light on the feelings of Cavan’s old friends and the direction of the country.

Faithful Are the Wounds is more relevant than ever in these times of clashing political loyalties. Reading about a different but equally bitter historical period in our country helps us to understand what is going on now. Sarton wrote a story that many readers will think about long after the reading is finished.