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by Bamber Gascoigne

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)


South African novelist and short-story writer, who received Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. Most of Nadine Gordimer's works deal with the moral and psychological tensions of her racially divided home country. She was a founding member of Congress of South African Writers, and even at the height of the apartheid regime, she never considered going into exile.

A line in a statute book has more authority than the claims of one man's love or another's. All claims of natural feeling are over-ridden alike by a line in a statute book that takes no account of humanness, that recognizes neither love nor respect nor jealousy nor rivalry nor compassion nor hate—nor any human attitude where there are black and white together. What Boaz felt towards Ann; what Gideon felt towards Ann, what Ann felt about Boaz, what she felt for Gideonall this that was real and rooted in life was void before the clumsy words that reduced the delicacy and towering complexity of living to a race theory. (from Occasion for Loving by Nadine Gordimer, with a new introduction by Paul Bailey, Virago,1963, p. 216)

Nadine Gordimer was born into a well-off family in Springs, Transvaal, an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg. It was the setting for Gordimer's first novel, The Lying Days (1953). Her father, Isidore Gordimer, was a Jewish jeweler who had emigrated from Lithuania at the age of thirteen. Nan Myers, her mother, was of British descent. Gordimer was educated in a convent school; she was a good and popular student. She spent a year at Witwaterstrand University, Johannesburg without taking a degree. After an unsuccessful first marriage, Gordimer was married again in 1954 to Reinhold Cassirer, a business man with no literary pretensions. "I never see a thing my wife writes until she's finished," he once said. "I had to wait two years to see A World of Strangers." (Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour, 1990, p. 3)

Often kept at home by a mother who imagined she had a weak heart, Gordimer began writing from the age of nine. Her first piece of writing was a laudatory poem on President Kruger. Gordimer's first published story, 'Come Again Tomorrow,' appeared in the children's section of the Johannesburg magazine Forum when she was only fourteen. Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, which she read in her teens, remained her favorite book throughout her life.

Though she considered herself a slow writer, by her twenties Gordimer had had stories published in many of the local magazines. "It took me years to develop my own style. One week I would try to copy Hemingway after reading him; then I would imitate another writer whose work I admired." (Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour, 1990, p. 4) In 1951 the New Yorker accepted a story, publishing her ever since.

From her early childhood Gordimer witnessed how the white minority increasingly weakened the rights of the black majority. In her first collection of short stories, Face to Face (1949), which is not listed in some of her biographies, Gordimer revealed the psychological consequences of a racially divided society. The novel The Lying Days (1953) was based largely on the author's own life and depicted a white girl, Helen, and her growing disaffection toward the narrow-mindlessness of a small-town life. Other works in the 1950s and 1960s include A World of Strangers  (1958), Occasion for Loving (1963), and The Late Bourgeois World  (1966), which was banned in South Africa. In these novels Gordimer studied the master-servant relations, spiritual and sexual paranoias of colonialism, and the shallow liberalism of her privileged white compatriots. In an interview in 1965 she said that the "temptation to put one's writing in the service of a cause . . . is a betrayal. . . . My own method is to let the general seep up through the individual." ('Gordimer, Nadine,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 578)

Occasion for Loving was concerned with the "line in a statute book" – South Africa's cruel racial law. In the story an illicit love affair between a black man and a white woman ends bitterly. Ann Davis is married to a gentle Jew called Boaz Davis, a dedicated scholar who has travelled all over the country in search of African music. Gideon Shibalo, a talented painter, is black, he has a marriage and several affairs behind. The liberal Mrs Jessie Stilwell is a reluctant hostess to the law-breaking lovers. Boaz, the cuckold, is on the side of the struggling South African black majority, and Ann plays with two men's emotions.

Gordimer won early international recognition for her short stories and novels. The Conservationist (1974) juxtaposed the world of a wealthy white industrialist with the rituals and mythology of Zulus. Burger's Daughter (1979) was written during the aftermath of Soweto uprising. In the story a daughter analyzes her relationship to her father, a martyr of the antiapartheid movement. The book was first banned by the South African Directorate of Publications and then released for publication abroad. Gordimer received letters of support from writers such as Heinrich Böll, Iris Murdoch, Paul Theroux, and John Fowles. July's People (1981) was a futuristic novel about a white family feeing from war-torn Johannesburg into the country, where they seek refuge with their African servant in his village. What Happened to Burger's Daughter or How South African Censorship Works (1980), a collection of essays, made quite clear Gordimer's position toward censorship. Her publisher, Taurus, had been established by a small group of academics. Taurus distributed books through mail order.

Gordimer's early short story collections include Six Feet of the Country (1956), Not for Publication (1965) and Livingstone's Companions (1971). The historical context of the racial divided society was also the fundamental basis of her short stories. In 'Oral History' from A Soldier's Embrace (1980) the village chief has chosen the side of the oppressors. After his village is destroyed he commits suicide. Gordimer examines coolly the actions of her protagonist, linking the tragic events in the long tradition of colonial policy. In the background of the story is the war of independence in Zimbabwe (1966-1980). Gordimer used the mopane tree as a symbol of life and death – the chief hangs himself in the mopane, the dead are buried in the mopane, and finally the tree becomes a means of consolidation."The women are to be seen carrying tins and grain panniers of mud up from the river. In talkative bands they squat and smear, raising huts again. They bring sheaves of reeds exceeding their own height, balanced like the cross-stroke of a majuscular T on their heads. The men's voices sound through the mopane as they choose and fell trees for the roof supports." (Ibid., p. 144)

Since 1948 Gordimer lived in Johannesburg. She also taught in the USA in several universities during the 1960s and '70s. In addition, Gordimer wrote books of non-fiction on South African subjects and made television documentaries, notably collaborating with her son Hugo Cassirer on the television film Choosing Justice: Allan Boesak.

Gordimer had joined the ANC while it was still a banned organization. Lewis noted in his review of July's people that "As the revolutionary process gathers momentum, Gordimer's fiction has become obsessed with the theme of white participation in the final struggle, the theme of 'staying or running away'. (Writing Home: Lewis Nkosi on South African Writing, edited by Lindy Stiebel and Michael Chapman, 2016, p. 225) Through a murder trial in The House Gun (1998), Gordimer explored the culture of violence in post-apartheid society. Two white privileged liberals, Harald and Claudia Lindgard, face the fact that their architect-son, Duncan, has killed his friend Carl Jesperson, whom he had caught making love to his girlfriend. Duncan's lawyer, Motsami, argues: "The climate of violence bears some serious responsibility for the act the accused committed, yes; because of this climate, the gun was there. The gun was lying around the living-room, like a house cat; on a table, like an ashtray." (Ibid., p. 271) Michiko Kakutani described in her review The House Gun as "a slight if sometimes gripping thriller with pretensions, a novel that wants to be more than it is." (The New York Times, January 16, 1998) In No Time Like the Present (2012) Godimer took an unblinking look at her crisis-ridden country, where one of the white characters begins to contemplate the removal of his family to Australia. 

"Her latest fiction shows a welcome readiness to pursue new avenues and a new sense of the world," said the 2003 Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee on Gordimer. (The New York Review of Books, October 23, 2003) The basic setting of The Pickup (2001) reminds in some points the famous film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1962), starring Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo. Julie is the daughter of a rich investment banker. Her car breaks down, and at a garage she meets Ibrahim, an illegal immigrant from an Arab country. The two young people from different cultures start a love affair. Although their background separates them, sex crosses all the cultural barriers, but does not stop Ibrahim striving for money and success, the good things of life that the West can offer. "It's extremely hard to write beautifully about the power of sex," said Andrew Sullivan in his review, "of its capacity to elevate humans out of worlds that would divide them, of its occasionally transcendent quality. But Gordimer writes about it so easily we barely notice the accomplishment." (The New York Times, December 16, 2001) Another theme in the book is Julie's maturation. When Ibrahim faces deportation from South Africa, she insists on leaving the country with him. Julie marries Ibrahim and settles in his home country.

In October 2006, Gordimer was robbed at her old Parktown house by three men. The thieves took cash and jewelry and also locked her in a storeroom. She did not sustain serious physical injuries. Gordimer died in Johannesburg on 13 July, 2014, at the age of 90.

When Gordimer was asked in a Guardian Q&A in 2012 how she would like to be remembered, her reply was: "Let me be forgotten". (The Guardian, 9 March, 2012) Gordimer spoke English with a Johannesburg accent. She was small and slim, and at her 80s, she had her silver hair pulled back into a tight bun.   

For further reading: 'Gordimer, Nadine,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); The Novels of Nadine Gordimer by Stephen Clingman (1986); Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, edited by Rowland Smith (1990); Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour (1990); Betrayls of the Body Politic by Andrew Vogel Ettin (1993); Nadine Gordimer by Dominic Head (1994); Rereading Nadine Gordimer by Kathrin Wagner (1994); From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer by Louise Yelin (1998); Nadine Gordimer Revisited by Barbara Temple-Thurston (1999); No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer by Ronald Suresh Roberts (2005); Nadine Gordimer's July's People: A Routledge Study Guide by Brendon Nicholls (2010); Nadine Gordimer by Lewis Nkosi (2010); Present Imperfect: Contemporary South African Writing by Andrew van der Vlies (2017); South African Writing in Transition, edited by Rita Barnard and Andrew van der Vlies (2019); Nadine Gordimer: eine starke Stimme gegen die Apartheid by Jochen Petzold (2023); Literary Transactions in South Africa: A Politics of Interpretation by Michael Chapman (2025) - Suom.: Gordimerilta on suomennettu myös mm. novellivalikoima Perjantain jalanjälki. Note 1: Gordimer's A World of Stragers (1958) was banned in the soft cover edition in South Africa, Burger's Daughter (1979) was banned after the Soweto uprising. Note 2: Nadine Gordimer rejected in 1998 the candidacy for Orange Award, because the award was restricted to woman writers.

Selected bibliography:

  • Face to Face, 1949
  • The Soft Voice of the Serpent, 1952
  • The Lying Days, 1953
  • Six Feet of the Country, 1956
  • Which New Era Would That Be?, 1956
  • A World of Strangers, 1958
    - Vieraat toisilleen (suom. Leena Reijonen, 1961)
  • Friday's Footprint and Other Stories, 1960
  • Occasion for Loving, 1963
    - Rakkaus kielletty (suom. Kyllikki Hämäläinen, 1965)
  • Not for Publication, 1965
  • The Late Bourgeois World, 1966
  • South African Writing Today, 1967 (editor, with L. Abrahams)
  • A Guest of Honour, 1970
  • Livingstone's Companions, 1971
  • The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing, 1973
  • The Conservationist, 1974
  • Selected Stories. 1975
  • Some Monday for Sure, 1976
  • Burger's Daughter, 1979
    - Burgerin tytär (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1980)
  • No Place Like: Selected Stories, 1979
  • A Soldier's Embrace, 1980
  • What Happened to Burger's Daughter or How South African Censorship Works, 1980
  • Town and Country Lovers, 1980
  • July's People, 1981
    - Palvelija ja herra (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1983)
  • Something Out There, 1984
  • Lifetimes Under Apartheid, 1986
  • A Sport of Nature, 1987
    - Luonnonoikku (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1987)
  • The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, 1988
  • My Son's Story, 1990
    - Poikani tarina (suom. Kristiina Drews, 1991)
  • Crimes of Conscience, 1991
  • Jump: And Other Stories, 1991
    - Hyppy ja muita kertomuksia (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1992)
  • Why Haven't You Written: Selected Stories 1950-1972, 1992
  • None to Accompany Me, 1994
    - Ei seuraa matkalleni (suom. Kersti Juva, 1996)
  • Writing and Being: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures , 1995
  • The House Gun, 1998
  • Living in Hope and History: Notes From Our Century, 1999
  • The Pickup, 2001
  • Loot and Other Stories, 2003
  • Get a Life, 2005
  • Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories, 2007
  • Life Times: Stories 1952-2007, 2010
  • Telling Tales: Writing and Living, 1954-2008, 2010
  • No Time Like the Present, 2012

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