Nobel-winning author Gordimer explored the realities of apartheid

By Helen T. Verongos / New York Times News Service

Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer whose literary ambitions led her into the heart of apartheid to create a body of fiction that brought her a Nobel Prize in 1991, died Sunday in Johannesburg. She was 90.

Her family announced her death in a statement.

Gordimer did not originally choose apartheid as her subject as a young writer, she said, but she found it impossible to dig deeply into South African life without striking repression. And once the Afrikaner nationalists came to power in 1948, the scaffolds of the apartheid system began to rise around her and could not be ignored.

“I am not a political person by nature,” Gordimer said years later. “I don’t suppose if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”

But whether by accident of geography or literary searching, she found her themes in the injustices and cruelties of her country’s policies of racial division, and she left no quarter of South African society unexplored — from a hot, crowded cinder-block neighborhood in a black township to the white colonial world of sundowner cocktails, poolside barbecues and hunting parties.

Critics have described the whole of her work as constituting a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it.

Living through her protagonists

About her own life Gordimer told little, preferring to explore the intricacies of the mind and heart in those of her protagonists. “It is the significance of detail wherein the truth lies,” she once said.

But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.

Gordimer was the author of more than two dozen works of fiction, including novels and collections of short stories in addition to personal and political essays and literary criticism. Her first book of stories, “Face to Face,” appeared in 1949, and her first novel, “The Lying Days,” in 1953. In 2010, she published “Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008,” a weighty volume of her collected nonfiction.

Giving voice to those of different perspectives

Gordimer was never detained or persecuted for her work, though there were always risks to writing openly about the ruling repressive regime. One reason may have been her ability to give voice to perspectives far from her own, like those of colonial nationalists who had created and thrived on the system of institutionalized oppression that was named the “grand apartheid” (from the Afrikaans word for “apartness”) when it became law.

Her ability to slip inside a life completely different from her own took her beyond the borders of white and black to explore other cultures under the boot of apartheid. In the 1983 short story “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” she entered an Indian Muslim household, and in the novel “My Son’s Story” (1990), she wrote of a mixed-race character.

She won the Booker Prize in 1974 for “The Conservationist,” which had a white male protagonist. Long before the struggle against apartheid was won, some of her books looked ahead to its overthrow and a painful national rebirth. In “July’s People” (1981), a violent war for equality has come to the white suburbs, driving out the ruling minority. In a reversal of roles, July, a black servant, brings his employers, a white family, to the black township of Soweto, where he can protect them. In “A Sport of Nature” (1987), the white wife of an assassinated black leader becomes, with a new husband, the triumphant first lady of a country rising from the rubble of the old order.

Perhaps surprisingly, Gordimer’s books were not the product of someone who had grown up in a household where the politics of race were discussed. Rather, Gordimer said, in her world, the minority whites lived among blacks “as people live in a forest among trees.”

It was not her country’s problems that set her to writing, she said. “On the contrary,” she wrote in an essay, “it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life.”

Nadine Gordimer was born to Jewish immigrant parents on Nov. 20, 1923, in Springs, a mining town in the Transvaal, the vast, largely rural area in the northeast settled by Afrikaner farmers. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, a watchmaker who had been driven by poverty to emigrate from Lithuania, eventually established his own jewelry store. Her mother, the former Nan Myers, had come with her family from Britain and never stopped thinking of it as home.