Family Card - Person Sheet
Family Card - Person Sheet
Birth20 Nov 1923, Springs, South Africa807,808
Death13 Jul 2014, South Africa
MotherHannah (Nan) MYERS (1897-1973)
Birth12 Mar 1908, Berlin705
DeathOct 2001, Johannesburg
FatherDr Hugo CASSIRER (1869-1920)
Marriage12 Jan 1954809
ChildrenHugo (1955-)
Notes for Nadine GORDIMER
Nadine Gordimer, born in 1923 and, in Seamus Heaney's words, one of "the guerrillas of the imagination," became the first South African and the seventh woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.

Full Background Document: Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience by Per Wästberg: “Warrior of the Imagination” (attached to notes) 807

See also “Living Treasures:Nadine Gordimer” in folder. “I recently took tea with Nadine Gordimer, and discovered that she has the loveliest mind and keenest wit. Her mind is a sunny place though her heart and soul is currently experiencing stormy weather on account of the recent loss of her great love, Reinhold Cassirer, a deeply respected patron of the arts and art dealer.”811

See also extract of review by Jonathan Steele in Misc Notes.

Short Biography:
810 Novelist and short story writer, Nadine Gordimer was born in Springs, South Africa, in 1923. She spent her childhood in Transvaal, and began writing at an early age, publishing her first short story, "Come Again Tomorrow," when she was 15. At 21, Gordimer briefly attended Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg where she was exposed to the social and political atmosphere of South Africa, which would become the focus of her works. Gordimer married twice -- first in 1949 to G. Gavron, with whom she has a daughter, and then to Reinhold Cassirer in 1954. They have a son.

Gordimer remained in Johannesburg and her works reflect the racially turbulent themes of South Africa's history. She has published ten novels. Her first was the semi-autobiographical THE LYING DAYS (1953), which was followed by A WORLD OF STRANGERS (1958), OCCASION FOR LOVING (1963), THE LATE BOURGEOIS WORLD (1966), A GUEST OF HONOUR (1971), THE CONSERVATIONIST (1974), BURGER'S DAUGHTER (1979), JULY'S PEOPLE (1981), A SPORT OF NATURE (1987), and MY SON'S STORY (1990).

Gordimer's short stories have been published in various magazines such as the NEW YORKER, HARPERS, and the YALE REVIEW. They have also been published in several collections, including FACE TO FACE (1949), FRIDAY'S FOOTPRINT (1960), and most recently, JUMP (1991).
Misc Note 2 notes for Nadine GORDIMER
Nadine Gordimer 1972-July 1975688

Finishes writing "You Name It"
"You Name It" [short story] is published in London Magazine (June / July 1976 ) and later included in A Soldier's Embrace.

March 1973
Publishes "The Conservationist" [short story]

"The Conservationist" [short story adapted from the novel The Conservationist] is published in Playboy, Mar. 1973 (v.20, no.3). She is at work on The Conservationist before March 1973 and continue s with the death scene from March until June.

28 June 1973
Finishes writing The Conservationist [novel]

Finishes writing The Conservationist, which is published the following year (1974).

25 April 1975
Coup d'état in Portugal

There is a coup d'état in Lisbon, which will herald the end of the Portuguese colonial empire. The man she met on the plane in 1972, a scene immortalized (even if in a topsy-turvey manner) in The Conservationist is in Beira on that day.

May 1974
Writes "Siblings"/Vicki commits suicide

Writes "Siblings", which is published in Encounter, London, 1975 and is later included in A Soldier's Embrace: Vicki Cassirer, her stepdaughter, died before May or perhaps even in the month of May.

June 1974
Writes "The Termitary

Writes "The Termitary" , which is published in London Magazine and is later included in A Soldier's Embrace. What is this story about the rot which set in really about? The house is so often a stand-in for the self.

17 June 1974
Vistaero, Hillbrow

He is in Jo'burg, in Hillbrow, in a hotel quite close to the tower.

August 1974
Writes the first version of "Town and Country Lovers"

Version of "Town and Country Lovers" [short story]. Published in Harper's and Queen and included in A Soldier's Embrace.

7 September 1974
White counter-coup in Mozambique

The man has returned.

November 1974
The man moves over to South Africa

Back to Vistaero in Hillbrow.

January 1975
Writes "A Mad One"

Writes "A Mad One" which is later included in A Soldier's Embrace.

January-February 1975
Writes first version of "A Soldier's Embrace"

The white madam in "A Soldier's Embrace" is thinking of 'greasing a palm'. The 'revolution' was happening in Mozambique & Angola.

4-7 April 1975
A visit to York in England

She is in England for Conference on Literature in the Conditions of Southern Africa, April 4-7, York University, England. Meets ANC exiles. (See the Tambo papers at the Historical Archives.)

8 May 1975
The death of Bram Fischer

Bram Fischer dies. Gordimer was always intrigued with the figure of Bram Fischer. See had written an article on him she wrote in the 60s. Notice how all this comes together in Burger's Daughter (1979).

June 1975
Writes second version of "A Soldier's Embrace"

The white madam who kisses both the revolutionary and the colonialist soldier.

June-July 1975
Writes "For Dear Life"

"For Dear Life" is published in New Statesman, Jan. 14, 1977 and included in A Soldier's Embrace.

2 July 1975
Writes "A Morning in a Library" (article)

The article is commissioned and published by The Times, London, 1975.

3 July 1975
The birth of Pascale

The birth of Mrs Cassirer’s granddaughter Pascale in La Colle Sur (France) — the enigmatic date and dedication in Selected Stories (1975). Again, note how the South of France looms large in Burger's Daughter and how many of the South African incidents seemed to have taken place there.

July 1975
Writes "A Hunting Accident"

"A Hunting Accident" is published in Encounter, March 1977 and included in A Soldier's Embrace. Original version. In many ways it is frightening that she would be writing this story at this point.

July 1975
Writes "The Need for Something Sweet"

"The Need for Something Sweet" is published in The New Review, London, 1977 and is included in A Soldier's Embrace.

14 August 1975
Southern Angola

South African troops arrive in southern Angola.

September 1975
The 'battle' of Chitado

In the south of Angola.

7 September 1975
'Rosa Burger' returns to 'Paris'

Did she return to Paris or Parys?

17 September 1975
South African invasion

South African forces invade Angola.

17 October 1975
Review of Achebe novel

"At the Crossroads of Cultures. Review of Morning Yet On Creation Day, by Chinua Achebe" [originally titled: Achebe, Gift of Africa"] is published by Times Literary Supplement, Oct. 17. The idea of Creation Day, which appears in None to Accompany Me comes from this period.

11 November 1975
Independence Day

Angolan independence day.

December 1975
A chat to the Indian teachers

Delivers a paper "A Writer's Freedom" Durban Indian Teachers' Conference. The paper tries to sell the idea of Turgenev progressive writer, and that what a writer writes about is really a rather private thing. Notice how the 'conference with the Indians' crops up in Burger's Daughter688
Notes for Nadine GORDIMER
Extract from the Guardian Profile: Nadine Gordimer by Jonathan Steele812

Her opposition to apartheid isolated her from English-speaking whites. The few who took major risks for the liberation movement tended to feel she was too soft, while liberals who criticised apartheid without taking significant action to challenge it found her portrayal of white South African life uncomfortably close to the bone. In fact, Gordimer was always more left-wing than many readers realised. One of her career's many ironies is that she was perceived as a liberal even though she called herself a radical. Would she have been so popular with the editors of the New York Review of Books and other foreign publishers if they had known she voted Communist (before the party was banned) and supported the armed struggle against apartheid?

She is rare among white South Africans for having genuine and close friendships with blacks. "She was totally unpatronising. She used to hold readings and workshops in the townships. If your writing was bad, she said so and offered to work on it with you," says Don Mattera, who was a gangleader in 1950s Sophiatown, a black township of Johannesburg, before taking up writing. Wally Serote, a writer who now chairs the arts and culture committee in parliament, and a colleague since 1965, says: "We forged a very deep relationship as friends."

Gordimer lent Serote her car to drive round as an underground African National Congress organiser. Later she helped him to get a passport and a place at a college in the United States. He praises her ability to cross the colour bar in her writing. "She will write about an old black woman or a young black girl. I don't always agree with everything she ventures, but I haven't tried myself. Something inside me is afraid I will not go beyond the stereotypes if I write about white people," he says.

The person at the centre of this legend is a short and surprisingly conservative-looking elegant figure. In an orange blouse and loose-fitting cotton trousers with a silk scarf round her neck, Gordimer is still glamorous. She lives in the northern Johannesburg suburbs in a house designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the architect of Union Buildings in Pretoria and South Africa House in London, which she shared for many years with her art-dealer husband, Reinhold Cassirer, who died earlier this month, aged 92, after a long battle with emphysema. The house is furnished in as cool and clinical a way as she writes; it is austere without being uncomfortable. Outstanding works of modern art are hung modestly.

Gordimer writes on a Hermes baby portable typewriter, with strict rules about not being disturbed until lunchtime. She does not like computers because she wants to see what she has crossed out, though she says she is experienced enough now not to need much redrafting. "I can stop at a sentence and come back in a month's time and pick it up from there. You do your editing in your head as you go along," she says. She confides in no one about her work until it is finished.

There are several reasons behind the false image of Gordimer as a liberal. One is that she usually avoided political argument in her fiction. In Burger's Daughter she models the story on the family of Nelson Mandela's defence lawyer, the Afrikaner advocate Bram Fischer, a Communist who died in prison. But in her other books the critique of apartheid is that of any sentient person, regardless of political affiliation. Although her characters sometimes make political declarations, she, as narrator, always steers clear. "A writer has to be very careful in a conflict situation where you have strong personal feelings not to be tempted to write propaganda. I would defy anybody to find propaganda in any of my 22 books," she says sharply.

Another explanation for the myth of the liberal Gordimer is that she concealed her activism. When the ANC and the Communist party were illegal it was dangerous to admit to hiding wanted people. In the new South Africa, modesty and good taste hold her back. "I don't like to talk about what I did because I feel it always sounds boastful," she says. "I don't see why I should justify myself as a white South African by saying I did A,B,C or D. The people with whom, or for whom, I did these things know. That's enough for me. In order to be a South African today if you're white I feel you have to have earned it in some way. In my humble way I think I have."

She is referring to her activism, not her writing. Whether writers can bring about change by their work is an open question, she believes. She cites her friend Vaclav Havel's role in undermining Stalinism in Czechoslovakia as a rare success, though she is unhappy with his role as president. In South Africa's case the answer is less clear. "The handful of us writers who are known abroad gave a personal dimension to what apartheid really was. We also gave another kind of dimension in terms of cause and effect. On TV you see burnings and killings but you don't really get into the chain of life which continues. In novels, stories, and the theatre that is perhaps what we did. It was through this that people outside South Africa, and our own people here, saw what apartheid really meant in long-run human terms, with its total invasiveness in people's lives, characters, and reactions. In that way we were, in a popular phrase, an arm of the struggle," she says. "Not in a didactic way," she quickly adds. "I've never thought I could - or wanted to - teach anybody anything. I just wanted to show what was there."

Where her writing genes came from is not clear. Her father was a Jewish immigrant watchmaker from Lithuania with no intellectual pretensions, who, within days of arriving in South Africa at the age of 13, took on the manners of a white supremacist, to Gordimer's shame later on. Her mother came from a line of English Jews. A middle-class snob, she despised her husband's eastern European background so much that it was never discussed at home. The marriage was unhappy and Nadine, the younger of two sisters, regrets that she never talked to her father about life in his Lithuanian shtetl . The Gordimers lived in the small mining town of Springs, east of Johannesburg. Her father attended synagogue but her mother did not. Nadine was born there in 1923 and went to a convent school because it was the best in the area. She took on her mother's lack of interest in religion and Judaism, but unlike many other "non-Jewish Jews" of eastern European origin she has no fund of Yiddish jokes.

The key event in her childhood occurred when she was 10. She fainted twice for no obvious reason and the family doctor discovered she had an unusually rapid heartbeat. It was nothing more threatening than hyperactivity but her mother decided that Nadine had a "bad heart". She first stopped her daughter's participation in swimming, tennis, other games and ballet lessons, then removed her from school altogether. Instead, she went to a tutor each morning. Deprived of normal education and social life between 11 and 16, Gordimer had only adults for company. Cut off from other teenagers, she became a voracious reader and writer. She was first published on the young readers' pages of the Johannesburg Sunday Express in 1936 and had her first story printed in an adult publication - the magazine Forum - at 15.

At 18 she blossomed as a member of a small amateur dramatic group which was entertaining the troops during the war. Given the explicit sexuality she describes in her novels, Gordimer talks about those days with surprisingly girlish coyness. "We had a big RAF pilots' training camp near Springs so there was an invasion of handsome young Englishmen. We were keeping the boys happy, having a great time, and coming home drunk, oh dear," she giggles.

Towards the end of the war she enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, known as Wits (pronounced Vits). For the first time she mixed with blacks as equals and began to understand the corrosive effects of apartheid. A new leap in her political consciousness came with the arrival in Johannesburg of the English journalist, Anthony Sampson, who became editor of the weekly magazine Drum. Many of its staff were African and Gordimer and Sampson spent much time in Sophiatown or at multiracial parties in Johannesburg with black writers and artists.

"I was bowled over by Nadine's extraordinary energy. Her observation of detail and capacity for description put me to shame," Sampson recalls. "She couldn't stand the paternalism of the liberals, the way they were always telling blacks what to do." Gordimer herself says the experiences of those years convinced her she was "not a European but a white African".

Gordimer had been taken up by the progressive Afrikaner poet, Uys Krige, who recommended her to the New Yorker and other foreign publications. Her short stories of those years were brilliantly sharp vignettes of life in and around Johannesburg. Her first novel, The Lying Days, published in 1953, is her most autobiographical book, describing the difficult relationship of a young woman with her parents. A World Of Strangers (1958) was already more political, with its context of life in the black townships which seemed more real, as she put it, than that of the white suburbs.

By then Gordimer was a mother of two. She had married Gerald Gavron, a local dentist, in 1949. They had a daughter, Oriane, but were divorced within three years. Her second husband, Reinhold Cassirer, whom she married in 1954, came from a distinguished family of Berlin Jews. He was a refugee from Nazi Germany who came to South Africa and served in the British Army in the second world war.

The big political trials of the 1960s absorbed Gordimer and she spent many days on the public benches in court. George Bizos, junior counsel in the trial which led to Nelson Mandela's long prison sentence, asked her to write brief portraits of the defendants to publicise their cases. The evening before Mandela delivered his famous speech from the dock, justifying the ANC's turn to violence, Bizos recalls showing Gordimer and Sampson the draft. "We talked about it. We argued about it. Anthony contributed a lot. But I couldn't claim that I put a sentence in," Gordimer says.

The lead counsel was Bram Fischer and Gordimer got to know him and his family well. Another of her close Communist friends, Betty du Toit, was an Afrikaner trade union leader. Gordimer admired the fact that the Communist party was the only multiracial political party and its members were unusually brave. "It's strange in a way that when I was young I didn't join the Communist party", she says. "I suppose the whole Stalinist thing kept me out. Silence would fall when you talked about things that had happened in the Soviet Union." With a chuckle, she adds: "One could say I was a fellow-traveller - on the footplate - to the Finland Station."

Coy about her risk-taking in general, she does reveal that she and her husband sheltered Chief Albert Luthuli, the ANC's elderly president, in their Parktown home. "He was ill and living in poor conditions in Soweto. He was a wonderful man and we had long talks. He was here for some weeks. It was illegal and the police must have known."

Other former ANC activists say that she helped to transfer messages and money between London and the South African "underground".

Mac Maharaj, a Communist party member and leading ANC figure, says she also put herself on the line in the late 1980s. He had been sent back from exile in disguise to set up underground ANC structures in South Africa. He says: "I needed a place as a fall-back in case my main network was made impossible. Nadine was already linked to networks helping the civic movements through the churches and other sanctuaries, but I needed deeper cover than that. I was willing to contact her because I trusted her implicitly."

The bleak time which followed the sentencing of Mandela and Fischer prompted Gordimer to think of exile. Her husband would have been happy in England "because he's a European". She did not want to leave Africa so they thought about going to Zambia. "But I realised it was an illusion. I would be just like all the other experts on contract. I wouldn't be accepted as I was here, even in the worst times and even though I'm white," she says.

There was more soul-searching with the rise of the black consciousness movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which rejected the role of whites in the anti-apartheid struggle. Wally Serote recalls frequent visits he made to Gordimer with Steve Biko, the black consciousness leader murdered by the South African police in 1977. "It must have been very difficult for her. We were very militant and were almost rejecting positions of non-racialism, and not recognising the humanity of the other side. But she didn't attempt to persuade us. She asked questions and tried to understand our point of view," he remembers. Gordimer's version of that period was that it was "dreadful but necessary". "Africans felt they had been sold down the river. After all, what had white protest achieved? The liberal position had not brought about change. Not at all," she says.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
Last Modified 16 Jul 2014Created 21 Mar 2024 by Jim Falk