It’s often said that the political is the personal and this is nowhere more evident than in the work of the South African writer Nadine Gordimer who passed away earlier this year. I must confess that I had previously only previously read one of her pieces prior to her death, but was moved by the fulsome tributes that were paid to her to purchase Life Times, a collection of stories originally published between 1952 and 2010.
Inevitably for such a politicised writer, a lot of the stories in Life Times are connected to apartheid and the struggles to overturn it as a system of government. But the stories do not merely chronicle the indignities visited every day on the black population. Instead, she often writes about protest and efforts to create a better society for all. The characters in Gordimer’s short stories that protest are not always the most natural protestors – often the stories tell how individuals become radicalised and what motivates them to speak out against an unjust system of government.
In my opinion this gives the stories an added weight, both political and emotional. She wants us not only to understand why apartheid is a poor system of government, but how courageous it was for people of whatever colour to try and overturn it in the face of overwhelming opposition. They are not all out assaults against the many injustices that her eyes were open to: rather they are often a more subtle exploration of what it is that tips people over the edge. She also shows us the responsibilities that we all have to try and change the world if we think it needs changing. Her characters frequently show immense bravery – as she did herself – and these stories showcase a strong view about society that is not always present in short stories.
This, really, is the key to Gordimer’s longevity. When I think of the short story authors I have come to love over the past five years or so – Roald Dahl, Angela Carter, Helen Simpson, Jon McGregor – none of them tackles political themes so overtly, consistently or engagingly. These are stories that burn with anger.
It is worth pointing out that not all of the stories in Life Times are connected to apartheid and political struggles – within the collection I especially enjoyed Rain-Queen, which tackles adultery, Six Feet of the Country, about a reunio of old freinds, and Tape Measure, told from the point of view of a tape worm in a gut. Her stories are underpinned by an unfussy writing style that remains accessible and fresh today and Life Times – and her stories – remains essential reading.