In the title story of Nadine Gordimer’s new collection, an aging professor named Frederick Morris decides to prove he is part black. Because the meaning of race has been transformed in post-apartheid South Africa, Morris thinks it will rejuvenate his social standing and add a retrospective sparkle to his life, for he knows his own biography is subject to social energies beyond his control. His urge to discover his black lineage is fueled by trendy urban myths that Beethoven and Pushkin were also part black. Morris is too smart to be persuaded by this kind of hype, but he’s also too desperate and too unhappy at the end of his life to resist, so he travels through a crumbling small town, trying to create a new life story. Gordimer is as deeply sympathetic to Morris as she is skeptical of his prospects.
Like others who’ve won Nobel Prizes writing about Africa, such as V. S. Naipaul and J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer is obsessed with how culture constructs identity. As a white Jew in South Africa, she has made apartheid, its aftermath, and the place of individuals in fraught political worlds her lifelong subject. In a way that may seem strange to American readers, her characters seem caught in a kind of trap, in which their sense of themselves is controlled by outside forces.
In “A Frivolous Woman,” a nameless, gloomy man struggles with the memory of his mother, Grete, whose serendipitously joyful personality let her party through a wartime immigration, while he suffered. “He was as a young man embarrassed when she would disappear to another room briefly and reappear in the doorway, castanets and mantilla, singing and stamping as Carmen.” In a letter from a prison camp, she writes how “there’s a circus troupe and she’s great pals with them; the trapeze girl has a bed next to hers.” She even adds “A Postscript. Everyone is so pleased because I’ve also got the French guard to bring us each a quarter litre red wine every day.” Though her son is too obsessed with how to behave in changing circumstances, Grete is one of Gordimer’s great survivors: a woman who is either too brave or too naïve to be controlled by the world. To her, life is “a stack of fancy dress costumes in a pirate chest. No number tattooed on an arm: no. No last journey in a cattle truck.” She is able to imagine new connections to the world, while her son remains doomed by allegiance to convention.
Many of these pieces are spare, and almost schematic, but while they’re always analytical, they never lose their creepy sense of mystery and pain. In “Safety Procedures,” a man fears that turbulence will crash the plane he’s flying in, until his seatmate assures him he’ll be fine, because she has failed three times that year to kill herself. In “Gregor,” a cockroach gets trapped behind the screen of the obsolete “business machine” an old writer still uses to write.
To Gordimer, words are so plainly inadequate for mimesis that she seems to deploy them with tongs. She writes about uncomfortable people with sentences that make you uncomfortable. And she isn’t afraid of risks: one piece speaks the voice of what seems to be a tapeworm, and another calls Edward Said “Jewish.” Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black never panders to the reader. The stories are troubling and skeptical, and their author continues a clear-eyed career.