I thought that Nadine Gordimer had passed away last year, but I see that I was wrong, if Wikipedia and similar sources can be believed. She was born in 1923 in South Africa and still lives in Johannesburg. She is 90 years old. In 1991, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was involved in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, was a member of the ANC, and assisted Nelson Mandela on some of his major speeches. She has been involved in anti-censorship activities, generally, and in fighting AIDS, a big problem in South Africa. I should also say that she is white, born and raised as a liberal Jew, and professes no religion today.
Until earlier this month, I had not read anything by her. By chance, I picked up her first novel, “The Lying Days”, published in 1953. An odd choice, perhaps, as she has written 15 novels, over 20 short story collections, some non-fiction, and a variety of essays and collections of essays. When I started “The Lying Days”, I really did not know what to expect, or if I would see the book through, since it was such an early work and not one which I believe is widely read today. My edition was a “Virago Modern Classics” edition, issued in 1983. Virago is an English press, primarily publishing works by women. It is now owned by Hachette Livre, of Paris. But I digress. (To digress a bit farther, I see that there have been 552 Virago Modern Classics – “The Lying Days” was no. 128.)
It is a wonderful novel, apparently somewhat autobiographical (so they say – I don’t know). The lead character is Helen Shaw, raised in a mining company town not far from Johannesburg, where her father is the company secretary. Except for a little background, we first meet her when she is about 18, and we follow her for 5 or 6 years (the years are about 1944-1949), until she leaves South Africa for England. Much happens in these years, as her eyes open up to a wider world, her estrangement from her parents grows, and the blinders which were so much a part of white South African life in those days begin to fall.
We see life in the mining town – the tennis club, the parties, the servants, and then the miners, and the strip of stores where the natives can shop, eat and drink, some of which are owned by the town’s only Jews. We follow Helen when she gets the opportunity to spend a summer (sorry, I mean winter) at the beach, at the house of an old friend of her mother’s, and meets her hostess’ son, on leave from the army, about ten years older than teen aged Helen. They have a brief romance (not consummated, as they say), and he returns to the service, leaving her behind obsessed with him.
Her obsessions fades, and she develops a lasting friendship with Joel Aaron, the son of one of town’s native area shopkeepers. His parents are Jewish refugees from Europe. Joel feels about them as Helen does about her parents. Joel is studying to be an architect.
Helen graduates from high school, and after a few fits and starts matriculates at the university in Johannesburg, where she meets an entirely new set of friends – perhaps they are pre-hippies, they are clearly free spirits, would be intellectuals, impoverished, not part of the greater society. She is introduced to them by Joel, she ceases being a commuter and moves in with friends who are a married couple with a baby, and then she meets Paul, her ideal man. Of English heritage like her, Paul works for the government – in the ministry that deals with housing and social service issues for the native townships of Johannesburg – a tough job for a young man who disagrees with his government’s policies. She also meets some members of the Indian community, and befriends a black girl who attends the university but who is excluded from virtually any possible friendship with the whites with whom she attends classes.
So this is a coming of age story, and a very good one, because it not only tracks the intellectual and emotional changes and conflicts within Helen, but it has as its setting the unique society of South Africa, and you see it changing before your eyes. Some of the blacks are becoming politically active (and it is clear that no good will come from that) and the Nationalists are voted into office (the right wing party that soon put into effect full blown apartheid, much to the chagrin of the South African liberals and intellectuals, who were certain that things would move in a more progressive direction).
Gordimer writes beautifully. You get a broad picture of the country and its people, and you really get to know all of the characters, who they are and how they are thinking. It is an uplifting book as you see how Helen is maturing in such a positive way. It is a depressing book, as you can see how South Africa is trending in the opposite direction. (And remember, this book was written in 1953, long before much of what came to pass with apartheid had actually been put into place – remarkable prescience on the part of Gordimer.)
Helen is not the only young South African heading to England (temporarily, permanently?) – they are lost in their own country. Joel, in 1949, heads to Israel. Helen tells him that she envies the Jews – they now have a homeland to go to. White South Africans, she says, have lost their homeland, and will be a stranger wherever they wind up.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.