This interview with Nadine Gordimer took place at her home in Johannesburg, South Africa in November 2004.
Rossouw: “The truth isn’t always beauty but the hunger for it is,” you wrote once. I’m curious about the hunger to write and the hunger for truth in your work.
Gordimer: We’ve got to examine truth. To me, writing, from the very beginning and right until this day, is a voyage of discovery. Of the mystery of life. I am one of those people who have no religious faith, I am an atheist. I believe there is only this life. But this life is so incredible. And early on I found that you think, for instance, you know people, you think you know someone. But the person who is in a different relationship with that person knows a different person. So there are all these facets . . .
Like in “The Generation Gap,” there is that line, “they were all other people.”
Yes. Because I still, all these years later, have been following this voyage of discovery, finding out things that I don’t know. And when I find them, moving on to other things that are then revealed, that connect with truth. The truth can only be pieced together from these different bits of knowledge, these different impressions, these different experiences. Goethe said: “You close your eyes and you dip your hand into your society and you bring up a little bit of the truth.” And that is the material of your writing.
Through which relationships—personal, societal?—would you describe yourself?
They interchange all the time, because obviously your personal life is something most fundamental to you. Like the love relationships in your life. Then comes friendships and then looming large—if you’re alive at all, if you are alert at all, if you are a real human being—you get the people amongst whom you live. Out of that comes that indescribable thing, a sense of justice. If you have no religion, if God is not telling you this is good and that is bad, where does a sense of justice come from? Very strange. I don’t know, I just know it’s there. There is a compass.
How would you want to be remembered? Through your books?
The best that is within me, anything worthwhile in me, is in the books. Not in an autobiographical fashion. But I’m talking about the insights, the effort to understand life and to transpose it. And, of course, to do all those wonderful things, words.
I’m not religious but . . .
[Laughs] I know exactly what you mean. The way one says when somebody sneezes, “Bless you!” You know, who’s going to bless him?
And your words in particular, they will remain for decades to come. Is posterity something that ever crosses your mind?
Posterity? Never. It’s not part of who I am. It’s such an imponderable thing. Some of the writers I most admire . . . I’ve just written a preface to the translation of a very early book of Gustave Flaubert [November: Fragments in a Nondescript Style, Hesperus Press, 2005] that I didn’t know existed, it’s not even mentioned in lists of his work. And to think this work of genius, this wonderful little book was simply lying for a hundred years or so, completely forgotten. Isn’t it wonderful that some publisher thought of it and dug it out?
And even the decision to publish Camus’s The First Man, that unfinished manuscript that was in his car . . .
Yes, that’s right. Funnily enough, I’ve just had a room painted and had to move a wall of books and suddenly there was The First Man. Isn’t it a wonderful book? When you talk about it, it makes me want to go and read it again.
What do you think of biography?
There’s always this tendency to play what I call the “eye-spy” game. Quite frankly, it has no interest for me. I’m talking about other people’s books. When I read a serious biography, right, there will be facts about the person’s life, especially their involvement in public life. And their personal relationships, the frustrations and disappointments and happiness that they had. But what I’m looking for there is an analysis of what is in the book or the books. Of what themes were tackled in the books. But something that interests me very much, and more and more, I’m beginning now even to see it in my own books which are written from many different points of view, very different personae, first person as a man, a child, a woman, a young person, an older person, there is the sense, looking back, that you are really writing one book all your life. Because there is this voyage of discovery of life. And I see now, looking at this little book, November, by Flaubert, so many of the themes that he was going to explore so wonderfully later are just touched upon, he didn’t have the skill to carry them any further. And then, as his life went by, he followed them, he followed these dark tunnels. And I think I could apply that to any writer whom I admire, who has fulfilled the promise that was in their early work.
So what interests you in the lives of other writers is whether they fulfilled their promise, how their work progressed?
What they dropped, what obsessed them.
I’ve been reading Gabriel García Márquez’s Living to Tell the Tale. There’s this line, “The world belonged to the poets.” This is the 1940s, when literature was everything in Colombia. Even the president wrote poetry. Márquez met in writers’ cafés twice a day, noon and 6 p.m., every day.
Which, of course, is a life we don’t know.
There seem to be two different kinds of literary life. For instance, in South Africa, we are very solitary. We have no sorts of schools of writers, we live in our big country, spread around the place. In other countries, at different times, you had the Bloomsbury Group. You had Jean-Paul Sartre’s group and so on, just during and after the war. And now Márquez telling us what it was like. They exchanged ideas. I can never get over the fact that Thomas Mann would read the day’s pages, gather the family round at night and read to them what he had written during the day. I am absolutely aghast, because I have spent three years in this house, writing a book, and Reinhold, my husband, I never discussed it with him, he never saw a word of it, he respected this absolutely. I didn’t want to be influenced in any way by anyone, and I certainly wouldn’t have shown it to a publisher. Some writers, apparently, show it chapter by chapter. Imagine the publisher, who cannot write a novel himself, telling you what to write. [Reinhold] was the first person who read the book when it was finished, before the publisher did. And, well, it worked very well that way. Then he would give me, really, a wonderful response to the book, with questions, criticism, appreciation. I was terribly lucky to have someone who could do this, who would do this. And only then would the editor, the publisher get it. And I often told my young writer friends: stop showing bits and chapters of the book to this friend and that. Because that person wants to write a book for you. Let him or her write their own book.
Márquez learnt the same lesson early on. He never showed a work in progress again. A lot of the book is about how he struggled. He was rejected so many times.
He is so frail now. So ill. I saw him just over a year ago in Cuba. Such a lovely man.
Is the novel the freest of mediums? You wrote once that, subconsciously, there is always some self-censorship in nonfiction.
There is more truth in my fiction than in nonfiction. I think, subconsciously, [if] I am writing an article or talking to you, there is a certain amount of self-censorship going on. But in my fiction I am writing as if I were dead. I want to say it all. I want to say everything I know.
Do you mean that you write as if posthumously, with the seriousness that the awareness of death brings?
No, it’s nothing to do with death. I thought this even when I was very young. Perhaps there’s no posthumous-ness. The fact is that I am now writing, I am talking aloud to myself, so to speak, saying as I say, finding ways to express what I know and what I’m learning. And of course another thing that people don’t understand, when you’ve written one novel there comes an idea that plagues you, and the next one. You have not learnt from the previous one how to write this one. Each novel takes a different voice, the voice is very important. I hear—I hear it being told to me. And sometimes it’s going to be distanced, third person, sometimes it’s going to be first person. Sometimes it’s going to be in the past tense entirely, hardly ever anymore, because I think our sense of time is never like that. Or chopping and changing from the present to the past because that’s how we think. Do we ever live really in the present? I don’t think so, not entirely, do you?
No, unfortunately not.
[Laughs] There are always intrusions, sometimes welcome, sometimes not, from the past.
Like the story in Loot: walking in London, the narrator sees someone from the past . . .
Yes. And of course there [is] in that—wonderful thing about a short story, such a discipline—right, it’s a personal thing for the person walking through London going to look up this old friend. But at the same time there is politics and history in it because of the people passing in the street. The whole colonial past of the British is there, in little touches, and that’s why the short story is such a wonderfully challenging medium. One of the most beautiful stories in this book [Telling Tales (2004), edited by Gordimer] is “The Centaur” [by José Saramago]. And the centaur, this mythical beast, it turns out that after all these millions of years, one of them has survived. This half man, half horse. And it’s almost constantly on the run, hiding away from people who will kill it or capture it. It’s extremely moving. And it has two themes. The pain that you are half an animal and half a man. And then it relates to how the thinking being is at the top of the body, in the head, and the lower half of the body is the digestion, sex, and how these two are conflict in this story. Even when it wants to lie down, what is comfortable for a horse is terrible for a man. It’s a quite wonderful story. If you think about it, it’s not just about a mythical beast, it’s also about people being hunted, people wandering, people being pursued from country to country in this endless emigration that goes on.
Does writing bring you peace? Solace from the everyday?
[Sighs happily] It is the constant factor in my life. Through everything else that has happened to me and that has absorbed me.
You say that with such pleasure, it’s wonderful.
Well, no, I only realize it now because really I’ve been very fortunate that I had, in my second marriage, forty-eight years of the most wonderful relationship. So what is left to me now that my man is dead? The answer is what has been with me all along, the only thing, is my work, my writing. Which is, as I say, this endless discovery until the day that . . . it stops. I’m amazed though, talking the other day to Arthur Miller, he’s got two new plays opening in Chicago. And he’s eighty-eight. I can name one or two writers, especially in America, they should stop because they have lost it. I hope that I will know because I am highly critical of my own writing, I am my most stern critic. When I feel that I’m not up to it anymore, then I will stop. We’re not all Thomas Mann, unfortunately.
Reviewers say death is a theme in many of the stories in Loot, your latest collection.
Interestingly, I’ve just received today a letter from Julian Barnes, who published recently a wonderful book of stories called The Lemon Table. Now he’s fifty-six, fifty-seven years old but the book seems to be, or all the stories seem to have death as a theme. And he says to me he’s been so surprised that this has been remarked on. People have said: But you’re not old yet! He says, “I want to have a notice stuck on my door: This is not my story.” And then I thought, how true this is that nobody will ever allow that the writer has imagination and can project through different ages, doesn’t matter what the reason may be. One of the first stories I ever wrote was called “Come Again Tomorrow,” it was published in a long-defunct journal. I was fifteen years old. And it was about an old man who goes on a visit to his son and daughter-in-law. And it’s all about his feeling not wanted, feeling lost and out of it. But how did I know? I was fifteen years old. I don’t know. I knew. And so obviously Julian, he’s now seeing people die around him, he’s conscious of birth, life, and death, you know, it’s with us all the time. Vis-à-vis Loot, so many reviewers have made such a mistake in the last long story, “Karma,” which is almost a novella. Good God, it’s not about death. Indeed, it’s a wry little tale about people coming back to life, who want to live again. A rather awful thought. And even the unborn feature there. So it’s not about death at all.
I like how fiction can mirror reality, how writers can write about someone without knowing the details of their life and still get it right . . .
You can see that in the body language. Writers don’t only listen, they also look. Though, indeed, they do listen. I started being an eavesdropper when I was a child, picking up unexplained little bits of conversation and imagining what led to that, what drama in that couple’s life, or what happened between that child and the parent when I overheard: “Stop that! You’re being very naughty.” You know, what does it all mean?