Nadine Gordimer: ‘Comrade Madam’

A personal reminiscence of the Nobel laureate, whose anti-apartheid novels masked her own ruthless ideology

Nadine Gordimer’s first book was a collection of stories titled Face to Face. It was published in Johannesburg in 1949 by Silver Leaf Books, a firm newly established by my mother. The collection was reissued three years later in New York by Simon & Schuster, retitled The Soft Voice of the Serpent.   

Nadine, who died in July aged 90, was married then to Gerald Gavron and had a daughter named Oriane. She told me it was the name of a character in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Unlike most of my parents’ visitors, she talked to me. I was nine years her junior — 17, and in my first year at university — and for all her friendliness I held her in some awe as a published writer, which I aspired to be. I read her stories and admired the vividness of her descriptions. More than her talent, I admired — and envied — her success. Her work began to appear in the New Yorker. I could imagine no higher peak for a writer to attain. I never stopped admiring her skill; but as the years went by, I found it ever harder to like what she wrote, and eventually I liked it not at all.   

Nadine often said in her later years that she had been something of a bohemian in her youth. It must have been before I knew her. Soon after the publication of Face to Face she was divorced, moved into a small flat with Oriane, and did not live anything like a bohemian lifestyle. One afternoon when I went with my mother to see her, we came upon her rebuking her black maidservant for not changing, as was the custom in our world, from a morning-blue uniform with matching cap into a black afternoon uniform with a white cap and apron.  

She was writing her first novel, The Lying Days, at that time. She worked in the mornings while Oriane was at school. She was extraordinarily self-disciplined. Every day she rose early, did some physical exercises, then worked until lunchtime. Her afternoons were for living: being with her child and later her two children; seeing friends; shopping. That was the routine she established and stuck to throughout her long life, varying it only when she went on her travels. She told me once that she didn’t revise much but wrote “very slowly”. Slowly the works grew: stories for magazines, later collected and republished in a book; the book of stories followed by a novel; then a collection of stories again, and again a novel, in alternation through the years and the decades.
  In her own account of her life, she had always, since her childhood, been concerned with the plight of the blacks. But her early writings showed no sign of it. She had nothing to say about white rule and black subjugation — the flaw in the good life we whites could lead in our beautiful, bountiful country, while the greater part of the population endured oppression, humiliation and poverty. But she got to know people who talked about it: some who worked against the regime from within the system, such as the journalist Anthony Sampson, editor of Drum, a magazine for blacks; and politicians, such as my father, Dr Bernard Friedman, a member of parliament in the “liberal” United Party (who later co-founded the anti-apartheid Progressive Party).  

As time passed, she encountered men and women who actively defied the apartheid regime as rebels, risking arrest and imprisonment. She watched them and heard them, and began to despise liberalism. Her second husband, Reinhold Cassirer, was an ideological Marxist. In the late Sixties she was calling herself a “radical”. Eventually (I don’t know when) she became a member of the banned African National Congress (ANC), although she knew it had become a terrorist organisation under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. She could not have been unaware of its policy-promoted passionately by Mandela’s wife Winnie — of instantly and publicly punishing mob-accused “collaborators” and “informers” by the atrocious practice of “necklacing” (hanging a tyre filled with petrol round the victim’s neck and setting it on fire so that he or she was burnt to death). 

The ANC was South Africa’s largest black political organisation. It had been neither militant nor Communist under the leadership of Albert Luthuli. Under Nelson Mandela’s leadership it became both. In 1962, the year after he had launched the ANC’s “terrorist wing”, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), he was arrested, tried, and sent to prison, where he remained for 27 years. Nelson Mandela (no matter how much and how hotly the fact is disputed) was a member of the South African Communist Party. And to Communists, terrorism was always an accepted tactic. 

Whether Nadine became a Communist because she wanted to support the only strong organisation working for black liberation and so accepted its Communism as part of the deal, or she was first won to Communism and so to the ANC, I don’t know. She certainly embraced it zealously. She insisted that no editions of her books be sold in South Africa except those published by a local Communist house, Raven Press. But I do know that she had very little understanding of what Communism is.  

This is how I found that out. She and my father each employed “houseboys” who came from Mozambique. The two men were friends. When my father died in 1984 he left a legacy to his servant, whom I’ll call Fred. It was paid into a building society account which had been opened for him some years earlier. Fred returned to his homeland, and from time to time made the long journey from the rural hinterland of Communist Mozambique to Johannesburg, surviving inquisition on both sides of the border, to collect some of his money. On one occasion he found his account short of the amount he had expected, and, wanting help from me, asked his friend to ask Mrs Cassirer to phone me in London, where I had been living since 1960. She did so willingly, although by then she and I were no longer on friendly terms. In the course of the conversation she asked me why I had not helped Fred to move his capital to a savings account in Mozambique. I had to explain to her that under a Communist regime, institutions did not exist through which individuals might invest capital and earn interest. She was genuinely surprised to hear it.   

She often spoke of my father as her “guru”. His fondness for her did not change when she joined the ANC, though he did once say to me that if he was her guru, he wished she would take some political instruction from him. So if it was not his political wisdom she sought, what was it? 

Nadine Gordimer was, from quite early in her career, one of those rare writers who make a good living from their books. Also, she won many prizes — every important prize for fiction that existed, I think — and some of them brought her substantial sums of money. She invested it in stocks and shares. She would visit my father on a Sunday with a briefcase containing her investment portfolio. He was her financial guru. She would note his opinions — he would not let them be called “advice” — on whether she should sell this or buy that. On the whole, whether or not because of his opinions, she did well out of her investments. To put it another way, she was successful with her capitalist ventures. But did she ever think of them as that? 

Reinhold Cassirer was a very wealthy man. His mother had collected Impressionist paintings when they could be picked up for a song. By the time he inherited them, they were worth tens of millions. He lent the greater part of the collection to the Johannesburg Art Gallery. One that he retained, an Utrillo (typically, a picture of a street), hung over the mantelpiece in their sitting-room. I remember him standing with his back to the empty fireplace, the Utrillo above his head, as he expounded his idea that the blacks had not yet suffered enough, “the screw must be turned tighter” to bring about the revolution. I looked at my father, our eyes met, and he shook his head slightly, implying that I should say nothing. 

The protagonists of most of Nadine’s novels and many of her stories are white housewives of the Johannesburg northern suburbs, as she was and I was. Real Housewives of Northern Johannesburg. Regardless of what addresses she might give them, that is their type: white ladies who run their clean and orderly houses with a staff of black servants. In actuality, there was more than one who would have it known within her circle that she was a Stalinist or a Trotskyite; but when the brilliant comedian   Pieter-Dirk Uys introduced into his satirical one-man performances a woman spoken of respectfully by her servants as “Comrade Madam”, local audiences thought they knew exactly whom he meant.
 To comply with my father’s wish, I did not argue with Reinhold. Nadine herself seldom talked about politics on social occasions. But her books provoked me. While she was moving to the Left, I was moving to the libertarian Right. In 1992, after she had been awarded the Nobel Prize, I wrote an article for an American periodical in which I criticised her political views. A Johannesburg newspaper phoned me, wanting me to say more. I cannot remember clearly all I said, but I know I deplored Nadine’s affiliation with the ANC. I condemned its use of terrorism, its random killing and maiming with bombs. I probably said that Communism was one of the most terrible creeds ever to afflict poor suffering humanity. I answered questions about the revolutionaries I had known in South Africa, their organisations, the crimes they had committed. The interview was published, but wasn’t available to the newspaper’s readers for long. Nadine — who was by then a power in the land — demanded that they take it off their pages. And they did. 

The only contact she and I had after that was when she phoned me about Fred’s money problem. And I wrote her a letter of condolence when Reinhold died in 2001. I had no reply and never heard from her again.

I have read that she was disappointed with the ANC in power; with what South Africa has become. Which is very much what some of us expected it to become. One cause of suffering is gone, but the majority of the black population is still abysmally poor, ill-fed, ill-housed and undereducated; and there is more disease (Aids in particular) and crime than there was in the days of white rule.

Disappointed she may have been, but I doubt that Nadine felt regret or bitterness in her old age. What might really have been hard for her to bear was the loneliness of widowhood. Though she was much and widely celebrated, and still travelled now and then to Europe or America, the friends of her generation were dying out. She must have spent many evenings alone in her peculiarly austere house in the affluent suburb of Parktown. She had told me that she read in the evenings. When I knew her she had no television. I imagine her alone in her spartan sitting-room, many nights on end, reading — what? Proust again perhaps, or the new novels she once told me she liked to “keep up with”. All her chairs were uncomfortable. The highly polished floors were bare. The Utrillo cast its splendour on an otherwise hard and joyless space. Her garden was barren-bleak when I saw it one winter. It had been left much as nature had made it, with a small rocky hill (koppie) in the middle of it. 

Her children lived far away: Oriane in France and Hugo in America (though they were with her when she died). As she outlived her old friends, did she make some new, younger ones? One night she called on a mutual friend of hers and mine, the poet Lionel Abrahams, accompanied by the Chinese ambassador. Her friendship with him puzzled Lionel, and me too when he told me about it. Whatever did they have in common? Communist ideology? We could think of nothing else. 

She had never been gregarious. She spoke of her “hand-picked friends”. And she liked to give dinner parties. The food, sometimes prepared by herself, was good. And it was ample, though she herself ate abstemiously. When she was about 60 she told me with pride that she had “not put on an ounce” since the birth of her second child. 

Though she did not snub people, her manner towards even her close friends was not warm. She strangely combined coldness with amiability, and even with sensuousness — manifest in her prose, those vivid descriptions.  

For all her rather ascetic and abstemious ways, she cared very much about her appearance and gave time and thought to what she wore. Her voice was sharp. (A writer — I forget who — once said it was “like an electric carving-knife”.) She was not without wit and humour, although neither shows much in her writing. Once when she was driving me to a PEN meeting where we were to read passages from our banned books, she warned me that a black poet who’d also be reading his work belonged to “the mother-fucker school of poetry”. And when she and my father met at some formal reception and found themselves in company that neither of them cared for, she said to him, “These are close encounters of the turd kind.”  

A mutual friend told me that she died of pancreatic cancer, and that she also suffered in  her last years from rheumatoid arthritis. Profound as were our differences, and long as it had been since we were together in friendship, I pity her pain and will feel her absence. Her death depletes my world. 

Her books, or some of them, will live on, I think. Future generations may read her work and find pleasure and interest in it. Was it, in its day, a significant help towards black liberation? Possibly, though I am not convinced of it. What I absolutely cannot agree with is the almost universal consensus among intellectuals that Nadine Gordimer bestowed a great benefit on her country or the world. To have promoted and romanticised Communism as an ideal in the age of the gulag, the Ukrainian forced famine, the Chinese cultural revolution, the killing fields of Cambodia, was not wise, or noble, or brave, or useful. It was immoral. It was impercipient. It was wrong.  

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