You are here:   Civilisation >  Critique > Nadine Gordimer: 'Comrade Madam'
 
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. 

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
Yechiel
September 12th, 2014
2:09 PM
This article points out with clarity Nadine Gordimer's inability to distinguish the righteous terror of Israel and South Africa from the malignant terror committed by Winnie Mandela and the Palestinians.

David Hutchison
September 10th, 2014
8:09 PM
This does not surprise me. It is typical of the hard Left

James E Martins
September 2nd, 2014
8:09 AM
“Standpoint” is to be congratulated on publishing Jillian Becker’s scathingly perceptive and darkly witty demolition of one of the most over-lauded and tiresome champagne Stalinists since Lillian Hellman. Becker’s superb piece on Nadine Gordimer (“Comrade Madam”: “Standpoint”: September, 2014) ranks with Dwight Macdonald’s brilliant denunciation of the snobbery and obfuscations of James Gould Cozzens. After receiving her ill-deserved Nobel Prize, Gordimer was treated as if she were Yoda by the trendy Left, both In South Africa and abroad, and she was routinely praised for her literary achievements and her “courage”. In truth, Gordimer’s turgid, tub-thumping novels are unlikely to stand the rigorous test of passing years: they were always more bloated pamphlets than Tolstoy, whatever South African academics, frenziedly waving the “Local is Lekker” banner, may assert. Although there are some impressive short stories (“Enemies” is undoubtedly a masterpiece), Gordimer’s works in that genre are little more than poor man’s Katherine Mansfield, laced with political gibes. As far as courage is concerned, Nadine Gordimer, insulated by vast wealth, was never destined to be a martyr of the oppressive Nationalist government. Certainly, her novels were subjected to despotic and idiotic censorship, but, then again, so was South Africa’s very own girlie magazine, “Scope”. Gordimer generously promoted Black protest poetry of the 1970s, but she could be both fatuous and churlish about works that did not share her own political views. She “regretted” the publication of J. M. Coetzee’s wrenching, dystopian masterpiece, “Disgrace”(published in 1999), claiming that it lacked “deep feeling”, simply because it did not echo her naïve optimism about ANC-governed South Africa. Blinkered, even worshipful in her support of the ANC, Gordimer expressed reservations about “democratic” South Africa’s ruling regime’s corruption and restrictions on freedom of speech only towards the end of her life. Her criticisms, while apt, were very belated and hardly risky. Gordimer’s true talent lay in self-promotion – toadying to Susan Sontag certainly raised Gordimer’s profile in the U.S.A. – and F. R. Leavis’s brisk dismissal of the Sitwells could definitely be applied to “Comrade Madam”: she belongs more to the world of publicity than to that of literature. Those who relish Jillian Becker’s insights should also treasure an assessment of Nadine Gordimer offered by the very fine historical novelist, Mary Renault (1905 –1983), who settled in South Africa in the late 1940s. Renault clashed with Gordimer over admissions to PEN, and, in 1979, she wrote unforgettably of Gordimer: "There’s hardly anyone who knows her and likes her, and, instead of ever asking herself if this can possibly be because she is a bit of a bitch, she always attributes it to political martyrdom. Alan Paton has been every bit as outspoken as she has, and everyone respects him. I could write you chronicles about her, the only writer I have ever known to go in for calculated intrigue in the world of letters. But, as Jane Austen very properly says, let other pens dwell on vice and misery."

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.