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

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