A Big Watch
Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954 – 2008
Nadine Gordimer’s propulsive, powerful new nonfiction collection, Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954 – 2008, represents a half-century of fervent dedication to moral truth and literary value, expressed with an eyewitness’s bracing candor and a poet’s sense of rhythm. Known primarily as a novelist, Gordimer has been an exalted voice on the world scene since 1991, when the Swedish Academy ranked her with its Nobel laureates in literature. What defines her work and sets her apart from any other writer, however, is the perspicacity of her vigil: the big watch she has kept to tell us the time.
Men are not born brothers; they have to discover each other, and it is this discovery that apartheid seeks to prevent…What is apartheid? It depends who’s answering. If you ask a member of the South African government, he will tell you that it is separate and parallel development of white and black—that is the official, legal definition.
These words were written in 1959. Apartheid, as an official state program of racial segregation in South Africa, would continue for 45 more years, through the negotiations on its disassembly in the early ’90s, until 1994, and the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency. Gordimer has been a consistent voice since emancipation, auditing the course of freedom in South Africa and abroad through the ’90s and aughts to the present day.
Frequently, Gordimer chooses to devote her intellectual acumen to book reviews and literary criticism, celebrating what is best in human society as often as she derides what’s worst in it. When she is not writing against state racism or global financial plundering, Gordimer mines the riches of her favorite authors, including Flaubert, Tolstoy, Beauvoir, Hemingway, Breytenbach, Coetzee, Oe, Roth, Paz, and Mahfouz, examining their relevance to contemporary discourse.
The connection of moral drive to an appropriate form, literary or otherwise, is a constant concern in Gordimer’s nonfiction work. Commenting on the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the murderous reception of his novel The Satanic Verses, Gordimer unmasks the evil of censorship for its perverseness as well as for the ineptitude of its approach. With subjects involving less moral seriousness, her writing can be florid. But when discussing Rushdie’s fatwa she is lucid and direct. “The crime against Rushdie,” she writes, “is also a crime against the artist’s vital gift to a free society, self-knowledge.”
As a collection spanning some 740 pages, Telling Times is a colossally varied book. The symbiosis between Gordimer’s call-to-arms sense of justice and her ticklish delight in world culture is present on every page. Propounding tenderly and forthrightly in one instance on Proust’s beloved À la Recherce du Temps Perdu, in the very next entry, Gordimer provides a vivid examination of the “plague” of HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, offering concrete steps to help combat the crisis. She writes:
The free condom dispenser is not the panacea. Neither, alone, is sex education restricted to anatomical diagrams and dire warnings in schools. The entire meaningfulness of personal sexual relations will need to be restored. That is what social health means, along with inoculation and survival…HIV/AIDS is everyone’s disaster. It has, finally, something to do with our whole manner of existence.
What we might be tempted to call political writing, is, in Gordimer’s hands, pointedly moral writing. Her calculations are set to the meter of human decency and equality. She is not a firebrand; rather, she is the one who keeps watch.
Reviewing the text of Telling Times, it becomes clear that while apartheid’s racist advocates stymied South Africa’s moral and economic development; that while the rich and resourceful continually re-arrogated to themselves global wealth and resources; and that while the great books of our time have wrangled, in some cases, fatally, with the Great books of old—Nadine Gordimer has worked in the world’s service with her talents, heralding our better virtues. Her new collection of attractive and well-honed nonfiction writing represents a lifelong effort to hold a mirror to the face of state-sponsored bigotry and bullying, while, in a happier sense, keeping watch over our advancement as a people and a civilization, celebrating what is best in us, what is most human and most true.