There are short stories that feel like tales and others that feel like fiction. Then there’s the kind of work Nadine Gordimer has been publishing for nearly 70 years—which is best described as a weather system. Her voice travels across the page, darkening certain regions, changing the barometric pressure in others, and then, just as quickly as the voice arrived, it moves on, leaving you with the memory of an occurrence so vivid and yet ephemeral it takes on the lived quality of real experience.
In this fashion, Gordimer was an extremely effective agent in opening up the world’s empathy to life in Apartheid South Africa—to those of who didn’t live there, and even some who did. It was predicted she might stop writing once Apartheid ended, but South Africa’s evolution into an even more stratified society was a surprise to everyone—except her. After the celebration was over, she was waiting with tense, jagged novels like The House Gun and The Pick-Up, books that turned the ruptures of a society in flux into gripping stories.
Now Gordimer is back with a new collection of short stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, and she shows no signs of falling behind the curve—even now she is well into her '80s. This is a complex, occasionally quite beautiful book about men and women living in a world in which their geographic background from seems to matter less than ever—with global communication, multi-national corporations and 24-hour media. And yet these ancient ties of state, land and blood retain a kind of primal importance.
In the intense title story, a white academic travels back to the South African mine that is his inheritance and speculates grimly, and then less and less aloofly, on who around him might be some form of distant relative. “But who could say, who could have been this one, that one, give or take a shade; there’s simply the resemblance all boys have in their grimaces of emotions, boastful feats, agile bodies.”
It’s not just bloodlines, marking or underscoring her characters’ states of mind—there's the bite and rasp of their sexuality. In “Mother Tongue,” a German woman meets a South African in Europe and then returns to the continent with him as his wife. In Africa, she finds herself jangled and jostled, but eagerly accepts a new tongue—English—for it highlights the language of the body that (luckily for them) becomes primary now that it’s her turn to be outside her familiar culture
Nationality, race, sexuality and the pastness of the past: The issues at the heart of these stories develop a lot of static—but Gordimer can return the hemline of a tale with just the slightest flick of her authorial eye, a compressed moment of beauty in the bustle of a scene. In “Mother Tongue,” her character notes how “on a terrace the sunken sun sends pale searchlights to touch a valance of clouds,” and how “the darkness seems to rise from the damp grass as the drinking ignites animation” in a dinner party’s crowd. In one sentence, a story about so much also becomes acutely tangible.
As if to underscore the more cosmic accident of birth and blood, the collection ends with three stories, each presenting a similar situation between a man and a woman, just with a different ending, arrived at by different arbitrary decisions: sight, sound and smell. In one story, the pivot point comes when a woman leans into her lover at night and begins “scenting on him the smell of another woman.” Here, Gordimer seems to say, is the most primal relationship we have of all—ourselves with our bodies, our bodies with other bodies. And so it goes. We are meteoring back toward the Earth, with the comet-tail of associations that can never leave us—until we leave them.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.