Nadine Gordimer, who has died in her sleep at the age of 90, was a writer and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature who won international acclaim as a chronicler of the human consequences of racial apartheid in her native South Africa.
She traced her aspiration to become a writer to an incident in her family home as a child of 12 when the African maid, Netty, who had been with the family all Gordimer’s life, was the subject of a random police search.
“It was a liquor raid – black South Africans could not buy liquor. My mother, father and I stood there and watched all this.”
The police found nothing. But it was her parents’ failure to protest that shocked her, inspired her to begin writing and shaped the rest of her life. “Neither my mother nor my father said to the police, ‘What are you doing here?’ One of the early stories that I wrote came out of that.”
Her perceptions from that experience were sharpened when she entered the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and began mixing for the first time in her life with black intellectuals and politicians from the vibrant black suburb of Sophiatown.
The 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, during which 69 black protesters were shot dead by police, spurred Gordimer’s entry into the anti-apartheid movement. She sheltered in her own home black activists on the run from the apartheid police. She became a member of the African National Congress at a time when it was outlawed and formed a close friendship with Bram Fischer, Nelson Mandela’s defence attorney at his 1963 trial on charges of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Gordimer helped Mandela edit his famous speech, “I Am Prepared to Die”, delivered from the dock. She was one of the first people he asked to see when he was released in 1990.
Gordimer, a petite, bird-like woman, and the towering Mandela regularly dined together at each other’s homes when he was lonely following his separation in 1992 from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Gordimer’s first published story, a short tale for children, appeared in a South African Sunday newspaper in 1937. At the age of 16 she had her first adult fiction published.
She married a dentist, Gerald Gavron, in 1949, but the marriage quickly collapsed and she brought up a daughter alone while writing for South African publications.
Her big breakthrough came in 1951 when the New Yorker accepted one of her stories. In that essay, she wrote of growing up in the “smug suet of white provincialism” in Springs, a small gold-mining town. It brought her to the attention of New York literary agent, Sidney Saterstein, a rich man who loved writers and was nearly 40 years older than her. “He was such an incredible man – a sort of John O’Hara character, or even coarser, really,” Gordimer recalled.
Saterstein won good advances from Simon and Schuster for the struggling Gordimer’s early novels and threw extravagant parties, with copious caviar and Champagne, for her in New York.
Her first novel, The Lying Days, published in 1953 as full-scale apartheid was beginning to be implemented, followed the first 24 years in the life of Helen Shaw, a white girl brought up by conventional middle-class Protestant parents in Johannesburg and beginning to realise the dire poverty in which black people lived. The New York Times’ reviewer said it was a book that millions should read, and added: “I can think of no modern first novel superior to Miss Gordimer’s.”
Another 15 novels followed, many, but not all, illuminating the effects of apartheid on people’s lives and decisions. Three were banned in her homeland.
Disputes rage about what was her finest novel, but The Conservationist, for which she won the 1974 Booker Prize, receives many accolades. It is a complicated tale of a rich white anti-hero who abandons the city to buy a farm with many poor black employees and who finds a mysterious black corpse on his property. After reading it, the late Seamus Heaney dubbed Gordimer one of the great “guerrillas of the imagination”.
Gordimer was born and raised in a tin-roofed house in Springs, the daughter of a poor Jewish watchmaker from Latvia who had been sent to South Africa by his family at the age of 13 to escape Tsarist pogroms. Her mother was a seamstress who arrived from England at the age of six with her Jewish family. “My father was a very unadventurous man,” recalled Gordimer. “He didn’t have a strong personality. He still is a mystery to me. He brought nine sisters out of Latvia – the poor man – saving up to bring one after the other. I found out later that he hated them all – we didn’t have family gatherings.”
Her parents’ marriage was unhappy, so she escaped to her room and the library to read. Until near the end of her life, she locked herself away for five hours daily to devote herself to writing, banning all noise in the house.
Gordimer’s Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded the year after Mandela’s release, when the battle against apartheid was almost won. Negotiations were in full swing on the deal that would secure all-race democratic elections. “Gordimer writes with intense immediacy about the extremely complicated personal and social relationships in her environment,” wrote the Swedish academy that bestows the award. “Her magnificent epic writing has been of very great benefit to humanity.”
Although she was firm and courageous in her detestation of apartheid, and although she could be imperiously icy and testy with anyone who criticised the ANC, she was in reality hugely enigmatic and difficult to pigeonhole, never seeking easy popularity. Her fiction was always more complicated than the “political” tag would allow: she was committed to more forms of liberation than just the political.
She did not escape some of the post-apartheid violence that has scarred the New South Africa. Following the death in 2001 of her deeply loved second husband Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who was a refugee from Nazi Germany and became a British Military Intelligence agent in Egypt during the Second World War, she endured a frightening robbery. She and her housekeeper were dragged upstairs by young gangsters. The housekeeper was kicked and punched when she started screaming. When the tiny Gordimer shouted that her servant was old enough to be their grandmother, they stopped. Both women were locked in a cupboard as the robbers ransacked the house and then left. Gordimer said she felt completely calm throughout the attack and thought: “Oh well, it’s my turn to experience what so many others have … I have failed at many things, but I have never been afraid.”
Then, from 2010 onwards, she became a fierce critic of the ANC under President Jacob Zuma when draconian legislation to muzzle the press was drawn up under a draft “Protection of Information” bill. She said the proposed legislation amounted to censorship.
In her final novel, No Time Like The Present, the theme was post-apartheid disappointment with the Zuma government whose ministers seemed mainly intent on enriching themselves.
Gordimer’s writing was a process of discovery. “We are looking for the meaning of life,” she frequently said. She was a committed atheist, arguing: “How can anyone believe in these comforting fairytales, that there’s somebody up there, whether it’s Mohammed or Jehovah? Beautiful fairytales, or punishing fairytales? This is an unpopular view.”
Gordimer’s children, her daughter Oriane by her first marriage, and her son Hugo by her marriage to Reinhold Cassirer, were at her bedside when she died. She is survived also by five grandchildren.