Book review: No Time Like the Present

Nadine Gordimer’s latest examination of the scars left by apartheid on her native South Africa is rangy, discursive, sporadically elegant and a bit of a slog.

Not that one would expect much in the way of lilting glee from a writer well known for her chilly prose style, or from a story that takes in political corruption, violence, marital discord and the scourge of Aids. But Gordimer writes of love, sex and parenthood with the same weary disaffection, with the consequence that her book feels drained of the very humanity that should provide its moral impetus.

At the heart of the novel is a “mixed” marriage, forged when such relationships were still illegal, between white Steven and black Jabulile. Veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, they’re now legitimate, affluent, part of the new bourgeoisie – but still uncertain of their place in a country that has seen a re-invention Gordimer compares to the passing of an Ice Age.

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The quotidian concerns of married life – career decisions, fluctuating desire, children – provide little domestic echoes of the wider social tumult. There has, for South Africa, never been a time like this present; and yet living in the moment is an impossibility for citizens who must make every individual choice in the shadow of a looming past.

Gordimer makes frequent reference to the search for “a normal life”. What standard can there be for normality, when an entire set of moral assumptions has been removed – and not yet effectively replaced? And what happens to revolutionary fervour once change has been granted?

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Perhaps the bloodlessness of Steve and Jabu is intended to indicate that the end of the struggle has robbed them of their drive. Without the momentum conferred by a cause, and the thrill of being clandestine lovers, they’ve fallen into a rut, like returning soldiers who miss the drama and camaraderie of battle.

It might be that. It might just be that they’re quite dull. They and their various friends and family members discourse volubly, but with an absence of humour that seems almost studied.

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It’s like Gordimer went through her text and removed any indication that anyone might be smiling, or otherwise having a good time. And when people display no such signs of human warmth, it’s hard to connect with them.

As close as her stream-of-consciousness style seeks to get to their subjective realities, Gordimer’s characters seem a very long way away. And the gap between us and them is full of… words. Lots and lots of words, in big higgledy-piggledy piles, like a thesaurus factory has gone bust and is selling off its old stock.

Celebrated during the early part of her career for the ringing clarity of her prose, Gordimer has of late made more experimental use of language – and here she embraces a style so layered and impressionistic that it frequently tips her into straight-up incomprehensibility. Many sentences need diligent unpacking to yield their meanings – and the effect tends to be clumsy rather than poetic. This, for instance: “Make love to her, would be the tender healing, most respectful acceptance of what she couldn’t release herself of without cursing him in the wordless sense of what his skin represents.” Somewhere else: “Although disbelief was in the turning away of the eldest son; how could he not know differently from evidence of the stranger his mother had become.” You sort of see what she means, but why express it in so knitted and murky a manner?

At other points Gordimer just seems quite confused, as when she ponders repeatedly and irrelevantly on what it is gay men do in bed together; or when a character involved in the music business is said to provide access to “everything new that’s happening in music, fantastic, post-Stockhausen to post-Jackson”. Post-Jackson? What Jackson? Michael Jackson? No clues. One chapter ends on this weird note: “They made love not war between them that night.”

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Is this simply a case of a sloppy editing job, or of an editor too intimidated by a star writer to point out horrible bits of phrasing? Unfortunately, it’s not just mangled syntax that makes the book confusing to read. Gordimer also dips in and out of her characters’ psyches, allowing their first-person thoughts to entwine themselves with the narration. Sometimes this achieves the presumably) desired effect of chaotic intimacy, but often it’s just befuddling – particularly in combination with Gordimer’s complete aversion to both quotation marks and attribution of speech.

Gordimer is a sophisticated and ambitious thinker who engages intensely with the political elements of her story. Few writers have attempted to dig so deeply into the collective psyche of a nation. But her characterisation feels sketchy and negative here, and her language alarmingly messy.

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The result is a book that offers little emotional reward for the gloomy task of reading it.

• No Time Like the Present

Nadine Gordimer

Bloomsbury. £18.99