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The ritual of remembering Gordimer

Date Released: Tue, 5 August 2014 12:00 +0200

“The truth is not beautiful, but the search for it is,” Nadine Gordimer once famously said. But one truth that is neither ugly nor in need of seeking out, is that the late Nobel Literature Prize winner and political activist was appreciated and cherished by people from all walks of life.

At a tribute evening hosted by the English Department last week, the focus of testimonies was on personal connections and recollections of Gordimer. Hosted by Mellon writer in residence, Mr Denis Hirson, five scheduled speakers and several audience members shared moving memories of the ‘petite giant’, and read extracts from her work.

“Her finely crafted stories capture unforgettable iconic moments,” said Mr Hirson, who described himself as a ritualist and expressed the strong need to acknowledge the rich life of Gordimer. He recalls sitting next to her at dinner once, and her asking him, “Do you really think my short stories are any good?” “I couldn’t believe she said that,” he mused.

Dr Deborah Seddon, who also appreciated meeting the ‘human behind the novel’, said, “I liked her because she was small, and funny, and fierce.” She selected an extract from the prescient novel ‘The Late Bourgeouis World’ (1966), a book she admires, particularly for its close, critical look at whiteness during Apartheid.

Reading an extract from the same novel, Professor Emeritus Malvern van Wyk Smith called it Gordimer ‘at her best’ and praised her for her ‘clear-cut, chiselled prose’. But even more memorable was his recollection of giving Gordimer a lift in the VC’s unsteady Humber from Alicedale to Grahamstown in 1982, and feeling immensely embarrassed while Gordimer chatted away nonchalantly.    

The sentiment that he shared with Dr Sue Marais, who met her at the University of Cape Town at age 19, was that Gordimer was never self-absorbed, but always interested in others.

“She wouldn’t talk about herself at all,” said Dr Marais, “but wanted to know about us… our studies and our knowledge of South African literature.” Gordimer had been invited with other authors to speak at a Students for Social Democracy (SSD) meeting, and her own novels were not in the curriculum at the time. Dr Marais recalls feeling moved by Gordimer’s words: “If I were your ages, I’d be doing exactly what you’re doing.”

The evening also included a touch of humour, with Dr Marais and Mr Hirson reading a lively ‘self-interview’ published in Gordimer’s ‘Telling Times: Writing and Living 1950-2008’, and Mr Hirson reading an extract from Stephen Clingman’s ‘First Time, Last time’. A close, US-based friend of Gordimer’s, Clingman describes his daughter’s questions about winning the Nobel prize (“Has she won it before?” and, upon realising it as a once-off situation, “Ah, it’s like the chicken pox!”). Gordimer’s enjoyed these comments so much, she included them in one of her Nobel speeches.

The much needed ritual of sharing intimate testimonies and memories was concluded with Mr Hirson’s poignant words, “She had spunk, that’s what Nadine Gordimer had.” A pensive audience left the English Common Room, content to mull over the life and death of a great South African writer.

Photo and story by Ruth Woudstra

Photo: Mellon writer in residence, Mr Denis Hirson reads Nadine Gordimer’s short story ‘A Lion on a Freeway’ (1980) at a tribute evening in the English Department.

Source:Communications and Marketing