A friend of mine, who knew Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and who died recently, sent me her reminiscences of her in their early days together in Johannesburg. This has prompted me to record my own reminiscences of her.
I think I may fairly claim to be one of the few people living to have flow with her on a Malian Air Force DC3 aircraft from Bamako to Timbuktu. We were both attending a UNDP conference on improving the image of Africa in the world (NB not improving Africa, that was obviously too difficult, but only its image). I spotted at once that Mrs Gordimer was the type of person who had never, in her entire life, lifted or carried anything for herself. I must say that I envied her that: I have never been much of a lifter or carrier myself, but my circumstances have forced me to indulge in those baleful activities from time to time.
She was bird-like and had a voice to etch glass with. She was accompanied by her friend and acolyte, the journalist Anthony Sampson, who treated her as one might an orchid in the Arctic. He made sure that she never had to do anything for herself. He succeeded.
The South African comedian and satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys, making fun of the combination of her communist views, wealth and social manner, called her ‘Comrade Madam.’ No entomologist ever fixed an insect to a board with more precision than did Uys with those two words that summed her up to such perfection. If concision is next to Godliness, Uys is a prophet.
Mrs Gordimer sat next to a Ghanaian woman during one of the sessions of the conference we were attending. Referring to what the Ghanaian woman had said earlier in the day, and indicating her with her hand, Mrs Gordimer said, ‘As my sister Susan has said…’
‘Actually,’ interrupted the Ghanaian woman, ‘my name is Gloria.’
I spluttered with suppressed laughter, but Mrs Gordimer continued as if nothing were amiss. I do not think she noticed this impertinent – and irrelevant – correction. What’s in a name, especially between sisters?
The fundamental conflict between what people espouse, and how they live and want to continue living, was not confined to Nadine Gordimer, of course. She was, in a way, the ne plus ultra of a certain type, ridiculous, dishonest but influential.