Nadine Gordimer was born in Springs, Transvaal (now Gauteng), an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg in 1923. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, was a Jewish jeweller originally from Latvia and her mother, Nan Myers, was of British descent. From her early childhood, Gordimer witnessed how the White minority increasingly weakened the few rights of the Black majority.
Gordimer was educated at a convent school and began writing at the young age of nine; her first short story was published when she was fifteen in the liberal Johannesburg magazine, Forum. She later spent a year at Witwatersrand University, Johannesburg without receiving a degree. In 1948, she moved to Johannesburg where she lived most of her life. Gordimer has been awarded 10 honorary doctorates in literature from various universities around the world.
She grew up reading the great realists of 19th- and early 20th-century fiction, and later would continue to cite the Russians in particular (Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky) as her “masters”, but she also developed a fine eye and sophisticated taste for the best in all the literature she encountered.
Gordimer wrote about her childhood in Springs, then a mining town on the East Rand outside Johannesburg, only relatively late in her life. She remembered the spectral presence of black workers on the margins of her world, and a burgeoning awareness of difference; she recalled also a kind of class struggle waged between her parents – her arty, upper-class mother and her lower-class father.
In 1949, she married Gerald Gavron (Gavronsky) and published her first collection of short stories, Face to Face in that same year. In 1951, the New Yorker (New York, United States of America) magazine published one of her short stories. In 1954, she married again, this time to a Jewish refugee, Reinhold Cassirer and together they have two children.
Her first novel, The Lying Days (1953), was based largely on her own life and set in her home town of Springs. In the novel, the heroine has to free herself from her mining background prejudices, she learns from the intellectuals she meets and eventually she deals with her guilt with regard to the racial hatred that she witnesses.
In 1974, her novel, The Conservationist, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction. Her 1979 novel, Burger's Daughter, was written during the aftermath of the Soweto uprising, and was banned, along with other books she had written. Although many of Gordimer’s books were banned by the Apartheid regime in South Africa, they were widely read around the world and served almost as a testament over the years of the changing responses to Apartheid in South Africa. She never considered going into exile but in the 1960s and 1970’s she lectured at universities in the United States of America (USA) for short periods.
Gordimer won the James Tait Black Memorial prize for A Guest of Honour in 1971 and the Booker (now the Man Booker prize) for The Conservationist in 1974.
‘Learning to write sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life,’ Gordimer has said.
In the 1980s Gordimer published the short story collections, A Soldier's Embrace (1980); Something Out There (1984); and Jump and Other Stories (1991) in the early 1990s. In 1990, she also published her novel, My son’s story.
She was involved in grassroots political-literary organisation, being a founder member and patron of the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) for several years, as well as a frequent speaker at gatherings of the United Democratic Front. Internationally, she was openly an African National Congress (ANC) supporter even when it was banned in South Africa, yet she disdained to go into exile.
Her works were serially banned by the Apartheid regime, from July’s People onwards, but that only made her more famous. After the Nobel prize, and after Apartheid ended and a new era began, Gordimer’s sentences began to lose some of their Proustian length and twisting nuance and to become, instead, fractured and note-like. To some readers, later works such as The Pickup (2001) seemed the efforts of a novelist no longer able to connect the disparate strands of the worlds she observed.
A fine descriptive writer, thoughtful and sensitive, Gordimer was noted for the vivid precision of her writing about the complicated personal and social relationships in her environment: the interplay between races, racial conflict, and the pain inflicted by South Africa's unjust apartheid laws. In December 1989, she testified in mitigation for eleven United Democratic Front leaders and Vaal Civic Association activists. She was one of the founding members Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw) and was on the Transvaal regional executive for many years. Cosaw’s members were mainly Black and were generally regarded as writers highly 'committed' to the Black cause. Nadine was also a prominent member of the Anti-Censorship Action Group and won the CNA Literary Award four times, the last time in 1991.
Also in 1991, one of the highlights in Gordimer’s career came when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was the first South African to win the award and the first women to win in 25 years. The academy had reportedly passed over the then 67-year-old Gordimer several times. "I had been a possible candidate for so long that I had given up hope," Gordimer said in New York City, where she was on a lecture tour to promote her new short story collection, ‘Jump and Other Stories’. On her trip to Sweden in December 1991 to collect the prize she called for continued economic sanctions against South Africa.
Gordimer travelled extensively and in addition to her fictional stories, she had written non-fiction on South African subjects and made television documentaries, collaborating with her son Hugo Cassirer on the television film Choosing Justice: Allan Boesak. She was responsible for the script of the 1989 BBC film, Frontiers, and for four of the seven screenplays for a television drama based on her own short stories, entitled The Gordimer Stories 1981-82.
After the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, Gordimer continued to write about affects of Apartheid and about life in post Apartheid South Africa. The House Gun (1998) explores, through a murder trial, the complexities of violence-ridden post-apartheid South Africa. The Pickup (2001)’ is set in South Africa and Saudi Arabia, and its theme is the tragedy of forced emigration. Loot (2003), is a collection of ten short stories widely varied in theme and place and her latest novel is Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (2007).
Gordimer’s books and short stories have been published in forty languages. She has been awarded fifteen honorary degrees from universities in the USA, Belgium, South Africa, and from York, Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the United Kingdom. She was made a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France). She was Vice President of International PEN and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2007, Gordimer was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (France).
During the Rivonia Trial, 1963, Gordimer worked on biographical sketches of former President Nelson Mandela and his co-accused to send overseas in order to publicise the trial. She edited Mandela's famous I am prepared to die speech, from the dock,
In his autobiography, Mandela wrote of his time in prison: "I tried to read books about South Africa or by South African writers. I read all the unbanned novels of Nadine Gordimer and learned a great deal about the white liberal sensibility."
Speaking in the President's Budget Debate in South Africa's Senate on 18 June 1996 on the role culture plays in nation building, Mandela said, "We think of Nadine Gordimer, who won international acclaim as our first winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, and whose writing was enriched by the cultural kaleidoscope of our country."
Gordimer was a founding member of the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW). In 1988 Gordimer caused a stir when, giving evidence in mitigation of sentence at the Delmas treason trial of United Democratic Front (UDF) leaders, she told the judge she regarded Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo as her leaders. She announced in 1990 that she had joined the African National Congress (ANC), and called for the continuation of economic sanctions against South Africa until it became a multiracial democracy. She was one of the first people Nelson Mandela chose to meet when he was released from Robben Island prison in 1990.
In 2005, she had a major fall out with her biographer, Ronald Suresh Roberts, the author of a biography, No Cold Kitchen, on her whom she later repudiated as her official biographer.
Gordimer married art dealer Reinhold Cassirer in 1954; he died in 2001. Gordimer is survived by her two children, Hugo and Oriane Ophelia.
Nadine Gordimer died in her sleep in her Johannesburg home on 13 July 2014.
Short Story Collections
Face to Face. Johannesburg: Silver Leaf Books, 1949.
The Soft Voice of the Serpent. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952. (Largely overlapping with Face to Face.)
Six Feet of the Country. London: Gollancz, 1956.
Friday's Footprint. London: Gollancz, 1960.
Not for Publication. London: Gollancz, 1965.
Livingstone's Companions. New York: The Viking Press, 1971.
Selected Stones. London: Jonathan Cape, 1975.
A Soldier's Embrace. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.
Something Out There. London: Jonathan Cape, 1984.
The Lying Days. London: Gollancz, 1953.
A World of Strangers. London: Gollancz, 1958.
Occasion for Loving. London: Gollancz. 1963.
The Late Bourgeois World. London: Gollancz, 1966.
A Guest of Honour. New York: The Viking Press, 1970.
The Conservationist. London: Jonathan Cape. 1974.
Burger's Daughter. 1979.
July's People. New York: The Viking Press, 1981.
A Sport of Nature. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1987.
My Son's Story. London: Bloomsbury, 1990.