1991 : Nadine Gordimer
“who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity”
November 20, 1923
Place of birth
Springs, Gauteng, South Africa
Nobel Prize in Literature 1991
Nadine Gordimer was born on November 20, 1923 in Springs, Gauteng Province, a town near Johannesburg mining. His parents were Jewish immigrants from the middle class. His father was a watchmaker from Lithuania, from a location near the Latvian border and his mother was from London. Began writing stories as young as nine years and fifteen already published the first of them in the journal “Forum”. Twenty-five years he moved to Johannesburg, where he fixed his permanent residence. Never noted as a student and though he entered the prestigious University of Witwatersrand, failed to finish their studies. Opted at first for short stories, publishing in 1949 his first book in this line titled Face to Face, in the same year he married for the first time. In 1953 he wrote The Soft Voice of the Serpent, following in the style of the short story. Already in these writings began to address the social issue of South Africa, with the alienation of human behavior and racial segregation as a backdrop. Did not come until 1953 his first novel, The Lying Days, in which it would be reflected his technical feature narrative marked by a sober, without sentimentality, but with a great concern about the degeneration of human around them. In 1954 she married in remarriage with Reinhold Cassirer, with whom she had a son. In subsequent years continued writing novels and short stories either: Six Feet of the Country (1956), A World of Strangers (1958), Friday’s Footprint (1960), Occasion for Loving (1963), Not for Publication (1965) , The Late Burgeois World (1966) A Guest of Honor (1970), Livingstone’s Companions (1971), The Conservationist (1974), Selected Stories (1975) and Burger’s Daughter (1979). During these years, combines his literary activity with lectures at universities in Europe and America. In the eighties would publish some of his most importates: A Soldier’s Embrace (1980), July’s People (1981), Something Out There (1984), A Sport of Nature (1987), My Son’s Story ( 1990). In 1991, the year in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, published Jump and Other Stories, continuing with his characteristic formal perfection, without using superfluous. His last novels are published not one to Accompany Me, completed in 1994 but had begun to write years ago and The House Gun in 1998. He has received a large amount of awards and distinctions, as fifteen honorary doctorates (by the universities of Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Cambridge, Leuven in Belgium, Cape Town and Witwatersrand among others). In these days participating in the congress of authors and translators of Jerusalem, whose forums will meet with writers and students Israelis and Palestinians.
The Lying Days – London : Gollancz, 1953
A World of Strangers – London : Gollancz, 1958
Occasion for Loving – London : Gollancz, 1963
The Late Bourgeois World – New York : Viking, 1966
A Guest of Honour – London : Cape, 1971
The Conservationist – London : Cape, 1974
Burger’s Daughter – London : Cape, 1979
July’s People – New York : Viking, 1981
A Sport of Nature – London : Cape, 1987
My Son’s Story – London : Bloomsbury, 1990
None to Accompany Me – London : Bloomsbury, 1994
The House Gun – New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998
The Pickup – London : Bloomsbury, 2001
Get a Life – New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005
Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories – New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007
Face to Face – Johannesburg : Silver Leaf Books, 1949
The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories – New York, Simon and Schuster, 1952
Six Feet of the Country: Fifteen Short Stories – New York, Simon and Schuster, 1956
Friday’s Footprint – London : Gollancz, 1960
Not for Publication: Fifteen Stories – London : Gollancz, 1965
Livingstone’s Companions – London : Jonathan Cape, 1972.
Selected Stories – London : Cape, 1975
Some Monday for Sure – London : Heinemann Educational, 1976
A Soldier’s Embrace – London : Cape, 1980
Something Out There – London : Cape, 1984
Reflections of South Africa – Herning : Systime, 1986
Crimes of Conscience: Selected Short Stories – London : Heinemann, 1991
Jump and Other Stories – London : Bloomsbury, 1991
Why Haven’t You Written : Selected Stories 1950-1972 – New York : Viking, 1993
Harald, Claudia, and Their Son Duncan – London : Bloomsbury, 1996
Loot and Other Stories – London : Bloomsbury, 2003
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing – Johannesburg : Spro-Cas/Ravan, 1973
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places / edited and introduced by Stephen Clingman – London : Cape, 1988
Writing and Being – Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard Univ. Press, 1995
Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century – New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999
Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer/ edited by Rowland Smith – Boston : Hall, 1990
The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer/ edited by Bruce King – London : Macmillan, 1993
Ettin, Andrew Vogel, Betrayals of the Body Politic: the Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer – 1993
Nadine Gordimer: a Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources, 1937-1992/ compiled by Dorothy Driver – 1994
Wagner, Kathrin, Rereading Nadine Gordimer: Text and Subtext in the Novels – Bloomington : Indiana Univ. Press, 1994
A Writing Life: Celebrating Nadine Gordimer / edited by Andries Walter Oliphant – London : Viking, 1998
Temple-Thurston, Barbara, Nadine Gordimer Revisited / Barbara Temple-Thurston – New York : Twayne Publishers, 1999
Roberts, Ronald Suresh, No Cold Kitchen : a Biography of Nadine Gordimer – Johannesburg : STE Publishers, 2005
01. W. H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award (England) (1961)
02. James Tait Black Memorial Prize (England) (1972)
03. Booker Prize for The Conservationist (1974)
04. CNA Prize (Central News Agency Literary Award), South Africa (1974, 1975, 1980,1991)
05. Grand Aigle d’Or (France) (1975)
06. Orange Prize shortlisting; she rejected
07. Scottish Arts Council Neil M. Gunn Fellowship (1981)
08. Modern Language Association Award (United States) (1982)
09. Bennett Award (United States) (1987)
10. Premio Malaparte (Italy) (1985)
11. Nelly Sachs Prize (Germany) (1986)
12. Anisfield-Wolf Book Award (1988, A Sport of Nature)
13. Nobel Prize for Literature (1991)
14. Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book from Africa (2002; for The Pickup)
15. Booker Prize longlist (2001; for The Pickup)
16. Legion of Honour (France) (2007)
17. Hon. Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
18. Hon. Member, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
19. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature (Britain)
20. Patron, Congress of South African Writers
21. Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
22. At least 15 honorary degrees (the first being Doctor Honoris Causa at Leuven University in Belgium)
Once upon our time, there was an earthquake: but this one is the most powerful ever recorded since the invention of the Richter scale made possible for us to measure apocalyptic warnings.
It tipped a continental shelf. These tremblings often cause floods; this colossus did the reverse, drew back the ocean as a vast breath taken. The most secret level of our world lay revealed: the sea-bedded – wrecked ships, facades of houses, ballroom candelabra, toilet bowl, pirate chest, TV screen, mail-coach, aircraft fuselage, canon, marble torso, Kalashnikov, metal carapace of a tourist bus-load, baptismal font, automatic dishwasher, computer, swords sheathed in barnacles, coins turned to stone. The astounded gaze raced among these things; the population who had fled from their toppling houses to the martime hills, ran down. Where terrestrial crash and bellow had terrified them, there was naked silence. The saliva of the sea glistened upon these objects; it is given that time does not, never did, exist down there where the materiality of the past and the present as they lie has no chronological order, all is one, all is nothing – or all is possessible at once.
People rushed to take; take, take. This was – when, anytime, sometime – valuable, that might be useful, what was this, well someone will know, that must have belonged to the rich, it’s mine now, if you don’t grab what’s over there someone else will, feet slipped and slithered on seaweed and sank in soggy sand, gasping sea-plants gaped at them, no-one remarked there were no fish, the living inhabitants of this unearth had been swept up and away with the water. The ordinary opportunity of looting shops which was routine to people during the political uprisings was no comparison. Orgiastic joy gave men, women and their children strength to heave out of the slime and sand what they did not know they wanted, quickened their staggering gait as they ranged, and this was more than profiting by happenstance, it was robbing the power of nature before which they had fled helpless. Take, take; while grabbing they were able to forget the wreck of their houses and the loss of time-bound possessions there. They had tattered the silence with their shouts to one another and under these cries like the cries of the absent seagulls they did not hear a distant approach of sound rising as a great wind does. And then the sea came back, engulfed them to add to its treasury.
That is what is known; in television coverage that really had nothing to show but the pewter skin of the depths, in radio interviews with those few infirm, timid or prudent who had not come down from the hills, and in newspaper accounts of bodies that for some reason the sea rejected, washed up down the coast somewhere.
But the writer knows something no-one else knows; the sea-change of the imagination.
Now listen, there’s a man who has wanted a certain object (what) all his life. He has a lot of – things – some of which his eye falls upon often, so he must be fond of, some of which he doesn’t notice, deliberately, that he probably shouldn’t have acquired but cannot cast off, there’s an art noveau lamp he reads by, and above his bed-head a Japanese print, a Hokusai, ‘The Great Wave’, he doesn’t really collect oriental stuff, although if it had been on the wall facing him it might have been more than part of the furnishings, it’s been out of sight behind his head for years. All these – things – but not the one.
He’s a retired man, long divorced, chosen an old but well-appointed villa in the maritime hills as the site from which to turn his back on the assault of the city. A woman from the village cooks and cleans and doesn’t bother him with any other communication. It is a life blessedly freed of excitement, he’s had enough of that kind of disturbance, pleasurable or not, but the sight from his lookout of what could never have happened, never ever have been vouchsafed, is a kind of command. He is one of those who are racing out over the glistening sea-bed, the past – detritus-treasure, one and the same – stripped bare.
Like all the other looters with whom he doesn’t mix, has nothing in common, he races from object to object, turning over the shards of painted china, the sculptures created by destruction, abandonment and rust, the brine-vintaged wine casks, a plunged racing motorcycle, a dentist’s chair, his stride landing on disintegrated human ribs and mettarsals he does not identify. But unlike the others, he takes nothing – until: there, ornate with tresses of orange-brown seaweed, stuck-fast with nacreous shells and crenellations of red coral, is the object. (A mirror?) It’s as if the impossible is true; he knew that was where it was, beneath the sea, that’s why he didn’t know what it was, could never find it before. It could be revealed only by something that had never happened, the greatest paroxysm of our earth ever measured on the Richter scale.
He takes it up, the object, the mirror, the sand pours off it, the water that was the only bright glance left to it streams from it, he is taking it back with him, taking possession at last.
And the great wave comes from behind his bed-head and takes him.
His name well-known in the former regime circles in the capital is not among the survivors. Along with him among the skeletons of the latest victims, with the ancient pirates and fishermen, there are those dropped from planes during the dictatorship so that with the accomplice of the sea they would never be found. Who recognized them, that day, where they lie?
No carnation or rose floats.
Full fathom five.
Presentation Speech by Professor Sture Allen, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Art is on the side of the oppressed, Nadine Gordimer says in one of her essays, urging us to think before we dismiss this heretical idea about the freedom of art. If art is freedom, she asks, how could it exist within the oppressors?
Nadine Gordimer agrees with last year’s Laureate, Octavio Paz, in asserting the importance of regaining the meanings of words, as a first step in the critical process. She has had the courage to write as if censorship did not exist, and so has seen her books banned, time after time.
Above all, it is people, individual men and women, that have captured her and been captured by her. It is their lives, their heaven and hell, that absorb her. The outer reality is ever present, but it is through her characters that the whole historical process is crystallized.
Conveying to the reader a powerful sense of authenticity, and with wide human relevance, she makes visible the extremely complicated and utterly inhuman living conditions in the world of racial segregation. She feels political responsibility, and does not shy away from its consequences, but will not allow it to affect her as a writer: her texts are not agitatorial, not progandistic. Still, her works and the deep insights she offers contribute to shaping reality.
In one of her great novels we meet Maureen, the stronger of husband and wife in a family who, with the help of their boy, have fled the fighting, taking refuge in a hut in his native village. Here, gradually, the strains on their mode of life, language and everyday relations become unbearable. One day Maureen notices a helicopter landing. She does not know whether it brings friends or enemies but, stricken with unspeakable horror, she instinctively leaves the hut and starts running towards the sound. She runs ever faster and more frantically. She runs with all the suppressed trust of a lifetime. She runs for her survival, the enemy of all responsibility.
This is the closing scene of the novel. Were there still possibilities ahead of her? Or was this the very end? To Maureen and what she stands for, the future appears to hold out the opposite of utopia, a dystopia. This is not Nadine Gordimer’s only vision, but it is one which she has found it necessary to give expression to.
In this way, artistry and morality fuse.
People are more important than principles.
A truly living human being cannot remain neutral.
No one is in possession of all goodness, and no one has a monopoly of evil.
Irony does not need any prompting.
Children who meet, gladly meet halfway.
The power of love makes the mountain tremble.
Thoughts and impressions such as these are called forth by novels like A Guest of Honour, The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter, July’s People, and My Son’s Story. However, in a manner as absorbing as in her novels, Nadine Gordimer develops her penetrating depiction of character, her compassion and her powers of precise wording in her short stories, in collections like Six Feet of the Country and, as yet untranslated, A Soldier’s Embrace and Something Out There.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is remarkable how often Nadine Gordimer succeeds in her artistic intent – to burn a hole through the page.
Dear Miss Gordimer,
Ninety years ago, the prize citation mentioned “the qualities of both heart and intellect”. Indeed, these words apply no less today when the Swedish Academy points to the Nobelian concept of outstanding literary achievement as an important means of conferring benefit on mankind, in terms of human value and freedom of speech. It is my privilege and pleasure, on behalf of the Swedish Academy, to convey to you the warmest congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature 1991 and to invite you to receive the Prize from the hands of His Majesty the King.
December 7, 1991
Writing and Being
In the beginning was the Word.The Word was with God, signified God’s Word, the word that was Creation. But over the centuries of human culture the word has taken on other meanings, secular as well as religious. To have the word has come to be synonymous with ultimate authority, with prestige, with awesome, sometimes dangerous persuation, to have Prime Time, a TV talk show, to have the gift of the gab as well as that of speaking in tongues. The word flies through space, it is bounced from satellites, now nearer than it has ever been to the heaven from which it was believed to have come. But its most significant transformation occured for me and my kind long ago, when it was first scratched on a stone tablet or traced on papyrus, when it materialized from sound to spectacle, from being heard to being read as a series of signs, and then a script; and travelled through time from parchment to Gutenberg. For this is the genesis story of the writer. It is the story that wrote her or him into being.It was, strangely, a double process, creating at the same time both the writer and the very purpose of the writer as a mutation in the agency of human culture. It was both ontogenesis as the origin and development of an individual being, and the adaptation, in the nature of that individual, specifically to the exploration of ontogenesis, the origin and development of the individual being. For we writers are evolved for that task. Like the prisoners incarcerated with the jaguar in Borges’ story1, ‘The God’s Script’, who was trying to read, in a ray of light which fell only once a day, the meaning of being from the marking on the creature’s pelt, we spend our lives attempting to interpret through the word the readings we take in the societies, the world of which we are part. It is in this sense, this inextricable, ineffable participation, that writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being.Being here.Humans, the only self-regarding animals, blessed or cursed with this torturing higher faculty, have always wanted to know why. And this is not just the great ontological question of why we are here at all, for which religions and philosophies have tried to answer conclusively for various peoples at various times, and science tentatively attempts dazzling bits of explantation we are perhaps going to die out in our millenia, like dinosaurs, without having developed the necessary comprehension to understand as a whole. Since humans became self-regarding they have sought, as well, explanations for the common phenomena of procreation, death, the cycle of seasons, the earth, sea, wind and stars, sun and moon, plenty and disaster. With myth, the writer’s ancestors, the oral story-tellers, began to feel out and formulate these mysteries, using the elements of daily life – observable reality – and the faculty of the imagination – the power of projection into the hidden – to make stories.Roland Barthes asks, ‘What is characteristic of myth?’ And answers: ‘To transform a meaning into form.’ Myths are stories that mediate in this way between the known and unknown. Claude Levi-Strauss wittily de-mythologizes myth as a genre between a fairy tale and a detective story. Being here; we don’t know who-dun-it. But something satisfying, if not the answer, can be invented. Myth was the mystery plus the fantasy – gods, anthropomorphized animals and birds, chimera, phantasmagorical creatures – that posits out of the imagination some sort of explanation for the mystery. Humans and their fellow creatures were the materiality of the story, but as Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote, ‘Art is the representation not of the body but of the forces which created the body.’There are many proven explanations for natural phenomena now; and there are new questions of being arising out of some of the answers. For this reason, the genre of myth has never been entirely abandoned, although we are inclined to think of it as archaic. If it dwindled to the children’s bedtime tale in some societies, in parts of the world protected by forests or deserts from international megaculture it has continued, alive, to offer art as a system of mediation between the individual and being. And it has made a whirling comeback out of Space, an Icarus in the avatar of Batman and his kind, who never fall into the ocean of failure to deal with the gravity forces of life. These new myths, however, do not seek so much to enlighten and provide some sort of answers as to distract, to provide a fantasy escape route for people who no longer want to face even the hazard of answers to the terrors of their existence. (Perhaps it is the positive knowledge that humans now possess the means to destroy their whole planet, the fear that they have in this way themselves become the gods, dreadfully charged with their own continued existence, that has made comic-book and movie myth escapist.) The forces of being remain. They are what the writer, as distinct from the contemporary popular mythmaker, still engage today, as myth in its ancient form attempted to do.How writers have approached this engagement and continue to experiment with it has been and is, perhaps more than ever, the study of literary scholars. The writer in relation to the nature of perceivable reality and what is beyond – imperceivable reality – is the basis for all these studies, no matter what resulting concepts are labelled, and no matter in what categorized microfiles writers are stowed away for the annals of literary historiography. Reality is constructed out of many elements and entities, seen and unseen, expressed, and left unexpressed for breathing-space in the mind. Yet from what is regarded as old-hat psychological analysis to modernism and post-modernism, structuralism and poststructuralism, all literary studies are aimed at the same end: to pin down to a consistency (and what is consistency if not the principle hidden within the riddle?); to make definitive through methodology the writer’s grasp at the forces of being. But life is aleatory in itself; being is constantly pulled and shaped this way and that by circumstances and different levels of consciousness. There is no pure state of being, and it follows that there is no pure text, ‘real’ text, totally incorporating the aleatory. It surely cannot be reached by any critical methodology, however interesting the attempt. To deconstruct a text is in a way a contradiction, since to deconstruct it is to make another construction out of the pieces, as Roland Barthes does so fascinatingly, and admits to, in his linguistic and semantical dissection of Balzac’s story, ‘Sarrasine’. So the literary scholars end up being some kind of storyteller, too.Perhaps there is no other way of reaching some understanding of being than through art? Writers themselves don’t analyze what they do; to analyze would be to look down while crossing a canyon on a tightrope. To say this is not to mystify the process of writing but to make an image out of the intense inner concentration the writer must have to cross the chasms of the aleatory and make them the word’s own, as an explorer plants a flag. Yeats’ inner ‘lonely impulse of delight’ in the pilot’s solitary flight, and his ‘terrible beauty’ born of mass uprising, both opposed and conjoined; E. M. Forster’s modest ‘only connect’; Joyce’s chosen, wily ‘silence, cunning and exile’; more contemporary, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s labyrinth in which power over others, in the person of Simon Bolivar, is led to the thrall of the only unassailable power, death – these are some examples of the writer’s endlessly varied ways of approaching the state of being through the word. Any writer of any worth at all hopes to play only a pocket-torch of light – and rarely, through genius, a sudden flambeau – into the bloody yet beautiful labyrinth of human experience, of being.Anthony Burgess once gave a summary definition of literature as ‘the aesthetic exploration of the world’. I would say that writing only begins there, for the exploration of much beyond, which nevertheless only aesthetic means can express.How does the writer become one, having been given the word? I do not know if my own beginnings have any particular interest. No doubt they have much in common with those of others, have been described too often before as a result of this yearly assembly before which a writer stands. For myself, I have said that nothing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction. The life, the opinions, are not the work, for it is in the tension between standing apart and being involved that the imagination transforms both. Let me give some minimal account of myself. I am what I suppose would be called a natural writer. I did not make any decision to become one. I did not, at the beginning, expect to earn a living by being read. I wrote as a child out of the joy of apprehending life through my senses – the look and scent and feel of things; and soon out of the emotions that puzzled me or raged within me and which took form, found some enlightenment, solace and delight, shaped in the written word. There is a little Kafka7 parable that goes like this; ‘I have three dogs: Hold-him, Seize-him, and Nevermore. Hold-him and Seize-him are ordinary little Schipperkes and nobody would notice them if they were alone. But there is Nevermore, too. Nevermore is a mongrel Great Dane and has an apperance that centuries of the most careful breeding could never have produced. Nevermore is a gypsy.’ In the small South African gold-mining town where I was growing up I was Nevermore the mongrel (although I could scarely have been described as a Great Dane …) in whom the accepted characteristics of the townspeople could not be traced. I was the Gypsy, tinkering with words second-hand, mending my own efforts at writing by learning from what I read. For my school was the local library. Proust, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, to name only a few to whom I owe my existence as a writer, were my professors. In that period of my life, yes, I was evidence of the theory that books are made out of other books . . . But I did not remain so for long, nor do I believe any potential writer could.With adolescence comes the first reaching out to otherness through the drive of sexuality. For most children, from then on the faculty of the imagination, manifest in play, is lost in the focus on day dreams of desire and love, but for those who are going to be artists of one kind or another the first life-crisis after that of birth does something else in addition: the imagination gains range and extends by the subjective flex of new and turbulent emotions. There are new perceptions. The writer begins to be able to enter into other lives. The process of standing apart and being involved has come.Unknowingly, I had been addressing myself on the subject of being, whether, as in my first stories, there was a child’s contemplation of death and murder in the necessity to finish off, with a death blow, a dove mauled by a cat, or whether there was wondering dismay and early consciousness of racism that came of my walk to school, when on the way I passed storekeepers, themselves East European immigrants kept lowest in the ranks of the Anglo-Colonial social scale for whites in the mining town, roughly those whom colonial society ranked lowest of all, discounted as less than human – the black miners who were the stores’ customers. Only many years later was I to realize that if I had been a child in that category – black – I might not have become a writer at all, since the library that made this possible for me was not open to any black child. For my formal schooling was sketchy, at best.To address oneself to others begins a writer’s next stage of development. To publish to anyone who would read what I wrote. That was my natural, innocent assumption of what publication meant, and it has not changed , that is what it means to me today, in spite of my awareness that most people refuse to believe that a writer does not have a particular audience in mind; and my other awareness: of the temptations, conscious and unconscious, which lure the writer into keeping a corner of the eye on who will take offense, who will approve what is on the page – a temptation that, like Eurydice’s straying glance, will lead the writer back into the Shades of a destroyed talent.The alternative is not the malediction of the ivory tower, another destroyer of creativity. Borges once said he wrote for his friends and to pass the time. I think this was an irritated flippant response to the crass question – often an accusation – ‘For whom do you write?’, just as Sartre’s admonition that there are times when a writer should cease to write, and act upon being only in another way, was given in the frustration of an unresolved conflict between distress at injustice in the world and the knowledge that what he knew how to do best was write. Both Borges and Sartre, from their totally different extremes of denying literature a social purpose, were certainly perfectly aware that it has its implicit and unalterable social role in exploring the state of being, from which all other roles, personal among friends, public at the protest demonstration, derive. Borges was not writing for his friends, for he published and we all have received the bounty of his work. Sartre did not stop writing, although he stood at the barricades in 1968.The question of for whom do we write nevertheless plagues the writer, a tin can attached to the tail of every work published. Principally it jangles the inference of tendentiousness as praise or denigration. In this context, Camus dealt with the question best. He said that he liked individuals who take sides more than literatures that do. ‘One either serves the whole of man or does not serve him at all. And if man needs bread and justice, and if what has to be done must be done to serve this need, he also needs pure beauty which is the bread of his heart.’ So Camus called for ‘Courage in and talent in one’s work.’ And Marquez redefined tender fiction thus: The best way a writer can serve a revolution is to write as well as he can.I believe that these two statements might be the credo for all of us who write. They do not resolve the conflicts that have come, and will continue to come, to contemporary writers. But they state plainly an honest possibility of doing so, they turn the face of the writer squarely to her and his existence, the reason to be, as a writer, and the reason to be, as a responsible human, acting, like any other, within a social context.Being here: in a particular time and place. That is the existential position with particular implications for literature. Czeslaw Milosz once wrote the cry: ‘What is poetry which does not serve nations or people?’ and Brecht wrote of a time when ‘to speak of trees is almost a crime’. Many of us have had such despairing thoughts while living and writing through such times, in such places, and Sartre’s solution makes no sense in a world where writers were – and still are – censored and forbidden to write, where, far from abandoning the word, lives were and are at risk in smuggling it, on scraps of paper, out of prisons. The state of being whose ontogenesis we explore has overwhelmingly included such experiences. Our approaches, in Nikos Kazantzakis’ words, have to ‘make the decision which harmonizes with the fearsome rhythm of our time.’Some of us have seen our books lie for years unread in our own countries, banned, and we hve gone on writing. Many writers have been imprisoned. Looking at Africa alone – Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Jack Mapanje, in their countries, and in my own country, South Africa, Jeremy Cronin, Mongane Wally Serote, Breyten Breytenbach, Dennis Brutus, Jaki Seroke: all these went to prison for the courage shown in their lives, and have continued to take the right, as poets, to speak of trees. Many of the greats, from Thomas Mann to Chinua Achebe, cast out by political conflict and oppression in different countries, have endured the trauma of exile, from which some never recover as writers, and some do not survive at all. I think of the South Africans, Can Themba, Alex la Guma, Nat Nakasa, Todd Matshikiza. And some writers, over half a century from Joseph Roth to Milan Kundera, have had to publish new works first in the word that is not their own, a foreign language.Then in 1988 the fearsome rhythm of our time quickened in an unprecedented frenzy to which the writer was summoned to submit the word. In the broad span of modern times since the Enlightenment writers have suffered opprobrium, bannings and even exile for other than political reasons. Flaubert dragged into court for indecency, over Madame Bovary, Strindberg arraigned for blasphemy, over Marrying, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover banned – there have been many examples of so-called offense against hypocritical bourgeois mores, just as there have been of treason against political dictatorships. But in a period when it would be unheard of for countries such as France, Sweden and Britain to bring such charges against freedom of expression, there has risen a force that takes its appalling authority from something far more widespread than social mores, and far more powerful than the power of any single political regime. The edict of a world religion has sentenced a writer to death.For more than three years, now, wherever he is hidden, wherever he might go, Salman Rushdie has existed under the Muslim pronouncement upon him of the fatwa. There is no asylum for him anywhere. Every morning when this writer sits down to write, he does not know if he will live through the day; he does not know whether the page will ever be filled. Salman Rushdie happens to be a brilliant writer, and the novel for which he is being pilloried, The Satanic Verses, is an innovative exploration of one of the most intense experiences of being in our era, the individual personality in transition between two cultures brought together in a post-colonial world. All is re-examined through the refraction of the imagination; the meaning of sexual and filial love, the rituals of social acceptance, the meaning of a formative religious faith for individuals removed from its subjectivity by circumstance opposing different systems of belief, religious and secular, in a different context of living. His novel is a true mythology. But although he has done for the postcolonial consciousness in Europe what Gunter Grass did for the post-Nazi one with The Tin Drum and Dog Years, perhaps even has tried to approach what Beckett did for our existential anguish in Waiting For Godot, the level of his achievement should not matter. Even if he were a mediocre writer, his situation is the terrible concern of every fellow writer for, apart from his personal plight, what implications, what new threat against the carrier of the word does it bring? It should be the concern of individuals and above all, of governments and human rights organizations all over the world. With dictatorships apparently vanquished, this murderous new dictate invoking the power of international terrorism in the name of a great and respected religion should and can be dealt with only by democratic governments and the United Nations as an offense against humanity.I return from the horrific singular threat to those that have been general for writers of this century now in its final, summing-up decade. In repressive regimes anywhere – whether in what was the Soviet bloc, Latin America, Africa, China – most imprisoned writers have been shut away for their activities as citizens striving for liberation against the oppression of the general society to which they belong. Others have been condemned by repressive regimes for serving society by writing as well as they can; for this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist’s rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him; then the writer’s themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.There is a paradox. In retaining this integrity, the writer sometimes must risk both the state’s indictment of treason, and the liberation forces’ complaint of lack of blind commitment. As a human being, no writer can stoop to the lie of Manichean ‘balance’. The devil always has lead in his shoes, when placed on his side of the scale. Yet, to paraphrase coarsely Marquez’s dictum given by him both as a writer and a fighter for justice, the writer must take the right to explore, warts and all, both the enemy and the beloved comrade in arms, since only a try for the truth makes sense of being, only a try for the truth edges towards justice just ahead of Yeats’s beast slouching to be born. In literature, from life,
we page through each other’s faceswe read each looking eye… It has taken lives to be able to do so.
These are the words of the South African poet and fighter forjustice and peace in our country, Mongane Serote.The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties, trusts the state of being, as it is revealed, to hold somewhere in its complexity filaments of the cord of truth, able to be bound together, here and there, in art: trusts the state of being to yield somewhere fragmentary phrases of truth, which is the final word of words, never changed by our stumbling efforts to spell it out and write it down, never changed by lies, by semantic sophistry, by the dirtying of the word for the purposes of racism, sexism, prejudice, domination, the glorification of destruction, the curses and the praise-songs.