Nadine Gordimer’s Get a Life

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain

Ezra Pound

“Not an epiphany, life moves more slowly and inexorably than any belief in that”

– Nadine Gordimer

Political is an adjective I’ve always been hesitant to use, especially when applied to fiction. Not that I think writers should be apolitical (I LOVED Pinter’s Nobel acceptance speech, for instance) but that I believe the claims of politics to be distinct from the claims of fiction, so that the combination of the two often leads to results that do justice to neither. That’s why I’m usually wary of novels with a ‘message’ – too often I find the existence of that message used as an excuse for mediocre writing.

The most glorious exception to that rule that I can think of is Gordimer [1]. Perhaps because Gordimer’s work is not political in the sense of being about politics, it is political in the sense of being deeply embedded in the politics of her time and country. To read Gordimer is to be offered a unique window into the recent history of the South African people, an intimate and personal history, in which Africa is not so much a topic as a presence, a character who stands quietly by, watching the plot unfold, a silent narrator. So rich is Gordimer’s sensibility as a writer that the light of her understanding transcends the narrow circles of family and relationships that she so skilfully draws, shining out, like the beam of a lighthouse, upon an entire nation. This is not a point that Gordimer belabours – she does not need to – to read Burger’s Daughter or July’s People or The Conservationist is to be plunged so entirely into the immediacy of South African life that to explicitly acknowledge it would be like pointing out the water while one was scuba diving.

In recent years, though, whether as a consequence of the changing political realities of South Africa or because of her own advancement as a writer, it seems to me that Africa has leached out of Gordimer’s voice, leaving behind it what we always knew existed, but can now see in sharper contrast – the incredible beauty of her writing. Gordimer is a writer of quiet, heartbreaking prose, her writing has a gentle dignity that blends clarity with generosity, and like some winter afternoon’s quiet sunlight, makes everything clear and forgiven. There is a sense of peace here that does not pass understanding but is founded upon it. Life is a simple thing, Gordimer seems to say, if we would only look within our hearts to understand it, only find the courage to be honest – to ourselves and to those we care for – about the truth of our feelings, acknowledging the pain that would bring for what it is. It is in trying to avoid this denouement, in trying to imagine ourselves to be other than we are, in trying to explain or make excuses, that we complicate our relationships with each other, make it more difficult to connect as human beings. Gordimer’s great gift is to make this idea come alive by putting down on paper what is so familiar as to be intimate. Yes, that’s exactly right, you think to yourself, but how does she know that? Writing about family, about marriage, Gordimer is so exact that her dialogues and descriptions touch something deep inside you, so that you find yourself in tears not in the parts that talk of death or loss or despair, but in the parts that talk about love.

Gordimer’s new novel, Get a Life, is a return of sorts to the notion of the personal as a way of understanding the political, the notion of using a deeply personal account to explore the same emotional pathways where the political has led. Except that in the post 9/11 world Gordimer has expanded her canvas, gone international. South Africa is still a presence in this novel – white people are seen in the process of establishing new ties with their black neighbours, forging new friendships – but it is a benign presence, a supporting actor, almost an extra. At one point in the novel, at a party where both colored and white people meet, Gordimer makes the simple observation that to the children at the party this was nothing special – they all went to school together, they were used to it.

No, the real (though almost unmentioned, but for a single line about hubris) star here is 9/11 – the shock of that event, the way it has reshaped the very meaning of what we call reality. Never one afraid of the emotional, Gordimer attacks this issue with a directness that manages to be concerned without being sentimental, her’s is the efficiency of a grandmother who gives your wounds the attention they deserve without fussing over them. To acknowledge is not to commemorate. It happens, she seems to say (it’s the title of one of the book’s sections), get over it, get a life! Her essential message in the book is that no matter how unexpected or painful the suffering, no matter how deep the wound, Nature is a survivor. Life will go on whether we want it to or not, we can only choose to accept or deny it, and that acceptance is not betrayal – we do not cheapen the loss by living through it, that it is possible to suffer and accept that one has suffered without giving into that suffering or dwelling on it. This is an audacious premise, one that, coming from a writer with less empathy than Gordimer would seem trite, almost insulting – in her patient, skilful hands, it feels like wisdom.

The story, in brief is this: Paul, a thirty-five year old environmental conservationist married to an advertising executive, and the father of a three year old son, discovers that he has thyroid cancer. Treated (the doctors hope successfully) for the disease, the patient represents a health risk to those around him, because the iodine treatment he has received has made him radioactive. Forced to avoid physical contact with his wife and son, Paul returns from hospital to spend his quarantine with his parents, his radioactive condition fast becoming a metaphor for for the impossibility, when faced with the fact of one’s own mortality, of connecting to another human being. As Paul spends long hours in the garden of his parent’s house, dwelling, often gloomily, on his isolation, there is a keen sense of the disconnection the world has suffered.

This, for me, is the finest part of the book – ninety pages that make up an intense exploration of the many ways in which we relate to ourselves and to others, and the way circumstances beyond our control can change those relationships and our understanding of them. Love, in Gordimer means “commitment to the fulfillment of the loved one”. It is the way that we protect and betray and forgive those we care for, the way we both desire them and take them for granted, the way we both rescue them or do them harm.

By the second half of the book Gordimer loses her way, her tone becoming a little too strident, a little too deliberate [2]. Paul recovers, but remains plagued by doubts about his own health, throwing himself passionately back into his work, into caring for his son, to avoid the apprehension of a new gulf between himself and his wife. Paul’s parents take a long-delayed vacation to Mexico, which ends badly, and Paul’s mother, bewildered and wounded, falls back first to her son, with whom the days of his quarantine have forged a warmer bond, and then to an adopted child of her own. These events are skilfully portrayed – the scenes between the various actors are constructed with exquisite tenderness, the writing is powerful – but the plot rings false, and the book has lost the breathless authenticity of its first half. It’s as though Gordimer were trying too hard to be cheerful, trying to thrust an almost clichedly happy ending upon her characters, so as to force us to have hope as well. That this works at all is a testament to Gordimer’s power as a writer. But it does not work entirely.

One problem, I think, is that Gordimer is trying to cram too much into the story. While 9/11 would seem to be the immediate context, the more explicit threat in the novel is nuclear power – nuclear capability is the evil that literally radiates through all our lives, becoming a metaphor for all that is destructive in man’s greed for power, his lust for domination. Ecological conservation is another big theme, with Paul’s work taking centre-stage in the latter half of the novel, and long pages being devoted to the importance of eco-systems and the way that modern industry threatens them. There is also the undercurrent of race relationships in the new South Africa, as well as some passing meditation on gender roles. It’s too much to pack into a book this small.

In one way the eco-system point is a powerful metaphor – the irrepressibility of life, its incredible ability to adapt, to survive. Nature goes on, Gordimer tells us, finds ways to adjust to man’s intrusions, ways to continue, ways to grow. This principal of survival, first outlined as a property of eco-systems, is then played out in the lives of the chief characters – as each comes face to face with some climactic realisation and finds in it a source of renewal, of rededication to new ends, new pursuits, new people. The correct response to loss is a frenzy for life, a desperate grasping for new connections, new reasons to live. Get a Life is a call to arms, a rededication to living in the face of a more evident mortality. When Paul finally gets back to his wife, she finds that he makes love to her as though each time were his last. That is the path Gordimer would have us all choose.

The trouble with so strident an affirmation is that it quickly becomes heavy-handed. Perhaps the wisest thing that Gordimer says in the whole book is: “Success sometimes may be defined as a disaster put on hold”. If only she’d stuck to that message. Instead, she insists on cramming the last forty pages with hopefulness, with awe, with rejuvenation, so that the overall effect is of someone talking too loudly and too fast. Someone who hopes that by convincing others she will convince herself. As an exhortation, this is a powerful book, but Gordimer has no real argument to offer except one based in a magical faith in the healing powers of time and nature. This is a powerful belief, one that, like the words of a loving grandmother offers much consolation when you first hear it, but it is an argument that will prove cold comfort on maturer, more rational reflection.

Bottomline: Get a life is a moving exploration of the nature of loss, of the ways in which families and individuals deal with the unexpected. It is also a proud affirmation of the primacy of life, its fecundity, its survival, but in making so strident an affirmation, Gordimer oversteps the authenticity of her genius, so that the second half of this book feels like it claims much but says little. Get a life is still a book that cries out to be read, however, if only for the glorious first half, which is as good a demonstration as any of Gordimer at her best.


[1] Okay, that’s an overstatement. What about Orwell? And Koestler wrote a couple of good books. And what about Didion. Oh damn.

[2] It’s interesting, and perhaps not entirely coincidental, that that’s exactly how I felt about The House Gun, as well – another novel about parents and children where the first half left me shocked with how word perfect is was, but the second part tailed off into something much less compelling.