Most difficult and least glamorous: the politics of style in the late works of Nadine Gordimer
Item statusRestricted Access
Embargo end date31/07/2025
Much of the established scholarship on Nadine Gordimer regards her as a chronicler of the injustices of apartheid, as scholars like Stephen Clingman and Dominic Head describe her mature works as writing ‘history from the inside’ in a socialist realist tradition drawing from György Lukács and Ernst Fischer. Nevertheless, Head as well as other critics like Judie Newman and Simon Lewis note that Gordimer’s later fiction develops in more complex directions, incorporating postmodern metafiction, intertextual allusions, and the deconstruction of metanarratives. In this thesis, I extend this examination of these stylistic changes to her post-apartheid works, and I consider how these changes relate to the persisting injustices and conflicts in post-apartheid South Africa. In doing so, I evaluate the extent to which the end of apartheid marks the transition to a distinct late style in Gordimer’s works, as well as what political and ethical purpose such a late style serves. The scope of my study includes Gordimer’s novels and short story collections written after the end of apartheid: the short story collections Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black and Loot, and Other Stories, and the novels The House Gun, The Pickup, Get a Life, and No Time Like the Present. In the introduction, I contextualise Gordimer’s late style within the wider field of late style studies, as well as within the landscape of Gordimer scholarship. In the first chapter, I expand upon Graham Riach’s reading of late style in Gordimer’s short stories. I examine how the qualitative multiplicity of time in Gordimer’s late short story cycles allows these works to present a critique of late-capitalist society in post-apartheid South Africa. Following my discussion of the short story form, I examine how the stylistic features of Gordimer’s late style in her short stories — such as melancholy, cynicism, alienation, and self-awareness — manifest in each of her post-apartheid novels. In the second chapter, I explore the ways in which her use of postmodern melancholy and cynicism in The House Gun conveys the epistemic uncertainties of the white subject position within post-apartheid South Africa. In the third chapter, I examine how The Pickup takes this epistemic uncertainty further through its critique of empathy as a way of knowing the racial other, as well the idea of what J.M. Coetzee and Ileana Dimitriu describe as a ‘spiritual turn’ in her works. In the fourth chapter, I consider Gordimer’s ecological turn in Get a Life and how this novel imagines a new mode of political engagement. In the final chapter on No Time Like the Present, I examine the significance of grief, mourning and moral repair in the wake of disillusionment with the post-apartheid reality, and how these manifest through the dualities in Gordimer’s style. Gordimer, echoing Gustave Flaubert, describes the political work of transitioning to a post-apartheid society as ‘most difficult and least glamorous’. The style of her late works is correspondingly difficult and unglamorous as she interrogates the persisting injustices that betray the ideals of the freedom struggle. In contrast to what Clingman identifies as the dialectical arc of her mature works, her late works present a negative dialectic that introspects on the irreconcilable contradictions of her position as a white subject, grieves the arresting of the radical energies of decolonisation, and imagines new forms of political engagement through an embodied sense of vulnerability and interdependence.