Back to the Garden
Get A Life
By Nadine Gordimer
New York: Farrar, Straus Giroux, 2005, 187 pp., $21.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Florence Howe
When the group of African editors of Women Writing Africa: the Southern Region had to choose a text by Nadine Gordimer for their volume, they selected a little-known, very brief essay written in 1994 and published only in South Africa. In “April 27: The First Time,” Gordimer noted the “glowing significance” she felt as she stood in a line of voters that included black people. I remember wondering whether the editors might be slighting Gordimer’s importance as a Nobel prize-winning novelist.
But today, I understand their choice. Gordimer is a history novelist. No, she does not write historical novels: she writes in the moment of history, about the lives of her contemporaries, almost always in South Africa. Beginning in 1953, when The Lying Days, a bildungsroman of the 1940s, appeared, Gordimer has drawn characters living in the very particular, astutely observed political world of South Africa. Her major theme has been the color line: apartheid in action over decades, and more important, the resistance to it. In thirteen novels and several hundred short stories and essays, Gordimer has made palpable the singular efforts of people—black, white, and colored, Christians and Jews—who risked arrest, imprisonment, torture, and murder to fight apartheid. Her novels depict national and local struggles from the 1950s through 1994. In these novels and stories, she is even-handed about gender: women are often as heroic as men, their strengths sometimes surprising both to men and to other women.
Since 1994, her novels have testified to the postapartheid mixing of South African populations, particularly among the privileged and well educated. In The House Gun (1998), for example, a white, upper-middle-class couple whose grown son has been accused of murder choose as defense lawyer a black man, with whom they then spend personal and social time, the integrated “mixing” new to all. Even in this novel, which seems, on its surface, not connected to questions of race and politics, Gordimer threads her story with reports of continuing street violence in a society that tolerates a profusion of accessible guns in ordinary homes. Tacitly, moreover, the color line is still in play, since the white defendant receives a relatively light sentence. As in the United States, race cannot easily be eradicated.
Gordimer is also a novelist of family relations, obsessive about those ties that bind not only a married couple, but the children they beget. She is particularly interested in relations between mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. With regard to long-term marriages, she is the kind of feminist writer interested in the relationship between love and work. In several novels, she depicts men who are more monogamous than their wives, and women who value their work more than their husbands value their own. In None to Accompany Me (1994), for example, although a woman leaves her first husband to marry her lover, with whom she continues a passionate sexual relationship, she does not want him to feel as though he cannot live without her. Her work, which includes a nonsexual relationship with a black male colleague essential to the reorganizing of land control for black ownership, becomes far more important to her than her marriage. In general, Gordimer’s women characters actively seek, and often get, “a life,” whether that life is movement- or nation-building.
In the worlds Gordimer has created, social purpose—spending one’s life making a difference in and for the world—is more important than anything else, even a life partnership. She seems to be saying, yes, it would be great to have both love and work, but for some women (and men?), socially significant work has to come first. When a man acts on this priority, you might not notice. In Burger’s Daughter (1979), for example, a husband chooses work that places him and his colored family at risk. Even before he dies in prison and his wife continues his work, we know that their daughter must ultimately decide her future: Will she abandon the safety of exile with her foreign lover to return to the struggle against apartheid? I want to emphasize this theme of Gordimer’s, since even in this new century, it is not customary for women to choose work over love.
In Get a Life, Gordimer varies her theme. The novel’s characters include two married couples, parents in their sixties and their son and daughter-in-law in their thirties. All four are professional whites in a medley of careers, two commercial—father manages a business; daughter-in-law writes advertising copy—and two political—mother is a civil rights and constitutional lawyer; son is an environmental activist. He works against “development” in the form of highways and dams that would cut off or otherwise maim major ecological systems and rural village life, which are also threatened by a new form of atomic energy plant.
Two events, one actual, one impending, move the novel: first, Paul, the son, undergoes a treatment for thyroid cancer that leaves him radioactive. Temporarily, he lives isolated from his wife and small son for several weeks in his parents’ suburban house and garden, the scenes of his childhood. His parents willingly risk danger to care for him; his mother, Lyndley, takes time off and assumes most of the responsibility. The second event that moves the novel forward and motivates the title—Get a Life—is the impending retirement of Adrian, the husband, eventually to be accompanied by his wife. Because of Paul’s illness, they put off a long trip they had planned to the North Pole. In the second half of the novel, they travel to Mexico instead, where Adrian falls in love both with the idea of the archeological life he has never had, and (after Lyndley has returned to her urgent work in South Africa) with the Norwegian guide they had found together, a woman the age of their son. He never returns to his marriage or to South Africa.
No one is more surprised by these developments than Lyndley, since Adrian had always been the monogamous partner, even suffering through a four-year period when Lyndley had an affair with another man. Her life must change, too. She accepts an appointment as a judge and then adopts an abused, three-year-old, mixed race child who is HIV-infected. Thus, she “gets a life”—the child—whom she brings into her son’s family as sister to her grandchild.
But Gordimer always has a broad canvas in mind: in this novel, medical and ecological issues replace her usual concern for racial politics. Establishing a thyroid cancer in the body of a man who worries about the health of the planet allows Gordimer to focus on global politics. For Paul’s two black colleagues—Derek and Thapelo—“get a life” assumes yet another meaning, social rather than personal. They are working against “development” that would thwart abundant forms of life—human, animal, and vegetable—in rural areas. As they use the challenge as mantra, they seem to be speaking in derision to the would-be developers, urging them to find a form of work other than the exploitation of the nation’s natural and human resources.
Gordimer is now in her eighties, and her keen eye continues to record the multicultural possibilities of South African family life. If you did not know South Africa’s history, you might not pay close attention to the mixed-race socializing of the families in this novel. Still, Gordimer seems to be reminding us, new dangers threaten the hard-won achievements of the past century of resistance. Here she has drawn, for the first time, a portrait of those she calls the “new missionaries,” who are out to save the earth, not the soul, though the image of the garden, key to this novel, certainly alludes to that first mythic Garden. As Paul spends his weeks alone in his parents’ garden, he has time to think about whether the world will be destroyed slowly through disrupting national formations and patterns of life, or rapidly through nuclear holocaust.
The novel ends somewhat hopefully. At least for the moment, the cancer has been banished from Paul’s body along with his thyroid, and Paul and Berenice’s new baby seems unharmed by his father’s illness and treatment. The great road project and the “pebble-bed nuclear reactor” have both been “halted…Pending further environmental assessment.” But the “new missionaries” agree that “Final license of destruction must never be admitted, granted. That’s the creed. Work to be done.” And the party turns to toasting the new baby.
Florence Howe is currently publisher at the Feminist Press at the City University of New York, where she codirects the Women Writing Africa project. Some day she will retire and “get a life” or find the time to write about one.