Dec/Jan 2008

Nadine Gordimer’s Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black

Rachel Aviv


In January 2005, Nadine Gordimer composed obituaries for two friends, Anthony Sampson and Susan Sontag, who died within ten days of each other. Her writing was uncharacteristically stiff, almost numb, as if she’d been forced to comment before she was ready. In “Dreaming of the Dead,” one of the finest stories in her new collection, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, Gordimer imagines a more fitting remembrance for her intellectual peers. She recounts a dream in which “the dead in their circle”—Sontag, Sampson, and Edward Saidconvene at a Chinese restaurant in SoHo to discuss their latest projects. Said is buoyant with news of a symphony he’s composed, and Sontag is drafting a defense of the heterosexual male. As the latter, “a mythical goddess . . . at once inspiring, menacing,” takes control of the table, Gordimer becomes acutely aware of her own discomfort with being alive. She feels like an adolescent (“I’m no match for Susan”) and envies the dead, who have all been productive since they “left access to newspapers, television, inside informants.”

In giving her friends an intellectual afterlife, an opportunity to reach insights not available “in the confusion of living,” Gordimer edges ever closer to the mysteries of death, as if she’s rehearsing for that final moment. The author has always been protective of her privacy—having disliked the way she was represented in the biog­raphy No Cold Kitchen, she blocked its American releaseand she here presents death as the ultimate vulnerability, the point at which the writer must surrender authority. In many of these stories, the lives of the dead are picked over and exposed. The children in “A Frivolous Woman” riffle through their dead grandmother’s intimate belongings and piece together a new version of her life while “laughing, shaking heads, grimacing incredulity.”

Save for the title story, which addresses the ironies of postapartheid South Africa (a white professor, desperate to be part of the new ruling class, searches for any trace of blackness in his family line), Gordimer devotes her attention to subjects domestic and small. Peppered with parentheses, dashes, and incomplete clauses, her writing is deceptively tight, and a story’s resolution often hinges on one or two lines. In “Gregor,” chaos ensues when a cockroach lodges itself behind the glass display of an author’s old typewriter. The unnamed writer, who has been reading Kafka’s diaries, learns to tolerate, and even enjoy, the insect’s company. As the cockroach whisks across her sentences, its “black legs like punctuation marks,” she begins to believe that she has willed the creature into existence. Kafka’s influence has inspired its own metamorphosis, alive on her page—an “ectoplasm of my imagination.”

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