NO COLD KITCHEN: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer by Ronald S. Roberts
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No Cold Kitchen is a biography of Nadine Gordimer by Ronald S. Roberts (published by STE Publishers). As an activist, Gordimer played a vital role in the struggle against the apartheid. In 1985, Gordimer declared: “I am a partisan of the black liberation struggle.” As a writer, Gordimer is one of the serious novelists in the world. In 1991, Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As Roberts notes, some of the reviewers of Gordimers’ work held her political commitment against her, damning her work with stereotypes of what literature on the left must be like in the reviewers’ minds:
The confusion of the reviewers over A Sport of Nature felt like a plague upon the book. Gordimer assured Robert Silvers that she was not “miffed . . . ” by what she called the “damning-with-faint-praise” review that the novel received in the New York Review of Books. There Diane Johnson said that Gordimer is humourless and that her “early work was reminiscent of old Marxist novels. . . . “
No Cold Kitchen is not merely a chronology of Gordimer’s life but a literary criticism that does justice to her work — a criticism that, unlike unsympathetic reviewers’, uncovers subtle ways in which Gordimer dissected politics through literature. Observe Roberts talk about a character in The Conservationist, for instance:
While more idealistic characters in Gordimer’s other books struggle to find a way through the “shit” that is apartheid, Mehring insist that “even shit is good — if you could just see this good carpet of ordure the cows have laid down in their paddock. . . .” Mehring is a shrewd escapist, not a romantically deluded one. He sees the shit, but believes — this is his vanity that unravels in the book — in his ability to choreograph it towards his private ends and his fruitful pleasures. We see shit; he sees manure. . . .
What makes Roberts’ literary criticism especially illuminating is his comparative study of Gordimer and her contemporaries. Roberts interrogates Gordimer’s work in relation to JM Coetzee‘s, Alan Paton‘s, Es’kia Mphahlele‘s, VS Naipaul‘s, and Doris Lessing‘s. “Rather than backing one or other runner in any literary horse-race,” writes Roberts, “one might instead celebrate Gordimer and Coetzee both — or, better yet, celebrate neither but read them both: Gordimer as the lyrical analyst of apartheid, Coetzee as the great allegorist of anti-imperialism. These worlds inevitably overlap, as Gordimer’s A Guest of Honour (1970) and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).”
Roberts’ approach, however, is not without its problems. Take, for instance, Roberts’ rather fascinating view of Coetzee’s Disgrace. This book is usually interpreted by black readers as racist, mainly because of the stereotypical black characters in the narrative. For example, a white woman is raped by three black men in the story; and the story suggests a white supremacist notion that postcolonial states fail as soon as whites relinquish power to the natives. Roberts, however, posits the argument that the narrative is in fact a criticism of whiteness, not a reinforcement of black stereotypes. He says that, for one to fathom this point, one has to read Disgrace in the context of Coetzee’s work as a whole. I beg to differ. To read a fiction writer’s entire oeuvre as if it were some kind of a connected puzzle might compel one to see forces that are not there and miss forces that are actually at play in a given text. Moreover, even if we were to actually read Disgrace as Roberts advises, we would still find that Coetzee normally has one theme he likes to get back to in his novels — and that is the failure of the State to serve and protect its citizens indiscriminately. In the past, those who were let down by the State in Coetzee’s novels were the natives, and in Disgrace — a novel written in 1999 (post-apartheid) — the people who are portrayed as being let down by the State are white people. This, of course, is in line with the white supremacist thinking that, simply because whites no longer have special privileges, in a postcolonial State whites are normally the ones treated as second-class citizens. Needless to say, the reality of South Africa today contradicts that.
Another problem of No Cold Kitchen is its discussion of how the world affairs influenced or, rather, did not influence Gordimer’s work. Roberts writes: “The American invasion of Vietnam, which roused Edward Said, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, and others, including JM Coetzee, from various degrees of apolitical slumber, simply left no impression at all within Gordimer’s mental world.” This is rather an unfair criticism. Gordimer was politically active way before the Vietnam war. She might not have been involved in the anti-war movement that was agitating against the Vietnam war, but she was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle, a far more urgent matter for white intellectuals in South Africa. I agree with Chomsky when he says, “I tend to follow the principle of focusing (necessarily finite) attention and energy on issues where I think what I do can make the most difference. . . .” It is strange that Roberts does not find it odd that, for Coetzee (who as a white male was benefiting from apartheid injustices tremendously) to be roused politically, the US had to invade Vietnam. One would have thought that the apartheid regime was itself oppressive enough to rouse any morally sensible person from any apolitical slumber.
Nevertheless, No Cold Kitchen is valuable in that it is scholarly — thoroughly researched, detailed to the last paragraph, very historical — and, when Roberts writes about Gordimer’s personal life, he does not degrade his project into a salacious and sensational affair as many of today’s biographers do. Roberts records Gordimer’s personal life only to the extent that knowledge of it might enhance the reader’s understanding of her work:
Gordimer’s marriage to Gerald swiftly slumped. In “The Talisman” (1949), a bored wife becomes engrossed in an affair with an artist, consciously placing herself on a tightrope between marital security and extramarital wanderings. Thus began a lifelong theme of Gordimer’s fiction . . . [and] what had begun as “mere” fiction now actually expressed some of the realities of her own disintegrating marriage to Gerald.
About her life, what should be most instructive to readers — especially white readers on the left — is how Gordimer saw herself as a privileged white person involved in the struggle against apartheid. “When white detractors accuse Gordimer of ‘hardness’ in her portrayal of whites,” writes Roberts, “she retorts: ‘If I am pointing fingers at whites, am I not a white myself? Isn’t it always mea culpa? If I’m dissecting whites, am I not dissecting myself. . . . I’m right in the middle of it.” This is a far cry from today’s white activists in South Africa who constantly tell poor black people that racism is no more, class is the real issue. Whites’ arrogance of instructing millions of poor blacks who are subjected to racism daily in South Africa about their reality is simply astounding, to say the very least. According to Roberts, Toni Morrison once said of Gordimer: “Gordimer managed to ‘validate’ race while also interrogating and moving beyond it: neither wishing race away . . . nor remaining mired in racialism.” One cannot honestly say the same about most white activists in South Africa today, especially on the issue of Zimbabwe.
No Cold Kitchen is historical in the sense that Gordimer’s life and her writings are explained in relation to what was politically happening in apartheid South Africa and the world. Discussing why Gordimer never emigrated, Roberts writes: “To leave the country would not be a clean break, clear of the shit, because emigration was itself a privilege. ‘For all the brown-titted warmth and revolutionary humanity you exude, you fastened the seat-belt and left them all behind,’ says the apartheid industrialist Mehring to his posturing liberal lover in The Conservationist (1974).”
I asked Roberts what he hopes the readers would get out of this book. He replied saying he hopes that the book generates interest in Gordimer’s work. The book does more than just generate interest about Gordimer’s work — it provides the reader with some background in South African literature, politics, and history.
Mandisi Majavu is a writer and activist based in South Africa. His writing has appeared in a number of South African publications. Internationally, his writing has appeared in reputable websites like Z Magazine. He is busy working on his Master’s Degree.