A South African writer who spoke out against apartheid

She plumbed the depths of human interaction in a society of racial tension

South Africa has produced several writers of stature in the past half century, but few have approached the achievement of Nadine Gordimer, who has died aged 90. A significant figure in world literature, Ms. Gordimer plumbed the depths of human interaction in a society of racial tension, political oppression and sexual unease. The connection between the intimate and the public lay at the heart of her work, an apparently inexhaustible stream of novels, short stories and essays.

An outspoken voice against the evils of apartheid, Ms. Gordimer continued to express forthright views after its collapse and the emergence of a multiracial democracy. Promoting even as she questioned white liberal values in her early work, she went on to espouse an increasingly radical position in the essays and fiction of the mid-1970s and later, openly supporting the liberation movement and associated cultural bodies such as the Congress of South African Writers. This led to her being for many years more widely acclaimed abroad than at home — where several of her novels were banned — until she became in 1991 the country’s first winner of the Nobel prize for literature.

When the Swedish academy made its award, it announced that it was for her “great, epic writings centring on the effects of race relations in her country”. While it is true to suggest that the focus of her work was on relationships between the races, her careful probing of what happens to people under the pressures created by the prevailing structures of power represents a larger achievement, that of a writer in touch with the broad movements of history and their impact upon society.

The force of Ms. Gordimer’s work comes from its testimony to the quality of life in South Africa. It was, she said, “learning to write”, rather than waking up to “the shameful enormity of the colour bar” through joining any political party in her youth, that sent her “falling, falling through the surface of ‘the South African way of life’”. As she once remarked, every white South African needs to be born twice: the second time into an awareness of the profound racism in which they first found themselves.

Ms. Gordimer’s writing career took off during the late 40s and early 50s with the publication of short stories in South African liberal and literary magazines, followed by international journals such as, crucially, the New Yorker , whose continued support from 1951 provided much encouragement for the young writer, while helping to create a wider public for her work. These early stories, clever and perceptive as they were, did little more than display the inner thoughts of white middle-class characters trapped in a world about which they feel guilty, but that they do not understand.

She went on to write more than 200 stories, expanding her range while concentrating her focus in a truly remarkable series of collections, from Not for Publication (1965) and Livingstone’s Companions (1971) to Jump (1991), Loot (2003) and Life Times (2011, a collection spanning 55 years of writing). She experimented towards the end, not always successfully, with symbol and allegory, and but for her success as a novelist would have been remembered as a great master of the short-story genre, which she always defended for its concentration, integrity and lack of compromise.

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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