For years Nadine Gordimer has occupied a spot on many people’s list of novelists likely to be awarded the Nobel Prize Now in her late 60s, the South African writer has devoted her career to an examination of the moral and psychological effects of apartheid upon her countrymen — white and black. Highly imaginative and crafted with cool precision, her numerous novels, short stories, and critical essays comprise a portrait of her strange and troubled homeland unmatched in breadth and clarity. It is probably no exaggeration to call Gordimer the literary conscience of South Africa — and and author of international stature.
One takes no pleasure at all, therefore, in reporting that Gordimer’s My Son’s Story falls far short of Burger’s Daughter or A Sport of Nature, to name just two of her masterpieces. Narrated in part by the protagonist’s embittered 15-year-old son, the novel tells the story of a love affair between a high- ranking ”colored” antiapartheid activist and a white woman who first befriended him in prison under the auspices of a human rights organization.
What galls the son, who came upon the couple accidentally at a movie theater in a part of Johannesburg formerly for whites only, is the betrayal of his mother. He is also angry that his father, who had avoided ”all the humble traps of our kind, drink, glue-sniffing, wife-beating, loud-mouthed capering, obsequious bumming…and all the sophisticated traps of lackeyism, corruption [and] nepotism” should have succumbed to so predictable a temptation.
The distressing thing about this oddly stiff little novel, with its promising beginning and potentially engrossing themes — the struggle between the political and the erotic, and among contending loyalties to community, family, lover, and self — isn’t that its characters are overly familiar. It’s that they’re hardly characters at all. They’re more in the way of abstractions, really, sketchy renderings of interesting types caught up in theoretically challenging situations. It’s almost as if Gordimer decided to publish the Cliff Notes version before writing the actual novel.
Faulkner wrote Mosquitoes, Hemingway Across the River and Into the Trees, and Willa Cather Sapphira and the Slave Girl, excruciatingly bad novels every one. To anybody not writing a doctoral dissertation, the best thing to do with such books is to leave them alone. Should Gordimer one day be summoned to literary Valhalla in Oslo, it won’t be for My Son’s Story. C