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Nadine Gordimer, Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan (#BookReview)

June 9, 2019

There are authors I read long before blogging whom I really want to document here, in some way. One of these is Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer who first came to my attention in 1983 with her memorable, confronting 1956 short story collection, Six feet of the country.

Nadine Gordimer, as I’m sure you know, had a lifelong concern for economic and racial inequality and injustice in South Africa, and this is evident in her short story, Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan. The story is told third person through the perspectives of a mother and father, the titular Claudia and Harald. Early in the story, they are visited by Julian, their 30-year-old son Duncan’s friend. They assume there’s been an accident, but

This Julian draws the flaps of his lips in over his teeth and clamps his mouth before he speaks.

A kind of … Not Duncan, no, no! Someone’s been shot. Duncan, he’s been arrested.

This description of Julian is so typical of Gordimer in the way, in a few words, she conveys something grotesque, something that feels more than the bringing of bad news, even before we know why he is there.

Book coverHowever, this 1996 story is particularly intriguing because it seems to be related to her 1997 novel The house gun. As far as I can tell, the first third of the story I read is very close to the first chapter of that book, but after that I don’t know. I do know that the details of the crime seem a little different in “my” story (but it may just be that they are not fully revealed). Also the novel’s Duncan is 27, while the story’s Duncan is 30. So, did Gordimer write the short story and then decide to flesh it out into a novel? I don’t know, but here is what Wikipedia says about The house gun, which was her second post-apartheid novel:

It follows the story of a couple, Claudia and Harald Lingard, dealing with their son Duncan’s murder of one of his housemates. The novel treats the rising crime rate in South Africa and the guns that virtually all households have, as well as the legacy of South African apartheid and the couple’s concerns about their son’s lawyer, who is black.

While the short story doesn’t emphasise all this, there is a reference to people having guns for protection, and there’s the sense that we are dealing with the post-apartheid world.

Anyhow, back to the story. What I love, as I’ve already intimated, is how Gordimer creates tone. Here’s our couple on hearing that the crime for which Duncan has been arrested is murder:

He/she. He strides over and switches off the television. And expels a violent breath. So long as nobody moved, nobody uttered, the word and the act within the word could not enter here. Now with the touch of a switch and the gush of breath a new calendar is opened. The old Gregorian cannot register this day. It does not exist in that means of measure.

What a wonderfully fresh way of conveying the sense of discombobulation, of unreality, that results when the world seems to change in an instant.

From here – it’s a Friday – we follow Harald and Claudia through to their son’s arraignment on Monday, and into the hours immediately after, at which point the story ends, fairly suddenly.

One of the themes, in the story anyhow, concerns the idea that no matter how much you try to lock yourself away from the “outside”, you can’t keep it from coming in. This has a political as well as a personal reading. The story starts by telling us that Harald and Claudia had recently moved from a house to a “town-house complex with grounds maintained and security-monitored entrance”. Later in the story, Claudia, a doctor, does her shift at the clinic which services “areas of the city and once genteel suburbs of Johannesburg where now there was an influx, a rise in and variety of the population.” During this shift, she considers the pain that it is her job to assuage – the pain that comes from inside, like a tumour, and that which comes from the outside, like being burnt or, yes, hit by a bullet. She reflects:

The pain that is the by-product of the body itself, its malfunction, is part of the self; somewhere, a mystery medical science cannot explain, the self is responsible. But this – the bullet in the head: the pure assault of pain.

This is surely a metaphor for that fear of the “outside” by the well-to-dos who choose to live in security-monitored complexes. What’s inside, the implication is, cannot be necessarily controlled but it’s part of your own world; what’s outside is to be feared. In this section of the story, there are references to socioeconomic differences. Claudia gives out diet sheets, for example, to people, mostly black, who, she knows, are “too poor for the luxury of these remedies”.

It is, then, just the sort of story I like to read. The careful word choice, the slightly odd syntax, plus things like the references to class and race, combine to convey something that is more than a simple murder plot involving a son and his devastated parents. As the narrator slyly says:

This is not a detective story. Harald has to understand that the mode of events that genre represents is actuality, this is the sequence of circumstantial evidence and interpretation by which a charge of murder is arrived.

Circumstantial evidence and interpretation. The stuff of complex lives in complex times, eh? I’d like to read the novel now.

Nadine Gordimer
Harald, Claudia, and their son Duncan
London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1996
(A Bloomsbury Quid)
41pp.
9780747528913

14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2019 6:18 am

    “He strides over and switches off the television. And expels a violent breath. So long as nobody moved, nobody uttered, the word and the act within the word could not enter here. Now with the touch of a switch and the gush of breath a new calendar is opened. The old Gregorian cannot register this day. It does not exist in that means of measure.”

    Gosh, but this is marvellous, Sue – the brief suspension of reality is so … relatable ! I’ve been there.
    Yes, slightly odd syntax; but oh, how it conveys what it wants to.

    • June 10, 2019 10:41 am

      Oh I’m so glad you get the writing here too, MR. I’ve been there too… That sense that if you’re very very careful the thing won’t really have happened.

  2. June 10, 2019 7:29 am

    This sounds really good and really interesting. It sounds as if all kinds of intriguing themes are involved. The idea of isolating oneself from the outside is an old one that never seems to lose interest. I think that it is something people have tried to do for a long time. I also think that for a long time people have found that the outside has a habit of getting in.

    • June 10, 2019 10:43 am

      Exactly Brian. Most stories are old aren’t they…it’s just how a skilful writer can make them feel new and relevant that makes a great read isn’t it.

  3. June 10, 2019 9:59 am

    I’ve read The House Gun, and another one – I found them good but not great. But I have two more on the TBR so maybe I should get my act together and read one of them so that there’s another female Nobel Prize winner on my blog, eh?
    BTW Did you see Jane Caro got a gong on the QB Hons? Nice one!

    • June 10, 2019 10:46 am

      Oh no, I didn’t see any news about the gong yesterday, Lisa. Where was I? Great news though.

      I know Gordimer more through her short stories and I love her. Her heart for injustice, and for people flailing around helplessly under difficult situations, sometimes of their own making, sometimes not, really gets into me. But, I should read m ord of her novels.

  4. buriedinprint permalink
    June 11, 2019 6:38 am

    LIke Lisa above, I’ve read The House Gun (two others, too, I believe – but I’d have to look up the titles because I tend to think I’ve read the better known ones and, yet, I think I’ve discovered that wasn’t the actual truth of it, once I checked my logs). Now I’m wondering just how much more relevant some of the discussion about arms and violence, threats and risks, might seem, in light of the changing landscape (and not changing) of weapons availability and the efforts made (and overturned), if we were to revisit her fiction now.

    • June 11, 2019 8:13 am

      That’s an interesting point Buried, particularly, perhaps in the USA?

      Its interesting about our memory re what weve read. I sometimes mentally check off those Best 200 Classics or Best 100 20th century books type lists, and occasionally C on front a book that I think I’ve read but can’t quite be 100% sure whether it’s just because I’ve known about it for so long, have heard it talked about so much, that I feel I have!

  5. June 11, 2019 2:14 pm

    Nadine Gordimer is such a familiar name. Yet on checking Wikipedia I find I have read none of her books. More to do!

    • June 11, 2019 3:51 pm

      Oh yes, more to do, Bill. As a Nobel Laureate, she is worthy of your attention and priority!

  6. June 13, 2019 2:41 pm

    I’ve had a book of short stories by Nadine Gordimer for quite some time but haven’t dipped into it as yet. Your post has inspired me to rectify that – thanks!

    • June 13, 2019 9:48 pm

      Oh do, jml – I’ve read a few of hers now, particularly those in Six feet of the country, and found them powerful.

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