None to Accompany Me, Nadine Gordimer's eleventh novel, takes place in a tumultuous South Africa in the final throws of apartheid, in the year when the old life comes to an end. The upheaval is reflected in the life of Vera Stark, a white civil rights lawyer who gradually sheds the trappings of her married life in pursuit of a small space in existence...to be traversed by herself: herself a final form of company discovered. Tracing Vera's transition along with her country's, None to Accompany Me is a lyrical exploration of radical social change as a possibility of changing oneself.
Both pragmatist and sensualist, wife and mother, lover and political activist, Vera is one of Gordimer's most complex and intriguing creations. The novel's secondary characters more than hold their own, though: Vera's handsome husband Bennet, a would-be sculptor now reduced by the desire to provide for her to selling so-called prestige luggage; their children Ivan, a London banker, and Annie, a gay South African doctor; Didymus and his wife Sibongile (Sally), black revolutionaries returned from exile abroad to find their public roles reversed: Didymus sidelined and Sibongile on a hit-list of high-profile politicians; their lovely daughter Mpho, half-Zulu, half-Xhosa, and all-London teenager; Vera's co-worker Oupa, former prisoner on Robber Island, bursting with hopes and plans for South Africa; and Zeph Rapulana, one of the new black men with the skills and personal power to help bring those hopes and dreams to fruition.
This new South Africa is not romanticized: there are deaths by violence, desperate housing shortages, hints of corruption, political rivalries. Asked by Newsweek what readers should learn from None to Accompany Me, Gordimer replied, "I hope they will take away a sense of the true realities of South Africa, of the wonderful achievements of freedom in [a] few short months, and also understand that there are enormous tasks for people to tackle, and that we need help."
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in Springs, a small gold-mining town thirty miles from Johannesburg. Her parents were Jewish émigrés, her mother from England and her father from Latvia; he ran a jewelry store in town where Gordimer attended an all-white convent school. Gordimer credits Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle, about oppressed Chicago meatpackers, with opening her eyes to the plight of the black mine workers in Springs. Her focus, though, in life as well as work, has always been on the individual experience. In a 1991 interview in The New York Times, Gordimer describes being "drawn into politics not through ideas but through friendships with many black people through the years. Little by little, I began to see what I was a part of."
Gordimer's first short story was published when she was fifteen. Her writing career took off when The New Yorker printed a story in 1946, and her first collection appeared three years later. She has since published seven volumes of short stories and eleven novels, which have been translated into twenty languages. Gordimer has won some of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. A vocal member of the long-outlawed African National Congress, she is also a founder of the predominantly black Congress of South African Writers.
One of apartheid's fiercest critics, Nadine Gordimer has long been considered a preeminent interpreter of South Africa, and also its conscience. Her life is a vivid portrait of, in her words, what apartheid means in human terms.
"A sustaining achievement, proving Gordimer once again a lucid witness to her country's transformation and a formidable interpreter of the inner self."Chicago Tribune
"This post-Nobel, post-apartheid novelGordimer's least political and most emotionally intricatemay well be the finest she has ever produced."The Washington Post Book World
"None to Accompany Me is a radical and complex novel, rich with the weight of story and the challenge of hard questions. Gordimer demonstrates again that when her imagination transforms experience, the result is a literature for the world."San Francisco Chronicle
Available in Penguin paperback:
A Guest Of Honor
An English colonial administrator returns to the African nation from which he was expelled. "A magnificent literary feat."Cleveland Plain Dealer
"In this brilliantly realized work, Gordimer unfolds a riveting history of South Africa and a penetrating portrait of a courageous woman."The New Yorker
"An unforgettable look into the terrifying, tacit understandings and misunderstandings between blacks and whites in South Africa. Gordimer knows this complex emotional and political territory all too well and writes about it superbly."Newsweek
Jump and Other Stories
"Gordimer has rarely been more profound or more quietly brilliant than in these exquisitely subtle stories."Publishers Weekly
My Son's Story
In this tale of sexual jealousy between father and adolescent son, Gordimer offers wrenching, passionate insight into the worlds of political and erotic liberation.
This fascinating portrait of a reckless and calculating man is a subtle and detailed study of South Africa today.
The Essential Gesture
The Last Bourgeois World
The Lying Days
Occasion for Loving
Six Feet of the Country
A Soldier's Embrace
Something Out There
A Sport of Nature
Why Haven't You Written?
A World of Strangers
A superb stylist, Nadine Gordimer has no need for polemic or finger-wagging. Firmly grounded in physical and psychological detail, memorably evoking the texture of daily life for South Africans of every stripe, her books have earned world-wide acclaim. In the words of The New York Times Book Review, "Gordimer... can not only capture but express in the lives of human beings those moments which are so fleeting, so impalpable, as well as so common that they are overlooked by all but a very rare artist." She spoke to us on May 1, 1995, from her home in Johannesburg.
None to Accompany Me is your first novel set in post-apartheid South Africa. It seems to me that your canvas is now more complex and ambiguous. Is that true?
I think it's quite true, and also immensely interesting and challenging. For example, take a simplistic idea we all had: that people in exile were longing to come home, had been dreaming about it for many years. Then they came home and the dream of home is different from the reality. There's the very fact that you can now live differentlythere's no more residential segregation. Those who can manage it simply move into the equivalents of Greenwich Village, Soho, nice white suburbs. It means a whole new pattern of living. I have young friends, my children's ages, mad keen to move into the city. They move, mostly into apartments in very heavily populated parts of the city, thinking that all the things that oppressed them in the townshipscrime, overcrowdingwill now be solved. But the fact is that there are other forms of predators in these heavily populated neighborhoods, lots of muggings, all sorts of confidence men just waiting to take in the gullible. There's also a complete loss of neighborliness. In Soweto, your neighbors would look after a sick kid if you had to go to work; there was a wonderful sense of solidarity you don't have in the city. To a certain extent this experience is portrayed by Oupain in None to Accompany Me.
Now we have illegal immigrants from Korea and mainland China, you walk down the street and suddenly hear black Zairians talking to each other in French, there are Nigerians running a big drug racket. All these new phenomena will come into the work of writers.
A few years ago, you commented that censors "don't even bother with nonfiction books now. They go after the news media and they accomplish their ends by controlling coverage." Do you think that fiction is even less influential than nonfiction?
I think fiction influences lots of people. It certainly contributed to anti-apartheid movements abroad, and to the understanding of apartheid. What fiction did that TV news couldn't do, that newspaper headlines couldn't do, was to show through the lives of fictional charactersdrawn, of course, from real lifewhat apartheid meant in terms of distorting those lives. The TV screen shows the raid, the moment of crisis, children advancing against tear gas, shots fired. You didn't see what happened afterwards, what they went home to, how they put their lives together again. That is the dimension of fiction.
Certainly they underestimated the power of fiction. What people saw in the media was just a moment of sensation. We wrote about the lives of people, and that roused a lot of consciousness about what was happening in South Africa.
Do you see a lot of young South Africans like Mpho, very much a product of two cultures? Do they feel dispossessed?
There are lots of Mphos around. They're usually fortunate to have had a decent education outside; they tend to belong to an elite here. In another way they have some difficulties in establishing themselves as part of the black population. Some, unlike my Mpho, have at least a smattering of their parents' language because their parents kept it up wherever they happened to be exiled.
When Didymus realizes that Sally was ashamed that he had served as an interrogator, he rationalizes that, "she was a woman, after all; she could understand the revolution but she didn't understand war." Why the distinction?
I think it was very much a male view. He decides she can't understand what he might have done because it's not a woman's business. She hasn't been to war. Didymus is prepared to assume that his experience is alien to her. The ugly things that come along with war, she balks at, and he thinks that's a feminine characteristic.
I don't know. She is a revolutionary. But it's like people who can eat meat but don't want to think about the abattoir.
Is she any less realistic than he?
No. But human beings have their blind spots, their failings. Perhaps he's right, that this is what she does feel, but he doesn't confront her. But I don't necessarily think what my characters think.
Some questions about marriage and romantic love in None to Accompany Me. The marriage of Vera and Bennet is one of the axes of the book. In the end Bennet sees "that Vera never ever really wanted a husband-- only for a time, when it excited her to have her lover domesticated." Do you think some people are temperamentally suited for marriage and others are not?
Definitely. We all know people who really are very good at marriage, others who in many ways are immensely capable, adaptable, but simply not good at marriage.
In the end, Vera is repulsed by Bennet's need for her. Can there be love without need, marriage without possession?
No, I don't think so. It's often part of the battle that comes in marriage. Another common thing, also with Vera and Bennet, is that one partner moves on in one direction and the other goes in another. Or worse still, is left behind. That is what happens to Bennet. Vera feels that this puts too much pressure on her.
In the book you talk about sex as a way to shed the burden of self, to achieve the illusion of belonging to someone else. Do you think men look at sex the same way as women do, to achieve that same purpose?
I think so, I think this is a universal. The burden of self is a very heavy thing.
Is everyone's life a journey to the self?
Everyone's is. Not all admit it, or want to recognize it. But it is there, unavoidable.
Vera thinks she's made Annie a lesbian because her own sexuality asserted it over the needs of her daughter. That seems a guilty sort of logic.
You're right. She's full of guilt there, wishes to free herself, but like most people, finds it extremely difficult. She accepts Annie's homosexuality more than Bennet does, because she comes out with it honestly in that conversation.
Bennet is really rather cowardly. When you make people (awful phrase), you do it very often in an objective way because that's the only way it has any value. Otherwise you are going to superimpose your own heroes, so to speak, on the contradictions that are in human nature. If you look at Ben one way, he's a good man, loyal, loving. But is that always a good thing if it's taken, as in his case, to excess? Novelists ask questions, they don't give answers. So that's a question about Ben. It's not even that easy, because if he's such a loving person, why does he ignore what turns out to be the need that Annie solves in her own way? He doesn't wish to see or understand her life.
Do you think parents really shape their children's sexuality in that way?
I don't know. My point is that Vera believes it, not really rationally but out of her own sense of guilt. She feels she's made her daughter miss something because she herself is so wholly and fundamentally heterosexual. She is a great lover of men.
At the end, Vera is blinded by the stars and freezing cold. Has she "gone too far?"
No, she hasn't. There's some exaltation there.
What's the purpose of her late-night encounter with the woman in Rapulana's house?
It shows her acceptance that Rapulana still has that side to his life, that kind of pleasure and fulfillment, and that her relationship with him is such that she's glad of it.
How much of your own experience is reflected in Vera's life, in the nature of her work?
None. Because I'm not a lawyer. She's involved professionally. My political involvement, oddly enough, has been on a much more personal level than hers. I've never done any work like hers to bring me into the kinds of contexts she has.
I read an article describing a lonely childhood in which you spent long hours alone in the library. Is that true?
I didn't spend them in the library, I took the books home with me. But that library did mean everything in the world to me.
Did you have a favorite childhood book?
I read the usual things, very much centered on a world I knew nothing about: Arthur Ransome, the Dr. Doolittle books, those rather awful books that came from Canada, I believe, the Anne of Green Gables books. But from the age of about twelve, I just wandered around, picking stuff off the shelves. Nobody stopped me. I read Gone With the Wind, which came out that year, 1936, and Pepys Diary with equal pleasure. Nobody said, This is good, that is not so good. I just followed my own tastes and needs, and I think it was lucky and very valuable.
Because so many people are semi-literate, there's a movement here encouraging people to produce simplified versions of books, with smaller vocabulary. I'm totally against this, because I was always reading books that were too difficult. The only way you learn to read with true comprehension is from context. You learn vocabulary the way you never could from just looking up in the dictionary. I think it's condescending to simplify, to assume that people won't make the effort to understand a word or phrase that doesn't come to them immediately.
You never discuss your work in progress with anyone. Why?
Never. I'm sort of superstitious about it. I have no desire to. You've got to do it on your own; it's only confusing to get other opinions while it's in progress.
I've just been re-reading that rather marvelous book called Genesis of a Novel , by Thomas Mann, written when he was in exile in California writing Dr. Faustus. I was amazed to see that he was constantly reading chunks aloud to family and friends, getting their views, occasionallyeven following their advice. I was really astonished at this. So every writer works in his or her own way.
When readers of None to Accompany Me want more Gordimer, which of your books would you recommend?
I'd like people to read a rather fat and ignored novel of mine, called A Guest of Honor, which I wrote in the early seventies. It's not set in South Africa, but in an imaginary African country. In terms of some of the post-colonial situation, if you're looking at the book's political side, A Guest of Honor has been in a sense prophetic.
The other book that I would rather like people to read is my novel The Conservationist ; it's my most lyrical novel. When I write a novel, I always have to hear it in my head in the right voice. Is it going to be in the first person? Is it all going to be in the past tense, or will that alternate with the present tense? Will it also alternate between different voices? The main part of The Conservationist is seen from the interior of a male character who is completely removed from me, quite antipathetic, though not a villain. Things are very much seen through his eyes, and I didn't make any concessions to the reader. I require that they make a leap of the imagination with me. It was a very difficult book to write, and that's probably why I have a feeling for it, because I think I pulled it off.
- In a 1994 interview Gordimer said, "We are all many people, and each of our acquaintances or friends or lovers or children knows a different person. In the end you are left with this refraction of yourself, and it's for you to find out what you really are." What does Vera learn about who she is over the course of the story? How does she change in the eyes of her family members?
- None to Accompany Me is divided into three sections: Baggage, Transit, and Arrivals. Why do you think the author chose these titles? How are they particularly appropriate to the experience of returning from exile?
- Zeph Rapulana is an ambiguous figure, politically astute, financially savvy, soft-spoken yet ambitious. As she gets to know him, Vera acknowledges the beginning of some new capability in her, something in the chemistry of human contact that she was only now ready for. What does Zeph represent for her? What she seeks in her new living arrangement is a consequence in which there were loyalties but no dependencies. Is that realistic?
- After sleeping with Otto for the first time, Vera lay beside Ben that night with a sense of pride and freedom rather than betrayal. Her infidelities, though few, are tremendously significant. What purpose do they serve for her? Nothing if not a realist, Vera's only indulgence is of her sensual nature. Is that a contradiction? Has it affected her daughter's sexuality?
- Vera muses, "It was as if, in the commonplace nature of their continuing contact through the Foundation, [she and Zeph Rapulana] belonged together as a single sex, a reconciliation of all each had experienced, he as a man, she as a woman. Is Vera, "the great lover of men," as Gordimer calls her in this interview, reaching a new middle ground between the sexes? If so, what are the implications?
- Describing the Maqoma's years of complicity in exile, Gordimer writes, "The abstentions from adultery that trust means to most couples are petty in comparison; this was the grand compact beyond the capacity of those who live only for themselves." What effect can political comradeship have on a marriage? How is the relationship between Sibongile and Didymus affected by the reversal of their public roles when they return to South Africa? How does their marriage compare to the changing relationship between Vera and Ben?
- Referring to the fact that Vera's work has always been more important than Ben's, Annie asks her mother, "Is there ever a fair division of labour, as you call it, between couples?" What do you think? How does it bear out in Ivan's and Annie's liaisons?
- Sixteen-year-old Mpho combines the style of Vogue with the assertion of Africa. Yet she speaks neither Xhosa nor Zulu, but a perky London English. How does her experience of her homeland compare with that of Ivan, who has migrated in the opposite direction?
- "Once [Bennet] had been the answer to everything; that was falling in love: the end of questions," reflects Vera early on. But Ben's experience of life through his wife becomes intolerable to her. "I cannot live with someone who can't live without me," she says to their daughter. "When someone gives you so much power over himself, he makes you a tyrant." Ben goes away knowing that he does not know how to carry on his life alone. Do you feel sorry for him? Is Vera justified? Vera slips away from her family because Bennet needs her, and her children don't. Is that inconsistent?
- Vera gradually detaches from sex, from family, from all but the demands of her public life. When Annie asks, "What have you wanted?" her mother answers, "To find out about my life. The truth. In the end. That's all." Do you agree with Gordimer that everyone's life is a journey to the self, consciously or otherwise? Is anyone else in the book making the same journey?