Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Get a Life

by Nadine Gordimer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)

South African Nadine Gordimer received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. It's surprising to me that I've never read anything of hers previously, except perhaps a short story or two. This book has certain qualities of mastery that a really mature and experienced writer can produce. It reminds me of the novels of Doris Lessing post-The Four Gated City. Towards the end of that novel, Lessing shifted her perspective unexpectedly from the personal to the global and began a new era for herself. An interview with Lessing I saw in the Vancouver Sun yesterday (12 March '06) had Lessing saying the books of hers she most wanted people to read were the Shikasta series. Of the Lessing works I've read, I'd say those are the most clearly didactic -- I hope that word is not too unpleasant, as the books are very good -- containing distilled analysis of human tendencies, patterns, and failings, couched in something ostensibly like science fiction tales.

In Get a Life, Gordimer starts off very personally and intimately, and dealing with a subject that is suddenly of interest to me as my friends and I age and decline or get ill. A youngish man who is a father of a young son has thyroid cancer and as the treatment has made him temporarily radioactive, his parents take him into their home and he resumes his relationship, especially with his mother, in a pattern that has parallels with his childhood. Gradually we learn he is an environmentalist and his wife is in advertising and promotion. The tale, which is fairly brief, races through permutations and ironies and big-picture and small-picture observations, including a substantial amount about a majestically self-renewing African river system that is about to be wrecked by dam-building projects. The mother and father's marriage also comes to represent a substantial amount of the plot. Overall, the plot is very unusually shaped and composed. The sentences are also unusual for our time, as they are long and contain unusual combinations of clauses. Occasionally I had to read one over a few times to figure out what it was really saying, what was the relationship of these clauses, but I never felt that the writer had made an error and did not convey what she must have meant. The language gave me a sense of beauty that more often comes from reading good poetry.

The high point of the story seems to me almost a throwaway, in which the author successfully manages to care intensely about the fate of the river and the hero's role in the movement trying to save it, yet be able to simultaneously hold a faith in the ability of nature to make itself work in some way despite all obstacles, and also the view that all of reality is fleeting and perhaps meaningless. The river seems paralleled by several other elements including the marriage of the parents, which decomposes in a complex and more or less organic way.

Finally, this book reminds me of a story told by the very great critic and fairly mediocre poet Richard Howard, in a course he taught at The University of Texas in the 1970s. The painter James Whistler, Howard told us, sued the critic John Ruskin in 1878 for libel, over an insulting review about Whistler's painting of a rocket falling at night. As I recall Howard's telling of the tale, in court the defendant's attorney asked: "Mr. Whistler, how long did it take you to paint this?" "Ten minutes," and as the lawyer began to smirk, "and a lifetime of experience."

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