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"Beethoven Was One Sixteenth Black"

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And other Stories by Nadine Gordimer


One encounters the full majesty and weight of Nadine Gordimer’s prose in this wide-ranging, inspiring collection. What this artist accomplishes with her plain language and her oblique approach strikes me as uncanny, as a sort of sleight of hand, the whole of which is a great deal more than the sum of its parts. As in the title story, in which a man leaves a European city to investigate, in some aimless way, whether his forbear had taken a black African mistress. The concluding word, freighted with multiple levels of meaning when uttered by the protagonist, causes mirth and merriment among his colleagues. We know how inappropriate this reaction is, but we hardly know how to describe what reaction would make sense.

In Tape Measure our daring author lays out the highly amusing musings of an intestinal parasite, and concludes the story with a very understated glimpse of menace. Dreaming of the Dead is Ms. Gordimer’s highly personal elegy to three admired colleagues: Edward Said, Anthony Sampson, and Susan Sontag. This piece so highly praises the dearly departed that it shows the Nobel-winning author’s skill in a new light. It also provides a quick and highly useful introduction to the three. Again, at an extreme economy of words.

Certain themes recur in this collection, in addition to the usual highly charged political viewpoints. Characters in most of the stories navigate the treacherous waters of love and marriage. The higher the stakes, the more care the characters take. Like the wife in Alternative Endings – The Second Sense, who chooses to spare her cheating husband, the owner of a soon-to-be-bankrupt airline. But the widow who visits the gay man who had a love affair with her husband many years before, hadn’t bargained for so much involvement. However, in Mother Tongue, one of the most haunting and rewarding stories here, a beautiful young German bride moves to South Africa with her new husband. Although her English is more than passable, she doesn’t comprehend all the slang and lingo thrown around at the parties she attends. Even when her husband is embraced by another beautiful woman amidst of all the banter, she’s justified in her confidence that she knows all that’s necessary. I found the concluding language here quite sensual and alluring.

In some stories, the younger generation engages an older one to search for and sometimes find answers. A grandson wonders at the actions taken by his grandmother, a German Jewish performer who returns to Europe from Africa at exactly the wrong time before World War II. The Frivolous Woman of the title seems to have survived her brush with death, all right, and thought hardly anything was amiss. In The Beneficiary, a pleasing and surprisingly powerful piece, a woman comes to love and appreciate her adoptive father, as the story concludes with the line, “Nothing to do with DNA.”

All the stories here offer rewards for the reader. Ms. Gordimer’s oblique language and unadorned handling of her plots camouflage the vast range of her subject and theme. This is remarkable: varied, engaging, uniformly brilliant. If you haven’t made Ms. Gordimer’s acquaintance yet, this is an excellent place to start.
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