The Life Of The Imagination by Nadine Gordimer, 1968
The magic trick:
Turning a standard extramarital affair story into something more
We return to Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa for the second time this week.
The heart of this story is a beautifully written but fairly standard tale of extramarital relations between two people who are approaching middle age with something of dissatisfaction hanging about their family lives.
What makes it special is the way Gordimer subtly lays out broader issues at the beginning and end of the text. To start, we meet Barbara as a young person. Her child is not that of the mundane; she is, we are told, was a child of imagination. She enters into studies that do not however make full use of her artistic abilities.
Flash forward through the extramarital affair and we find the story ending with Barbara suddenly giving into the racist prejudices of her neighbors. This, we are made to believe, is not the way she has thought before.
So taken as a whole, we have a talented, bright, artistic girl, who studies biology and not art; she is swept under by men so that her career is now non-existent, she falls into an affair that seems perfunctorily passionate and then slips into societal racism she doesn’t truly believe.
What a statement.
This is not simply a standard men-and-women-having-affairs story. This is a bleak portrait of how South African upper-middle-class culture of the times limited women into a miserable kind of mediocrity.
And that’s quite a trick on Gordimer’s part.
She did not make the mistake of thinking that because of this she must inevitably be able to write or paint; that was just another of the axioms that did for them (Barbara has such a vivid imagination, she is so artistic). She knew it was one thing to have entry to the other world, and another entirely to bring something back of it with you. She studied biology at the university for a while (the subject, incising soft fur and skin to get at the complexities beneath, lured her, and they heard there were good positions going for girls with a B.Sc. degree) but then left and took a job in a municipal art gallery.
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