It is a rare opportunity to be able to peek inside the lives of people in different times and on different continents, and to feel an ardent connection to their desires and problems. This, however, is exactly what Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer offers in her collection of short stories, “Life Times.” In 38 pieces written between 1952 and 2007, Gordimer explores the full range of human emotion through tales of love and intimacy; of survival and segregation.
Underlying the majority of the stories in “Life Times” is a sense of importance of location; almost every one either takes place in or makes mention of Johannesburg, South Africa. Racial tension plays a significant role in her stories as she draws upon the history of the area. The presence of this conflict is subtly hidden in some stories and more blatant in others. It is especially evident in a story entitled “Six Feet of the Country,” in which a white man is faced with the burden of dealing with the local authorities when the body of the deceased brother of his black worker is misplaced. The man describes the discomfort he feels in facing his worker: “He just kept on looking at me, out of his knowledge that white men have everything, can do anything; if they don’t, it is because they won’t.”
Gordimer is not hesitant to divulge the desolate side of the human experience in any of her stories. In her opening piece, entitled “The Soft Voice of the Serpent,” she tells of a man in Johannesburg who has recently lost a limb. Though his dignity is clearly shaken, he finds hope in the form of a small locust that shares the same affliction. The story is initially full of optimism as the man realizes that his situation is not as devastating as he imagined, and that the small creature is in the same predicament as he. When the locust flies away, however, he is disheartened. Though the locust has the power of flight, he is left behind in a wheelchair, depending on others for mobility.
The setting for Gordimer’s stories is clearly drawn from her own experience; she was born in Springs, Gauteng, a small town outside Johannesburg. Gordimer worked as a political activist in the 1960s, witnessing effects of racial segregation first-hand. Because Gordimer has spent much of her life addressing racial conflict, it is no wonder that she would choose to incorporate it in her various works of fiction. Her stories are peppered with astute observations about race and equality. “Once there were blacks wanting to be white,” she writes in one story. “Now there are whites wanting to be black. It’s the same secret.”
It is unfortunate that the nature of short stories does not allow for extensive development of characters or setting. As opposed to systematically listing the background information of each tale in its first paragraph to counteract this lack of development, Gordimer opens each piece in medias res. One story, for example, begins: “Somehow it wasn’t altogether a surprise when Waldeck Brand and his wife bumped into Carlitta at a theatre in New York in 1953.” It is as if Gordimer has already introduced Waldeck, his wife, and Carlitta.
Gordimer also separates her tales into smaller groups with a common subtitle, giving them slightly more context. However, one could easily imagine some of the stories being developed into novels—at certain moments, her characters seem to be abandoned too soon.
Nevertheless, “Life Times” manages to portray, in a series of short episodes, the many degrees of human emotion and struggle within the cultural and historical terrain of South Africa. Yet even as she ponders such weighty themes, Gordimer manages to keep her stories light and accessible. Though she writes with the intent of conveying a larger message, her language is always enjoyable and easy to understand. As she analyzes the harsh realities of racial tension and personal loss, Gordimer shows that the human experience is always relatable, even in its bleakest moments.