cover image Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century

Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century

Nadine Gordimer. Farrar Straus Giroux, $24 (224pp) ISBN 978-0-374-18991-4

Nobel literature laureate Gordimer (The House Gun, etc.) has collected decades' worth of erudite essays and lectures about literature, culture, human rights and, of course, her work and home ground of South Africa. The first essay, a 1988 effort on fiction, morals and politics, lays out the distinction between political partisanship in her nonfiction and ""the free transformation of reality"" in what she refers to as her more ""true"" fiction. As essays, these writings shouldn't be expected to attain the nuance and depth of Gordimer's best fiction, but some of them are devastating, such as a 1966 piece on how South African black writers were being banned while whites were offered lectures called ""Know the African."" The more recent pieces deftly capture what she calls ""the epic of our transformation"": South Africa's first democratic election, she writes, ""has the meaning of people coming into their own."" Still, it troubles her that writers she admires--Hungary's Joseph Roth, Milan Kundera, Czeslaw Milosz--have rejected the leftist politics to which she remains committed. Unfortunately, this book lacks Gordimer's up-to-date reckoning with the fate of South Africa's Left, not to mention the more autobiographical reflections readers might desire. Still, this literary world citizen ranges widely (there are essays on Senghor, Grass and Mahfouz), musing thoughtfully about the sociocultural ""givens"" that a writer and reader must share. In her 1991 Nobel Prize lecture, Gordimer asserted that ""the writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties."" Though it is a tough credo to live up to, these essays are the work of a tough-minded, morally rigorous writer who has managed to do it. (Nov.)