Sometime back when her latest collection of short stories was released (Beethoven was one-sixteenth black), New york times published a review, comparing the collection to one of her earlier stories, Why haven’t you written, and it was since then that I had been on a lookout for this earlier collection, as I found the idea behind the story so powerful.
Finally, after a few month’s search, I have managed to get a very good second-hand copy of the book – it seems it is already out of print as I was unable to find a fresh copy even on Amazon.
The collection is a gem. I have read only about 4-5 stories yet, but they have been very impressive. Unlike the typical short story there is no build-up to the ‘element of surprise’ here but a simplistic narration of an individual’s adjustments with personal and social demands.
In reality, the book is a compilation of stories from her earlier works – Soft voice of the serpent (a review here) and Livingstone’s Companion (which seems to have been largely ignored by the reviewers’ circle). All the stories are set in South Africa, and convey its various moods; of neglect, decay, liberalism, materialism and alienation.
I particularly loved the title storyWhy haven’t you written, where an engineer who regularly travels on work falls in love with another woman on these travels, and in a drunken reverie writes a letter to his wife telling her about the affair.
Because so long as I accept that you are a good wife, how can I find the guts to do it? I can go on being the same thing – your opposite number, the good husband, hoping for a better position and more money for us all, coming on these bloody dreary trips every winter. But it’s through subjecting myself to all this, putting up with what we think of as these partings for the sake of my work, that I have come to understand that they are not partings at all. They are nothing like partings. Do you undertand?
There is so much tentativeness in these words – a longing to have something more passionate than the decorative marriage, and yet a guilt of infidelity to a good wife. Through his return, he regrets the letter, and since there is a snow blizard and a postal strike, he is not sure if the letter has reached his wife. Back at home, he obviously wants to leave things as they are without stirring a storm in his life, and is constantly worried about the arrival of this letter. His dilemma has been well captured in words, with a startling intensity.
From the soft voice of the serpent, I quite liked the two stories: Talisman and The Defeated so far. The former is another variation on the theme of infidelity, where a bored wife starts an affair with an ex boyfriend, walking on the ‘tightrope’ between the security of the marital and the excitement of the extra-marital, without lending a thought to possible consequences. The latter is a story about an immigrant family, who struggle to give a better life to their daughter. The story describes their colorful and difficult life and gradually a distancing from the daughter who finds comfort in more material pursuits.
Looking forward to devour the rest of it.
A little more details on Gordimer as a short story writer here.