Sunday, August 12, 2012

July's People, by Nadine Gordimer

Well into July's People I realized that all along I'd been hearing echoes of Faulkner. I rarely hear him in contemporary American fiction (in Cormac McCarthy, obviously; also in Toni Morrison, whom I no longer read); but I hear him all the time in Latin American and European writing, and I suppose it should come as no surprise to hear him in a novel by a South African.

Gordimer has written an apartheid book, a political book, a product, like all great literature, of its time and place; and it deserves to be read if only as a fictional analysis of the awful traumata, public and private, of racism. But more importantly July's People is an extraordinary stylistic achievement.

In Dark Star Safari, Gordimer tells Paul Theroux, "The American proofreaders often try to correct my English. . . . They follow the rules. I don't. I like my sentences."

Anyone who doesn't like her sentences is deaf to the supple muscularity of modern English prose:
She went out. Night was close to her face. Rain sifted from the dark. She knew only where the doorway was, to get back. She took off her shirt and got out of panties and jeans in one go, supporting herself against the streaming mud wall. Holding her clothing out of the mud, she let the rain pit her lightly, face, breasts and back, then stream over her. She turned as if she were under a shower faucet. Soon her body was the same temperature as the water. She became aware of being able to see; and what she saw was like the reflection of a candle-flame behind a window-pane flowing with water, far off. The reflection moved or the glassy ripples moved over it. But it existed—the proof was that there was a dimension between her and some element in the rain-hung darkness.
There was the stillness of unregarded trees and ceaseless water. On the huge pale trunks wild figs bristled like bunches of hat-pins. The earth was sour with fallen fruit; between the giant trees a tan fly-catcher swooped, landing to hover on the invisible branches of a great tree of air.
Prose of this caliber insists on slow attention. (Good luck reading those passages online.) It reminds us what prose alone can do, and what the novel as an art-form continues, if barely, to give the world. For those reasons—beyond its usefulness as an historical document, as a study of human psychology under duress—July's People can't have enough readers.

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