Leaving School—II by Nadine Gordimer

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Title page for Nadine Gordimer’s essay on growth and development as a writer in mid-twentieth-century South Africa, first published in The London Magazine in May 1963

My writing life began long before I left school, and I began to leave school (frequently) long before the recognized time came, so there is no real demarcation, for me, between school and ‘professional’ life. The quotes are there because I think of professional life as something one enters by way of an examination, not as an obsessional occupation like writing for which you provide your own, often extraordinary or eccentric, qualifications as you go along. And I’m not flattered by the idea of being presented with a ‘profession’, honoris causa; every honest writer or painter wants to achieve the impossible and needs no minimum standard laid down by an establishment such as a profession.

This doesn’t mean that I think a writer doesn’t need a good education in general, and that I don’t wish I had had a better one. But maybe my own regrets arise out of the common impulse to find a justification, outside the limits of one’s own talent, for the limits of one’s achievement.

I was a bolter, from kindergarten age, but unlike most small children rapidly accustoming their soft, round selves to the sharp angles of desks and discipline, I went on running away from school, year after year. I was a day scholar at a convent in the Transvaal gold-mining town where we lived and when I was little I used to hide until I heard the hive of voices start up ‘Our Father’ at prayers, and then I would walk out of the ugly iron gates and spend the morning on the strip of open veld that lay between the township where the school was, and the township where my home was. I remember catching white butterflies there, all one summer morning, until, in the quiet when I had no shadow, I heard the school bell, far away, clearly, and I knew I could safely appear at home for lunch. When I was older I used to take refuge for hours in the lavatory block, waiting in the atmosphere of Jeyes’ Fluid for my opportunity to escape. By then I no longer lived from moment to moment, and could not enjoy the butterflies; the past, with the act of running away contained in it, and the future, containing discovery and punishment, made freedom impossible; the act of seizing it was merely a desperate gesture.

What the gesture meant, I don’t know. I managed my school work easily, among the girls of the class I had the sort of bossy vitality that makes for popularity; yet I was overcome, from time to time, by what I now can at least label as anxiety states. Speculation about their cause hasn’t much place here, which is lucky, for the people who were around me then are still alive. Autobiography can’t be written until one is old, can’t hurt anyone’s feelings, can’t be sued for libel, or, worse, contradicted.

There is just one curious aspect of my bolting that seems worth mentioning because it reveals a device of the personality that, beginning at that very time, perhaps, as a dream-defence, an escape, later became the practical sub-conscious cunning that enabled me to survive and grow in secret while projecting a totally different, camouflage image of myself. I ran away from school; yet there was another school, the jolly, competitive, thrillingly loyal, close-knit world of schoolgirl books, to which I felt that I longed to belong. (At one time I begged to go to boarding school, believing, no doubt that I should find it there.) Of course, even had it existed, that School Friend world would have been the last place on earth for me. I should have found there, far more insistently, the walls, the smell of serge and floor polish, the pressure of uniformity and the tyranny of bell-regulated time that set off revolt and revulsion in me. What I did not know — and what a child never knows — is that there is more to the world than what is offered to him; more choices than those presented to him; more kinds of people than those (the only ones he knows) to which he feels but dares not admit he does not belong. I thought I had to accept school and all the attitudes there that reflected the tides of home; therefore, in order to be a person I had to have some sort of picture of a school that would be acceptable to me, it didn’t seem possible to live without it. Stevie Smith once wrote that all children should be told of the possibility of committing suicide, to console them in case they believed there was no way out of the unbearable; it would be less dramatic but far more consoling if a child could he told that there is an aspect of himself he does not know is permissible.

The conclusion my bolting school drew from the grown-ups around me was that I was not the studious type and simply should he persuaded to reconcile myself to the minimum of learning. In our small town many girls left school at fifteen or even before. Then, after a six weeks’ course at the local commercial college, a girl was ready for a job as a clerk in a shop or in the offices of one of the gold mines which had brought the town into being. And the typewriter itself merely tapped a mark-time for the brief season of glory, self-assertion and importance that came with the engagement party, the pre-nuptial linen ‘shower’, and culminated not so much in the wedding itself as in the birth, not a day sooner than nine months and three weeks later, of the baby. There wasn’t much point in a girl keeping her head stuck in books, anyway, even if she chose to fill the interim with one of the occupations that carried a slightly higher prestige, and were vaguely thought of as artistic teaching tap-dancing, the piano, or ‘elocution’.

I suppose I must have been marked out for one of these, because, although I had neither talent nor serious interest in drumming my toes, playing Czerny, or rounding my vowels, I enjoyed using them all as material in my talent for showing off. As I grew toward adolescence I stopped the home concerts and contented myself with mimicking, for the entertainment of one group of my parents’ friends, other friends who were not present. It did not seem to strike those who were that, in their absence, they would change places with the people they were laughing at; or perhaps it did, I do them an injustice, and they didn’t mind.

All the time it was accepted that I was a candidate for home-dressmaking or elocution whom there was no point in keeping at school too long, I was reading and writing not in secret, but as one does, openly, something that is not taken into account. It didn’t occur to anyone else that these activities were connected with learning, so why should it have occurred to me? And although I fed on the attention my efforts at impersonation brought me, I felt quite differently about any praise or comment that came when my stories were published in the children’s section of a Sunday paper. While I was terribly proud to see my story in print — for only in print did it become ‘real’, did I have proof of the miracle whereby the thing created has an existence of its own—I had a jealous instinct to keep this activity of mine from the handling that would pronounce it ‘clever’ along with the mimicry and the home concerts. It was the beginning of the humble arrogance that writers and painters have, knowing that it is hardly likely that they will ever do anything really good, and not wanting to be judged by standards that will accept anything less. Is this too high falutin’ a motive to attribute to a twelve-year-old child? I don’t think so. One can have a generalized instinct toward the unattainable long before one has actually met with it. When, not many years later, I read Un Coeur Simple or War and Peace, I knew this was it, without any guidance from the list of the World’s Hundred Best Books that I once tried to read through!

I started writing at nine, because I was surprised by a poem I produced as a school exercise. The subject prescribed was ‘Paul Kruger’ and although I haven’t been asked to produce any juvenilia here, in view of what has happened between people like myself and our country since then, I can’t resist quoting, just for the long-untasted patriotic flavour:

Noble in heart,
Noble in mind,
Never deceitful,
Never unkind…

It was the dum-de-de-dum that delighted me rather than the sentiment or the subject. But soon I found that what I really enjoyed was making up a story, and that this was more easily done without the restrictions of dum-de-de-dum. After that I was always writing something, and from the age of twelve or thirteen, often publishing. My children’s stories were anthropomorphic, with a dash of the Edwardian writers’ Pan-cult paganism as it had been shipped out to South Africa in Kenneth Grahame’s books, though already I used the background of mine dumps and veld animals that was familiar to me, and not the European one that provided my literary background, since there were no books about the world I knew. I wrote my elder sister’s essays when she was a student at the Witwatersrand University, and kept up a fair average for her. I entered an essay in the literary section of the Eisteddfod run by the Welsh community in Johannesburg and bought with the prize chit War and Peace, Gone With The Wind, and an Arthur Ransome.

I was about fourteen then, and a happy unawareness of the strange combination. of this choice is an indication of my reading. It was appetite rather than taste, that I had; yet while it took in indiscriminately things that were too much for me, the trash tended to be crowded out and fall away. Some of the books I read in my early teens puzzle me, though. Why Pepys’ Diary? And what made me plod through The Anatomy of Melancholy? Where did hear of the existence of these books? (That list of the World’s One Hundred Best, maybe.) And once I’d got hold of something like Burton, what made me go on from page to page? I think it must have been because although I didn’t understand all that I was reading, and what I did understand was remote from my experience in the way that easily-assimilable romance was not, the half-grasped words dealt with the world of ideas, and so confirmed the recognition, somewhere, of that part of myself that I did not know was permissible.

All the circumstances and ingredients were there for a small-town prodigy, but, thank god, by missing the encouragement and practical help usually offered to ‘talented’ children, I also escaped the dwarf status that is clapped upon the poor little devils before their time (if it ever comes). It did not occur to anyone that if I wanted to try to write I ought to be given a wide education in order to develop my mental powers and to give me some cultural background. But this neglect at least meant that I was left alone. Nobody came gawping into that private domain that was no dream-world, but, as I grew up, the scene of my greatest activity and my only disciplines. When schooldays finally petered out (I had stopped running away, but various other factors had continued to make attendance sketchy) I did have some sort of show of activity that passed for my life in the small town. It was so trivial that I wonder how it can have passed, how family or friends can have accepted that any young person could expend vitality at such a low hum. It was never decided what I should ‘take up’ and so I didn’t have a job. Until, at twenty-two, I went to the University, I led an outward life of sybaritic meagreness that I am ashamed of. In it I did not one thing that I wanted wholeheartedly to do; in it I attempted or gratified nothing (outside sex) to try out my reach, the measure of aliveness in me. My existential self was breathing but inert, like one of those unfortunate people who has had a brain injury in a motor accident and lies unhearing and unseeing, though he will eat when food comes and open his eyes to a light. I played golf, learnt to drink gin with the RAF pupil pilots from the nearby air station, and took part in amateur theatricals, to show recognizable signs of life to the people around me. I even went to first aid and nursing classes because this was suggested as an ‘interest’ for me; it did not matter to me what I did, since I could not admit that there was nothing, in the occupations and diversions offered to me, that really did interest me, and I was not sure—the only evidence was in books—that anything else was possible.

I am ashamed of this torpor, nevertheless, setting aside what I can now see as probable reasons for it, the careful preparation for it that my childhood constituted. I cannot understand why I did not free myself in the most obvious way, leave home and small town and get myself a job somewhere. No conditioning can excuse the absence of the simple act of courage that would resist it. My only overt rejection of my matchbox life was the fact that, without the slightest embarrassment or conscience, I let my father keep me. Though the needs provided for were modest, he was not a rich man. One thing at least I would not do, apparently — I would not work for the things I did not want. And the camouflage image of myself as a dilettantish girl, content with playing grown-up games at the end of my mother’s apron strings — at most a Bovary in the making — made this possible for me. When I was fifteen I had written my first story about adults, and had sent it off to a liberal weekly that was flourishing in South Africa at the time. They published it. It was about an old man who is out of touch with the smart, prosperous life he has secured for his sons, and who experiences a moment of human recognition where he least expects it — with one of their brisk young wives who is so unlike the wife he remembers. Not a bad theme, but expressed with the respectable bourgeois sentiment which one would expect. That was in 1939, two months after the war had broken out, but in the years that followed, the stories that I was writing were not much influenced by the war. It occupied the news bulletins on the radio, taking place a long way off, in countries I had never seen; later, when I was seventeen or eighteen there were various boy-friends who went away to Egypt and Italy and sent back coral jewellery and leather bags stamped with a sphinx.

Oddly enough, as I became engaged with the real business of learning how to write, I became less prompt about sending my efforts off to papers and magazines. I was reading Maupassant, Tchekov, Maugham and Lawrence, now, also discovering O. Henry, Katharine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty, and the stories in Partisan Review, New Writing and Horizon. Katharine Mansfield and Pauline Smith, although one was a New Zealander, confirmed for me that my own ‘colonial’ background provided an experience that had scarcely been looked at let alone thought about, except as a source of adventure stories. I had read ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’ and ‘The Child of Queen Victoria’; the whole idea of what a story could do, be swept aside the satisfaction of producing something that found its small validity in print. From time to time I sent off an attempt to one of the short-lived local politico-literary magazines — meant chiefly as platforms for liberal politics, they were the only publications that published poetry and stories outside the true romance category — but these published stories were the easy ones. For the other I had no facility whatever, and they took months, even years, to cease changing shape before I found a way of getting hold of of them in my mind, let alone nailing the words down around them. And then most of them were too long, or too outspoken (not always in the sexual sense) for these magazines. In a fumbling way that sometimes slid home in an unexpected strike, I was looking for what people meant but didn’t say, not only about sex, but also about politics and their relationship with the black people among whom we lived as people live in a forest among trees. So it was that I didn’t wake up to Africans d the shameful enormity of the colour bar through a youthful spell in the Communist Party, as did most of my contemporaries with whom I share the ejection of white supremacy, but through the apparently esoteric speleology of doubt, led by Kafka rather than Marx. And the ‘problems’ of my country did not set me writing; on the contrary, it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of ‘the South African way of life’.

It was about this time, during a rare foray into the nursery bohemia of university students in Johannesburg, that I met a boy who believed that I was a writer. Just that; I don’t mean that he saw me as Chosen for the Holy Temple of Art, or any presumptuous mumbo-jumbo of that kind. The cosmetic-counter sophistication that I hopefully wore to disguise my stasis in the world I knew and my uncertainty of the possibility of any other, he ignored as so much rubbish. This aspect of myself, that everyone else knew, he did not; what he recognized was my ignorance, my clumsy battle to chip my way out of shell after shell of ready-made concepts and make my own sense of life, He was often full of scorn, and jeered at the way I was going about it; but he recognized the necessity. It was through him, too, that I roused myself sufficiently to insist on going to the University; not surprisingly, there was opposition to this at home, since it had been accepted so long that I was not the studious type, as the phrase went. It seemed a waste, spending money on a university at twenty-two (surely I should he married soon?); it was suggested that (as distinct from the honourable quest for a husband) the real reason why I wanted to go was to look for men. It seems to me now that this would have been as good a reason as any. My one preoccupation outside the world of ideas, was men, and I should have been prepared to claim my right to the one ill as valid as the other.

But my freedom did not come from my new life at university; I was too old, in many ways, had already gone too far, on my own scratched tracks, for what I might once have gained along the tarmac. One day a poet asked me to lunch. He was co-editor of yet another little magazine that was then halfway through the dozen issues that would measure its life. He had just published a story of mine and, like many editors when the contributor is known to be a young girl, was curious to meet its author. He was an Afrikaans poet and playwright who wrote in English as well, had lived in France and Spain, spoke five languages, was familiar with their literature, and translated from three. He had been a swimming instructor on the Riviera, a football coach somewhere else, and a war correspondent with the International Brigade in Spain. When the boy (that same boy) heard that I was taking the train into Johannesburg for this invitation — I still lived in the small town he said: ‘I wouldn’t go, if I were you, Nadine.’

‘For Pete’s sake, why not?’

‘Not unless you’re prepared to change a lot of things. You may not feel the same, afterwards. You may never be able to go back.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’

I made fun of him: ‘I’ll take the train back.’

‘No, once you see what a person like that is like, you won’t be able to stand ordinary life. You’ll be miserable. So don’t go unless you’re prepared for this.’

The poet was a small, sun-burned, blond man. While he joked, enjoyed his food, had an animated discussion with the African waiter about the origin of the name of a fruit, and said for me some translations of Lorca and Eluard, Afrikaans and then, because I couldn’t follow too well, in English, he had the physical brightness of a fisherman. It was true; I had never met anyone is being before. I have met many poets and writers since, sick, tortured, pompous, mousy; I know the morning-after face of Apollo. But that day I had a glimpse of — not some spurious ‘artist’s life’, but, through the poet’s person, the glint off his purpose — what we are all getting at, Camus’ ‘invincible summer’ that is there to be dug for in man beneath the grey of suburban life, umliness of repetitive labour, and the sucking mud of politics.

Oh yes — not long after, a story of mine was published in an anthology, and second publisher approached me with the offer to publish a collection. The following year I at last sent my stories where I had never been — across the to England and America. They came back to me in due course, in hard covers with my name printed on the coloured, jacket. There were reviews, and, more astonishing, there was money. I was living alone in Johannesburg by then, and I was able to pay the rent and feed both myself and the baby daughter I had acquired. These things are a convenient marker for the begin of a working life. But mine really began that day at lunch. I see the poet occasionally. He’s older now, of course; a bit seamed with disappointments, something of a political victim, since he doesn’t celebrate his people’s politics or the white man’s colour bar in general. The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.


May-1963-CoverThis essay first appeared in The London Magazine May 1963.  

Transcribed by Ludo Cinelli.