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On Reading a Letter from his Father by Nadine Gordimer

By on Feb 19, 2014 in Short Story Reviews | 2 comments

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This post is a piggyback on Franz Kafka and Rationalization based on reading The Penal Colony posted on February 6, 2014. You can find it under Short Story Reviews. To read Nadine Gordimer’s short story, Letter from his Father go to http://www.lrb.co.uk/v05/n19/nadine-gordimer/letter-from-his-father.To read the letter Kafka sent to his fathergo to http://www.lrb.co.uk/v05/n19/nadine-gordimer/letter-from-his-father.

Nadine Gordimer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature is a great writer. And, that’s it, period. The problem here is that I don’t think we can fully appreciate her talents from this particular short story.  It doesn’t illustrate her ability as a writer so much as confirm her life conviction. She wrote this story not because she liked Kafka’s father but because she was experimenting with POV, point of view, as a craft. Gordimer has a point to make with her writing. She wants us to see both sides of a question. She quoted Kafka in a Paris Review interview. “A book ought to be an ax to break up the frozen ice within us.” His short story, The Penal Colony did just that. I don’t like having the “frozen ice” of my belief system broken up. Nobody does. I’d rather allow my mind to insipidly relax in a warm bath of self-satisfaction.

There is within Gordimer a desire, a need if you will, to understand all sides of a question and, having understood herself, to pass on that understanding, that point of view, that angle of interpretation to her readers. Some people write  primarily to entertain. If the reader learns something, it’s incidental. Others, like Gordimer, like Kafka, write to teach and entertain as a necessary byproduct. They entertain as a hook to get us to read what they write and consider their opinions.

Gordimer wrote Letter from his Father in 1984, a period when she was investigating writing from different points of view, in other words, how best to tell the story, how best to get her voice heard. It is her passion to eliminate apartheid in South Africa that won her the Nobel Prize. Gordimer challenges our sympathies. She shows the other side. She was a white South African born of a Russian Jewish refugee. She attended Catholic school. That’s a queer mix, enough to made any child question the status quo. Young Nadine witnessed first hand the poverty and discrimination faced by blacks under apartheid. If she had been an Afrikaan born and raised, she may have been unable to appreciate that there was a problem at all. But she was an outsider, like the traveler in The Penal Colony was an outsider. As an outsider she was able to see the horror that her fellow white Afrikaans could not. I looked up the derivation of the word, apartheid. It was first used in 1940’s. Afrikaans is a form of German spoken only in Africa. It’s from the Africaan’s word for separate (apart) and -hood (‘heid). That is what bigotry is, what prejudice is. It is seeing other human beings as different from ourselves. That is what allows us to be superior to other races, other cultures.

Gordimer read and admired Kafka and probably sympathized with his problems with his father but true to her nature, she wrote from the opposite point of view.

I’ve put both Kafka and his father through The Myers Briggs Personality Indicator paradigm. Myers Briggs was a great discovery for me. It was derived from Jung. Isn’t Jung wonderful? He was the impetus of so much. It helped me see that other people weren’t as narrow minded as I thought them to be. I had wondered at people who didn’t “get” what a ballet or a painting was about. They, in turn, wondered why I wouldn’t come down “out of the clouds.” Kafka was, I believe, an INFP, Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving, and his father was probably an ESTJ, Extroverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging. Kafka, who valued harmony, was horrified by his loud father and frightened of him. His father wanted to toughen him up and make a man out of him. ESTJ’s don’t care about hidden truths and frown on metaphor. They aren’t seekers. They’re doers.

He wanted something from Kafka that Kafka was incapable of giving. Personality traits don’t seem to be passed down in our DNA and INFP’s seem to often end up in the wrong sort of family. I don’t blame Kafka’s father. I’d have hated him too if he had had power over me but from this historical distance he is just another unfathomable ESTJ. We go at each other currently calling each other “Right brained,” defined as intuitive, thoughtful, and sensitive or “Left brained,” defined as analytical, logical and objective. Women are thought to be right brained and men left. At one time when the pop culture book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus was popular, we used planets to bash one another.

In addition, Kafka’s father worked hard for what he had and he gave it to his ingrate son. Kafka’s father was, I believe, a narcissistic denigrator. He came from humble beginnings and had felt the sting of others thinking themselves better than he. So he got back at them. He denigrated others and his child was easy pickings. Denigrating as an educational technique works on some personalities. If Kafka had been a different personality type, he probably would have been fine. He’d have learned how to denigrate others and gone on to be just like his father.

But Kafka knew better, well differently. Kafka had the ability to analyze from more than one point of view. That’s the point Gordimer is making. Gordimer is all about seeing all sides, especially those who don’t have the education, position or the ability to communicate. Kafka’s father would have been a great Afrikaan. Why is Gordimer is standing up for him? The answer is she’ll stand up for anyone and everyone. That’s her purpose in life.

Both Kafka and Gordimer are interested in keeping things fair, and doing so globally as well as interpersonally. The micro represents the macro. This quote attributed to her is on prejudice. “For me, being Jewish is like being black: you simply are. To want to deny it is disgusting. It’s a denial of humanity. There’s no shame in being black, and there’s no shame in being Jewish. But I’m not religious, I haven’t led a religious upbringing, and whether I’m an unbeliever in terms of Jehovah or Jesus Christ to me is the same thing.”

There’s a wonderful article in The Guardian by Aminatta Forna, http://www.the guardian.com/profile/aminatta-forna.

I quote. “Writing is a process of synthesis, the taking of strands from one place and another, using form and language to fashion something new. It does not constrain the artistic liberty of the writer, as some might argue. Here Gordimer quotes not a writer but a painter, Picasso. “‘What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has nothing but eyes if he is a painter and ears if he is a musician … quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly aware of what goes on in the world … and he cannot help being shaped by it.'”
For Gordimer, “witness” is foremost an aesthetic quest. It is what writers can, must even, give as it comes with “the awesome responsibility of their endowment of the seventh sense of the imagination”. It is “the transformation of events, motives, emotions, reactions, from the immediacy into the enduring significance that has meaning”.

“Meaning is what cannot be reached by the immediacy of the image, the description of the sequence of events, the methodologies of expert analysis … Kafka says the writer sees among the ruins ‘different (and more) things than others … it is seeing what is really taking place’.” Gordimer called it “witness literature.””

In the Paris Review interview she states “I believe that in your life, in your thoughts when you are alone, you are always addressing yourself to someone.” She goes on to say that “sometimes even in the conduct of your life, you’re imagining that some particular person is seeing your actions.” I’m misquoting Shakespeare here but we strut and fret our hour on the stage of life and we do it pretending to be someone else. We are influenced by the age we live in, by the people we know, and by the wars and tragedies that occur while we go about our strutting and fretting.

Gordimer is an atheist but a religious one. She says “The only transcendent principle is that you are then seeking to improve the human lot for future generations.” Gordimer is a moralist, a teacher, a thinker and a poet. We are lucky to have her on this earth.

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