'Prickly' Gordimer, anti-apartheid star

Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer

Finding Nadine Gordimer's Johannesburg home in 1998 was not as easy as she had firmly insisted on the telephone.

The new ANC-dominated government, in a burst of enthusiasm to rid itself of all Afrikaaner references, had announced a renaming of streets, so that the central Jan Smuts Boulevard, off which Gordimer lived, no longer appeared on maps under that name.

The Nobel Prize-winning author, who died this week aged 90, was not, it is safe to say, an overtly warm and welcoming personality.

She suffered rounds of interviews to promote each of her new books with some reluctance; she had agreed to be interviewed by the JC because she had, more than 20 years earlier, provided the paper with an original short story and had been well reviewed in its pages over the years.

The short story she wrote for the JC

The short story she wrote for the JC

But though she was comfortable and practised in her comments about apartheid and its collapse, she was on less sure ground when talking about her Jewish background.

Gordimer was born in Springs, a small mining town in the Transvaal. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, was a watch repairer who had been brought up in a Lithuanian shtetl, while her mother, Nancy Myers, was an educated woman from London who sent Gordimer and her sister to a Catholic convent for part of their education.

The writer recalled her father attending synagogue on Yom Kippur alone while, later, her mother, Nadine and her sister, barefoot and dressed in shorts and shirts, would pick him up in the car. "We realised later how embarrassing it must have been for him," she said. "We just used it as a holiday and I think it must have been quite humiliating for him. He wasn't allowed to have any Jewishness."

She had a prickly relationship with the organised Jewish community, although - more by accident than design - both of her husbands were Jewish. Her first husband was a dentist, Gerald Gavron, and her second was Rene Cassirer, a German-Jewish refugee art dealer who fled the Nazis in 1934.

"I have often been asked," she said, "do you think your identification with the black struggle comes about because you come from an oppressed people?"

I would hope not. I would like to think that you don't have to be a Jew, to be appalled, as long as there is a living memory, by the Holocaust. And that you don't have to be black in order to be appalled by apartheid."

    Last updated: 12:54pm, July 17 2014