Monday, 12 February 2007

Review: Occasion for Loving, Nadine Gordimer (1963)

Jessie Stilwell is:

… an untidy, preoccupied woman whose face was beginning to take on the shape of the thoughts and emotions she had lived through, in place of the likeness of heredity with which it had been born.

At least in the eyes of Ann Davis, a newly-arrived border. Jessie's husband, Tom, is an academic and an historian. They live in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Gordimer’s prose is quick, quick, and very impressive, folding in on itself in its haste to explain everything — everything! — about this couple, who live in a house that’s been well lived in (“full of decently obscure corners where various homeless objects could lie“), with a bevy of children and a liking for gin and tonics in the evening.

I loved the image of Jessie returning inside after watering the garden. The climate is dry, and she must stamp her feet “to rid her sandals of their rim of mud and pine-needles”. But what about the title? Where will it lead? Is there a tragedy? A scandal?

We are too busy to wonder long. Some sections end with a blast of trumpets, hunting horns, oboes, and clarinets. Violins alternate with cellos. Gordimer is comfortable skipping between focalisations as she peoples the house and garden with her vivid characters.

Ann Davis, the newcomer, exudes a brassy confidence that she can cope with this new world. Coming from England (although born in Rhodesia), she might have suffered from culture-shock. But there’s no danger of that, it seems.

While Ann flutters around the exterior of the family, Jessie and Tom take care of the details of everyday life. Jessie’s son by her first marriage, Morgan, who is fifteen, is caught by the parents of the boy he went with to a dance hall (where patrons pay to dance with girls). This event has the same sound as the first appearance of a theme in a piece of classical music. As I read, I wondered, as the event grew into a major idea, when its sensibility would be repeated, and by whom.

Eventually, of course, it is. And it’s the mercurial Ann who oversteps the boundaries of social convention. This is the era of apartheid, and fraternising with a black man can lead to jail. But this is just what Ann does.

Everybody is affected by her actions, and while Jessie and Tom are extremely liberal in their outlook, they sometimes resent the way her actions impact on their lives. It seems that the person least put out by it all is Boaz, Ann’s husband. A musicologist specialising in African folk music, he is often deeply immersed in the culture that many blacks, including Gideon, Ann’s lover, have lost track of due to urbanisation.

But Gordimer is very sympathetic toward Boaz, the jilted husband. She need not have been. It is an indication of the breadth of her vision that she treats each character with the kind of empathy that some writers see fit to dispense with. It is all too easy to make the husband into a buffoon or a lout. But Gordimer does not, and it is a credit to her.

As a record of its times, Occasion for Loving should be compulsory reading for anyone who is interested in knowing what South Africa was like before 1994, when the repressive policy officially ended. This book illustrates just how repressive the policy was.

Once Ann and Gideon leave the safety of the big city (Johannesburg) and venture out into the countryside, the social attitudes and customs that derive their legitimacy from apartheid shock Ann in small but telling ways. She is, naturally, something of a free spirit, and anything that thwarts her instincts serves to insult her deeply.

At a loose end, the two find their way to the seaside village where Jessie is vacationing with her younger children. Irritated, at first, by their effrontery, Jessie comes to understand them better, and to make peace with herself. The small-town milieu these scenes are set in also enable Gordimer to make some withering comments about how the instincts of ordinary people who otherwise would be considered kind, are twisted by apartheid into ugly attitudes.

Beyond this outline of the book’s plot, we are treated to some of the most complex and subtle writing that I have ever read. Gordimer’s nuanced mind causes a thousand small revelations to emerge in the narrative.

This is a book to treasure. Although I appreciate the artistry evident in this book, Gordimer’s insights are very much beyond my powers of expression to articulate beyond what I have already said. Needless to say, there is much more in this book than I have described.

I also very much liked the cover illustration, which is a detail from Charles Blackman’s Dreaming in the Street. Blackman is a favourite of mine and, although very well-known in Australia, I suspect that he is unknown to most.


Sam said...

I suppose that it might seem that I posting just to be antagonisitic - because they all take the opposition of your opinion. But there's a lot I agree with you on... BUT I can't stand Blackman! He's a terrible, terrible artist... a second-rate Boyd, Tucker(box), overplaying the naive elements of Nolan. Though I do like the illustration for the book. He's supposed to be a prick too. My uncle met him and said as much, and I've heard it from a few others. Alas! I only write this because you said few would know him.

Dean said...

I know the feeling. You just have to have your say. But it's cool!

I was friends with his son at school, and although we hung out a lot together, he turned out to be a bit of a prick as well. Probably comes from living in a huge Paddington terrace for so many years.