2010年1月12日 星期二


                                                                                Nadine Gordimer by Zwelethu Mthethwa 
(12/21/2006 編按語﹕有關南非作家﹑一九九一年諾貝爾文學獎得主納丁.戈蒂瑪的傳記風波在南非文學界沸沸揚揚﹐外界所知甚少﹐紐約時報書評版將與12月31日登載下面這篇文章﹐我們先在此轉載﹐以餉讀者。)

Nadine Gordimer and the Hazards of Biography 
to be published: December 31, 2006 New York Times
Few relationships are as complex as that between a living author and his biographer. In a startling recent example, Nadine Gordimer — the South African writer who helped bring the world’s attention to the evils of apartheid and won the 1991 Nobel Prize for her efforts — had a bitter falling out with Ronald Suresh Roberts, the young biographer to whom she had granted extraordinary access during his five years of research. Since it appeared last year, Roberts’s biography, “No Cold Kitchen”, has been the talk of literary South Africa. This year it made the non fiction shortlist for the country’s highest literary accolade, the Sunday Times Alan Paton Prize, eventually losing to two AIDS memoirs.

How this author-biographer relationship ran aground is a drama as rich as any to come out of post-apartheid South Africa. Yet Gordimer’s admirers abroad have had little chance to read Roberts’s unvarnished, at times hostile portrait. Although the biography was originally under contract to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the United States and Bloomsbury in Britain , both houses — which also publish Gordimer — declined to publish it after Gordimer expressed objections to the manuscript and accused Roberts of breach of trust. “We weren’t satisfied with some aspects of the book,” said Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus, who acquired the book in 1998. “We asked for revisions and we haven’t heard from him.” Instead, Roberts published the book last fall in South Africa with STE, a self-described black empowerment publishing house.

In many ways, the Gordimer-Roberts dispute is emblematic of the larger political situation in South Africa, highlighting in particular the uncertain role of white anti-apartheid activists now that the African National Congress has become the government. Gordimer, who has been active with the A.N.C. since the ’70s, when it was an illegal organization, may still be lionized abroad, but at home she finds herself criticized from all sides. Some find her too beholden to the A.N.C., while others have accused her of betraying its revolutionary promise by pointing to the government’s shortcomings.

These tensions surface in the biography, which brims with revelations — not least that Gordimer fabricated key elements in an autobiographical essay published in The New Yorker in 1954, a near-scandalous admission in today’s culture of hypersensitivity to the fake memoir. For her part, Gordimer has charged that Roberts violated an agreement giving her the right to review the manuscript before publication. (She declined to comment for this article.)

A decade ago, when Roberts first approached Gordimer, he seemed the perfect biographer. Raised in Trinidad, he attended Balliol College, Oxford, on the same scholarship previously awarded to V. S. Naipaul. He went on to graduate from Harvard Law School and write two books, including “Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd” (1995), a critique of black American conservatives. Roberts left a career as a Wall Street lawyer to monitor South Africa’s first multiracial elections in 1994 and has lived there ever since.

Roberts, now 38, first asked Gordimer, 83, if she would participate in a biography in 1996. “I thought it would be an amazing way to come to terms with the history, cultural politics and everything, apart from literary interests, about South Africa,” he said in a recent telephone interview from Cape Town. In their first meeting in early 1997, at her home in a quiet Johannesburg suburb, Roberts quickly won Gordimer over. Several months later, she offered to authorize and endorse the biography, provided “any objections” she posed “for any reason at all” were addressed to “her satisfaction.” In exhaustive interviews over the next few years, Gordimer talked freely with Roberts about almost every aspect of her life. He traveled with her to London and on a boat trip to Chile. He helped her buy a photocopier to copy thousands of pages of documents, including diaries and correspondence with literary figures around the world.

In clear, vigorous prose, Roberts deftly connects Gordimer’s life and work, from her childhood in a small mining town outside Johannesburg, where she was born to Jewish immigrant parents, through her decades in the struggle and on the world stage. Roberts conducted extensive interviews with Gordimer’s family, friends and comrades. But when he asked Gordimer what happened to her cousins Roy and Humphrey, whom she wrote about in her 1954 essay in The New Yorker, “A South African Childhood,” Gordimer confessed she’d made them up — just as she made up her visit to the Kruger National Park, which she saw for the first time the year after the essay appeared. “Well, I fooled them,” Roberts quotes Gordimer saying, with a laugh. “They were not to know the difference.”

On Christmas Day 2002, Roberts sent Gordimer his first draft. Two weeks later, she returned the manuscript with comments. Among other things, Gordimer objected to the way he characterized an affair she had in the early ’50s , Roberts said. She also found distasteful Roberts’s account of the slow decline and death, in 2001, of her second husband, Rein hold Cassirer, a refugee from Nazi Germany and the nephew of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer.

More correspondence followed, in which Gordimer expressed objections both to Farrar, Straus and to Roberts, who insisted on his right to authorial autonomy. In an interview with South Africa’s Sunday Times in 2004, Galassi said Farrar, Straus had “independent objections to the manuscript” beyond Gordimer’s, including “the meandering quality of the narrative and the author’s gratuitous insertion of himself into it.” If Roberts “had been more rational and measured in his approach, I believe his book could have been published as originally planned,” Galassi said. In response, Roberts told the paper, “Haven’t we had enough of New York editors scolding the natives to be rational?” Roberts told the Book Review he felt Gordimer “was treating me like a benefactor in a certain way, as though I was a product of patronage rather than a professional doing the work I wanted to do and doing it to the best of my abilities.”

The back cover of “No Cold Kitchen” features a newspaper headline, “Gordimer Bans Book,” from a Sunday Times article in which Roberts made that claim. The cover also quotes from a letter Gordimer sent Roberts after reading an early draft, calling his work “outstandingly excellent.” “I speak of the criticism as well as the praise; I speak of the insights you have that are truly illuminating, even to me, of my own writing. Thank you!” But in a statement she issued last December after the book first appeared, Gordimer said the citation gave the false impression she had endorsed the book. In fact, she had seen the final version only when it appeared in bookstores, finding it full of “inaccuracies and changes including highly offensive additions, in breach of her right of final review.”

Roberts said he and Gordimer “deadlocked” over her insistence he rework passages criticizing her Middle East politics, including her reluctance to equate the Israeli- Palestinian conflict with apartheid South Africa. Those passages draw on his interviews with Edward Said, the Columbia professor and Palestinian advocate who died in 2003 and to whom he dedicated the biography.

Indeed, the chapters devoted to the post-apartheid period are stridently critical of Gordimer, whom Roberts depicts as the embodiment of a hypocritical white liberalism that takes a paternalistic attitude toward black South Africans even as it makes protestations on their behalf. Here, Roberts assails Gordimer for her involvement with the Treatment Action Campaign, which has been critical of President Thabo Mbeki’s skepticism over whether H.I.V. causes AIDS. In criticizing Gordimer for blaming the government for “mismanaging” the AIDS crisis, Roberts seems to tap into a strain of South African populist rhetoric that sees Western medicine as a new form of imperialism.

The AIDS issue is in fact central to Roberts’s current project. In 2004, he began writing a biography of Mbeki — who has also granted him unprecedented access. His book is due out this spring.

Today, Roberts compares Gordimer unfavorably with Mbeki. “My experience with Gordimer is that she acted in relation to the manuscript like the stereotype of Thabo Mbeki, an autocratic control freak,” Roberts said. “He’s acted in the last two years like the stereotype of Nadine Gordimer, a champion of intellectual liberty.” In “No Cold Kitchen,” Roberts writes how Gordimer once introduced him to her Swedish publisher. “ ‘Ronald is my biographer,’ ” she says. “ ‘He is dangerous.’ She paused with the kind of grimace easily mistaken for a smile: ‘It’s a very strange relationship.’ ”

(Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor of  the NYT Book Review.)