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  Nadine Gordimer

Jump and Other Stories - Parcours critiques


Edited by Christian Gutleben and Vanessa Guignery


Cycnos 34-3 (2018)

Paris : l’Harmattan, 2018

Paperback. 192 pages. ISBN  978-2343162652. 21 €


Reviewed by Kathie Birat

Université de Lorraine




This volume of essays on Nadine Gordimer’s short story collection Jump and Other Stories has been assembled on the basis of papers presented at a conference organized at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon in October 2018 in collaboration with the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis. Like earlier volumes in the revue Cycnos, it presents a selection of critical approaches to a work included in the program of the Agrégation externe d’anglais. While the immediate objective of the publication does not set any limit on its utility as an example of research on Gordimer’s work, one is tempted to read it partially at least in the light of its utility for students preparing the concours.

In the case of Nadine Gordimer, the need to place the stories in the historical and ideological context of what Rita Barnard in the first essay calls “the South African transition” [19] represents the first difficulty, for, like all temporal and spatial contexts, the South African one defies rapid summary but weighs heavily on the fictional representation. From this point of view, essays like those presented by Rita Barnard, Stephen Clingman and Liliane Louvel offer particularly crucial insights into the connection between context and fiction. In “Gordimer’s Home,” Stephen Clingman looks at Gordimer’s fiction through the lens of spatiality and the notion of home as a public and private concept. While a preoccupation with space is understandably present in several of the essays included in the collection, Clingman establishes particularly relevant connections between the political and social context, Gordimer’s own life and the notion of home as it is explored in the stories. He gives theoretical density to the idea by comparing Heidegger’s notion of “dwelling” as presented in Being and Time, where dwelling does not include an awareness of others, with Emmanuel Levinas’s definition of home in terms of a consciousness of the Other. This permits him to use Levinas’s conception of home, which links home to the homeland, as a clue to understanding how Gordimer opens the notion of home to include a perception of the future. On the basis of this distinction, Clingman looks at several stories from the point of view of their representation of the different aspects of home he has evoked in a way that illuminates the functioning of the stories as form as well as their thematic preoccupations. This gives his analyses a precision and theoretical grounding that makes them particularly useful in establishing an equilibrium between context and form. In “The Enigma of the Encounter : Private Encounters of a Public Nature,” Liliane Louvel is likewise concerned with space; she explores the way “private encounters are always fraught with the political question of the so-called ‘race’,” looking at the question from the viewpoint of boundaries, both physical and imaginary. She provides useful context through her discussion of the “plaasroman” or “farm novel,” of which there exist other examples in South African literature. The question of context is not only historical, political and cultural. A broader literary context also needs to be taken into account, and from this point of view Rita Barnard’s essay is useful in the way it positions Gordimer within the categories of realism and modernism, realism seeming to be an inevitable term in relation to writers confronted with a specific reality which seems central to their work. Rita Barnard suggests following the lead of David Lodge in looking beyond the apparent contradiction between realism and analogical modes of representation such as allegory. Approaching Gordimer’s stories as a “compromise between realism and allegory” [24], Barnard explores several of the stories in terms of the tension between these two modes. This permits her in particular to talk about the question of national allegory as posed by Frederic Jameson and to show how a story like “Amnesty” (a story discussed in all of the essays) avoids the trap of the “optimistic narrative of national liberation.” [30]

Questions related to spatiality, fragmentation and the absence of communication dominate the collection, although the theoretical frames through which these questions are viewed differ from one essay to another. Fiona McCann examines spatial relations through liminality as a way of understanding the nature of the changes affecting characters in stories like “Jump,” “A Journey” and “Home.” Her analyses are especially convincing in their examination of the narrative and stylistic dimensions which allow these stories to represent the shifting ground of South African reality, as in her analysis of “Home,” in which she scrutinizes the “sexual politics” involved. Sexual politics are likewise the subject of Nicolas Pierre Boileau’s essay “The Politics of the Couple.” Boileau argues, from a Lacanian perspective, that Gordimer’s stories, far from presenting a conventional vision of women, show them engaged in an impossible dialogue with men which can be understood in terms of Lacan’s ideas on the relation between language and desire. His analyses, like those of Fiona McCann, show the necessity of close analysis, taking into account Gordimer’s narrative choices, in order to understand the interrelation between the personal and public dimensions of her fiction. Susan Barrett’s study of miscommunication in “‘He didn’t know how to read the signs’ : Miscommunication in Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories,” is, from this point of view, less precise in the choice of a strategy for grasping the nature and function of the “silences” in which, as Barrett reminds us, Terry Eagleton said that the presence of ideology could be most clearly perceived. Barrett asks all the right questions, beginning with the problem of “how to write about apartheid” [155]; she also raises the issues of realism, of multiple narrative viewpoints, and language. Without solving the problem, she also poses the question of voice, an issue which is not really clearly examined in any of the essays but which is vital in the short story as a genre.

The relation between language, voice and the South African context is approached from an original point of view by Françoise Kral in her essay “Symptomatology of an Unreconciled Nation.” Starting from a reference to Barbara Cassin’s article on the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which Cassin defines a “policy of speech” as an essential step in allowing people to find words capable of confronting fear, which needs to be “voiced and exposed,” [96] Françoise Kral studies the stories “Keeping Fit” and “Comrades” in the light of what she calls the performativity of language, which in this context she defines as “making sure that language indeed means what it says and makes people do what they say they are going to do” [101]. In doing so, she studies the role of the narrative voice and the way in which Gordimer uses this voice to both give and retain information, thus creating what she calls “a space of transitional anonymity” [100]. In admitting that many short stories function in this way, she evokes a question which is central to the discussion of Gordimer’s stories as short stories, but which none of the authors really deals with directly. What makes many of these stories effective is the way in which they produce a voice out of the void preceding the first line. So much depends on that voice and its capacity to retain the reader’s attention. One need only think of writers often evoked in discussions of the short story—like Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce or Eudora Welty— to measure the tight link between voice and story that is crucial to the effect of short stories. This connection also suggests the pertinence of the idea of the fairy tale as the basic structure underlying many short stories, including Gordimer’s. While several of the authors see this connection, Hubert Malfray in his essay “Traces, Tracks and Trails : Hunting for Sense in Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories” uses it as a key to an understanding of the way Gordimer adopts familiar narrative structures in order to subvert them. Malfray considers that Gordimer has recourse to what he calls a “primitive hermeneutics” in order to “underline the prevalence of instinct and hunting as an aesthetic answer or approach to South Africa” [174]. He applies the notions of hunting and predation as a frame for examining several of the stories, like “Spoils” and “The Ultimate Safari,” in a way that relates basic elements of narrative like the search for meaning and the interpretation of signs to the South African context of Gordimer’s fiction. Michal Tal in “A Change of Clothes: Attempting to Break the Dress Code of Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories,” bases her interpretation of the metaphorical role of clothing in the stories on its significance in biblical narrative and fairy tales, although her approach remains somewhat descriptive. Christian Gutleben adopts an original interpretative frame by examining the relation often established between realism and metonymy. He sees Gordimer’s stories as disrupting any “sense of metonymic unity” and proposes this reading strategy as a way of understanding the fragmentation that characterizes her fictional world. He explores the “thwarted metonymies” that one finds in stories like “Comrades,” offering thus an approach to the absence of communication discussed by other authors, in this case one that convincingly takes into account the narrative functioning of the stories.

Looking at the collection of essays as a whole, one is struck by similarities of approach, which is both reassuring and to be expected, but also by certain mutually shared blind spots. While most of the authors sense the importance of the short story as a form—Fiona McCann mentions Frank O’Connor’s essay on the short story, Françoise Kral alludes to the economy of the short story without pinning it down explicitly—there is nonetheless an absence of a full grasp of the importance of the form. And yet the experience of the recent past, the presence of the stories of Alice Munro and Janet Frame (Ben Okri also published short stories) on the program for the Agrégation d’anglais, would suggest the importance of the short story in the postcolonial context (something that has also been pointed out in relation to American literature). There is likewise a certain imprecision in the approach to narratology, to questions of narrative voice and focalization, which perhaps reflects impatience with this type of approach in relation to forms of literature which are occasionally overwhelmed by context and ideology. However, who is speaking and how the person’s speech is represented is crucial to the way in which a writer guides the reader’s perception of complex situations. The use of precise, recognizable terminology (do we all agree on what “interior monologue” or “indirect dialogue” mean?) can only reinforce the impact of an analysis.

Taking into account the critical survey and bibliography provided at the beginning, this collection of essays offers context, theoretical frames and close reading in well-balanced proportions. At the same time, if only through the choice of stories discussed, it leaves room for disagreement and discussion. Why no discussion of “Teraloyna,” and so much emphasis on the final story, “Amnesty”?



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