When I came across this Paris Review 1979/1980 interview with Nadine Gordimer, I scanned it for gossip-worthy stuff that I could share with you all.
The Nobel Prize winning South African author sounded relaxed in the interview. She was clearly in the mood to share intimate things about her life. She talks about her Lithuanian father and how he ended up in South Africa and became a watchmaker.
But her memories of her mother are a bit more troubled and, in some sense, accounts for some of the quirky aspects of Gordimer’s childhood, which she narrates in the little excerpt below:
I had a very curious childhood.
There were two of us—I have an elder sister—and I was the baby, the spoiled one, the darling. I was awful—brash, a show-off, a dreadful child.
But maybe that had something to do with having a lot of energy that didn’t find any outlet.
I wanted to be a dancer—this was my passion, from the age of about four to ten. I absolutely adored dancing. And I can still remember the pleasure, the release, of using the body in this way. There was no question but that I was to be a dancer, and I suppose maybe I would have been.
But at the age of ten, I suddenly went into a dead faint one day, having been a very skinny but very healthy child. Nobody took much notice. But then it happened again. So I was taken to the family doctor, and it was discovered that I had an incredibly rapid heartbeat. Nobody had noticed this; it was, I suppose, part of my excitability and liveliness.
It was discovered that I had an enlarged thyroid gland, which causes a fast heartbeat and makes one hyperactive. Well, I’ve since discovered that this isn’t a serious malady at all. It happens to hundreds of people—usually at puberty.
But my mother got very alarmed. This rapid pulse should have been ignored. But my mother was quite sure that it meant that I had a “bad heart.” So she went immediately to the convent where I attended school and told the nuns, “This child mustn’t have any physical training, she mustn’t play tennis, she mustn’t even swim.”
At ten, you know, you don’t argue with your mother—she tells you you’re sick, you believe her. When I would be about to climb stairs, she would say, “Now, take it slowly, remember your heart.” And then of course the tragedy was that I was told I mustn’t dance anymore. So the dancing stopped like that, which was a terrible deprivation for me.
It’s really only in the last decade of my life that I’ve been able to face all this. When I realized what my mother had done to me, I went through, at the age of twenty, such resentment—this happens to many of us, but I really had reason. When I was thirty, I began to understand why she did it, and thus to pity her. By the time she died in ’76 we were reconciled. But it was an extraordinary story.
In brief, my mother was unhappily married. It was a dreadful marriage.
I suspect she was sometimes in love with other men; but my mother would never have dreamt of having an affair.
Because her marriage was unhappy, she concentrated on her children. The chief person she was attracted to was our family doctor. There’s no question.
I’m sure it was quite unconscious, but the fact that she had this “delicate” daughter, about whom she could be constantly calling the doctor—in those days doctors made house calls, and there would be tea and cookies and long chats—made her keep my “illness” going in this way. Probably I was being wrongly treated anyway, so that what medication should have cleared up, it didn’t, and symptoms persisted.
Of course, I began to feel terribly important. By that time I was reading all sorts of books that led me to believe my affliction made me very interesting. I was growing up with this legend that I was very delicate, that I had something wrong with my heart.
When I was eleven—I don’t know how my mother did this—she took me out of school completely. For a year I had no education at all. But I read tremendously. And I retreated into myself, I became very introspective. She changed my whole character.
Then she arranged for me to go to a tutor for three hours a day. She took me there at ten in the morning and picked me up at one. It was such incredible loneliness—it’s a terrible thing to do to a child. There I was, all on my own, doing my work; a glass of milk was brought to me by this woman—she was very nice, but I had no contact with other children.
I spent my whole life, from eleven to sixteen, with older people, with people of my mother’s generation. She carted me around to tea parties—I simply lived her life. When she and my father went out at night to dinner she took me along . . . I got to the stage where I could really hardly talk to other children.
I was a little old woman…
[Read the complete interview HERE.]