Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer whose literary ambitions led her into the heart of apartheid to create a body of fiction that brought her a Nobel Prize in 1991, died on Sunday in Johannesburg. She was 90.
Her family announced her death in a statement.
Ms. Gordimer did not originally choose apartheid as her subject as a young writer, she said, but she found it impossible to dig deeply into South African life without striking repression. And once the Afrikaner nationalists came to power in 1948, the scaffolds of the apartheid system began to rise around her and could not be ignored.
“I am not a political person by nature,” Ms. Gordimer said years later. “I don’t suppose, if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”
But whether by accident of geography or literary searching, she found her themes in the injustices and cruelties of her country’s policies of racial division, and she left no quarter of South African society unexplored, from the hot, crowded cinder-block neighborhoods and tiny shebeens of the black townships to the poolside barbecues, hunting parties and sundowner cocktails of the white society.
Through Ms. Gordimer’s work, international readers learned the human effects of the “color bar” and the punishing laws that systematically sealed off each avenue of contact among races. Her books are rich with terror: The fear of the security forces pounding on the door in the middle of the night is real, and freedom is impossible. Even the political prisoner released from jail is immediately rearrested after experiencing the briefest illusion of returning to the world.
Critics have described the whole of her work as constituting a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it.
Ms. Gordimer told little about her own life, preferring to explore the intricacies of the mind and heart in those of her characters. “It is the significance of detail wherein the truth lies,” she once said.
But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.
Ms. Gordimer was the author of more than two dozen works of fiction, including novels and collections of short stories in addition to personal and political essays and literary criticism. Her first book of stories, “Face to Face,” appeared in 1949, and her first novel, “The Lying Days,” in 1953. In 2010, she published “Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008,” a weighty volume of her collected nonfiction.
Banned Novels and a Nobel
Three of Ms. Gordimer’s books were banned in her own country at some point during the apartheid era — 1948 to 1994 — starting with her second novel, “A World of Strangers,” published in 1958. It concerns a young British man, newly arrived in South Africa, who discovers two distinct social planes that he cannot bridge: one in the black townships, to which one group of friends is relegated; the other in the white world of privilege, enjoyed by a handful of others he knows.
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“A World of Strangers” was banned for 12 years and another novel, “The Late Bourgeois World” (1966), for 10: long enough to be fatal to most books, Ms. Gordimer noted. “The Late Bourgeois World” deals with a woman who faces a difficult choice when her ex-husband, a traitor to the anti-apartheid resistance, commits suicide.
The third banned novel was one of her best known, “Burger’s Daughter,” the story of the child of a family of revolutionaries who seeks her own way after her father becomes a martyr to the cause. It was unavailable in South Africa for only months rather than years after it was published in 1979, in part because by then its author was internationally known.
Ms. Gordimer was never detained or persecuted for her work, though there were always risks to writing openly about the ruling repressive regime. One reason may have been her ability to give voice to perspectives far from her own, like those of colonial nationalists who had created and thrived on the system of institutionalized oppression that was named the “grand apartheid” (from the Afrikaans word for “apartness”) when it became law.
Her ability to slip inside a life completely different from her own took her beyond the borders of white and black to explore other cultures under the boot of apartheid. In the 1983 short story “A Chip of Glass Ruby,” she entered an Indian Muslim household, and in the novel “My Son’s Story” (1990), she wrote of a mixed-race character. She won the Booker Prize in 1974 for “The Conservationist,” which had a white male protagonist.
Long before the struggle against apartheid was won, some of her books looked ahead to its overthrow and a painful national rebirth. In “July’s People” (1981), a violent war for equality has come to the white suburbs, driving out the ruling minority. In a reversal of roles, July, a black servant, brings his employers, a white family, to his isolated village, where he can protect them.
Ms. Gordimer wrote: “The decently-paid and contented male servant, living in their yard since they had married, clothed by them in two sets of uniforms, khaki pants for rough housework, white drill for waiting at table, given Wednesdays and alternate Sundays free, allowed to have his friends visit him and his town woman sleep with him in his room — he turned out to be the chosen one in whose hands their lives were to be held; frog prince, saviour, July.”
In “A Sport of Nature” (1987), the white wife of an assassinated black leader becomes, with a new husband, the triumphant first lady of a country rising from the rubble of the old order.
Perhaps surprisingly, Ms. Gordimer’s books were not the product of someone who had grown up in a household where the politics of race were discussed. Rather, Ms. Gordimer said, in her world, the minority whites lived among blacks “as people live in a forest among trees.”
It was not her country’s problems that set her to writing, she said. “On the contrary,” she wrote in an essay, “it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life.”
The novelist in 1990. Credit Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
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Nadine Gordimer was born to Jewish immigrant parents on Nov. 20, 1923, in Springs, a mining town in the province now known as Gauteng (formerly part of the vast northeastern area referred to as the Transvaal). Her father, Isidore Gordimer, a watchmaker who had been driven by poverty to emigrate from Lithuania, eventually established his own jewelry store. Her mother, the former Nan Myers, had moved with her family from Britain and never stopped thinking of it as home.
Theirs was an unhappy marriage.
“I suspect she was sometimes in love with other men,” Ms. Gordimer said in a 1983 interview with The Paris Review, “but my mother would never have dreamt of having an affair.” Instead she poured her energy, sometimes to a smothering degree, into raising Nadine and her older sister, Betty.
As a child, Ms. Gordimer recalled, she was a brash show-off who loved to dance and dreamed of becoming a ballerina. But her mother insisted that she stop dancing, because she had a rapid heartbeat. When she was 10, her mother pulled her out of the convent school she attended, telling her daughter that participating in running and swimming could harm her.
Years later, Ms. Gordimer said she learned that the rapid heartbeat was a result of an enlarged thyroid, and that it did not pose the danger her mother had implied. She came to believe that her supposed ill health had dovetailed with her mother’s hunger for romance.
“The chief person she was attracted to was our family doctor,” she told The Paris Review. “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.”
Scholars and critics have found threads from Ms. Gordimer’s childhood running through her fiction. John Cooke, in his book “The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes,” saw “the liberation of children from unusually possessive mothers” as a central theme in Ms. Gordimer’s work. In novel after novel, he wrote, “daughters learn that truly leaving ‘the mother’s house’ requires leaving ‘the house of the white race.’ ”
It took Ms. Gordimer years to tear herself from her mother’s house.
Removed from school, Ms. Gordimer said, she became a “little old woman,” studying with a tutor and accompanying her mother to social engagements. The antidote to her isolation was reading, she said.
In 1945, she attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and thrived in what she called the “nursery bohemia” of university life, studying literature and deciding to pursue a writing life.
With the exception of a trip to what is now known as Zimbabwe, it was not until she was 30 that she ventured outside South Africa.
In 1949, Ms. Gordimer married a dentist, Gerald Gavron, and they had a daughter, Oriane. The marriage ended in divorce in 1952. Two years later, she married Reinhold H. Cassirer, an art dealer who had fled Nazi Germany and was a nephew of the philosopher Ernst Cassirer. Their son, Hugo, was born in 1955. Reinhold Cassirer died in 2001; her son and her daughter survive her.
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Ms. Gordimer said little about her personal life in interviews. Journalists commonly noted her impatience with certain personal questions, sometimes describing her response as disdainful and irritable.
She did mention flirtations on occasion. “My one preoccupation outside the world of ideas was men,” she once said, without providing details.
She never wrote an autobiography. “Autobiography,” she said in 1963, “can’t be written until one is old, can’t hurt anyone’s feelings, can’t be sued for libel, or, worse, contradicted.”
She was, however, the subject of a 2005 biography, “No Cold Kitchen,” which drew wide attention not least for the bitter fallout she had with its author, Ronald Suresh Roberts, a former Wall Street lawyer who had grown up in Trinidad. She had originally authorized the biography and granted him access, but she later withdrew the authorization, objecting to the manuscript and accusing the author of breach of trust. The publishers under contract for the book — Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States and Bloomsbury in Britain — declined to issue it. (Both also were publishers of Ms. Gordimer’s work.)
The biography was eventually published by a small South African house and was the talk of literary South Africa for its accusation that Ms. Gordimer had admitted to fabricating key elements in an autobiographical essay in The New Yorker in 1954. It also paints Ms. Gordimer as a hypocritical white liberal whose words masked a paternalistic attitude toward black South Africa.
When the Nobel committee awarded Ms. Gordimer the literature prize in 1991, it took note of her political activism but observed, “She does not permit this to encroach on her writings.”
That sentiment was one she said she clung to throughout her career. In 1975, she wrote in the introduction to her “Selected Stories”: “The tension between standing apart and being fully involved; that is what makes a writer. That is where we begin.”
In later interviews, she said that no one could live in a society like South Africa’s and stay isolated from politics. Looking back, she told an interviewer in 1994, “The fact that my books were perceived as being so political was because I lived my life in this society that was so much changed by conflict, by political conflict, which of course in practical terms is human conflict.”
She never stopped grappling with politics, despite her disdain for the polemical. And book by book, she crept closer to reconciling her writing with her political self. What she did not want to do, she said, was to write in the service of the anti-apartheid movement, despite her deep contempt for the government system. Over time, she revealed that she had been far from passive when politics touched her personally. She passed messages; hid friends, including high-ranking figures, who were trying to elude the police; and secretly drove others to the border. All these actions appear in her fiction, carried out by characters much braver than she portrayed herself to be.
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The great victory, the end of apartheid, is not the end of the knotty moral problems those characters confront. In “None to Accompany Me,” published in 1994, the year Nelson Mandela was elected president in the country’s first fully democratic vote, one subplot concerns a black political exile, Didymus Maqoma, who comes home only to find that he has no place in the current struggle. Despite his sacrifices, he is overlooked by the post-revolutionary leaders in favor of his wife.
Reading Ms. Gordimer’s work is a reminder that the noose around South Africans tightened by increments, with ever stricter laws followed by correspondingly dimmer expectations. Critics have said that the tone of Ms. Gordimer’s writing fluctuated with the political climate, with an air of hope giving way to a sense of bleakness as racial violence gathered force.
Walls Come Tumbling Down
Some of her most difficult moments came in the 1970s, when the black consciousness movement sought to exclude whites from the fight for majority rule. That period cut her off from many intellectuals and artists and left her work vulnerable to criticism from many black Africans, who contended that a white author could never authentically tell a story through the eyes of a black character.
Ms. Gordimer fought off that accusation, saying, “There are things that blacks know about whites that we don’t know about ourselves, that we conceal and don’t reveal in our relationships — and the other way about.”
In the end, the government was too weak to enforce its laws while contending with armed opposition within and economic and political pressure from outside. In 1990, Mr. Mandela was released from prison; in 1991, apartheid laws were repealed, in 1993, a new Constitution was approved, and in 1994, the walls came tumbling down with the election.
During that exhilarating period, when Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress party regained legal standing, Ms. Gordimer, who had been a secret member, paid her dues in person and got a party card.
It was then, after the release of the man who would be president within a few years, that Ms. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize. “Mandela still doesn’t have a vote,” she said at the time.
Ms. Gordimer went on writing after apartheid, resisting the idea that its demise had deprived her of her great literary subject. It “makes a big difference in my life as a human being,” she said, “but it doesn’t really affect me in terms of my work, because it wasn’t apartheid that made me a writer, and it isn’t the end of apartheid that’s going to stop me.”
But there were critics who thought she had lost her bearings. In a review of her 1998 novel, “The House Gun,” in which a white South African husband and wife see their only son go on trial for the murder of a friend, Michiko Kakutani wrote in The New York Times that the book suggested that the author “has yet to come to terms, artistically, with the dismantling of apartheid and her country’s drastically altered social landscape.”
She ventured into an Arab country in her 2001 novel, “The Pickup,” and continued to write prolifically for years after apartheid became history. Politically, she eventually embraced other causes, among them the fight against the spread of the H.I.V. virus and AIDS in South Africa and a writers’ campaign against the country’s punishing secrecy law.
In the end, one of her greatest fears proved hollow. Although Ms. Gordimer was immensely gratified to receive the Nobel, its valedictory connotations led her to worry about what it said to the world about her future.
“When I won the Nobel Prize,” she said, “I didn’t want it to be seen as a wreath on my grave.”
Correction: July 14, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this obituary misstated the day of Ms. Gordimer’s death. It was Sunday, not Monday. That version also misstated the location to which the white characters flee with their black servant in the novel “July’s People.” It is an isolated rural village, not the township of Soweto.
HELEN T. VERONGOS