No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer

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STE Publishers, 2005 - Biography & Autobiography - 733 pages
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Eight years in the making, this book charts Nadine Gordimer's life and work, providing a vibrant portrait of the country in which Gordimer lives, the history she lived through, and the people around her—people in South Africa, such as Nelson Mandela, George Bizos, Es'kia Mphahlele, Bram Fischer, Nat Nakasa, Desmond Tutu and Alan Paton; and people abroad, including Susan Sontag, Salman Rushdie, Anthony Sampson, Edward Said, Amos Oz, Harry Levin and New Yorker editor, Katherine White. Drawing upon unprecedented access to Gordimer and her documents, No Cold Kitchen gives sympathetic but rigorous attention to the full range of Gordimer's work, teasing out the inevitable contradictions between her public and private voices and granting the reader an intimate insight into what Gordimer underwent and overcame, both during apartheid and afterwards. The author shrewdly chronicles the drive that led Gordimer, who described herself as a "barefoot girl from Springs," to a Nobel Prize for literature.

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For a subject so multi-faceted and as large as life, Ronald Suresh Robert can be forgiven for producing an almost discordant account of one of the greatest women of letters in South Africa. It has to take no less than 639 pages to capture all there is to about the Nobel laureate in No Cold Kitchen.
Gordimer’s life flies by in a quick four dozen chapters, which may belie the substantial and finely detailed adventure Roberts takes his reader. From the Jewish ancestry that inextricably tied Gordimer to Nazi Germany (nurturing her sympathy for the oppressed, be them Palestinians or black South Africans during the apartheid regime), to the Alan Paton skirmishes over the capital letter “l” word (Gordimer was not impressed by it; Paton wore it on his sleeve).
Black. White. Apartheid. Pre-Rainbow Nation South Africa. These themes bleed on every page. They suffuse Gordimer’s South African existence. While the popular critique of South African literature on its hang-up with apartheid holds here, Roberts is fortunate in that the subject of his biography is an uncommon character in this theatre: an observant Jew in bed with the “Communists” with a pen and notebook beside a bedside lamp. But Roberts also sheds light on perhaps lesser known parts of her life, such as her tryst with opposition to religion (at minimum she sounds, in Kitchen, wryly amused by its shenanigans).
Roberts draws a vivid, almost garish picture of a rather grumpy and uncannily self-aware writer who became her surroundings, absorbing it to become as large as the life in her writing. A textured, sprawling story of a South Africa in socio-political turmoil unravels as her life and her writing does. Roberts identifies characters in Gordimer’s works that speak to aspects of her political being, affected and otherwise; his subject’s nature is revealed in her creation. He brings the reader flush with a person who is seldom flush with anyone beyond her inner circle (hence she easily earned a reputation of being in an ivory tower, which she abhors and contests).
No Cold Kitchen ultimately blares its potentially off-putting nature: it is written by a writer on a writer for writers. The name-dropping of prominent writers and figures of Gordimer’s days is obligatory – they influenced her, and between this and literary sensibilities that come with these names, one can easily feel as though they are being left out of an in-joke. Then again, if one is reading a book about Gordimer, one is probably part of the in-group. And Roberts sometimes does not bother to explain details so everyone can enjoy the punch line (when he describes someone Gordimer liked as a “Radcliffe heavyweight,” I immediately thought of the Harry Potter star).
Roberts’s biography of Nadine Gordimer is an interesting, almost intriguing read that goes halfway from a labour of duty to a labour of love to read; it is not for the casual reader. And one might argue Roberts relies more on Gordimer’s spoken and written word to tell the story than on his own parsing. Nevertheless, if anything, the book offers a unique perspective on twentieth-century white South Africa and comprehensively reveals a local literary giant.



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About the author (2005)

\Ronald Suresh Roberts, a graduate of Balliol College–Oxford and Harvard Law School, was born in London and raised in Trinidad. He is the author of Clarence Thomas and the Tough Love Crowd and the coauthor of Reconciliation Through Truth: A Reckoning of Apartheid's Criminal Governance.

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