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The Late Bourgeois World Hardcover – Import, 1976
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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We then move with Elisabeth through her day as she visits her son at school to break the news (the boy and his father weren’t especially close so it isn’t particularly traumatic), visits with her senile grandmother at her old age home, has a couple interactions with her boyfriend, a successful lawyer, and finally hosts dinner for a black activist she has becomes friends with through her husband. All through this we get her thoughts and fill in her background.
Meanwhile, around her the world is changing, symbolized most dramatically by news in the papers about an American astronaut doing a space walk (the reference is presumably to Edward White, the first American to exit a capsule in space, on June 3, 1965). The title phrase is referenced at one point as coming from an Eastern journal to describe the passing era.
The writing is crisp and the narrative flows. Gordimer, who apparently preferred the short story format despite having to this point also produced three full-length novels, gives us a good sense of Elisabeth, her world and her life to this point. She is somewhat smug but basically decent woman confused about which way to go in her life. Her relationship with her boyfriend promises security and stability—important especially as she her son to consider—but she is also drawn to the radical politics of her former husband and his associates, driven by a sense of justice (and a bit of moral superiority that comes out when she contemplates her and her husband’s parents and their friends). In these spare number of pages, the reader gets a clear view of what life in South Africa for a middle class white woman was like in the mid 1960s.
I had really liked Gordimer’s first novel, the highly autobiographical The Lying Days, but was disappointed by its two successors, A World of Strangers and Occasion for Loving, both of which I thought left plot and drama potential on the table. That’s not a problem with The Late Bourgeois World, which is tight as a drum. If you want to start on Gordimer, a Nobel Prize winner about three decades after this book came out, The Late Bourgeois World would be a great place to begin.
Gordimer's story is firmly set in the year it was written (1966)at the height of the repressive apartheid regime in South Africa and the 'emergency powers'.It maybe loses a bit of its power as that era is long past-though its echoes still reverberate-but what makes Gordimers work so vital is that it records events and South African society as it was then;particularily the gulf between black and white's wanting change (and for that matter the gulf between black and black,white and white) This is an historical record as well as a first rate novel.
With whites, there are the pseudo liberals who want change through constitutional and political channels (knowing full well this wont happen; their pontificating acts only as a salve for their guilt)to the far left radicals who see the black mans struggle as part of the world wide communist struggle, that the black man sees as just another white mans politics in Africa.In fact, the only real use to "the cause" that the whites have is their foothold in white society-as Elisebeth finds out with Luke's need of a white bank account.
For the blacks,there is the very real struggle,but what the final ambition is is vague. Some want to expel all whites and seize the wealth (Mugabeism?)or have a naive idea that change will suddenly mean cars and money like the whites have. For all there is no clear idea of what will come after "revolution" which is the main fault of all "revolutions";this lack of vision the reason why all revolutions end up in extreme bloodshed and/or a worse political atmosphere for people to live in (as in Zimbabwe/Iran/Russia for eg)
Just 90 odd pages long, this novel is hugely accessable,a perfect taster for Gordimers writing and an important historical document of the rapidly shrinking world of the 20th century where old ideas and life styles (that of apartheid and segregation) are dying out in a world that was (in 1966) sending men to walk in space-as the novel refers to-and ultimately to the moon. Where does apartheid stand in a world like that? Thought provoking and vital.
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The book opens up with not one but two epigraphs of the greats:
There are possibilities for me, certainly; but under what stone do they...Read more