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Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer (Penguin) PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 07 May 2008 07:02

The handsome appearance of this book could give the reader the impression that its claims are considerable, as might their memories of recent collections of Gordimer’s stories, Jump (2001) and Loot (2003), which though the stories in the latter volume were uneven were worthy representatives of her craft.

In the present volume however many of the stories have the flavour of the creative writing exercise, and though a writer must hone her skills, we may question whether the results have much claim on readers. The element, not of experiment, but of focused effort round an uninspiring subject, is strong. “Tape Measure”, for example, is one of many stories which reflect Gordimer’s admiration for Kafka; “Gregor”, also in this collection, is another. But in “Tape Measure” the effort to produce a witty piece on an apparently unproductive subject fails because the piece does not achieve allegorical significance and the inner life (no pun intended) of a tapeworm is uninteresting.

The title story, “Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black,” recalls the earlier Gordimer’s gift for spotlighting foibles of the white middle class, in this case the desire for mixed-race ancestry. At the end, it achieves a momentary and ambiguous profundity. “A Frivolous Woman”, interesting in its subject matter to readers who have struggled through Suresh Roberts’s biography of Gordimer, delivers no new insights. “Dreaming of the Dead” reads like another exercise: Said, Sampson and Sontag join the author in a dream sequence in a Chinese restaurant; no fresh understanding there either.

“Safety Procedures”, “Mother Tongue” and “Allesverloren” are ‘human interest’ stories, but lack the impact – a better word might be ruthlessness – which characterised the earlier Gordimer. The last three stories of the volume, grouped under the heading “Alternative Endings”, again identify themselves as exercises, though they possess more interest than most of the others.

Finally, I must ask whether Penguin failed to supply an editor or whether Gordimer refused editorial services. Convoluted syntax and the absence of punctuation often render the collection irritating to read.