Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer








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Nobel winner Nadine Gordimer has always demanded much of her readers. In her latest novel, Get a Life, she uses protagonist Paul Bannerman, a 35 year old ecologist whose cancer treatment requires his isolation because of radioactivity, to stand in for all of society in our collective illnesses, isolations, and contradictions. The creation of the illusion of safety through containment provides an interesting motif during global struggles with terrorism. Readers will work hard to try to piece together when the narrator is inside Paul’s mind and whose relationship is being examined, as Paul recovers at his parent’s home. Paul’s illness gives him time to reflect on his relationship with his wife, Berenice, whose career is to do advertising work for the same developers Paul opposes. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 40-47:


It is Agency style that clients at once address even senior personnel by the first name; the unspoken premise is that the client and the professional who is designing promotion of what the client wants to sell are in partnership rather than the calculated relation of hire and pay. Berenice: this one has a manner of treating the client as an equal in the flair, the style of campaign she is planning, no matter how obvious it is that the client has no such faculties of his or her own. This ‘Berenice’ somehow conveys assurance that the campaign is an inside job, she’s part of the client’s company advancing itself. Her smart asides on public taste, and endearing swift movements indicting her own, her small pauses, notation in the brand jingle of advertising-agency-client dialogue, to mark sensitive understanding when the client wavers a doubt. . .

All these that had come to her spontaneously now seemed a professional technique. It could be produced while the one to whom her real responses should be directed was shut away, not only in some physical place, but from any part in the daily, nightly existence of herself and the child. The child: as if the child and the life that he represented were all that there had been in the complex one of a man and a woman? Responses cut and dangling. How could it take an illness to do this? That’s all, just an illness. She had not needed, while jesting or expertly elaborating on serious matters appealing to the shrewdness of clients, to think of him when he was off in his wilderness, passionate as he was to be there; she some­how could not, in need now, summon ability to think of him as he was in the room made a confinement in the house of oc­casional family gatherings. Even his voice on the telephone, what did it convey of where he was, what he was. Even the afternoon visits in that other wilderness between them, his childhood garden, where the tension in him at the pain of her being there and not there for him made her feel she was in control of another’s mind, not herself, in another time.

She hears herself convincing sceptical clients with enthu­siastic voice, fan-spread hands winking magenta fingernails, bracelets sliding back on rather beautiful forearms, of the in­telligence of her plan of action. From the most dourly resist­ant of them she drew admiration to be read in the relaxation of face muscles although they continued to let their sidekicks do the questioning. In-house, between consultations with clients, there was the usual bantering and exchange of pri­vate views on their idiosyncrasies—Agency gossip with col­leagues, several of whom were black, now, in the Agency’s policy of self-interest showing conformation to Affirmative Action (some clients came from new black-owned compa­nies), young women indistinguishable in their styles of dress and vocational jargon, except for the colour of their skin and elaborate arrangements of their hair. Only a select few of her colleagues knew the details of what had happened to that rather dishy man of hers who was always off in the bush sav­ing the planet. Disaster is private, in its way, as love is. Other people will be pruriently curious (love-matters) or trivialise with their syrup of sympathy (matters of disaster).

Her professional persona, carrying on for her. That had to be. She drank champagne someone brought in to celebrate the triumphant contract, quipped and laughed in shared pride. She went out often to dinner with special friends among the colleagues, usually white, as had been before the Affirmative Action ones had arrived—those seemed to have better things to do with their leisure. At dinner, as always, everyone ‘talked shop’ and it was quite usual for someone to come without their other-occupied lover or spouse. Mutual friends, Paul’s and hers—difficult to explain to them, no offence meant— she became inclined to avoid. They wanted to talk about him, were concerned to know how she really felt, sought her ac­ceptance of their support for that which was not clear—was it because her husband and their dear friend was likely sen­tenced to death, or was it for the unimaginable state of her isolation from him, parting while he was still alive, some­where. Should they call him? Could she take books, docu­mentaries and comedies they’d recorded, letters, to him? If she did deliver whatever they remembered to give her, they did not receive any response to let them know that their gifts of friendship and thought for him meant anything. Perhaps he was too weak to respond, though they’d been given to un­derstand he was recuperating while still an Untouchable— radiation coming from his body. Or was it that the state of being taboo to others produced exactly the complementary within the isolated one: ability to communicate stifled.

Most unfortunate it was decided that the grandparents with whom little Nickie got along so happily, perhaps should have no contact with him, though the doctors had been vague about whether secondhand proximity to emanation was any danger; Lyndsay went to Chambers and Adrian mixed with fel1ow board members. Yet certainly a wise precaution, no matter how remote the shaft of invisible light might be, for die grandmother not to be in the proximity of the child since she was the one who touched what had been against the lit-up body, clothes, sheets, the utensils that came from contact with lips and tongue. Lyndsay and Adrian tactfully left the couple alone in the garden if they happened to be home when Benni visited. But they felt that Paul’s wife and them­selves must have some private meaning for one another and this should find expression in some gesture beyond telephone exchanges. In association between Adrian and Benni, the dan­ger would seem so remote a risk; Paul was no longer too weak to bath alone, his father did not have to expose himself by helping him. Adrian followed the impulse to call Benni at her Agency, with a suggestion. And so Berenice’s secretary trans­ferred a call from the father-in-law asking how Berenice would feel about coming out to dinner with him—would she think it all right, for her? Of course, he didn’t say, you’d be going home to the child. Apparently she dismissed this as no risk. Fine, I’d like to.

Adrian must have given some consideration about where to go. He was a sensitive man who loved and appreciated women and had always chosen for a woman the kind of restau­rant where she would feel and look her best, her sort of place, no matter how strange the occasion might be. When he be­gan to he drawn with such finality to Lyndsay he had ended a dwindling love affair, outworn on both sides, over a meal in a restaurant that the woman favoured, and he had chosen for his first meal with Lyndsay the restaurant he felt he knew instinctively would be the setting for her to begin her place in his life, for life.

This young woman his son had chosen.

The restaurant was not one of those where family celebra­tions were held because they were familiar to the parents-­good food and wine list to be counted on. It was in a suburb where white civil servants, mainly Afrikaners, had lived neatly around their Apostolic and Dutch Reformed churches, and had been deserted by them when after their regime had been defeated, black people had the right to move in as neighbours. Then it had become a place where all that had been clandestine, the mixing of blacks and whites, not nec­essarily the political activists who had won that freedom, was open. People in television, the theatre, advertising, journal­ists, and all the hangers-on of the arts and crafts, made it fashionable among themselves. An alternative to corporate chic, which they couldn’t have afforded anyway. And in addi­tion to rap and jazz bars and restaurants which gays or blacks favoured like clubs, vegetarians could find dishes to conform to different versions of their faith, mixed-race lovers were not something exotic confined to the new black upper class and their white partners patronising elegant enclaves of the old white rich. And there was something the corporate rich hadn’t thought of as part of night life, a bookshop that stayed open very late.

Yes of course, this was one of the restaurants she’d been to customarily, with Agency pals and sometimes with Paul. The quarter was lively, scents of herb shops, marijuana, spicy cooking drifted into the streets along with wafts of music. Paul had found treasures of old hooks, scuffed and rat-nibbled early accounts of pre-white-settled terrain, river courses, and information on pre-industrial climate, in the bookshop’s secondhand bins.

His father had chosen what he thought would be her kind of place. She wanted to respond to this wish to please, to divert—and—-—was it—console both the father and herself by breaking bread, drinking wine in a covenant of those in­visible liens that must exist, unthought-of, unrecognised in the Christmas pecks on the cheek, between the one who generated, from his body, the son, and the one who receives the son in hers. Presence of death standing by makes a sacra­ment of tenuous relationships. They talked quite animatedly. He smilingly half-confessed his choice of the restaurant. —Thank you for the pretext that’s brought us here! Never tried Melville before. I don’t know about Lyn, she might have, with some young legal colleague. I think she’d like it anyway, we must come and have a meal. What good and imag­inative food.—

He was interested in the ethics of advertising, how did the industry expect to make up, for instance, for the loss of expo­sure it could offer now that beer promotion for the huge sports-events market was banned by the government: this must be a headache for the agencies? He was not afraid, ei­ther, of bringing up matters which assumed, as present, opin­ions of the quarantined. What kind of school did she and his son think of for their son, only a baby still, but he supposes a changed country both made a ‘normal’ education possible as it never was under segregation when Paul was a child, and raised new questions of choice, nevertheless. No segregation, black and white; but boys’ school or co-ed?

The pleasant warmth of people her own age and kind around her, the food and wine to her taste; it was the element lapping about someone other than herself, as she talked, she contributed to an exchange with the well-informed and atten­tive man opposite her—the son closely resembled the mother, this man could be taken without any other recognition, for himself, and whatever hidden self might be. She heard her own voice speak, a professional facility. She ate without dis­tinguishing one flavour or consistency from another. The wine stirred someone else’s blood, not hers. She, so naturally sociable, called to in greeting of lifted glasses from other tables, where fellow habitués happened to be, endured in desperation—surrounded by—the alien presence that was other people.

In her call next morning she was telling the son what a good time she had.

Why? So that he wouldn’t worry about her. So that he wouldn’t be saddened by the thought that she could enjoy herself without him? Perhaps forever. Her own behaviour most of the time is an enigma to her. Had she ever found the atmosphere in that place her native element; yet this must have been evident in her, else why would a man like his father—no, Adrian, a man revealed as one of sensibility—have known it would be the place to take her to outside the anonymity of past family treats.

Paul. Often silent, when they were there partying with her colleagues? Just thoughtfully listening or, she would think, his head full of those vast contradictory factors in his beloved wilderness just left. Paul with her and not present. Cosmic problems. Another ‘why’; why must her man take on the survival of the whole bloody world, and now himself a threat­ened species.


Readers of prior Gordimer novels have come to learn about South Africa, and to struggle with race and class issues, as well as with mortality. Get a Life continues this legacy, and despite some hard work from readers, produces insights into the contradictions within each of us.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2006



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