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Russell Smith: Let’s remember the artistry of Nadine Gordimer, beyond the politics of South Africa

I never met Nadine Gordimer; my dad did, as he wrote about her work, and he always described her with great respect and the faintest hint of nervousness. She inspired this in people: She was often described as steely or prickly or even a little cold. Phrases like "didn't stand for any nonsense" or "didn't suffer fools" recur in people's memories of her.

The tributes that have followed her death have stressed the strong personality and political will of the Nobel Prize winner – obviously she had to be as tough as nails to survive the turmoil of the apartheid regime and its downfall. She did write many essays about the liberation of her country and was indeed a member of the African National Congress, an openly violent organization, at a time when it was banned.

She was torn, as white liberals always were in apartheid South Africa, between one extremism and the other: the repression of the white dictatorship on the one hand, a fiercely black African identity on the other. One banned her books; the other would argue over whether white activists were welcome at all in the struggle. Reviews of her early works were not unanimously positive, particularly in her own country. She was berated for being ideologically flawed or for "tactical faults." (I would love today's critics with similar agendas to see how small-minded these critiques seem now.)

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Liberationists criticized her work for its even-handedness. They would have preferred something a little more committed or didactic – something that Gordimer would have characterized as mere propaganda. Even after the end of apartheid, a provincial school board banned one of her books, July's People, because they said it was racist and patronizing.

Her quiet, controlled fiction, which was mostly about whites, exhibited no revolutionary fervour, no blood thirst, just nuanced and compassionate observation about the moral and physical struggles faced by people on both sides of the racial divide. The yearning of whites in their suburban society was just as powerful in her stories as the frustrations of the majority. She often described unconscious racism – she once wrote, "we actually see blacks differently, which includes not seeing" – and not without sympathy for those who could not see.

What has been less discussed in the sombre reflections on her life is her incredible artistic versatility and technical deftness. Of course Nobel prizes are political, like every other literary prize in the world, but they are also given out for artistry. Hers was amazing.

In the days following her death, I heard several professional writers express a debt to her, not for her brave political convictions, but for what they learned from her about style. (This includes Margaret Atwood, whose literary style is not dissimilar, and who penned a reverential appreciation in the Guardian.) We learned from her sober and lucid diction, which could veer from an authorial voice to a character's thoughts without any jarring. The novel Burger's Daughter, for example, relies on a daring narrative trick: It alternates between a first-person voice – the voice of its protagonist – and a third-person omniscient narrator describing the same character. The reader is jarred between an interior and a colder exterior view of the same person, almost as if her character were being judged by history.

And she loved playing with rhythms; she was able to play the short and direct sentence off against the labyrinthine and philosophical. Consider this paragraph from Burger's Daughter (see how the bluntly it begins, and how multi-clausally it ends): "I shall never know. It was all concocted. I saw – I see – that profile in a hand-held mirror directed towards another mirror; I know how I survived, not unhappily, if not popular then in my unspoken, acknowledged inkling that I was superior to them, I and my family, at that school; I understand the bland heroics of badly-written memoirs by the faithful – good people in spite of the sanctimony." That is the kind of dense and analytical, yet gorgeously rhythmic, writing that gets other writers' rocks off; it is the kind of difficult prose that some critics (Tim Parks for example) are claiming to be in danger of extinction.

Gordimer also took risks with dialogue. Her ear for the sound of natural speech was finely tuned, but the speech was presented with minimal punctuation – usually only offset by dashes – so that a reader must concentrate to follow who is speaking.

Some critics have even quietly put it forward that the political realm is not the only or even the most important canvas for her novels: They are as much about the sexual and the domestic, about tense marriages, about fraught relationships between mothers and children (mothers in Gordimer are often selfish or possessive).

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How astonishingly prolific she was: She published her first fiction at the age of 15. After that, 15 novels, 21 story collections, five essay collections, plus some plays and screenplays. A redoubtable activist, yes, but above all an artist.

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