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July’s People

Nadine Gordimer

1981

(A white South African family in danger of racial violence flees to a village under the protection of their black servant.)

Luke Kgatitsoe at His House, Magopa, Ventersdorp District, Western Transvaal, 1986 (photo by David Goldblatt). This photograph is in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.

You like to have some cup of tea?—

She runs.

This is the novel.  Rather, between these two lines lies the novel, and these two (the first and last lines) are the tail ends of two realities that rest on either side of the novel and overlap within it.  The pre-novel reality is a comfortable family in South Africa under apartheid, served by a black man July (I almost wrote “Friday”), “as his kind has always done for their kind”.  The post-novel reality is an unwritten future, a frenzied sprint to the unknown, where the white mother, in some ways the central figure of the family, flees either to her violent death or to her salvation.  Which of these she finds is not known, was not written, never came to pass.  The novel is not about an ending, and so this is not a spoiler.  The novel is about the boiling metamorphosis in process.  As the novel’s epigraph by Antonio Gramsci indicates, the goal is to portray the “morbid symptoms” of a time when “the old is dying and the new cannot be born”.  The first line is the old that is dying, and the last line is the failing-to-be-born of the new.  In a terseness and simplicity of prose not unlike that of her countryman Alan Paton, the eventual Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer unwraps the space between these two lines, guiding us through the development from one into the other.

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