Some books live unread on our shelves for an inexplicably long time, so that when eventually we pick them up, we wonder what on earth took us so long. That is certainly the case with The Lying Days, both this novel and Nadine Gordimer’s Booker winning The Conservationist have been residing on my to be read shelves for several years. I am very glad though that I started with this one, because it was, as I soon discovered, Gordimer’s first novel. As a first novel it is extraordinary – there is a slow, dreamlike quality to much of the narrative, sections where little happens, and in that perhaps we see the inexperience of a first time novelist. There is however, still so much to admire in this, South African novel of a young woman’s political and emotional emergence into a complex, divided society.
“Statutes and laws and pronouncements may pass over the heads of the people whom they concern, but shame does not need the medium of literacy. Humiliation goes dumbly home – a dog, a child too small to speak can sense it – and it sank right down through all the arid layers of African life in the city and entered the blood even of those who could not understand why they felt and acted as they did, or even knew that they felt or acted.”
Our narrator is Helen Shaw who grows up in the white community that surrounds the Atherton gold mine where her father is secretary. Here within a fairly privileged, sheltered white world – Helen is an only child, cossetted by a mother’s who has never sought to question anything around her. The family have a large, comfortable house, a black servant, Anna looks after the domestic tasks, but she lives outside the house in a small dwelling behind the main house. The family and the other white people associated with the mine, socialise only with one another. Meanwhile the black mine workers have little impact upon the lives of these white people whose very world is designed to come into contact with them as little as possible. For the first seventeen years of her life, this is the only world that Helen knows. Then, Helen is allowed to go and spend the summer with Mrs Koch a family friend on the coast. Here Helen meets Ludi, a soldier on leave, Mrs Koch’s son, is a lot older than Helen, sensual and a little unconventional, he begins to show Helen that there is another world than the one she grew up in.
Back at the mine Helen has to decide whether she will go to the University in Johannesburg. Delaying for a while in the turmoil she brings back with her from the coast, she eventually decides to go, surprising her parents and herself with her sudden decision. At first Helen travels back and forth by train, and it is on the train that she meets Joel Aaron, a young Jewish man around her own age. In her friendship with Joel, Helen begins to see the world as it really is, in her mother’s reaction to her friendship with a Jewish person, the scales begin to fall from her eyes. Other people Helen comes into contact with in Johannesburg further help to shape her new emerging view of the world, Mary, one of just a few black students at the University, comes from a very different world, her living conditions making it increasingly difficult to study.
“We followed Mary’s directions past decent little houses, each as big as a tool shed with a tin chimney throbbing out the life of the house in smoke. In many of them the door was open and a sideboard or a real dining-table in varnished wood showed. Outside their bare walls were ballasted with lean-tos made of beaten-out paraffin tins, home-made verandas like the shoemakers and porches made of boxwood, chicken wire and runner beans. Each had two or three yards of ground in front, fenced with a variety of ingenuity, and inside mealies hung their silk tassels from the pattern of straight stalk and bent leaf. Some grew flowers instead; as it was winter, rings and oblongs of white stones marked out like graves the place where they would come up again. And some grew only children, crawling and huddling in the dust with only eyes looking out of dust.”
Concerned for Mary, Helen suggests that Mary should come to the mine, and be allowed to study in a room on their property, a plan greeted by horror by her parents. Helen decides to move more permanently to the city. Sharing a flat with a young married couple, Helen begins to move within a circle of bohemian dissension. Surrounded by these people Helen begins to grow, her politics and conscience formed by what she sees and hears around her. Here Helen meets Paul, a man actively working for change, and despite her parents’ outrage, sets up home with him. Gordimer explores their relationship with skill, from the first heady days of love, and daily domesticity, to the days when rising tensions begin to impact on their idyll.
Much of the novel – the days of Helen’s rising political awareness – is set to a back drop of the 1949 elections which saw Dr Malan’s Nationalist Party come to power.
“Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. We wanted a quick shock, over and done with, but what we were going to get was something much slower, surer, and more terrible: an apparent sameness in the conduct of our lives, long periods when there was nothing more to hurt us than words in Parliament and talk of the Republic which we laughed at for years and, recurrently, a mounting number of weary battles – apartheid in public transport and buildings, the ban on mixed marriages, the Suppression of Communism bill, the language ordinance separating Afrikaans and English-speaking children in schools, the removal of coloured voters from the common electoral roll and the setting aside of the Supreme Court judgment that made this act illegal – passionate debated in the Parliament with the United Party and Labour Party forming the Opposition, inevitably lost to the Government before the first protest was spoken.”
Naturally now we can only read this novel in the full knowledge of what occurred in South Africa following this time. Nadine Gordimer chose to stay in South Africa where she continued to write and became very politically active herself. Several of her later novels came to be banned by the Apartheid government. A truly inspirational and fascinating woman – I urge you to read her Wikipedia entry if nothing else, among many awards throughout her career she won the Noble prize for literature in 1991. The awards are easy to understand – her writing is very simply brilliant, and I look forward to reading more.