This is the sorriest post I have ever made. You see, I couldn’t – at least didn’t – finish the book which over the course of several days last week in my house became known as The Conser-frigging-vationist. So anyone coming here for Best of Booker betting, or looking for inspiration for a coursework essay, apologies: surf elsewhere. So why I am writing about it? Because I did read enough of it to express some views, and because the difficulty I had with it is not unique: neither with this book for me, nor, I suspect, for other readers.
Nadine Gordimer has so many literary laurels that the cover – front or back – of The Conservationist doesn’t even bother to mention that it won the Booker Prize in 1974 (jointly, with Stanley Middleton’s Holiday). The biggie of course is the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she took in 1991. This should have been warning enough for me, since try as I might, I struggle mightily with most Nobel laureates I’ve tried: Bellow, Beckett, Camus, Faulkner, even popular ones like Hemingway and Steinbeck. (Thank heaven for Coetzee, Márquez, and even at a push Lessing.) Why should this be? I’m pretty clear that it’s my fault: I read too quickly, I know, and clearly the winners of the world’s most prestigious literary award are writing at a level where pace needs to be slowed to ensure the contents seep through the mind and don’t just run off over the surface.
The Conservationist is set in contemporaneous – 1970s – South Africa, around wealthy white man Mehring and his farm.
Many well-off city men buy themselves farms at a certain stage in their careers – the losses are deductible from income tax and this fact coincides with something less tangible it’s understood they can now afford to indulge: a hankering to make contact with the land. It seems to be bred of making money in industry. And it is tacitly regarded as commendable, a sign of having remained fully human and capable of enjoying the simple things of life that poorer men can no longer afford.
This is one of the few times when Gordimer seems to enter the narrative and direct the reader; otherwise, Mehring is damned by his own actions and the words of his employees. It is this general refusal to interfere with the characters that is the book’s greatest strength, but Gordimer’s immersive approach is also where I began to falter. Mehring is rarely referred to by name, so I sometimes had to backtrack at passages to remind myself which “he” was the focus of a scene – Mehring, his herdsman Jacobus, or another worker. Gordimer’s dialogue, too, can be tricky to follow because she doesn’t always make clear who is speaking.
Then again there are passages of compelling lucidity, such as Mehring’s encounter with a teenage girl on an aeroplane (“she need not be afraid of wanting what was happening because it was happening nowhere”), or the discovery of a body in his fields near the start of the book (“How is happen. What is happen here. Why he come down here on this farm. What is happen”). However these windows, for me, proved to be rare exceptions. Instead, I too often found myself struggling not just to understand the book as a whole, but to work out what was happening on the surface of each scene. The overall effect was of looking through a fogged-up window that I constantly had to wipe clear to stop it from clouding again. Occasionally I forgot, and the pages drifted by, and I realised I hadn’t retained a thing from them.
So eventually, with a third of the book still to go and (inevitably: here’s the other problem) a clutch of other books-to-be-read yapping hungrily for my attention, I gave up. Maybe if I’d taken a fortnight, even a month, to read it – to savour and concentrate and just damn well knuckle down, I would have got more out of it; but one good reading experience in a month would still leave me feeling short changed at the opportunity cost of all the books I could have read in that time.