Nadine Gordimer: The Conservationist

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.

The Conservationist

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.


  1. Oh no. I have this book on my shelf, brought with the intention of reading my way through the “Best of Booker” shortlist. I will now approach it with a sense of dread..

  2. Oh dear, I didn’t mean to put you off, redheadrambles! In fact when I was writing about the good qualities of the book above, I began to think I should really give it another go…

  3. Hi John
    I really admire your honesty. And just like I said about Jeremy Clarkson in my last comment – you have just gone up in my opinion.
    I was reading the conser-frigging-vationist when I commented on the JG Farrell and I warned you that it would be hard work. Not having a literary blog to keep updated I decided to persevere. This has become my reading mantra as for so long I was leaving books half read and decided not to do this again no matter what.
    I must admit that I did not enjoy the experience of reading this book. But I did get real satisfaction from finishing it. And the end was worth waiting for as Gordimer brings it to a conclusion and rounds off with a dignified funeral for the corpse you mention. And she still leaves room for interpretation as to how the story ends for Mehring.
    The book I read before this one was Europa by Tim Parks. An estranged wife, teenage child, mistress, no reliance on chonology, contemporary politics – there were so many common themes but Europa was so much more accessible and enjoyable. I know which writing style I prefererred.

  4. Thanks Andy: the only Tim Parks I’ve read is Destiny, years ago now, and all I can remember of it is that it had a rather stylish cover, and that apparently unlike Europa, it was pretty tough going too. An article I found suggests it owes a debt to Thomas Bernhard, so that would explain that.

    I do sometimes wonder if this blog stops me persisting with books, always having one eye on a regular update. But not really, I think: first, I remind myself that I read about the same number of books a year now as I did before I started blogging; and second, I usually have a couple of books backed up to write about, so there’ll still be stuff to write about even if I do spend a week over one title.

    Anyway, contrary to what I’ve said (somewhere) before, I decided to take a chance on Barker’s The Ghost Road even though I haven’t read its two predecessors. Seems a shame not to finish off the Best of Booker shortlist when I’ve done five (or four and two-thirds…).

  5. With regards to Gordimer, I’ve only read a couple of her books, and I liked them, but I was surprised by how inept she seemed with some of the basic rules of English.

    As for Tim Parks, I’ve read all his stuff, and found ‘Destiny’ by far the least interesting.

  6. Ha, we can always rely on you for an unmuddied judgement, JRSM! I must admit I didn’t notice linguistic howlers in The Conservationist, but then again, after a while I didn’t really notice anything.

    EDIT: I have however just spotted that the cover of this edition of The Conservationist looks a little like an upside-down version of W.F. Hermans’ Beyond Sleep.

  7. I’ve heard that Gordimer is hard to read.

    A South African friend of mine, who is an English teacher, thinks that Gordimer doesn’t represent the best of her country and hates her writing style.

    Do you think that the nice weather is preventing your reading deeper works? Do you want to be outside more?

    Right now, it’s so hot outside, that I basically spend my summer hibernating, when I am not at work.

    It’s only 11 a.m. and the temp is 29C!

    I read a lot during the summer and am backed up in my reviews by 7 books.

    I have started War and Peace and can keep up with it. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook might be my next big read or a book about the Brits in Pakistan, Afganistan, and the Himilayas in the late 1800s.

  8. If not with The Conservationist, persevere with something else of Gordimer’s. I’ve only read two of her books (Get A Life and July’s People – skip the first, try the latter) but find her interesting enough, in her style and ideas, to continue reading from time to time. Now, all I need to decide is which Gordimer to read next: The Conservationist, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black or do I pickup The Pickup?

  9. Do you think that the nice weather is preventing your reading deeper works?

    No, it rained like a bastard most of today! (if you’ll pardon the expression) Which is a real shame as I just bought a bicycle to begin cycling to work…

    Stewart, I’ll have to ponder that one. For you I prescribe The Conservationist – if I had to read it, you might as well too! And I see your avatar has changed again: probably because you’re using as your URL, not

  10. For you I prescribe The Conservationist – if I had to read it, you might as well too!

    Hmmm. I’ve just read the first couple of pages. I could be tempted. You never know, this may be the book that finally pulls me out of this horrid reading/reviewing rut I’ve fallen into. Oh, and thanks for the avatar mention. I have no idea how it defaulted to the old blog. Fixed now.

  11. John, I read “The Pickup” about 5 years ago, and loved it. Maybe it’s kind of a hit-or-miss thing with Ms. Gordimer. I think Verbivore over at Incurable Logophilia has proclaimed that Nadine Gordimer is her favorite author. I know she’s reading all of her novels this year. Like everything else, it’s simply a matter of personal taste.

  12. I’ve always wanted to read this book, attracted in part by the lovely cover, but now I’m not so sure it’s something I should pick up. I always feel that my knowledge of South African authors is quite poor.

    PS. Welcome to the wonderful world of cycle commuting!!

  13. Thanks chartroose – looks like you’ve answered Stewart’s question too about which one he should read! All of her novels in a year seems a bit rash though, if I may say so! I’m doing my own Brian Mooreathon but limiting it to one novel every couple of months. Side effects are likely at any higher dosage, I think.

    PS kim, I haven’t started cycling yet – the bike is sitting in our dining room, unsullied by the road – it’s been raining all week and I want to get a bit of practice in first as I haven’t ridden a bike in 20 years… 😳 I also fear this doesn’t bode well for my cycling holiday in the south of France next month…

  14. A couple of weeks ago I exclaimed when I finally finished the book, not because of its beauty but because I could finally move on to something else! I did enjoy some of it, and in retrospect I recognized some of the feelings I had while reading it were unique and important. Still, like you, I found the cost of reading it too much for the benefit I got. I felt like it was dated, and, worse–a pet-peeve–the style seemed too self-indulgent. Thanks for helping me feel better about my feelings toward the acclaimed Ms. Gordimer!

  15. And the same to you Trevor! Are you reading all the Best of Booker shortlist? I’ve now read the three I hadn’t read before and you can see my thoughts on The Siege of Krishnapur elsewhere on my blog. I finished the list with The Ghost Road last week and my thoughts on that will go up later this week. Now I feel I should really revisit the ones I’d read before – Carey, Coetzee, Rushdie – as they’re still my top three and I’d like to know if they stand up to re-examination.

  16. John,
    I have recently finished the Best of the Booker shortlist as well. My vote went to Midnight’s Children. I liked the Siege of Krishnapur quite a bit too, though I recognize some of your reservations. And Disgrace and Oscar and Lucinda were excellent reads–and for very different reasons. All in all, therefore, I had a good experience with the shortlist. Though I did not enjoy The Conservationist at any level, really. But the Ghost Road . . . that one I had a harder time evaluating. When you post your thoughts on the book I’ll post my comments. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  17. Hi John, very controversial post. I haven’t read this one but I love Nadine Gordimer, especially ‘The pickup’, I think that all her post-apartheid novels are more relaxed and easier to follow: ‘The House Gun’ is just great! And ‘None to Accompany me’ too. Maybe I’m not very objective since I also loved ‘Get a Life’. Have you heard of Achmat Dangor? His novel ‘Bitter Fruit’ is worth checking out!

  18. Forgot to add that, in my opinion, Gordimer did what Coetzee is doing now, but a long time ago, and of course, without being such a misoginist!

  19. Forgot to add that, in my opinion, Gordimer did what Coetzee is doing now, but a long time ago, and of course, without being such a misoginist!

    Who’s being controversial now, nico! I will of course pay heed to your advice – you’re the reason I read Ozick after all, and The Shawl is up there in my favourite reads this year.

    I have heard of Bitter Fruit but know nothing more of it – it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize here in the UK in its year of publication, but doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash beyond that.

  20. Sorry! Yes, you are right. It’s just that I loved the title, ‘Bitter Fruit’ and wanted to know more about South A, from a different source, but it’s still interesting, there seems to be this weird and monstrous thing about rapes and their outcomes, similar to ‘Disgrace’, did you read it? This metaphor of what is conceived after apartheid…

  21. Please read Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” which is the first of the trilogy and in my opinion the best of her work. I’ve just finished “The Conservationist”, “Disgrace” “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “The Life and Times of Michael K”. Clearly I’m doing a So. African thing this summer and loving every word of it. I’m now onto “Get a Life” notwistanding Stewart’s recommendation to “skip it”.

  22. Good stuff, judith. I’m keen to read more Coetzee myself, having only read Disgrace and Diary of a Bad Year (which I read during a Bad Month for me and didn’t really give my full attention to, I now think). What would you recommend?

  23. John, I know you asked judith what she recommended, but I would like to through in my two-cents’ worth. I recommend Coetzee’s prior Booker winner, Life and Times of Michael K. While I don’t think it is as substantial a work as Disgrace, I liked it more. Also, Mark Thwaite makes some recommendations of his more recent work in the comments to my post.

  24. Thanks Trevor. Naturally all opinions are welcome even though I addressed my query to judith. All these two cents soon add up to something pretty valuable!

  25. Definitely have to agree with Trevor on the Life and Times of Michael K, a thoughtful and thought provoking book. With regard to Diary of a Bad Year, it’s so curious though how one’s reaction to certain works is determined by one’s own life and what is going on in it right now. I shall definitely make that my next read in my summer in South Africa series.

    Will you be reading Doris Lessing’s latest book “Alfred & Emily” as I would be most interested in your views. Yesterday’s L. A. Times Book Review gave it a reasonably good critique.

  26. I felt the same way through much of the book. However, I did finish it was a signed copy, brought back as a gift from the Hay festival. It was a difficult book to follow but it really opened a window into the world of white South Africa, that I know very little about.

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