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Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other…

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black: And Other Stories (2007)

by Nadine Gordimer

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One encounters the full majesty and weight of Nadine Gordimer’s prose in this wide-ranging, inspiring collection. What this artist accomplishes with her plain language and her oblique approach strikes me as uncanny, as a sort of sleight of hand, the whole of which is a great deal more than the sum of its parts. As in the title story, in which a man leaves a European city to investigate, in some aimless way, whether his forbear had taken a black African mistress. The concluding word, freighted with multiple levels of meaning when uttered by the protagonist, causes mirth and merriment among his colleagues. We know how inappropriate this reaction is, but we hardly know how to describe what reaction would make sense.

In Tape Measure our daring author lays out the highly amusing musings of an intestinal parasite, and concludes the story with a very understated glimpse of menace. Dreaming of the Dead is Ms. Gordimer’s highly personal elegy to three admired colleagues: Edward Said, Anthony Sampson, and Susan Sontag. This piece so highly praises the dearly departed that it shows the Nobel-winning author’s skill in a new light. It also provides a quick and highly useful introduction to the three. Again, at an extreme economy of words.

Certain themes recur in this collection, in addition to the usual highly charged political viewpoints. Characters in most of the stories navigate the treacherous waters of love and marriage. The higher the stakes, the more care the characters take. Like the wife in Alternative Endings – The Second Sense, who chooses to spare her cheating husband, the owner of a soon-to-be-bankrupt airline. But the widow who visits the gay man who had a love affair with her husband many years before, hadn’t bargained for so much involvement. However, in Mother Tongue, one of the most haunting and rewarding stories here, a beautiful young German bride moves to South Africa with her new husband. Although her English is more than passable, she doesn’t comprehend all the slang and lingo thrown around at the parties she attends. Even when her husband is embraced by another beautiful woman amid all the banter, she’s justified in her confidence that she knows all that’s necessary. I found the concluding language here quite sensual and alluring.

In some stories, the younger generation engages an older one to search for and sometimes find answers. A grandson wonders at the actions taken by his grandmother, a German Jewish performer who returns to Europe from Africa at exactly the wrong time before World War II. The Frivolous Woman of the title seems to have survived her brush with death, all right, and thought hardly anything was amiss. In The Beneficiary, a pleasing and surprisingly powerful piece, a woman comes to love and appreciate her adoptive father, as the story concludes with the line, “Nothing to do with DNA.”

All the stories here offer rewards for the reader. Ms. Gordimer’s oblique language and unadorned handling of her plots camouflage the vast range of her subject and theme. This is remarkable: varied, engaging, uniformly brilliant. If you haven’t made Ms. Gordimer’s acquaintance yet, this is an excellent place to start.

http://bassoprofundo1.blogspot.com/2015/02/beethoven-was-one-sixteenth-black.htm... ( )
  LukeS | Feb 12, 2015 |
"...they mostly fell asleep in what she called the spoon-and-fork way...The softness of breasts in opposition to the male rib cage and spine are one of the wordless questions and answers between men and women."

These are tiny, dense stories, stylized and yet beyond style. They're quite satisfying when taken one per day, like vitamins.

They often deal with elemental questions: who is my family, really? How does one mourn? How to judge the worth of a life? People thrown together, or drifting apart, all in ten pages.

The three stories that make up "Alternate Endings" take the same story arc -- one spouse cheats on the other -- and in each a crucial role is played by a different sense (sight, hearing, smell) and comes to a different conclusion. ( )
  grunin | Mar 29, 2012 |
Most of the dozen or so stories in this volume were disappointing to me. The title story seemed pointless; possibly because I didn't understand many of the allusions tossed in as asides to the main story. I continued to have the same problem with some of the other stories, even though I did like her writing style.

My favorite was the story of "Gregor", a little bug which somehow got into the inner workings of the narrator's electronic typewriter and appeared, uninvited, in the small window which normally just displays typed words. And yes, she named him Gregor! During the five days of his incarceration, her feelings go from repugnance to concern for his well-being. (Was Gregor a forerunner of computer bugs to come?? I wonder.)

Although the details were rather distasteful I also enjoyed the story of the "Tape Worm;" how it enters the human host, lives awhile in peaceful co-existence, and then sometimes has to move on.

The last offering, "Alternative Endings", had an intriguing premise: could an author, having given life to a character, arbitrarily change the ending of that character's story to a different one? At least that's the way I understood it. The three stories all have the same theme - adultery - and each is resolved somewhat differently. Still, I'm confused as to how they all relate to the original theory. ( )
  anneofia | Sep 17, 2009 |
Not a whole lot happens in this book. ( )
  YogiABB | Jul 9, 2008 |
Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, a collection of short stories by South African Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, has its hits and misses. The misses include a story about a tapeworm from the tapeworm’s perspective; a reminiscence of a cockroach trapped in a typewriter that doesn’t rise above casual anecdote; and the self-indulgent “Dreaming of the Dead” in which Gordimer recounts a dream of having dinner with Susan Sontag and two other deceased friends.

The hits more than make up for weaknesses in the collection. Gordimer’s elegant writing raises ordinary events above the tawdry and mundane, pulling out bigger ideas and themes, including the theme of personal identity in a changing world.

In the title story, for instance, the protagonist goes on a half-hearted search for black relatives possibly descended from his white, diamond prospecting great-grandfather. Gordimer subtly makes it clear that his search is driven by more than genealogical curiosity as he searches for a family that would unify his prior anti-apartheid political efforts and his personal history.

Likewise, in “A Beneficiary,” a young woman faced with the early death of her actress mother struggles to determine which is her real identity – daughter of the famous actor who sired her, or the loving businessman who raised her knowing she was the product of his wife’s brief, illicit affair.

Gordimer is at her best writing about marriage and its challenges. Adultery and sexual history are common elements. In “Alternative Endings,” for example, Gordimer examines adulterous affairs in three stories, using a different one of the five senses as the focus of each. Unfortunately, while one of the three involves hearing and another scent, it is entirely unclear which sense was featured in the third. More confusing, especially since this trilogy ends the book, is why Gordimer didn’t write five stories so as to feature each of the five senses.

Overall, this is a worthwhile collection of stories and a good introduction to Gordimer’s sophisticated style of writing.
( )
  RoseCityReader | May 8, 2008 |
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Beethoven was one-sixteenth black the presenter of a classical music programme on the radio announces along with the names of musicians who will be heard playing the String Quartets no. 13, 90. 130, and no. 16, op 135.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374109826, Hardcover)

"You're not responsible for your ancestry, are you . . . But if that's so, why have marched under banned slogans, got yourself beaten up by the police, arrested a couple of times; plastered walls with subversive posters . . . The past is valid only in relation to whether the present recognizes it."

In this collection of new stories Nadine Gordimer crosses the frontiers of politics, memory, sexuality, and love with the fearless insight that is the hallmark of her writing. In the title story a middle-aged academic who had been an anti-apartheid activist embarks on an unadmitted pursuit of the possibilities for his own racial identity in his great-grandfather's fortune-hunting interlude of living rough on diamond diggings in South Africa, his young wife far away in London. "Dreaming of the Dead" conjures up a lunch in a New York Chinese restaurant where Susan Sontag and Edward Said return in surprising new avatars as guests in the dream of a loving friend. The historian in "History" is a parrot who confronts people with the scandalizing voice reproduction of quarrels and clandestine love-talk on which it has eavesdropped."Alternative Endings" considers the way writers make arbitrary choices in how to end stories--and offers three, each relating the same situation, but with a different resolution, arrived at by the three senses: sight, sound, and smell.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:43 -0400)

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A collection of short fiction addresses issues of race, identity, and politics, in the title story about an anti-apartheid activist and academic who pursues questions of his own racial identity, and thirteen other stories.

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