Nobel Winner’s ‘Beethoven’ an Uneven Performance

"beethoven was one-sixteenth black" - By Nadine Gordimer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

What do the great-grandson of a diamond prospector, a tapeworm, and Edward Said have in common? They each figure as a central character in one of the first three stories of “Beethoven Was One-sixteenth Black,” the newest collection of short fiction from prolific octogenarian author and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer.

The motley assembly of characters is only one aspect of the absence of internal logic that characterizes Gordimer’s most recent collection, an amalgam of 13 stories that previously appeared in periodicals ranging from “The New Yorker” to “Playboy.”

Gordimer, who made her name writing about apartheid-era South Africa, laudably attempts to move beyond her nation’s past to explore the complexities of transnational racial identities. But though some of the stories gathered in this collection achieve that goal, they appear between unrelated displays of literary pyrotechnics that fail to convey the same degree of moral seriousness, preventing the work from cohering into a satisfying whole.

In the title story, Gordimer presents a plot so sparse and a narrative voice so fractured as to seem like a burlesque of the psychological depth that has characterized her writing. Of the protagonist, one “Frederick Morris,” we learn from the narrator in a parenthetical aside, “of course that’s not his name, you’ll soon catch on I’m writing about myself, a man with the same initials.”

Yet for self-reflection, the narrator’s description of his life’s events is notably disjointed. “Morris” hears a radio presenter pronounce the non-sequitur “Beethoven was one-sixteenth black” while introducing the musicians who will be performing a selection from the composer’s oeuvre. He is caught in the gaze of a framed portrait of his great-grandfather, a diamond prospector. He then sets off for a black township on a genealogical quest for the long-lost cousins he hypothesizes he must have, descendants of the illicit sexual liaisons that often transpired between prospectors and the black washerwoman who worked in the mining camps.

A series of hastily strung-together clauses ensues, and the story abruptly terminates in Morris’ existential questioning in a township bar: “These bar-room companions buddies comrades, could any one of them be men who should have my family name included in theirs? So where am I from. What was it all about.”

What, indeed, was it all about? The weirdly divided subjectivity evinced by the narrator’s insistence on speaking of himself in the third person is particularly jarring when juxtaposed with the next story, “tape measure,” a first-person account of a hyperconscious tapeworm who commences his narrative from inside a toilet bowl.

“Once I’d been ingested I knew what to do where I found myself, I gained consciousness; nature is a miracle in the know-how it has provided, ready, in all its millions of varieties of eggs: I hatched from my minute containment that the human eye never could have detected on the lettuce, the raw meat, the finger, and began to grow myself. Segment by segment. Measuredly,” he (it?) says.

His narration is punningly comical. But the depiction of a parasite coming into subjectivity is simply a reductio an absurdum.

Following up its anthropomorphized subject with a revivified one, the collection’s trajectory careens even further towards the absurd with “Dreaming of the Dead,” in which the apparition of the late Edward Said appears as a lunch date. Over Chinese food, he describes the work he’s ostensibly undertaken since his passing: composing a symphony.

Perhaps we can read in Said’s apparition a gloss to the collection’s title: in Said’s real posthumously published work “On Late Style,” he writes about artists whose work acquires a new idiom near the end of their lives, contending that “late-style Beethoven, remorselessly alienated and obscure, becomes the prototypical modern aesthetic form.”

Are Gordimer’s “Beethoven” stories, in their formal and thematic abrasiveness, perhaps working towards such a new idiom? Seen charitably, the fictional world of “Beethoven Was One-sixteenth Black” is one of interracial mélange, in which, by disregarding syntax, we can circle the absent center of identity.

As the title story’s protagonist probingly asks, “So what’s happened to the ideal of the Struggle (the capitalized generic of something else that’s never over, never mind history-book victories) for recognition, beginning in the self, that our kind, humankind, doesn’t need any distinctions of blood percentage tincture.”

—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at