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Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black by Nadine Gordimer

Short stories are notoriously tricky. A short story must grab the reader's attention, but must never resort to tawdry trickery to do it. A short story should hit the ground running, but it should never leave the reader behind. It needs conflict, crisis, resolution, but it should never appear formulaic. Dialogue is vital and the reader will abandon your short story if you abuse your dialogue with exposition. So, not very many people do short stories well. Nadine Gordimer does them well.

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black by Nadine Gordimer

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Full of wit and irony, politics and passion, the imaginative quality of Gordimer's writing never seems to slip, least of all in these disparate stories. In a volume, perhaps this collection perhaps lacks some cohesion, but when what you're reading is of this standard, you feel churlish for even mentioning it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
ISBN: 978-0747593843

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In Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, Susan Sontag and Edward Said return as dream-guests at lunch in a Chinese restaurant - Dreaming of the Dead - and a middle-aged academic ponders a new kind of prejudice in post-apartheid South Africa, the title story. In A Frivolous Woman, an irresponsible German-Jewish emigre uses charm to escape war-time Germany. A grieving widow - Allesveloren - tracks down her husband's lover. More unusually, a parrot turns historian and a tapeworm gets drunk. I can't stop thinking about the tapeworm. Tape Measure is one of the shortest stories in the collection, but it is also my favourite.

Alternative Endings gets a little incestuous. It's a look at the ways in which writers resolve stories and - unsurprisingly - it gives three different resolutions for the reader to choose from for once. It's not the first time this has been done, but it's one of the classiest.

I find Gordimer considerably more cerebral than emotional, even when she's writing about passion - and this collection is no different. I don't tend to weep with her, grow angry with her, fall in love with her - but I do read in awe of her skill with words and the sheer verve with which she puts them together. And I find what she says continues to give me pause for thought weeks or even months later. I couldn't ask more from a writer than that. Gordimer's overriding theme of intergrating personal life and political activity is one of which I shall never tire, but it's less apparent here perhaps than in her novels. The stories themselves are disparate - most have been published elsewhere - and so perhaps lack cohesion, but taken separately, each is an absolute joy to read. Who else could write a story about a drunken tapeworm and get you to take it seriously?

More for the devotee than for the newcomer to her work, but this reader thought Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black was bloody marvellous.

My thanks to the kind people at Bloomsbury for sending the book.

If you enjoy short stories, you could also try The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardham or Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan for two very different approaches to the genre.

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Magda said:

You inspired me to to dig out a novel or two by her which I have a on a to-sell-or-maybe-to-read pile, but which I haven't, so far, touched.

Jill said:

Excellent! Enjoy!