The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories, by Nadine Gordimer

The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories

Nadine Gordimer was a South African with a long and distinguished career, both as a writer and a political activist.

She published her first short stories as a teenager in the 1930s, and published her last novel in 2012, shortly before dying at age 90.

She worked with Nelson Mandela’s attorneys and helped write the statement he issued at his trial. Upon his release from prison decades later, she was one of the people he most wanted to see.

The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories is an early collection of her short stories. The edition I have doesn’t specify when the stories were written, but it was published in 1952, and is mostly a rerelease of a smaller, earlier collection from 1949 (which was her first collection of short stories). So probably most or all of them are from the 1940s with maybe a small number from the early 1950s.

This collection contains 21 stories, all quite short, the longest just 17 pages. It opens with the title story, The Soft Voice of the Serpent.

As is typical of the stories in this collection, it is a quiet, thoughtful piece. In most of the stories, you learn just enough about some small number of characters and their lives in a few pages—sometimes not even their names—to convey some interesting little psychological, sociological, political, or moral point or points.

I don’t know what the title The Soft Voice of the Serpent means (something about the serpent in the Garden of Eden?), but it’s the story of a man who has lost his leg in the war, and the way he experiments with how best to cope with it—think about it? avoid thinking about it? think about it this way and not that way?—while his wife must make her own adjustments in deciding how to reference it or not so as to facilitate this coping process. Of all odd things, their observation of a locust lessens the tension and somehow helps the healing process. Until it doesn’t.

In The Catch, a young white couple on holiday befriends an Indian fisherman. In some ways they are quite liberal in their attitude toward him and treatment of him, but as the story progresses you get more and more of a sense that there are limits to how much they can really treat him as an equal and connect with him, limits that they themselves probably are not fully aware of and could not articulate, and are not fully comfortable with but are unlikely to be willing to make the psychological effort to change.

The Kindest Thing to Do is about a girl whose mother holds her responsible for her dog’s nearly killing a bird. She then must mercy kill the bird, and she finds that as awful as the anticipation and performance of that killing are, she feels much worse in the aftermath when she gets the sense that killing is much easier after you’ve done it at least once. This transition to being a “killer” is one version of a “loss of innocence” that she has now experienced, and regrets.

The Hour and the Years is the story of a dissatisfied housewife who realizes just how dissatisfied she is when she finds herself on the verge of an affair, and then spends the rest of her life dealing not so much with the guilt of an affair as with that realization of what her life had become that led her to it, and how neither the affair nor anything else ever really changed her life away from that.

In The Train from Rhodesia, a young wife expresses some interest in an art object a native is hawking at a train station, and her husband eventually buys it for her, but only after haggling the price down to a pittance. He considers this a win/win—he got her what she wanted, and he triumphed at bargaining—and is baffled by her reacting with anger and disgust. She can’t articulate just what she finds so loathsome about the whole thing—the way unequal power and resources led to an exploitative transaction that forced a man to part with a piece of art as if it were a cheap trinket—which no doubt will lead the husband to classify her outburst as yet another piece of evidence for the “women are irrational, unstable, emotional creatures” hypothesis.

In A Watcher of the Dead, a young girl narrator observes her household upon her grandmother’s death, contemplating how the grandmother fit into the family dynamics, and how those dynamics will now differ in her absence.

Treasures of the Sea is one of the stories that drew me in the least, as it seems to say little about the human condition, or South Africa, or any of the sorts of issues that give the other stories their substance. It’s about a woman who develops a love of the beach beginning in her childhood.

Even though the story as a whole didn’t do much for me, I did like this line: “It was about this time that she met a man whose idea of her was so much what she wanted herself to be that she fell deeply in love with him.”

The Prisoner, like A Watcher of the Dead, is told from a first person perspective by a young South African woman, in part looking back on events from her childhood. I don’t know if these stories are autobiographical. Perhaps they are, at least loosely.

The Prisoner is about the narrator’s teacher (in a kind of one-room schoolhouse arrangement in a rural area; the narrator and most of the other students transferred to a more conventional school when they got older). The teacher is not the type to be forthcoming with her students or their parents about her personal life, and her husband is even more of a forbidding, taciturn, unsocial type, so the choice of a narrator who is not omniscient is important. The teacher and her family’s life are told in a speculative, tentative way, based on a lot of guesses and rumors.

Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet? tells of a mugging of a white woman by a native man, focused on the victim’s experience of it. The victim is terrified while it is happening, even more than you would expect in a mugging (perhaps because the circumstances make a rape or murder rather than just a mugging live possibilities), but then afterward she’s ambivalent about reporting it and is uncomfortable about her reaction. Although she may not be able to articulate it to herself, there seems to be something about her extreme reaction to the mugger as a scary Other that has her feeling self-doubt and a little guilt.

The Amateurs tells the story of a white theater troupe that visits one of the native Locations to perform Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest for an audience consisting mostly of schoolteachers. The play is largely incomprehensible to the audience, which leads the actors to overact and improvise to try to make things more obvious and more explicit. That doesn’t help, but in the end the schoolteachers are very appreciative about their having come and performed it at all, regardless of whether it made sense to them.

I found A Present for a Good Girl one of the more interesting stories. A self-conscious old woman tries to overcome the economic and social hurdles of purchasing an extravagant gift for her beloved daughter from snooty shop girls.

In La Vie Bohème, an older sister makes an awkward visit to her younger sister’s rundown flat where she lives with her student husband and newborn baby.

Ah, Woe is Me is a moving story about a native household servant who has given up any hope of a decent life for herself but is obsessed with her children’s success. “Her own mission school education, with its tactful emphasis on the next world rather than this, had not made her dangerous enough or brave enough or free enough or even educated enough to think that any place was the place for her children; but it had emerged her just sufficiently to make her believe that there was a place for them; not a share in the White Man’s place, but not no place at all, either: a place of their own.”

But her dream becomes less and less likely to come to fruition, and her employer—the narrator of the story—watches the developments helplessly, not knowing what to offer beyond clumsy charity when the true fault lay with the system that keeps her on top and her domestic on the bottom.

Another Part of the Sky follows the liberal principal of a reform school as he experiences a stressful night dreading confirmation that a recent escapee has committed a violent crime. He is haunted both by the realization that he may not have succeeded in saving this individual, and the realization that whether he did or not, neither he nor anyone else will ever save all the other equally valuable individuals positioned in life to harm and be harmed unjustly.

The Umbilical Cord is an interesting tale about a 17 year old boy studying to be a druggist, who is totally caught up in his petulance and resentment that he’s still expected to help out in the family shop on Saturdays, but then is shocked out of that when he sees a girl he had a dalliance with and her stern, angry-looking father enter the shop, and he has that feeling of panic that almost all us males can identify with.

The Talisman, for me, strains too hard to find symbolism in a dress, and so takes a while to get to the story, which is about a woman having an affair

In The End of the Tunnel, an unmarried couple arrive at a hotel, where the proprietor shares with them that his wife is something of a swinger and he a willing cuckold. The woman isn’t quite sure of her standing to judge this, given her own situation of being separated and carrying on with another guy. I particularly liked the moment near the end of the story when she realizes that with her ability to manipulate guys to want to please her, she can mold her current lover, but may end up molding him as she molded her husband, who no longer interests her.

I’m not sure quite what to make of The Defeated. The folks being referred to as “defeated” apparently are an old Jewish couple that owns a small shop that sells mostly to natives. They are not crushed by life in some extreme, dramatic way, but ultimately have a disappointing or unsuccessful life in more subtle ways. For one thing, they never do much better than just get by with their shop, even though other people in the same line of work often make a good to very good living off the natives. They are habitually hard workers, but they don’t have the intangibles to be good hagglers and dealmakers—and I suppose low level crooks—to really cash in.

But I think the implication is that the bigger sense in which their life doesn’t turn out as they had hoped is that their only child—a daughter that they are convinced is brilliant and whom they sacrifice to send to college—drifts away from them as an adult after she gets married and has a child. This person that they have invested so much in—emotionally, financially, and otherwise—isn’t estranged from them per se, but no longer seems available for a close relationship, and so they are faced with mostly being alone in their old age, rather than being the patriarch and matriarch of a family, as they probably envisioned.

The feeling I get from A Commonplace Story is that most ordinary lives are, well, quite ordinary. That is, drab and largely meaningless, which is bad enough when you’re not aware of it, and a lot worse when you are. Agnes is a not particularly attractive, intelligent, or special in any way woman, who spends her whole life as a music teacher—a tolerable, but very routine and unexciting occupation—with a husband and two children who are certainly not bad people per se, but are quite mediocre.

It’s a depressing story about a kind of dead-end life. Mostly I feel the same way about such a life—about most lives—like, how do they/we even tolerate such an existence? But a part of me sees it differently, sees it as surely to at least some extent a matter of choice how we experience life. It’s possible to find meaning, joy, love, etc. in what some might think of as the dullest of lives, and possible to be dissatisfied and feel one’s life is meaningless regardless of how superficially wonderful and exciting it is.

So I don’t know that it would be any less appropriate—and certainly she would be a lot happier—if the mediocre music teacher felt blessed to be able to add some knowledge of music to hundreds of children’s lives over the decades, and to cherish her husband and kids and recognize them as exceptional in their own way even if objectively one would be hard pressed to articulate anything particularly special about them.

Or if one’s life truly is drab and meaningless, to find some way to change it so one no longer experiences it that way.

But changing one’s life, or one’s perception of life, can be extremely difficult, and so no doubt many will end up like Agnes, feeling like it’s all somehow been a waste.

Like I say, it’s a depressing story. Many of the stories in this collection, in fact, are about lives that somehow didn’t work out quite as the characters had hoped, leaving them uncertain, lost, or “defeated” as in the preceding story. Gordimer is particularly good at sketching people who aren’t necessarily “losers,” but who don’t end up having very fulfilling lives and relationships, don’t quite know why, and don’t quite know what to do about it.

Monday is Better Than Sunday isn’t much of a story, as far as having a lot of action and a payoff and such. It’s really more a sketch of how a certain white South African family—presumably as a representative of white South African families in general—interacts with their native servant. Their treatment of her varies—none of it is horribly abusive on the surface—but it’s never comfortable interaction with an equal. Even when she’s not treated as an inferior, she’s still treated as an Other.

The last story in the collection is In the Beginning, which is about medical students learning obstetrics from a domineering and forbidding head nurse. I think the main point of the story occurs at the very end, when one of the students who has regarded her with the same dislike and disdain as his fellows experiences a revelation looking in the mirror and realizes that what people see of a person from the outside does not always match how they see themselves, what they’re really all about, their essence as a human being, etc.

On the whole, the stories in The Soft Voice of the Serpent and Other Stories connected with me to a degree. They’re generally well written, and they make subtle points about important human issues. I would probably rank them somewhere around the middle of short stories I’ve read in my life. I don’t know whether I’ll read more by Gordimer. I’m certainly open to it, but this collection didn’t speak to me so strongly as to make that a no-brainer decision.

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