Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black And Other Stories

Nadine Gordimer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




192 Pages


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A San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of the Year 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.


Praise for Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black

“Even at her peak as a political writer, when she has explored the moral distortions of apartheid, Nadine Gordimer has shown a remarkable ability to delve in the more intimate arena of human relationships . . . It is, however, in her short stories, especially those that lack an overtly political theme, that Gordimer has brought the most intensity and imagination to the roles played by wives, husbands, parents, children and lovers, distilling them to an immediately recognizable essence of longing and heartbreak . . . It is Gordimer’s special skill that she can both make us feel the distinct yearnings of these characters, where nothing else matters, and allow us to stand back and perceive the parts they play in a larger collective pattern. As she always has, Gordimer offers her readers a rare combination of intimacy and transcendence.”—The New York Times Book Review

"[This] newest collection of stories, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, finds Gordimer poking at embers of the fire that has fueled her work since the very beginning, more than half a century ago: politics, both racial and sexual; our responsibilities to unknown (and perhaps unknowable) others; and, especially, the dangers of delving into history without adequate preparation . . . a number of [the stories] are mysteriously connected by the recurring image of the unready biographer, someone whose casual research into the obscured life of another exacts a fierce toll . . . Other stories are refreshingly playful. 'Tape Measure' chronicles the short and disgusting life of an intestinal tapeworm, whose narrative voice bears a remarkable, and hilarious, resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe at his purplest. In 'Gregor,' which has the feel of a recollected anecdote more than a short story, she writes of a cockroach trapped beneath the screen of a word processor—real, perhaps, or conjured by the word processor's Kafka-reading owner.  And there's 'Dreaming of the Dead' . . . imagined as a celestial dinner date between Gordimer and three of her close friends—the literary critic Edward Said, the cultural critic Susan Sontag and the historian Anthony Sampson, all deceased—it's . . . a fond remembrance by a fellow writer who has improbably outlived them all and who misses them terribly. Readers' responses to it will depend on their affinities for these three, although the depictions, bordering on intellectual caricature, don't present any of them in their best light. But even when she's indulging herself, Nadine Gordimer is more interesting, and provocative, than most."—The Washington Post

“On nearly every page there’s evidence of Gordimer’s intellectual rigor, as well as the upright discipline all serious writers possess.”—The Los Angeles Times

“The pages in Nadine Gordimer’s slim new collection of stories truly contain multitudes, so rich are they with invention, insight, and artistry. Now in her mid-80s, the South African Nobel laureate demonstrates once again that she is one of those rare writers who do not lost their shine in old age . . . Gordimer's unflinching, staunch acceptance of her atheism and existentialism, and all they entail, is impressive. Her sorrow and what she does with it have irrigated what was perhaps the one dryness in the emotional terrain of her fiction. The loss of her deeply beloved spouse of many decades, chronicled in ‘No Cold Kitchen,’ the authorized and then de-authorized biography by Ronald Suresh Roberts, has stripped away the chilliness that cast a pall over too much of her fiction. In her latest book, Gordimer shows that in her 80s she is actually still growing as a writer—what a rare and admirable feat.”—The San Francisco Chronicle

“Like John Le Carre, another fine writer from this generation, [Gordimer] has gone on to explore the world after the demise of the material she was best-known for with intelligence, grace and power . . . There are longer stories between these covers, but the short-short and decidedly more experimental stories, stories in which she puts little effort at the service of conventional artifice, remain the most interesting . . . They give us a brief glimpses into the mind of one of Africa’s great modern literary geniuses, and though there are moment when it feels as though one were breathing mere vapours and drinking the lees of longer work, the overall effect here is that of lasting mastery of the mode.”—Dallas Morning News

“[Gordimer’s] voice travels across the page, darkening certain regions, changing barometric pressure in others—and then, just as quickly as it arrived, the voice moves on, leaving you with the memory of an occurrence so vivid and yet ephemral that it takes on the lived quality of real experience.”—Newark Star-Ledger

“Gordimer still has a canny eye for the world’s vastness and complexity, and her expert fiction goes far in bringing us close to the mystery and value of it all.”—Washington Times

“At 84, [Gordimer] remains deeply engaged with literature’s role as a bellwether of current affairs and a corrective to ideological laziness.”—Financial Times

“Nadine Gordimer pushes buttons and the boundaries of race, politics, and sex.”—Vanity Fair

“Gordimer is a precise, politically astute writer whose novels, story, and nonfiction works are charged with sprightly humor, sudden insights, and fearless candor . . . In ‘Alternative Endings,’ Gordimer creates three different resolutions—using sight, sound, and smell—to the same story, masterfully toying with authorial ambiguity, which is an essential component of all this prolific writer’s thought-provoking work.”—Elle magazine

“Peppered with parentheses, dashes, and incomplete clauses, her writing is deceptively tight, and a story’s resolution often hinges on one or two lines . . . Kafka’s influence has inspired its own metamorphosis, alive on her page—an ‘ectoplasm of my imagination.’”—Bookforum

“In these tantalizing and provocative short stories, Nobel Prize–winning South African writer Gordimer experiments with various unusual points of view. The narrator in ‘Tape Measure,’ For example, is a tapeworm. ‘Dreaming of the Dead,’ meanwhile, is a dream about a fascinating conversation at a Chinese restaurant among the sleeper and the late Susan Sontag and Edward Said . . . With Gordimer’s exquisite use of language, keen insight into social relationships, and elegant writing style in full form, this work is recommended for all libraries.”—Library Journal (starred review)

"Thirteen stories from South African Nobel Prize–winner Gordimer offer a staccato demonstration of how people's origins, inheritances and histories—and the loss of them—are inescapable. The title story centers on the white, twice-divorced academic descendant of a London diamond prospector who visits his forebear's mine in Kimberly, South Africa, and wonders about who in the township, black and white, he may be related to. The narrator of 'Dreaming of the Dead' is haunted by famous former companions (the late intellectuals Edward Said and Susan Sontag), while the grieving widow of 'Allesverloren' (or 'All Is Lost') seeks out her husband's former lover to unearth a message from him. The daughter of 'A Beneficiary,' meanwhile, finds an unsettling letter among the effects of her late mother, an actress. Cultural inheritance shadows the marriage of a Hungarian couple that emigrates to South Africa in 'Alternate Endings: Second Sense,' and also the son of 'A Frivolous Woman,' who resents his flamboyant German-Jewish émigré mother's easy adaptability. Again and again, Gordimer puts big, sweeping disasters (the Holocaust, apartheid) in the pasts of flawed, ill-equipped characters and shows how their choices have been little more than wing beats against history. The results are terrifying, sometimes acidly funny and often beautiful."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Ironic what-ifs and narrative legerdemain are featured in the 1991 Nobel laureate’s 11th story collection . . . Gordimer surprises us with ‘Tape Measure,’ in which a tapeworm narrator discusses with compressed allegorical ingenuity the strategies of surviving in an unfriendly host (country?), and the perfectly titled ‘Allesverloren,’ about a widow who recaptures an ampler understanding of her late husband’s life by meeting with his former gay lover. At first appearance a stunt, this beautifully articulated story becomes increasingly dramatic, tense and achingly sad: It’s a near-perfect miniature . . . Mostly finger exercises (think Mozart’s shorter works), but the best of them are executed with finesse and power.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Gordimer has been writing about her native South Africa for more than 50 years, and in this lively collection, she continues to tell the contemporary stories of people ‘going about their own affairs within history’s fall-out’ . . . No slick irony, no heavy messages; as always, the mix of intimacy and politics stirs everything up.”—Booklist

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
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, op. 130, and no. 16, op. 135.
Does the presenter make the claim as restitution for Beethoven? Presenter’s voice and cadence give him away as irremediably white. Is one-sixteenth an unspoken wish for himself.
Once there were blacks wanting to be white.
Now there are whites wanting to be black.
It’s the same secret.
Frederick Morris (of course that’s not his name,
Read the full excerpt


  • Nadine Gordimer

  • Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is the author of fifteen novels, more than ten volumes of stories, and three nonfiction collections. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.
  • Nadine Gordimer Copyright Maureen Isaacson