A review of

Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black

by Nadine Gordimer

Central question: How much of your identity is controlled by the world around you?
Format: 178 pp., hardcover; Size: 8" x 5 ½"; Price: $21.00; Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Book design: Dorothy Schmiderer Baker; Cover design: Charlotte Strick; Psychological core of first story: “Once there were blacks wanting to be white. Now there are whites wanting to be black. It’s the same secret”; Total number of musical movements in Beethoven String Quartets no. 13, op. 130, and no. 16, op. 135: ten; Representative sentence: “She thought of traveling—friends prescribed it—to move away for a time from the environment of her grief, and perhaps to remove her from their necessity to contemplate it.”

In the title story of Nadine Gordimer’s new collection, an aging professor named Frederick Morris decides to prove he is part black. Because the meaning of race has been transformed in post-apartheid South Africa, Morris thinks it will rejuvenate his social standing and add a retrospective sparkle to his life, for he knows his own biography is subject to social energies beyond his control. His urge to discover his black lineage is fueled by trendy urban myths that Beethoven and Pushkin were also part black. Morris is too smart to be persuaded by this kind of hype, but he’s also too desperate and too unhappy at the end of his life to resist, so he travels through a crumbling small town, trying to create a new life story. Gordimer is as deeply sympathetic to Morris as she is skeptical of his prospects.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Adam Novy

Adam Novy lives in Brooklyn.

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