Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black

BOOK: Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black
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The Lying Days / A World of Strangers / Occasion for Loving
The Late Bourgeois World / A Guest of Honor
The Conservationist / Burger's Daughter / July's People
A Sport of Nature / My Son's Story / None to Accompany Me
The House Gun / The Pickup / Get a Life


The Soft Voice of the Serpent / Six Feet of the Country
Friday's Footprint / Not for Publication / Livingstone's Companions
A Soldier's Embrace / Selected Stories / Something Out There
Jump and Other Stories / Loot and Other Stories


The Black Interpreters / On the Mines (
with David Goldblatt
Lifetimes Under Apartheid (
with David Goldblatt
The Essential Gesture—Writing, Politics and Places (
edited by Stephen Clingman
Writing and Being
Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century


Telling Tales

beethoven was one-sixteenth black
and other stories

Nadine Gordimer

and other

Farrar Straus Giroux
New York




Farrar, Straus and Giroux

19 Union Square West, New York 10003


Copyright © 2007 by Nadine Gordimer

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America

First edition, 2007


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Gordimer, Nadine.

Beethoven was one-sixteenth black : and other stories /

Nadine Gordimer.— 1st ed.

    p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-0-374-10982-0 (hardcover : alk. paper)
    ISBN-10: 0-374-10982-6 (hardcover: alk. paper)
    I. Title. II. Title: Beethoven was 1/16th black.


  PR9369.3.G6B44 2007



Designed by Dorothy Schmiderer Baker


1   3   5   7   9   10   8   6   4   2





Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black

Tape Measure

Dreaming of the Dead

A Frivolous Woman


Safety Procedures

Mother Tongue



A Beneficiary

Alternative Endings

The First Sense

The Second Sense

The Third Sense

beethoven was
one-sixteenth black





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, you'll soon catch on I'm writing about myself, a man with the same initials) is an academic who teaches biology and was an activist
back in the apartheid time, among other illegal shenanigans an amateur cartoonist of some talent who made posters depicting the regime's leaders as the ghoulish murderers they were and, more boldly, joined groups to paste these on city walls. At the university, new millennium times, he's not one of the academics the student body (a high enrolment robustly black, he approves) singles out as among those particularly reprehensible, in protests against academe as the old white male crowd who inhibit transformation of the university from a white intellectuals' country club to a non-racial institution with a black majority (politically-correct-speak). Neither do the students value much the support of whites, like himself, dissident from what's seen as the other, the gowned body. You can't be on somebody else's side. That's the reasoning? History's never over; any more than biology, functioning within every being.

One-sixteenth. The trickle seemed enough to be asserted out of context? What does the distant thread of blood matter in the genesis of a genius. Then there's Pushkin, if you like; his claim is substantial, look at his genuine frizz on the head—not some fashionable faked Afro haloing a white man or woman, but coming, it's said, from Ethiopia.

Perhaps because he's getting older—Morris doesn't know he's still young enough to think fifty-two is old—he reflects occasionally on what was lived in his lifeline-before-him. He's divorced, a second time; that's a past, as well, if rather immediate. His father was also not a particular success as a family man. Family: the great-grandfather, dead long before the boy was born: there's a handsome man, someone from an old oval-framed photograph, the strong looks not passed on. There are stories about this forefather, probably related at family gatherings but hardly listened to by a boy impatient to leave the
grown-ups' table. Anecdotes not in the history book obliged to be learned by rote. What might call upon amused recognition to be adventures, circumstances taken head-on, good times enjoyed out of what others would submit to as bad times, characters—‘they don't make them like that any more'—as enemies up to no good, or joined forces with as real mates. No history-book events: tales of going about your own affairs within history's fall-out. He was some sort of frontiersman, not in the colonial military but in the fortune-hunters' motley.

A descendant in the male line, Frederick Morris bears his surname, of course. Walter Benjamin Morris apparently was always called Ben, perhaps because he was the Benjamin indeed of the brood of brothers who did not, like him, emigrate to Africa. No-one seems to know why he did; just an adventurer, or maybe the ambition to be rich which didn't appear to be achievable anywhere other than a beckoning Elsewhere. He might have chosen the Yukon. At home in London he was in line to inherit the Hampstead delicatessen shop, see it full of cold cuts and pickles, he was managing for another one of the fathers in the family line, name lost. He was married for only a year when he left. Must have convinced his young bride that their future lay in his going off to prospect for the newly discovered diamonds in a far place called Kimberley, from where he would promptly return rich. As a kind of farewell surety for their love, he left inside her their son to be born.

Frederick surprises his mother by asking if she kept the old attaché case—a battered black bag, actually—where once his father had told him there was stuff about the family they should go through some time; both had forgotten this rendezvous, his father had died before that time came. He did not
have much expectation that she still kept the case somewhere, she had moved from what had been the home of marriage and disposed of possessions for which there was no room, no place in her life in a garden complex of elegant contemporary-design cottages. There were some things in a communal storeroom tenants had use of. There he found the bag and squatting among the detritus of other people's pasts he blew away the silverfish moths from letters and scrap jottings, copied the facts recorded above. There are also photographs, mounted on board, too tough for whatever serves silverfish as jaws, which he took with him, didn't think his mother would be sufficiently interested in for him to inform her. There is one portrait in an elaborate frame.

The great-grandfather has the same stance in all the photographs whether he is alone beside a photographer's studio palm or among piles of magical dirt, the sieves that would sift from the earth the rough stones that were diamonds within their primitive forms, the expressionless blacks and half-coloured men leaning on spades. Prospectors from London and Paris and Berlin—anywhere where there are no diamonds—did not themselves race to stake their claims when the starter's gun went off, the hired men who belonged on the land they ran over were swifter than any white foreigner, they staked the foreigners' claims and wielded the picks and spades in the open-cast mining concessions these marked. Even when Ben Morris is photographed sitting in a makeshift overcrowded bar his body, neck tendons, head are upright as if he were standing so immovably confident—of what? (Jottings reveal that he unearthed only small stuff. Negligible carats.) Of virility. That's unmistakable, it's untouched by the fickleness of fortune. Others in the picture have become slumped and shabbied by poor
luck. The aura of sexual virility in the composure, the dark, bright, on-the-lookout inviting eyes: a call to the other sex as well as elusive diamonds. Women must have heard, read him the way males didn't, weren't meant to. Dates on the scraps of paper made delicately lacy by insects show that he didn't return promptly, he prospected with obstinate faith in his quest, in himself, for five years.

He didn't go home to London, the young wife, he saw the son only once on a single visit when he impregnated the young wife and left her again. He did not make his fortune; but he must have gained some slowly accumulated profit from the small stones the black men dug for him from their earth, because after five years it appears he went back to London and used his acquired knowledge of the rough stones to establish himself in the gem business, with connections in Amsterdam.

The great-grandfather never returned to Africa. Frederick's mother can at least confirm this, since her son is interested. The later members of the old man's family—his fertility produced more sons, from one of whom Frederick is descended—came for other reasons, as doctors and lawyers, businessmen, conmen and entertainers, to a level of society created from profit of the hired fast-runners' unearthing of diamonds and gold for those who had come from beyond the seas, another kind of elsewhere.

BOOK: Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black
3.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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