The Conservationist
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The Conservationist

3.38 of 5 stars 3.38  ·  rating details  ·  1,154 ratings  ·  114 reviews
Mehring is rich. He has all the privileges and possessions that South Africa has to offer, but his possessions refuse to remain objects. His wife, son, and mistress leave him; his foreman and workers become increasingly indifferent to his stewarsship; even the land rises up, as drought, then flood, destroy his farm.
Paperback, 272 pages
Published February 24th 1983 by Penguin Books (first published 1974)
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Booker Prize Winners
36th out of 48 books — 1,300 voters
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Great Women Authors
115th out of 642 books — 130 voters


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Community Reviews

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Samadrita
Do not let the sea of 3-stars fool you into decrying the unpleasantness or the apparent plotlessness of this novel.
Not all of us read for pleasure after all. Besides it is an achievement of extraordinary proportions when an author manages to stretch the 'show don't tell' narrative device almost to the breaking point yet never failing to accentuate the core themes so realistically.

Nadine Gordimer puts her reader in a trance-like state with her hypnotic, lyrical descriptions of minutiae in an un...more
David
This is the kind of book that college professors love to assign to their undergrads. Similar to Carlos Fuentes' The Death of Artemio Cruz , in which Artemio's life and death serve as metaphors for the historic arc of the Mexican Revolution and the corrupt PRI party it spawned, the anti-hero of The Conservationist is Gordimer's metaphor for a South Africa apartheid system that is impossible to conserve despite the wishes of its White population.

In fact, I'm sure there is some college undergrad ou...more
Trevor
I am ambivalent about this book.

On the one hand, it had some brilliant parts. The overall themes of apartheid are incredibly subtle but powerful. Many of the passages are very poetic and evocative. At the end I could honestly say that I felt I'd been through a good experience. She does a great job showing the awkward relationship between Mehring and his black workers. The dead man found at the beginning haunts the rest of the novel--and it works brilliantly.

On the other hand, most of the time I...more
Lisa
I read The Conservationist in a kind of appalled fascination, repelled by the language South African Whites use to talk to and about the Blacks in the book. Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize winning author of this Booker Prize winning story, depicts her characters routinely using the language of master and servant in the most disparaging way, a kind of amused contempt exacerbated by its casual delivery. Reading it, one feels besmirched simply by being privy to the perspective of its White anti-he...more
Becky
Someone in my book club said of this novel that it makes you feel dumber while you're reading it but smarter once you've finished. I just found that to be really spot-on. No doubt, this is a difficult read, both in style (long, rambling sentences, extended stream-of-consciousness passages, non-English words scattered throughout) and in substance (it's about apartheid, and also, not much actually happens). The best way I found to describe it is that it's like an impressionist painting -- when you...more
Rosalind
I finished this while in hospital recently.

There's something going on, and you don't know what it is, do you Mr Mehring? Mehring farms tax breaks for fun in the High Veld. He doesn't need it to make a profit; it would defeat the object if it did and anyway he's already a rich man from his status as a pig-iron magnate. But his world is falling apart in some vague way. His wife has left him and gone to New York, his son who has funny ideas about overturning the natural order has gone to join her,...more
Jayne Charles
I really struggled with this. It needs to be read slowly, analysed line by line to tease out the meaning, and I really tried to stay with it but in end the current pulled me under.

It's a tale of farming in South Africa, of pig iron, of differing standards of living and of questionable goings-on under aircraft blankets. Told in a series of random though patterns that's only just this side of James Joyce, it's difficult to work out what is happening at any given time, who is talking and who they...more
Madhuri
When you write from a divided home, it is inevitable that the divide manifests itself in your writing. Writers from South Africa, I suppose, therefore feel compelled to return to apartheid in some form- either in Coetzee's Disgrace or in Gordimer's 'The Conservationist'.

In fact, Conservationist did remind me terribly of the other. The white man with a loosely strewn together life, a farm with black workers, the divide and the mutual acceptance across the divide.

The book primarily consists of sel...more
Colleen
Mostly follows the interior monologue of Mr. Mehring, a wealthy white colonial industrialist in South Africa, who has bought a farm 25 miles from his city apartment. His farm is managed by a group of extremely poor indigenous Blacks lead by Jacobus, who all seem to have infinite patience. Mehring's life is so removed from them he barely empathizes with them. And he has grown distant from the members of his own class who spend their spare time partying and trying to fix him up with single eligibl...more
José Toledo
The Conservationist is Nadine Gordimer's most intense, and certainly most poetic, novel. Its meticulous details and documentary exactitude combine to create an elaborate web of meanings where each object detailed or evoked carries symbolic implications for the society that South Africa was at the time of the novel's publication, and which forty years later still resonate with moral relevance. It is this same elaborate style which also avoids explanations and leaves the reader free to interpret....more
Ron
It has been several years since I read this novel, and what sticks in my memory vividly is the portrait Gordimer creates of a self-satisfied, white property-owner in apartheid-era South Africa. We see the world through his eyes, and we see how well it serves him, keeping him wealthy and comfortable. While he may notice that some suffer and are oppressed, he is not moved to do anything that would make a difference for them. Instead, he justifies his indifference with a sense of racial and class s...more
David Seruyange
It's not often that I put a book down but unfortunately The Conservationist got the better of me. I used to travel a lot and if I'd have been on a few flights with layovers and sufficient amounts of coffee I would have worked my way to the finish but as the kind of book from which to grow in a personal way while enjoying oneself it fell flat.

Gordimer writes from a very particular niche, a white South African woman who was able to allow the subtleties of her story to reveal some insights into li...more
Moira Downey
Oh my God. Where to start.

I should maybe read this again, because I probably missed half of the political content I was supposed to be gleaning from this frustrating, overwritten, exhausting hell of a novel. Unfortunately, every time I'd sit down to read it, my mind would start wandering. I'm still not entirely sure anything actually happens in this book; Gordimer seems to have deployed every stylistic trick imaginable at the expense of plot. Every time she builds up some kind of dramatic tensio...more
Courtney H.
The Conservationist is perhaps the subtlest Booker I’ve read thus far, and this is saying something; subtle storytelling seems to be a particularly admirable trait in the eyes of the Booker committees. In many ways, the real story of The Conservationist takes place around the edges of Mehring’s story – just as he tries to control the land but finds it growing apart from him and away from him, he can’t quite control his own story. He is never the true story, even of his own narrative. Apartheid...more
Alex Rendall
The 1974 Booker Prize was the first to be awarded to two novels jointly; Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist is the first of the two that I have read. The novel’s title is interesting, in that Mehring, Gordimer’s white South African farm owner protagonist, would almost certainly not consider himself to be a conservationist, in the environmental sense. At times boorish and misogynistic, Mehring is absolutely opposed to any changes in the status quo of apartheid South African political organisat...more
John
There were several reasons I was eager to read this book. The first was simply the fact that many people seem to hate it. That made me curious. Partly, it's because I have a bizarre competitive streak that manifests in the strangest ways; partly because I wanted the challenge. I’m a very smart man but the only way I’ll ever get any smarter is through things that challenge me in new ways. So when lots of people say that this book made them feel dumb, well – I had to see what it was all about.

I wa...more
Del
The Conservationist is set in South Africa under apartheid. Though it is written in the third person and occasionally provides insight into other characters' thoughts and experiences, perspective is largely limited to Mehring, a rich, white, middle-aged businessman. He is a loner who lives and works in the city but owns a large piece of farm land, which is inhabited and run by a group of poor black families and their various associates. Mehring is not a likeable host for the story; he is abusive...more
Rick Patterson
This is what a Nobel Prize winner reads like. Gordimer doesn't run off at the mouth into poetic culs-de-sac like some Booker winners have done in the past, but she paints beautiful pictures that make you fall a little bit in love with a land that you have (probably) never seen. Although Mehring is not a comfortable protagonist--he is not a people person and at one point chants "My possessions are enough for me" (or something to that effect), which could make him a materialist caricature--by the...more
Happyreader
A subtly menacing tale of an unaware bigot and exploiter. As much as he talks about his money, his life seems tacky, tattered and random, like the hand-me-down farmhouse he never bothers to redecorate or fully inhabit. Money brings him no joy but is his only bridge to others. His industrial position allows him to view himself as all generous and benevolent rather than what he really is, the stingy user of people as objects. People rarely register except for what they can do for him. Prefers wome...more
Ben Dutton
Nadine Gordimer is a South African writer of considerable power, who received the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. At her very best, her writing has true universal power whilst very specifically being located in the landscape of her South African home. The Conservationist, her 1974 novel, is such an example, though not without its flaws.

Mehring is a landowner. He has bought his farm for tax purposes, and travels from the city – where he works – to the farm only on weekends. During the week, his f...more
Abby
By South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, who writes beautifully and disturbingly about the land and people of South Africa. This novel, written and set in the 1970's under apartheid, is about a rich businessman, the farm he buys as a tax write-off and weekend retreat, and the uneasy relationships among the Africans, Boers, English and Indians who live on the land. It's challenging to read, a book to respect more than enjoy, but worth the effort.
Dana Susan
Like every short story and novel I've read by Nadine Gordimer, this book is wonderful. She puts the reader in the head of every character, and her writing is seamless. Her style I think is unique.
Whatever the plot, the back story is always the insideousness of racism in apartheid South Africa.

Please read Gordimer!
Dana
Richard Yu
Meticulously-crafted, memorable imagery that is really difficult to follow due to a lack of narrative grounding. I guess it felt kind of cool trying to suss out which of the six different people Mehring's thoughts could be referring to from sentence to sentence.

I used to really like reading Coetzee and, for whatever reason, I went into this expecting a world that was a bit brighter than the one in his works (a very wrong prediction). I'm far from qualified to comment on the intellectual content...more
Lisa
This book was a challenging read for me. It's the first novel set in South Africa I've read, and I was a child during apartheid, so there were many terms and ideas I was only vaguely familiar with.

It didn't help that dialogue in the book was denoted by hyphen rather than quotation mark. I've read books that eschew quotes - The Orchardist for instance - with little difficulty, but this time it was problematic. I think it was because dialogue was contained within paragraphs, offset only by hyphen...more
simon
Feb 01, 2008 simon rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to simon by: it was on lewis's and jesa rae's shelf
this book is like a huge, complicated, multi-dimensional landscape painting. which i think is what Gordimer is famous for. in this book, basically nothing of excitement happens to any of the characters, prominent or not. what it seems is that one could take a person, character, yourself, mandela, whomever, and insert it into the backdrop that the book creates, and understand how the events that unfolded in South Africa happened in the ways they did. the context is the tension of the book - it re...more
Rosalind Mitchell
I finished this while in hospital recently.

There's something going on, and you don't know what it is, do you Mr Mehring? Mehring farms tax breaks for fun in the High Veld. He doesn't need it to make a profit; it would defeat the object if it did and anyway he's already a rich man from his status as a pig-iron magnate. But his world is falling apart in some vague way. His wife has left him and gone to New York, his son who has funny ideas about overturning the natural order has gone to join her,...more
Zein
Set during the Apartheid era, this is a book about Mehring, a white South African of British decent who is a successful business man in the mining industry. The story tracks his process of feeling more connected to the land in South Africa through his purchase of a farm and the time he spends there. When an African man is found dead on the farm, the police come to investigate, but simply bury him on site because the death of a Black man isn't important to them. After a series of vignettes, all t...more
Buchdoktor
Der Südafrikaner Mehring hat sich eine Farm gekauft, als Geldanlage und Abschreibungsobjekt. Doch er will sich als Wochenendfarmer auch nicht blamieren und lernt alles über das Thema Landwirtschaft. Am Wochenende erstattet Mehrings schwarzer Verwalter Jacobus Bericht und bespricht mit Mehring die Arbeit für die nächste Woche. Ihre Beziehung zueinander ist ein feines Netz aus Führung, Fürsorge, Verantwortung und gegenseitigen Ansprüchen. Mehring trägt die Verantwortung für Land, Mensch und Tier;...more
Katy
I read a comment on GoodReads that said something about this being the kind of book where you read each sentence multiple times and still have no idea what is going on.

Another commenter said "This book makes you feel stupid while you read it, but smart when you tell every one of your friends that you finished it." This is the comment I most agree with. I just... did not get this book. At all. And I was frustrated because I felt like I was missing something. In The Guardian review, it is noted th...more
Mark
When I don't like a book I always feel I'm missing something. This one I don't feel I missed anything - there were some wonderfully poetic paragraphs but they did little to leaven what by the end was a trial of reading stamina for all the wrong reasons. I suspect quite a few South African writers benefitted from writing during apartheid - it gave their work a certain cachet - Gordimer might not be one of them but this is average at best.
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Nadine Gordimer was a South African writer, political activist and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. She was recognized as a woman "who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity".

Gordimer's writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. Under that regime, works such as Burger'...more
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