Archive for the ‘Doris Lessing’ Category

The Memoirs of a Survivor

May 18, 2019

Doris Lessing’s 1974 novel The Memoirs of a Survivor follows directly from The Summer Before the Dark and shares many of the same preoccupations, particularly of the previous novel’s second half when Kate is living in London with Maureen. Here, too, Lessing explores the ‘generation gap’, a term first used in the previous decade, by placing an older narrator with a girl, Emily, whose transition from child to young woman is explicitly discussed. (It’s interesting that in both cases Lessing chooses mother and daughter figures who are not actually mother and daughter placing the emphasis on generational rather than family relationships). Kate’s dreams in The Summer Before the Dark are replaced by the more mysterious life beyond the wall which similarly echoes events in the real world.

The Memoirs of a Survivor also has a claim as Lessing’s first science fiction novel, a genre she had used elements of towards the end of her Children of Violence series and in Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Here, though, we have, from the beginning, a dystopian vision of a future Britain. The picture she paints is of a country which is slowly deteriorating into anarchy while at the same time presenting a facade of life as it was:

“I played the game of complicity like everyone else. I renewed my lease during this period and it was for seven years: of course I knew that we didn’t have anything like that time left.”

Yet at the same time the narrator is well aware that the rules of property, as with the other rules that held the society she is used to together, no longer apply as they once did:

“What it amounted to was that a flat, a house, belonged to the people who had the enterprise to move into it.”

Behind this lies the knowledge that eventually she will have to leave the city. The reason for this is never explained: Lessing is more interested in the shared sense of ‘it’ (as she calls it) not as a rational cause but as a feeling:

“I’m sure that ever since there were men on earth ‘it’ has been talked of in this way precisely in times of crisis since it is in crisis ‘it’ becomes visible… ‘it’ can be, or has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists mean’s minds, the savagery of a religion.”

The dilemma of when to leave is complicated when the narrator is brought a twelve-year-old child, by a man she does not know, to look after, a situation she accepts having “abandoned all expectations of the ordinary.” Emily comes with little but her pet, Hugo, “shaped more like a dog than a cat, but its face was that of a cat.” Emily is also described as being between, “in that halfway place where she would soon be a girl”, ‘girl’ being used to signify the time after childhood when she will become visibly female. (Lessing avoids the use of ‘adolescent’ or ‘teenager’, though, as we shall see, in a changed society there is little space between childhood and adulthood).

Much of the novel charts Emily’s growth, as witnessed by the narrator. We see her attempt to be accepted by the roaming gangs of young people that come through the city from time to time, and initially rejected. We see her establish a variety of identities using her clothing, and also her body shape: “chrysalis after chrysalis was outgrown,” the narrator tells us, until eventually:

“She came back with some secondhand clothes that in one giant’s step took her from being a child with fantastic visons of herself to being a girl – a woman, rather.”

This includes Emily, now thirteen, falling in love, a relationship which is both “the ‘first love’ of tradition” but also complicated by changing social rules:

“But these young people’s lives were communal, and mating was far from being the focus or pivot of a relationship when they chose each other.”

(The use of ‘mating’ rather giving away Lessing’s tendency towards anthropology). Her boyfriend, Gerald, attempts to establish a commune but struggles both to overcome some aspects of human relationships (“It’s impossible not to have a pecking order”) and the increasingly feral nature of children left to fend for themselves.

The dystopian narrative is only one facet of the novel, however, as from the opening the narrator finds herself able to move through the wall of her flat into another place:

“I looked at the glow and the pulse of the yellow, looked as if I were listening, thinking how, as the seasons changed, so did the shape and extent and position of this patch of morning light – and then I was through the wall and I knew what was there.”

What she sees in the house which lies behind the wall seems to connect to her life on the other side. When she first goes there – before Emily arrives – she finds the rooms are empty and have been disused for years. Later a family move in and she is soon certain that “the small child was of course the Emily who had been given into my care.” During the turbulent period when Emily is attempting to establish her identity beyond childhood, the narrator finds the rooms “disordered or damaged”. There are also echoes of Emily’s relationship with Gerald in the child Emily’s relationship with her father.

The Memoirs of a Survivor is an unsettling book: its picture of a society disintegrating slowly and uncertainly, but unassailably, is echoed in the powerlessness of adults before the next generation. The room beyond the wall remains ambiguous: does it represent hope for the future or simply a retreat into the past? Another reminder that Lessing is a writer who will always offer us more questions than answers.

The Summer Before the Dark

March 16, 2019

Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark is a novel that we might hope had been superseded by changing social attitudes since its publication forty-six years ago, though how far this is actually the case remains debateable. Its central character, Kate Brown, is a forty-five year old mother, very much defined by that label. Here husband and four children have set the limits of her life, and even when she imagines a life without marriage she questions other possibilities:

“If she had not married, she would probably have become something special in her field?”

Her specialism is languages and it is when she is offered a job as a translator one summer that she finally escapes her now grown-up family, albeit with some reluctance, feeling, with her husband away in America and the house to be let:

“…as if a warm covering had been stripped off her, as if she were an animal being flayed.”

On the other hand, she has a growing sense that the life she is currently living, the identity she is presently inhabiting, is not entirely satisfying:

“The truth was, she was becoming more and more uncomfortably conscious not only that the things she said, and a good many of the things she thought, had been taken down off a rack and put on, but that what she really felt was something else again.”

After a few weeks as a translator she is promoted onto the “organisational side” at Global Foods as “everyone is saying how marvellously helpful you have been in every way”:

“She had become what she was: a nurse, or a nanny… A mother.”

Her new job leads her to a conference in Turkey and there she meets a younger man, Jeffrey, who offers her the chance to travel to Spain with him. In the spirit of her summer of discovery, she decides to accept him as a lover, but when they reach Spain he falls ill, and she finds herself fighting the temptation to mother him:

“She was swearing to herself that when she awoke she would not be maternal.”

She faces the same dilemma when she returns to London and moves into a flat with a young girl called Maureen and must resist becoming a proxy for her mother, particularly as Maureen is deciding whether, and who, to marry (at one point observing Kate and declaring, “I’d live alone for always rather than turn into that.”)

Lessing’s novels never limit themselves to one idea, and the novel is also about Kate ageing – growing old, in fact. At the beginning Lessing tells us:

“What was she going to experience? Nothing much more than, simply, she grew old.”

Forty-five does not, of course, seem particularly old today, a development which Lessing foreshadows when Kate goes to see a production of Turgenev’s a Month in the Country, finding it ridiculous that Natalya thought of herself as “a woman who was getting old, grabbing at youth” at only twenty-nine. Kate’s ageing, like Natalya’s, is linked to how she is viewed by men. At Global Food she finds herself attractive to others even though she makes little effort to seem available

“Meanwhile, though her thermostat was set ‘low’, she parried offers.”

(Lessing uses the idea of a thermostat to suggest then strength of the signals woman display regarding their sexual availability). When Kate, like Jeffrey, falls ill, it changes her appearance, making her, in a short period of time, appear much older. When a young man looks at her she is aware:

“What he was seeing, of course, was an old woman.”

This, in turn, affects the way she is treated, causing her to feel “invisible”. Kate is aware then change is superficial:

“Yet she need only to put on the other dress, twist her hair so and so – and she would be drawing glances a needs with her every step.”

Kate’s journey grants her greater awareness of the choices she has made and those she can still make. It is echoed in a recurrent dream of a seal she must rescue and take to the ocean. At the beginning she is uncertain:

“Where was the water? Where was the sea? How could she be sure of going in the right direction?”

In the end she returns the seal to the sea:

“A seal swam past that had scars on its flanks and its back, and Kate thought this must be her seal, whom she had carried through so many perils. But it did not look at her now.”

Though the seal represents something within herself, it is easy to see how her journey with it mirrors that with her children.

The Summer Before the Dark still resonates with many of today’s preoccupations (even the rise of the far right in the character of Philip). In particular, it dissects that point in everyone’s life where whatever has defined their purpose and identity is taken away from them, and they must look to find themselves anew.

The Grass is Singing

January 31, 2019

Last year, for the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, I began reading her novels in chronological order – a project which will continue into this year, with seven still to read. 2019, however, marks the centenary of the birth of another important British writer, Doris Lessing. Though very different in style – Spark, sharp and certain, Lessing discursive and doubtful – their lives were not entirely dissimilar. Both spent time in Southern Rhodesia – Spark after she married in 1937, Lessing when her parents moved there in 1925 – before coming to London in 1944 and 1949 respectively. Both left children behind them.

Lessing is personally important to me as she was one of the first modern writers I read who could be described as ‘literary’. I was introduced to her at school where we studied her first novel, The Grass is Singing. Unusually this didn’t put me off, and I went on to read the copy of Briefing for a Descent into Hell I found in the school library, and then her Canopus in Argos series, which was being published at that time. Later, I was lucky enough to see her a number of times at The Edinburgh International Book Festival where she was a frequent visitor.

The Grass is Singing is Lessing’s response to the racism of the continent, and life, she left behind to bring the novel to England where it was published in 1950, but it also touches on a number of other themes which she would return to over the years. Like Spark, Lessing was not afraid to use genre to her own ends, and the novel begins with the murder of Mary Turner by her black servant, Moses. With both victim and murderer known the interest for the reader is in discovering how we reached this point. As Marston, Dick Turner’s new assistant, tells neighbouring farmer, Charlie Slatter:

“You know as well as I do this case is not something that can be explained straight off like that… It’s not something that can be said in black and white, straight off.”

Marston is new to the country, and quickly convinced that finding the truth of what happened is not in the best interests of the white settlers:

“When old settlers say, ‘One has to understand the country,’ what they mean is, ‘You have to get used to our ideas about the native.’”

Lessing, however, is primarily interested in Mary, asking the same question as Marston: “What sort of woman had Mary Turner been before she came to this farm and had been driven slowly off balance by heat and loneliness and poverty?” Mary’s life begins in relative poverty, we discover, with an alcoholic father and a mother driven desperate by making ends meet. Her happiest times are at boarding school – “so happy that she dreaded going home”. However, she is able to leave this life behind:

“By the time she was twenty she had a good job, her own friends, a niche in the life of the town.”

Ten years later, nothing has changed – “The truth was she had no troubles.” What, then, makes her consider marrying a poor farmer and moving many miles away from the city life she is used to? Simply the social pressure to be married:

“But all women become conscious, sooner or later, of that impalpable, but steel-strong, pressure to get married.”

The marriage is a mistake, but one which cannot be undone. Her husband, Dick, is well-intentioned but feckless. Year after year he scrapes by, always dreaming that the next year will be the one when he strikes it rich. A series of money-making schemes fail one after the other – keeping bees, breeding pigs, opening a store – Mary sees their onset in his “familiar rapt expression.” Mary’s repeated request to have ceilings put in their house is one example of her inability to escape from the poverty of her surroundings, and contributes to her obsession with the heat, which she feels “beating down from the iron over her head.” Worst of all, she feels like she has been returned to the childhood she thought she had escaped from, becoming:

“…possessed with the thought that her father, from his grave, had sent out his will and forced her back into the kind of life he had made her mother lead.”

She also finds it difficult to deal with the natives employed both on the farm and in the house. A series of houseboys leave or are dismissed, much to her husband’s frustration:

“If you get yourself into a state over your boys then you are finished.”

When Dick falls ill, Mary takes over, at first reluctantly, the running of the farm, and is as unforgiving with the labourers as she is with her houseboys, going as far as to whip one in the face. It is this ‘native’ who will later come to work in the house, and eventually murder her, but the assumption this is simple revenge is complicated by the relationship they develop, which begins when he catches her watching him wash:

“What had happened was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relationship.”

As well as condemning the endemic racism in Southern Rhodesian society, the novel is also concerned with Mary’s treatment as a woman. At the heart of her deterioration lies her lack of opportunity to use her abilities and intelligence:

“If only she had something to fill her time, that was the trouble.”

When she is running the farm she finds herself “exhilarated by the unfamiliar responsibility.” She also discovers that their poverty “was not a question of bad luck, it was simply incompetence.” When she recommends changes to Dick she is hopeful for a while, but soon he returns to his old ways. The way in which women are both marginalised and consigned to madness is, of course, a theme Lessing will return to again.

The Grass is Singing remains a powerful novel perhaps because, even though the society it describes is no longer with us, the attitudes are. Above all, it is a painful portrait of an unfulfilled life, one where the pressure to conform leads to first isolation, then death.

1967 – Particularly Cats

June 19, 2017

When it came to selecting books from 1967, I, of course, began with some of my favourite authors, (that is, those who were writing at that time), chief among them, Doris Lessing. I had first encountered Lessing as a fourteen-year-old at secondary school when I was introduced to (okay, forced to read) The Grass is Singing. As is typical of any coerced reading, my initial reaction was not entirely positive, yet it took me as far as he school library where I discovered a copy of the much more interesting-sounding Briefing For a Descent into Hell. Two years later I was writing about Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series for my Sixth Year Studies English dissertation, and from then on I read each new book as it appeared while simultaneously working my way through her back catalogue (I’ve even read her long out-of-print Retreat to Innocence). Surely there would be something from 1967, five years after The Golden Notebook and with her Children of Violence series almost completed?

In fact, in 1967 Lessing published a book which I hadn’t even read – though this was by choice rather than omission. The volume in question was Particularly Cats (I’d like to say it was atypical, but Lessing’s Wikipedia page actually includes a section headed Cat Tales). It’s not that I dislike cats, it’s just that I could not imagine why a writer would devote an entire book to them, other than for entirely commercial reasons, and couldn’t help but worry that Particularly Cats was simply the 60s equivalent of funny cat videos on YouTube.

Well, while there is a cat video element to Lessing’s “remembering cats, always cats, a hundred incidents involving cats, years and years of cats,” funny might be pushing it. Any suspicion of sentimentality is dispelled in the opening chapter where Lessing returns to her childhood in Rhodesia. Here, drowning kittens is simply a household chore and when her mother “got soft-hearted and couldn’t bear to drown a kitten,” her father is left to resolve the problem of ever-expanding numbers of cats on the farm:

“In the end, the cats were rounded up and put into a room. My father went into the room with his First World War revolver, more reliable, he said, than a shotgun. The gun sounded again, again, again, again… My father came out of the room at one point, very white, with tight angry lips and wet eyes. He was sick. Then he swore a good deal, then he went back into the room and the shooting continued.”

The cats themselves are also portrayed without sentiment. They are generally, for example, unnamed, identified only by colour. Lessing, as always, is a dispassionate but not uninvolved observer:

“The cat had six litters, and each litter had five kittens, and she killed the firstborn kitten in each litter because she had such pain with it. Apart from this, she was a good mother.”

This is typical of Lessing’s style: an apparently factual statement which is actually a combination of observation, supposition and judgement. Problems of reoccurring pregnancies are frequently touched on (in the year in which abortion was legalised, Lessing cannot have been oblivious to parallels in the way cats lives are overwhelmed by breeding) . Power struggles between cats, and fussy eating are two other frequent themes. But Lessing’s love for her animals can be seen when they fall ill:

“Clearly keeping the black cat alive would be a full-time job. And I was busy. And, as people in the house were pointing out, she was only a cat.
But she was not just a cat. For a variety of reasons, all of them human and irrelevant to her, she must not be allowed to die.”

Perhaps Lessing’s sympathy for cats can be understood when she characterises them as follows:

“Cats will watch creatures, activities, actions unfamiliar to them, for hours.”

Lessing’s process here, and throughout her work, is exactly that, a process which culminates in a new understanding:

“You can watch a thing a dozen times, thinking, How charming, or how strange, until, and always unexpectedly, sense is suddenly made.”

(There’s also a revealing sentence in ‘The Old Age of El Magnifico’ – yes, I read all of Lessing’s cat stories – when she says, “Most scientists would dispute this, I’m pretty sure. That is, as scientists they would, but as owners of cats probably not.”) What can be seen here, as ever, is Lessing’s constantly questioning, constantly questing mind. If the application of such an inquisitive intelligence on the topic of cats appeals, then his is the book for you.

Lost Books – Retreat to Innocence

December 12, 2014

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In 1956, in the middle of writing her Children of Violence series, Doris Lessing published her now neglected novel, Retreat to Innocence. Reprinted in 1967, it has never reappeared, largely as result of Lessing’s own dismissal of it as ‘shallow’ and ‘soft-centred and sentimental.’ Perusing the substantial list of Lessing’s works which often preface her books, including poetry, operas and drama, you will find no trace of it. This, of course, raises the general question of whether writers should be able to censor their own canon, and the more particular one of whether Lessing was correct in allowing the novel to vanish like a disgraced comrade from a photograph.

Retreat to Innocence works with a small cast of characters to tell a love story where the political dimension is as important as the emotional. Julia is the innocent, a young woman from a privileged background who is now making her own life London. Quite by chance she meets a middle-aged Czech refugee, Jan in a café; he has experience in excess. She, of course, dismisses any idea of being attracted to him, but later finds she cannot forget him:

“She shut her eyes to feel the happiness; and clear against her lids came the picture of the man in the coffee-house. She saw his mouth, tense and quivering; his eyes, shadowed – tormented. She had not seen them then: now she could see nothing else.”

Soon she finds herself heading back to the café without entirely admitting to herself that is her destination. Their relationship follows the traditional path of initial dislike and distrust to love and passion. Just observe the description of their second conversation: “she frowned”; “she bit her lip and gazed furiously at him”; “she said aggressively.” Lessing, however, is interested in more than a young girl’s infatuation with an older man; Jan is soaked in politics, with a background as an active Communist in his own country. Julia, on the other hand, dismisses politics entirely:

“We don’t plot and dream about the future and carry on an intrigue – …My generation…I tell you, if we’re ever tempted to have anything to do with politics, we’ve only got to look at you and that’s enough.”

Lessing is keen to point out that this is a generational rather than an individual contrast, and characters frequently refer to differences between the generations. Her father, clearly a pillar of the British establishment, also observes a similar difference:

“A more self-centred, selfish, materialistic generation has never been born into this unfortunate old country.”

(Interesting how this has been said by every generation of the next since). Julia’s innocence is, as the title suggests, willed, a refusal to look beyond her own happiness. Her relationship with Jan forces her to leave her comfort zone and engage with a wider world. This does, of course, mean that much of the novel is taken up with Jan talking patiently to Julia, interspersed with her often inane interruptions. When he says, a few moments after they have slept together for the first time, “Now listen, Julia, I shall give you another little lecture,” it’s not a euphemism.

However, the novel does not entirely lack complexity. As usual with Lessing, all the characters are presented with some sympathy, even stiff upper lip types like Julia’s father and her boyfriend, Roger. Lessing is particularly good on the relationship between Julia and her room-mate Betty, one minute best friends, the next resenting some slight or bad habit. This relationship allows us to see Julia as a more rounded character; with Jan she is inevitably diminished, particularly as Lessing at no point describes the physical aspect of their relationship, or presents it from his point of view outside of what he tells her. Jan, too, has depth. His certainty is not all-encompassing: he cannot decide whether to return to Czechoslovakia or not – his brother lives there, but he also has friends who have been imprisoned or executed.

The novel’s main weakness seems to originate in the feeling that the relationship between Jan and Julia has been created only to explore particular themes: the difference between the generation which fought the war and that which came after; between East and West; between youth and experience. Jan is apparently based on a man whom Lessing did have a relationship with, but Julia is not Lessing and her attraction to Jan never entirely convinces. This is not the same, however, as saying that the novel deserves to be consigned to oblivion. When Julia asks:

“Are you quite sure that even in your half of the world people want what you want, and not just comfort and being able to get out the rain?”

she is asking a question as pertinent to politics now as then. Whether it should be reprinted is an economic question (though it will soon have been out of print for fifty years – fairly good publicity, I would have thought). It does seem, though, the kind of novel that should be available electronically, now that we have that option.