Posts Tagged ‘doris lessing’

A Ripple from the Storm

June 28, 2022

Four years passed between the publication of A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm, the third volume in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, during which Lessing wrote Retreat to Innocence, the novel she later disowned, a collection of short stories, The Habit of Loving, and a memoir, Going Home. By the end of the ironically titled A Proper Marriage, the world was at war, and Martha’s marriage to Douglas Knowell existed only in name as she had left both him and her young child. To others it might appear her husband had been supplanted by one of the many RAF officers now stationed in the colony – and, indeed, Martha is having an affair with one of them – but he has been more firmly ousted by her increasingly radical political beliefs and her desire to forge her own identity.

Lessing makes this political focus clear from the novel’s opening scene – a meeting of ‘Aid for Our Allies’, which raises money for the Russian war effort, and is one of the organisations which Martha and her fellow Communists participate in and hope to influence. This Communist group, which has only recently declared itself a ‘party’, is few in number: here we meet her lover, William, Jackie (another RAF officer), Marjorie, Jasmine and Anton Hesse, a German exile. Jackie is the most charismatic, but he is also the most chaotic, as we see when he tells the committee of ‘Aid for Our Allies’ they are “cowardly, lily-livered social democrats” and they promptly resign.

As the Communist group expands, tensions occur between the RAF members, who come and go as they are posted, and the ‘colonials’. These are, in part, class tensions as some of the airmen are working class whereas none of the settlers are, the working class of the colony being black. We see this in Martha’s experience with Bill, who speaks to her as if “patiently explaining to an imbecile” with:

“…a soft jeer. Bill Bruett had cast Martha in the role of ‘middle class comrade’ and never let her forget it.”

(Martha being assign identities by men is a constant theme of the novel). The RAF members also tend more towards action and this often clashes with party discipline, infuriating Anton.  When Bill explains why they spend more time than the allocated one afternoon a week in the coloured quarter (“There are so many things to do: people in trouble, and the women want advice about their children”) Anton replies:

“How many Coloured people are there in this colony? A few thousand. They are unimportant, economically and politically.”

Anton’s analytical approach makes him appear cold and unfeeling, and also at times ridiculous, for example when he insists that because the group voted to keep the party secret it should be kept secret even when everyone knows about it. During ‘criticism’ he is described as “an arrogant, stiff-necked, domineering bastard,” albeit with an element of humour. All the more surprising, then, that Martha ends up marrying him – though ideas of marriage are clearly in the air as at one point she comments:

“That means that all the RAF members have proposed to us all in the last month.”

It follows Anton looking after her when she falls ill:

“Suddenly he’s human. She was also thinking: Suppose he is in love with me? The thought was half exciting, half pure panic.”

As with her previous marriage, the agency seems to be entirely with the man, though she is also influenced by her duty to the party. Already one of the RAF members, Andrew, has married an unmarried pregnant woman, Maisie, because she does not want to have an abortion. Typically, on the day of her wedding, Martha goes to an important meeting immediately after the ceremony. Once they are married, she talks about how “outwardly she was affectionate and compliant with her husband” suggesting the continued disparity between how she lives her life and the life she longs to live, which she still cannot articulate. In this sense she is torn in two:

“Martha watched in herself the growth of an extraordinarily unpleasant and upsetting emotion, a self-mockery, a self-parody, as if she both allowed herself an emotion she did not approve of, allowed it and enjoyed it, but at the same time cancelled it out by the mockery.”

This uncertainty, Martha’s constant questing for something better, is the series’ greatest strength. We see it both in her personal life, and in her political journey. Lessing does not pretend there are easy answers. In particular, there are disagreements about how the Communists can help the black population – some want direct action, but the others argue that this will simply lead to the RAF members being posted, and Anton being interned. Instead, they work with the Labour party to allow black membership – in a segregated group. (Lessing also personalises this problem by having one of the RAF men visit the black community one night in the name of ‘friendship’). Of course, for many readers the politics will be out-dated, but Lessing is very good on the dynamics of political groups, and how the political mixes with the personal. By the novel’s end Martha is “overwhelmed with futility,” her innocence further eroded, and no clearer to understanding who she is.

A Proper Marriage

April 27, 2022

At the end of the first volume of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, Martha Quest, Martha finds herself inextricably drawn into a marriage with Douglas Knowell, even though she has only recently escaped from her mother’s overbearing presence in the veldt and found a measure of independence in town. In an ironic contrast to the concluding nuptials of the traditional comedic novel, she does so in the certain knowledge it will not last:

“…she was being dragged towards it whether she liked it or not. She also heard a voice remarking quietly within her that she would not stay married to him…”

As the second volume, A Proper Marriage, opens, she already senses that whatever tide has carried her to this point is ebbing:

“The dragging compulsion which had begun to operate when they met, which had made it impossible to say no at any stage of the process, seemed broken.”

The title is both ironic and an indication of the way in which Martha will be advise throughout the novel on a ‘proper marriage’ both in its early days and later when the relationship begins to fall apart. Martha pledges that she is too young to have children – “I shan’t have children for years yet – dammit, I’m only nineteen myself” – but soon falls pregnant, falling victim to the belief that “conception, like death, was something remarkable which could occur to other people, but not to her.” Her pregnancy, childbirth, and the early years of child rearing are the main focus of Martha’s life throughout the novel. As with the first volume, Martha battles to create and retain some form of independence – the very independence her mother declares she must renounce:

“You won’t have time for all your ideas when the baby is born, believe me!”

Lessing gives us a detailed account of the birth – surely one of the earliest in fiction? – from her impatience at the beginning (“In her mind it was already born”) to her memory of the pain after:

“The shadow of the pain she had felt, though not the terrible intensity of it, threatened her.”

Martha’s pregnancy coincides with the beginning of the Second World War and soon Douglas, along with the other men of his generation, feel compelled to join up. (Though the war itself does not feature, there is a section describing Douglas stopping over on his return home after being invalided out of the army which gives a sense of life as a soldier, and demonstrates Lessing can write men just as well as women). Martha finds herself bringing up her daughter, Caroline, alone, but, although the war has taken her husband away, it also leads to an influx of young men from ‘home’ in their place. This all at once expands the horizons of the colony; as one of her friends says to Martha:

“They read more books. They talk about things. They’ve got culture, that’s what it is.”

With Douglas back the pressure is on Martha to have another baby – the ‘solution’ to any marital problems. Meanwhile Martha feels much as she did as a teenager living with her parents:

“I’m fed up… I’m so bored I could scream. I can’t bear – anything!”

Still, however, she does not have a clear idea of the alternative, wondering, “If she was to leave Douglas, for what way of living was she to leave?” In her restlessness she is attracted to a group of left-wing activists raising money to help the Soviet Union in the war, but she wants to go further and becomes involved in attempts to set up a branch of the Communist party. From the beginning Lessing gives a clear idea of the cliques and disagreements involved in left-wing politics. The few Communists in the town, some in the air force, others refugees, cannot even agree whether it is worth creating group, dismissing Martha as one of “a handful of girls who want love affairs and a bit of excitement.” Whatever the case, it is clear that Martha’s politics cannot coexist with her marriage to a civil servant.

A Proper Marriage is a novel which manages to be both modern and old fashioned. Lessing’s writing is still clearly influenced by social realism, but it argues against traditional narratives when it come to love and the role of women. Here we see Martha attempt to adopt the roles of wife and mother and find them both unfulfilling – still, to some, a radical proposition today. By the novel’s end it is Martha herself who is radicalised. As Mr Maynard – a character who in many ways represents the conservative heart of the colony but who has a soft spot for Martha – says to her:

“I suppose with the French revolution for a father and the Russian revolution for a mother, you can very well dispense with a family.”

Though he expresses his thoughts with his usual deflective humour, he is entirely serious.

Martha Quest

January 30, 2022

Doris Lessing’s second novel, Martha Quest, appeared in 1952, two years after her debut The Grass is Singing, and was the first in the five novel Children of Violence series. (It is worth noting, however, that although the second volume followed in 1954, her lost novel, Retreat to Innocence, appeared before the third, and the final volume came after The Golden Notebook in 1969). The early volumes are clearly autobiographical, but as Lessing has noted “It’s impossible to write autobiographically”:

“The point is that at the very moment you start writing about something that has happened, it’s no longer yours – all other things come in and change it; you remember something like it, or somebody who looked like that.”

We are first introduced to Martha as an adolescent, living on a farm in the fictional African country of Zambesia and in permanent opposition to her mother. She feels confined by her parents’ generation – “She was merely expected to play the part ‘young girl’ against their own familiar roles” – and attempts to rebel, a rebellion that is both furious

“For she was suffering that misery peculiar to the young, that they are going to be cheated by circumstances out of the full life every nerve and instinct is clamouring for.”

He rebellion will be a constant theme throughout the novel as she attempts to find her place in the world, and the people among whom she feels she belongs. At this point only the Cohen brothers, who lend her books, offer the type of companionship she is looking for – “those occasions when she could visit them at the store were the happiest of her life” – yet what she reads only makes her even more frustrated as she cannot see any way to combine her intellectual life with her day-to-day existence:

“…she knew quite well that if she read them she would only be in possession of yet more information about herself, and with even less idea of how to use it.”

Yet, there is a passivity to Martha, almost an acceptance of being a ‘victim of circumstances,’ which is at odds with her desire to forge her own identity.  At sixteen, for example, when she is due to sit her matric exam, which she is expected to easily pass, she comes down with ‘pink eye’ (conjunctivitis) and the exam is avoided. (We can perhaps see something of her father’s insistence that he is ‘ill’ with an as-yet-undiagnosed condition in this). In fact, it is only when Joss Cohen (who ironically calls her “the rebel who never leaves home”) finds her a job with his Uncle Jasper that she leaves the farm for the town.

Even in town, she cannot escape her mother, who visits the boarding house where she is staying not long after Martha has arrived, going as far as to unpack for her – Martha reacts by flinging all her clothes onto the floor and then rearranging them in much the same way as her mother. Martha also finds herself visited  by a young man, Donovan, because “My mother had a letter from your mother…” Donovan introduces her to the Sports Club and she becomes ‘Donovan’s girl’ – though Donovan’s homosexuality is suggested by his frequent fashion advice and Martha’s later reaction  to the idea they might have slept together: amusement. Lessing dissects the mores of the Sports Club with the sociological eye she often brings to her fiction:

“…it was all so public, anything was permissible, the romances, the flirtations, the quarrels, provided they were shared. These terms, however, were never used, for words are dangerous, and there was a kind of instinctive shrinking, and embarrassment, against words of emotion…”

Serious relationships are discouraged, and there is an institutional immaturity, with the epithet ‘kid’ being the most commonly used. This does not sit well with Martha’s radical ideas, and a visit from Joss makes her repudiate Donovan and his friends, but her “revulsion” doesn’t last. Joss gives her a list of people to ‘look up’ but here, too, she finds herself out of place, her subscription to the Observer being met with ironic glances. In her personal life, however, she continues to be drawn along with the tide, even as she feels she is rebelling. She loses her virginity to a self-pitying Jew, Adoloph King (“You wouldn’t be seen dead with me in there, would you?”), despite disliking him:

“She hoped nervously that he had found her dull, and would not attempt to get in touch with her again.”

Most disastrously, by the novel’s end she is married to a man she has only known for weeks, Douglas. They bond over The New Statesman, and in their relationship she finds an “easy warm friendliness” but their first sexual encounter is ruined by his inability to express or accept desire – she afterwards discovers that she is the first girl he has made love to, at the age of thirty. An incident where they encounter a protest where she sees the Cohens makes her doubt whether their views are quite so similar:

“…she knew quite well she would marry him; she could not help it; she was being dragged towards it whether she liked it or not. She also heard a voice remarking quietly within her that she would not stay married to him…”

And so the novel ends ironically with a marriage which we suspect will not be happy one, an irony that continues in the title of volume two, A Proper Marriage.

Reading Martha Quest seventy years after it was written, and forty after I first read it, what strikes me most is Lessing’s portrayal of Martha’s search of her own identity which is demonstrated as much by her conformity as her rebellion. At times she angrily rejects what society offers and at other moments is swept along with what is expected of her, two forces which seem as evident in adolescence today as ever.

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.