Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest

martha quest doris lessing 431584The Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing (1919-2013) had a powerful effect on my thinking as a young woman. I started with The Golden Notebook, her experimental novel about “free women” (as she ironically says) and the breakdown of personality.  In her early novels, Lessing illuminated aspects of women’s sexuality, radical politics, marriage, and the nuclear family.  Later, she  wrote experimental novels and science fiction about the consequences of war, nuclear power, pollution and the disintegration of society.

I recently reread Martha Quest, the first in her autobiographical five-book  Children of Violence series. This series is Lessing’s masterpiece, truly representative of the wide range of her work. Written over 17 years (1952-1969), it has held up better even than The Golden Notebook, and it surpasses much of her later work.  It is a bildungsroman:  the first four books, set in Africa, are conventional novels.  Lessing traces the history of the heroine, Martha Quest, from adolescence on an African farm to her years as a young woman in a small African town, where she works as a secretary, marries disastrously twice, and then becomes  involved with a communist group.  In the last book, The Four-Gated City,  an experimental novel, Lessing follows Martha to London at 30.

Last year when I reread The Children of Violence, I skipped the first book, Martha Quest.  And, having just reread it, I understand why. In this realistic novel, Lessing’s description of the destructive relationship between Martha and her mother is very painful. The generational divide is unbridgeable.

Doris Lessing in 1949, just before she left for London.

Doris Lessing in 1949, just before she left for London.

When the book opens on the African farm, Martha, a 15-year-old dropout,  is irritably reading Havelock Ellis on sex, while her mother, a former English nurse, gossips on the veranda with Mrs. Van Rensberg, a Dutch housewife.   The Quests consider themselves superior to the Van Rensbergs, and Martha feels guilty about it, but  she considers both families equally hypocritical, especially the women: Mrs. Quest denies Martha’s maturity even though she is bursting out of her childish clothes, while Mrs. Van Rensberg lets her daughter Marnie dress in the latest fashions and hopes to marry her off as soon as possible.

Since women’s conversation doesn’t suit Martha, her main social contact is with the radical Jewish Cohen brothers, who live in the village where their father has a store and lend her books.  She reads everything:  English novels and poetry, books on politics, sexuality, and psychology.  But the cultural abyss between literature and  the reality of  life on a farm in Zambesia (a fictional country in Africa) is enormous.  She doesn’t read about any young women who rebel against their parents as she does.

What fascinates me is the way Lessing interweaves ideas and questions with the narrative.

…she was seeing herself, and in the only way she was equipped to do this—through literature. For if one reads novels from earlier times, and if novels accurately reflect, as we hope and trust they do, the life of their era, then one is forced to conclude that being young was much easier then than it is now. Did X and Y and Z, those blithe heroes and heroines, loathe school, despise their parents and teachers who never understood them, spend years of their lives fighting to free themselves from an environment they considered altogether beneath them? No, they did not; while in a hundred years’ time people will read the novels of this century and conclude that everyone (no less) suffered adolescence like a disease, for they will hardly be able to lay hands on a novel which does not describe the condition. What then? For Martha was tormented, and there was no escaping it.

Martha Quest Lesing perrennial 423874I find this fascinating, because I gather (perhaps erroneously) that mother-daughter relationships are smoother than they used to be.  In my day, we were not only dying to leave home, but to leave our hometown as soon as possible!  (It took me a while, as it did Martha.)  So will the literature of this century reflect an entirely different set of beliefs?

Martha has to rebel and fight her mother to be herself. Everything becomes a battle.  She gets a ride to town and buys cloth at the Cohens’ store and begins to make her own dresses, though her mother forbids her to and screams at her for spending her father’s money.  She is not allowed to walk to or from town, so her father, an invalid,  finally intervenes and occasionally take her side.  Eventually he suggests she move to town, because he can’t stand the fighting, and Martha is hurt.  But when the Cohens find her a secretary job at their uncle’s law firm, Martha is elated.

But she cannot be true to herself. Soon she goes every night to  sundowner parties, drinks too much, and gets too little sleep.   Donovan, a closeted gay man, escorts her to restaurants and the sports club, and teaches her how to dress.  At the sports club she dances with many beefy men, who admire her and moan, “Oh, baby, you’re killing me.” When Marnie Van Rensberg shows up and they shower attention on her, Martha is jealous, but then she realizes that the newest girl always gets the attention.

And Stella, a beautiful Jewish woman married to handsome Andrew, takes Martha under her wing and insists on bringing her and the man of the moment back to her flat.  Martha becomes afraid to be alone.  She is exhausted–she seldom sleeps more than a few hours a night– and finally has to call in sick for a few days so she can read and recover herself.  But then she becomes entangled once again with Stella and the club, and when she meets Douglas Knowell, an intelligent, kind man who also reads The New Statesman, she falls, if not in love, in like.

Martha has always said she would rather die than be conventional.  She doesn’t want to marry or have children.

If someone had asked her, just then, if she wanted to marry Douglas, she would have exclaimed in horror that she would rather die.

But Martha cannot be the person she wants to be yet.  She is young, she is silly, and she is caught up with a crowd.

And that’s what it’s like to be a young woman, isn’t it?  It takes a while to be yourself.

Who’s Reading the Man Booker Prize Longlist This Year & Will the Prize Go to an American Woman?

strout my name is lucy barton 9781400067695_custom-3102f059730b66633fef44e3287ef91337c0495f-s400-c85

We’re always excited when the Man Booker Prize longlist is announced. Over lunch I read the list to my husband.  I have read only one of them, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, a stunning, lyrical novel about a  writer’s  complicated relationship with her mother. (I wrote about it here).

Here is a sample of Strout’s gorgeous prose.

It was May, and then June, and I remember how I would stand and look out the window at the sidewalk below and watch the young women–my age–in their spring clothes, out on their lunch breaks; I could see their heads moving in conversation, their blouses rippling in the breeze. I thought how when I got out of the hospital I would never again walk down the sidewalk without giving thanks for being one of those people, and for many years I did that–I would remember the view from the hospital window and be glad for the sidewalk I was walking on.

It is Booker-worthy, but will they give it to an American woman?

The award has not yet gone to an American, let alone an American woman. In 2015 Karen Joy Fowler got robbed . (Many of us women bloggers thought so.) In her quirky short  novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, the narrator Rosemary relates the story of her search for Fern, the chimp who was raised as her sister for the first five years of her life by Rosemary’s psychologist parents in Bloomington, Indiana. Fowler won  the PEN/Faulkner Award last year.  But  I rather get the idea that slim, lyrical women’s novels do not get the respect in the UK they did in the ’90s.

My husband has read none of the books on the list, but is very excited about Coetze’s The Schooldays of Jesus, though it will not be published in the U.S. until next February.

In the early innocent days of book blogging (I’m dating it 2006, though it may have been later), several English and Canadian bloggers earnestly read the complete longlist year after year. I thought it was very sweet, and I participated (though I didn’t read the whole longlist ever! And I’m sure there were other American bloggers, though I can’t think of them.).  At our house we depended on Kevin of Canada, a good critic who was unswayed by others’ judgment.  Alas, he died this year, and I’m not sure if the Booker blogging goes on without him.

In 2009, my husband and I read several on the longlist.  I wrote at my old blog :

One hundred pages into A. S. Byatt’s stunning novel The Children’s Book, I’ve decided she wins the Booker Prize. I don’t have to read the rest of the contenders. The longlist was announced today, and Byatt’s on it, so she has a good shot, though my other nominee, Geoff Dyer, didn’t make it. I’m putting ALL my money on Byatt. It’s a good list this year – a relief after last year’s White Tiger debacle, when so many first-rate novels were winnowed from the list in favor of unpromising first novels. What happened to Hensher’s brilliant novel, The Northern Clemency, and Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies? My husband hated White Tiger, and I abandoned it after 30 pages.

My second on the list was  the quirky Me, Cheeta, which our library solemnly catalogued as a biography.  (Thank you, Library of Congress!)  In my post, I flippantly categorized it as  “a monkey comedy classic and spoof of celebrity autobiographies. Cheeta, the chimp who is Tarzan’s sidekick in the movies, tells all, bitching about the stars, animal rights, his own choice to be an actor rather than replaced by digital pixels, the pranks of Johnny Weissmuller and David Niven, the cocaine parties, the obnoxiousness of Lupe Velez, and more.”

Neither my first choice nor my second choice won. I was a little less enthusiastic for the next two years, and then I simply gave up the project because I wanted to read old books!

But I intend to try at least one of them this year.

The Man Booker longlist this year comprises the following:

Paul Beatty (American), “The Sellout”

J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian), “The Schooldays of Jesus”

A.L. Kennedy (British), “Serious Sweet”

Deborah Levy (British), “Hot Milk”

Graeme Macrae Burnet (British), “His Bloody Project”

Ian McGuire (British), “The North Water”

David Means (American), “Hystopia”

Wyl Menmuir (British), “The Many”

Ottessa Moshfegh (American), “Eileen”

Virginia Reeves (American), “Work Like Any Other”

Elizabeth Strout (American), “My Name Is Lucy Barton”

David Szalay (Canadian-British), “All That Man Is”

Madeleine Thien (Canadian), “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

Quotation of the Week: Florence in Trollope’s “The Claverings” on Her Fiance’s Cheatin’ Heart

the claverings trollope dover 41-F6ogPTXL

What do you read when you’ve read Trollope’s Barsetshire series too many times?  Well, try The Claverings.  It is not his best book, but I loved it.   I disappeared inside the pages for hours and thought about the characters when I was walking or bicycling. I wanted to know who would marry Harry.  God knows he didn’t know!

The hero, Harry Clavering, the son of the rector of Clavering, has almost too many choices:  he is handsome, brilliant, and a Fellow at Cambridge, but he doesn’t want to take Holy Orders.  He apprentices himself to a surveyor/engineer, but when he gets a job in London he doesn’t apply himself.

And what about love?  At the beginning of the novel, he is  jilted by Julia Brabazon, the most beautiful, witty, and only slightly wicked character in the novel: she is his cousin Lord Hugh Clavering’s sister-in-law.  Why does Julia dump Harry?  She says outright she is marrying Lord Onger for money.  Harry soon consoles himself and  gets engaged to kind, sweet, smart Florence Burton.   Meanwhile, Julia has suffered like a character in Dante’s Inferno.  She has been degraded by association with the dissolute, drunken Lord Unger, and  gossip has linked her name with one of his friends.  When Lord Unger dies and Julia returns to London, Lord Hugh will not receive her.

Florence grieving and preparing a packet of letters to return to Harry.

Florence grieving and preparing a packet of letters to return to Harry.

But then Harry meets her again, and he is attracted. He doesn’t tell Julia he is engaged.  He flirts and then gets physical.  After she hears of his engagement,  Harry assures Julia that he wants to marry her.  What is Julia to think?

So what is Florence do about his treachery?  She still loves him. Is she engaged to him, or is Julia?  Florence’s  sister-in-law visits Julia, who says that  Harry must decide the question of marriage.

Florence grieves, weeps, is depressed, but also is furious.  She asks her sister-in-law:

“Does she say that she loves him?”

“Ah, yes;–she loves him. We must not doubt that.”

And he;–what does she say of him?”

“She says what you also must say, Florence;–though it is hard that it should be so. It must be as he shall decide.”

“No,” said Florence, withdrawing herself from the arm that was still around her.  “No; it shall not be as he may choose to decide.  I will not so submit myself to him.  It is enough as it is.  I will never see him more;–never.  To say that I do not love him would be untrue, but I will never see him again.”

You go, girl!  Well, it isn’t as simple as that, because she still loves him.  I won’t tell you WHO decides whom Harry should marry, but it is surprising that Harry is so indecisive. If only he could have listened to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” That would have turned him around.  As it is…

But I can’t give it away!

Loved the book!  Not great, but I loved it.

Memories of Bookstores and The Guardian on Prairie Lights

Prairie Lights Books

Prairie Lights Books

Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City is featured in The Guardian’s “Interview with a Bookstore.” Not only do I sometimes shop at Prairie Lights, but so does Obama (see YouTube, March 25, 2010).

Founded in 1978, it is the oldest bookstore in town except for Iowa Book (founded in 1920). It stocks classics, literary fiction, poetry, history, local history, biography, nonfiction, SF, mysteries, travel, small press books, and journals.  Until recently, it even stocked Loebs.  It hosts readings three or four times a week.  We have attended readings by Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, and Sherman Alexie.

What I like most about the Guardian piece  is the quotes from the staff.

If you weren’t working in a bookstore, what would you be doing?

Kathleen: Writing the books? Would rather sell the books. It’s easier, and the quality is better.

Don’t you love that answer?   I’ve always dreamed of owning a bookstore, but not ardently enough!

And Kathleen says her favorite regular is IndieBob, who has an excellent blog, The Indie Bob Spot, about visiting independent bookstores in the U.S.

Here are two more staffers’ answers to the question about what they would do if they didn’t work at a bookstore:

Terry: Night watchman at a cranberry silo.

Tim: I’d probably still be in the restaurant business, either waiting tables or tending bar, bemoaning my existence and spending too much money on books.

A fun article!


The Epstein brothers at Epstein’s Books in a temporary module in 1974.  (I have no idea why Harry is holding a lamp.)

MEMORIES OF BOOKSTORES IN IOWA CITY.   Growing up in I.C., I loved Iowa Book and Supply (then saucily referred to as Iowa Book & Crook, and even looted once in the ’60s).   There I discovered E. Nesbit, Catcher in the Rye, Tolstoy, Doris Lessing, Robertson Davies, Sisterhood Is Powerful (edited by Robin Morgan),and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. On Career Day, when my non-career-oriented friends and I claimed we wanted to own a bookstore in Scotland (were we absurdists, or just absurd?), we spent 20 minutes at The Paper Place, a now defunct paperback bookstore, and then decamped to Burger Palace.  Later,  Epstein’s was the hip place to buy  small-press books,  poetry chapbooks, and paperback classics, and attend readings by the Actualist poets:  Ansel Hollo, Darrell Grey, Allan Kornblum (later founder of Coffee House Press), Dave Morice, and Morty Sklar.   Alas, urban renewal and a relocation to a temporary building on a torn-up street drove Epstein’s out of business in 1977.

I have so many bookstore memories!  I just wish more bookstores were still in business.

Poetry: Tess Gallagher’s “Refusing Silence”

Tess Gallagher

Tess Gallagher

I have long been a fan of Tess Gallagher.  I recently came across her book,  Amplitude: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 1987).   Here is one of my favorite poems.

“Refusing Silence”
By Tess Gallagher

Heartbeat trembling
your kingdom
of leaves
near the ceremony
of water, I never
insisted on you. I admit
I delayed. I was the Empress
of Delay. But it can’t be
put off now. On the sacred branch
of my only voice – I insist.
Insist for us all,
which is the job
of the voice, and especially
of the poet. Else
what am I for, what use
am I if I don’t
There are messages to send.
Gatherings and songs.
Because we need
to insist. Else what are we
for? What use
are we?

What We’re Reading This Weekend: Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles & Trollope’s The Claverings

lionel shriver the mandibles 41m4GoRGmnL

Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”–Florence Mandible in Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles

It is hotter than usual this summer. Very hot.  It was 87 at noon, and that is a cool wave.  We don’t like it, but we’re used to it now.  What helps?  Water.  Lots of  water.

But will we always have water?  In Lionel Shriver’s clever, witty dystopian novel, The Mandibles:  A Family, 2029-2047, water is a luxury. There is no water in the West and there is a shortage in New York.

Shriver writes about four generations of the Mandible family.  The Mandibles have always been rich:  their fortune was built, ironically, on diesel engines (obviously a contributing factor to the pollution in 2029).  But this book is really about money:  what happens when the economy tanks in 2029 after the dollar is declared worthless in the global economy?    The U.S. has already survived “the Stonage,” when the internet was knocked out, the only real source of communication since people stopped reading print books and newspapers.  (The internet’s back.)  The Mandibles assumed there would always be money, and that they would inherit when  99-year-old Douglas Mandible, a former literary agent, died.

Now they’re poor.

My favorite character, Florence Mandible, has a “moronic double major in American Studies and Environmental Policy” and barely makes a living at her job at a shelter.  But she is good at managing water at her house in Flatbush for her partner, Esteban, and her son, Willing.  When Willing wants to take a shower, Florence thinks,

Her thirteen-year-old had bathed only five days ago, and knew full well they were all allotted one shower per week (they went through cases of comb-in dry shampoo).  Willing complained, too, that standing under their ultra-conservation shower was like “going for a walk in the fog.” True, the fine spray made it tricky to get conditioner out, but then the answer wasn’t to use more water.  It was to stop using conditioner.

The other Mandibles are fascinating though less likable:  Florence’s  therapist sister, Avery, can barely deny herself gourmet food even when her dinner guests can’t afford smoked salmon and fine wine, and her husband, an economist/professor, is a twit who tries to play by the old rules of the economy and loses all their money.  (And they have spoiled children who can’t believe they can no longer attend Sidwell Friends School.)  Florence and Avery’s father, Carter, a former journalist, must take in his father,  Douglas, and his younger wife, who has Alzehimer’s, after they are evicted from their palatial home in an assisted living/nursing home compound.   (Carter won’t let Douglas take his rare books.  He says impatiently that Douglas can download books.)

Information about money is presented in dialogue, and perhaps there are too many details. Like Florence, I’ve always found money “drear.”  But Shriver makes it simple, and if you read science fiction, you’re used to lots of complicated background that makes the future world believable.

I’m only one third of the way through it, and it’s entertaining.

the claverings oxford trollope 9780192817273-us-300AND NOW FOR TROLLOPE’S THE CLAVERINGS.   Trollope is a remarkable writer, one of the most consistent of all the Victorian writers.  He wrote 47 novels: perhaps that’s why he is underrated, as everyone says, though it does seem to me that every blogger reads Trollope.  The Claverings is not well-known, but it is very good indeed. And, according to the introduction to the Dover edition, the biographer Michael Sadlier called it one of Trollope’s three “faultless books,” the other two being Doctor Thorne and Harry Hotspur of Humblethwaite.

The Claverings revolves around love and marriage: a typically Victorian plot, but imaginatively and originally treated. The hero, Harry Clavering, the son of the rector at Clavering, is in love with Julia Brabazon, a wicked, witty woman who is honest about her mercenary nature.  She jilts Harry and marries Lord Onger, a rich, dissipated, drunken man who looks 20 years older than his age (36).   Harry’s cousin, Hugh Clavering, a baronet, is Julia’s brother-in-law, and introduces her to Lord Onger.  He very cynically doesn’t care what happens to Julia.

Harry is inconsolable–for a while.  But he apprentices himself for a year to an engineer/surveyor,  Mr. Burton, and falls in love with and proposes to Burton’s daughter Florence, who is smart, likable, and ladylike. I like Florence, but she is only sketched (or so it seems so far) and Julia is clearly Trollope’s favorite. ( I must confess, she is my favorite, too.

After Lord Onger dies, Julia comes back to England.  And guess who falls in love with Julia again?

What I like about this is that Trollope doesn’t idealize Harry.  In London, away from Florence, Harry is weak and prefers Julia.  He is not heroic.

He longed to go again to Bolton Street, but he did not even do that.  If there, he could act only as though Florence had been deserted for ever;–and if he so acted he would be infamous for life.  And yet he had sworn to Julia that such was his intention.  He hardly dared to ask himself which of the two he loved.  The misery of it all had become so heavy upon him that he could take no pleasure in the thought of his love.  I must always be all regret, all sorrow, and all remorse.

No spoilers here, because frankly I don’t know what happens.  Will it end conventionally?  Well, probably.  But in the meantime I am glued to it.

Carolyn See, & Is This Headline Anti-Woman?

Carolyn See Scan_121468618271Carolyn See, one of the best American writers of the twentieth century, died on July 13.  Barbara Eisenberg wrote in The L.A. Times:

The celebrated writer and teacher Carolyn See, who died in Santa Monica last week at 82, was born in Los Angeles and never really left home. She described raw silk as the flannel of the desert, and wrote evocatively of her home state in nearly all her books. For her, California was the repository of America’s dreams, a place that is to America what America is to the rest of the world.

I recently reread See’s The Handyman (and wrote about it here), and  I recommend Making History and Golden Days.

2. Is the following headline for a review at The Spectator anti-woman?

peacock and vine byatt 9781101947470“Who let A.S. Byatt publish Peacock and Vine?”

I am aware that the reviewer Douglas Murray did not write the headline!  He says of Peacock and Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work:

There is a moment at the start of most authors’ careers when it is hard to get anything published, and there is a moment towards the latter stage of some authors’ careers when it is hard to stop everything being published. A.S. Byatt is in the latter stage of her career, and however great the claims for her back (and future) catalogue may be, it hard to see why Peacock and Vine came to be here.

English reviewers are often acerbic, but Booker Prize-winning Byatt is one of my favorite novelists. I don’t know English  culture, but my husband says it reminds him of Hillary-bashing!  (I’ll have to read the book when it’s published here and see for myself.)