How Old Are You? Aging in Literature

How old are you?  Rude question, isn’t it?  Tempus fugit.

The seasons go faster and faster. Yes, it’s fall–again! There are pumpkins at the grocery store and the homemade ice cream stand has closed for the season.

And since I seem to get older every year, I ponder on aging in literature.  Is  it harder for men or women?  And isn’t it odd that the two women’s novels above, Fear of Dying and The Summer Before the Dark, have dark covers and titles, while the men’s novels about aging, The Old Devils and An After-Dinner’s Sleep, have light green on the covers?

Aging women in literature face the challenge of losing the power of their sexuality.  In Erica Jong’s Fear of Dying, a brilliant novel about aging, sex, and death, sixty-year-old Vanessa, a retired actress who played a villainess in a soap opera, hates the thought of being past her prime. She has had plastic surgery, but misses the days when men ogled her.  Her rich husband, Asher,  is in the hospital after an aneurism. When she is not at the hospital, she is visiting her parents,  who are in their nineties and not always cognizant of who she is.  They have 24-hour caregivers and are dying in their apartment when they are not ill in the hospital.

You know what Vanessa badly needs?  Sex.  Who can blame her for looking at  But does it turn out well?  Of course not.  Still. she comes to terms with what she wants from life.

In  Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark, the forties prove just as difficult as the sixties. The 45-year-old heroine Kate comes to term with middle age. Her husband is away in America for the summer (and having an affair), and she had planned to stay home with their son.  When her son takes off on a trip, she accepts a summer job as an interpreter at a food conference.  She has bought beautiful clothes and is newly attractive; she has an affair, which is nice, but ephemeral.  Later, after the conference, she has a kind of controlled breakdown in a rented room in a young drug-taking hippie’s house.   Kate lets her hair go and experiments with walking  in front of construction workers in different outfits. Naturally, they whistle when she looks young, and ignore her when she wears baggy clothes. By the end of the summer she knows herself and returns to her family.  She stays the same for her family–except for her hair, which she stops cutting and dying. This is a beautifully-written short book, one of Lessing’s best.

Is aging easier for men? Well, no, judging from literature.  In Kingsley Amis’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Old Devils, one of the aging characters has a difficult time dressing himself but he still imbibes an incredible quantity of alcohol with his friends.   In Stanley Middleton’s brilliant novel, An After-Hour’s Sleep, the 65-year-old protagonist, Alistair, is mature:  he feels that he is getting old, mainly because he is retired and feels stiff after walking several miles.  He he not only meditates on the past, but embarks on a friendship with an ex-girlfriend.  And he finds a new purpose through writing.  Like Jong’s Vanessa and Lessing’s Kate, he comes to term with aging.

I wonder if I can count E. F. Benson’s Lucia books as novels about aging?  Probably not, but the characters are not young.

What are your favorite novels about aging?

Naïveté or Willful Misreading? Lara Feigel’s “Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing”

Doris Lessing

The Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing (1919-2013) had a powerful effect on my thinking when I read her at age fifteen, and nowadays, as a Woman of a Certain Age, I  continue to read and reread her work.  I began with  The Golden Notebook,  her famous experimental novel about “free women” (as she ironically says) and the breakdown of personality.  In her novels in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, Lessing illuminated aspects of women’s sexuality, radical politics, marriage, madness, and the break-up of the nuclear family.  Later, she  wrote experimental novels and science fiction about the consequences of war, nuclear power, pollution, and the disintegration of society If you’re a Lessing novice, don’t start with The Golden Notebook: The Children of Violence series, a  group of semi-autobiographical novels about the character Martha Quest, is her best work, and has stood up better over time.

As a Lessing fan, I recently picked up a copy of Lara Feigel’s new bibliomemoir, Free Woman:  Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing. I expected to love it.  But, alas, as with many bibliomemoirs, there is a crashing contrast between the stylistic powers of the memoirist and the Great Author.  Lessing is bold and outspoken, while Feigel is mousy and slyly querulous.  Again and again, Feigel professes admiration for Lessing only to turn around and conclude that her own choices are better.  And the structure of the book is very strange:  Feigel has pasted an ostensible study of Lessing on a the framework of her own memoir about miscarriage, motherhood, and trying to get pregnant.   The real paradox is that motherhood was not one of Lessing’s subjects.

Here is the premise of Feigel’s book.  When she rereads The Golden Notebook in her mid-thirties, she is envious of Lessing’s adventurous spirit.  She would like to be a “free woman,” like Anna Wulf, the heroine of The Golden Notebook.   It angers her that her friends keep getting married, instead of staying free.  Of course she, too,  is married, but she projects her anger on them.   She is  a disappointed wife and the ambivalent mother of a son, whom she claims she has trouble leaving at day care.  But she often retires to  a cabin by the sea to write her book while her husband cares for their son at home.  (Doesn’t that sound idyllic?)  She wishes she could have affairs like Lessing, but she waffles about the problems of open marriage.

Then she has a miscarriage and mourns because she can’t  conceive again.  Trying to have a second child becomes the focus of her life.  And so, driven by the imperative of her own emotions,  Feigel turns her attention to Lessing’s abilities as a parent.   Although Feigel repeatedly claims she is not one of those women who criticize Lessing’s performance as a mother,  she spends at least one-fourth (and probably more) of the book doing that very thing.  How could Lessing walk out on her husband and “abandon” her two children in Africa when she left their father?   If you read the second and third of the Children of Violence novels, A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm,  Lessing herself will provide the answers.  She married at 19, before she felt ready, and felt trapped by the traditional role of a suburban motherhood.  Both Lessing and the heroine Martha Quest leave the children with their prosperous, middle-class  father, a civil servant.

“Bad mother” accusations are hardly new, but they represent the height of sexism and hypocrisy.   Lessing  left her children with her husband, a middle-class civil servant, surely not abandonment. Can’t men raise children? Must every woman be a mother? Can’t some women be great writers:  surely it is accepted that it is tough to write when you’re doing child care.   Peter Stanford wrote an excellent article on this subject for the Telegraph, “Doris Lessing:  A Mother Much Misunderstood.” And in Lessing’s A Ripple from the Storm, Martha Quest (Lessing’s alter ego) describes her ambivalence about leaving her daughter Caroline.

Most of the time she was very careful not to allow herself to think of Caroline.  Once, missing Caroline, she had borrowed Jasmine’s car and driven several times up and down past the house, to watch the little girl playing in the garden with the nurse-girl.  The sight had confused her, for she had not felt as unhappy as she had expected.  She had continued to drive up and down past the house until she saw a female figure through a window and believed she recognized Elaine Talbot.

But damned if you do and damned if you don’t:  Feigel also fails to understand why Lessing had a third child at age 30.  Feigel wonders why bad mother Lessing didn’t “abandon” her son Peter in Africa.  (Lessing and Peter moved to London.). And then Feigel accuses Lessing of being a smother mother, because Peter lived with her till his death a few months before Lessing’s.  Peter had multiple health problems, diabetes, heart problems, and perhaps a mental illness.  So if Lessing hadn’t cared for him, she would have been the other kind of bad mother.  (Are you rolling your eyes?)

The alienation never stops.  Feigel even criticizes Lessing’s menopause.  At the smug age of 35, Feigel is convinced that menstruation is a sign of true womanhood. She  doesn’t believe Lessing didn’t grieve or suffer or feel any change when she stopped bleeding, though that is what Lessing said.  Let me assure you, menopause is painless for many of us!  My mother and I both “went through” early menopause at 42, i.e., we stopped having periods, never had a hot flash, and gleefully were free from tampons!  The thirties are tough:  hormones are out of wack, marriages are out of wack….  Menopause is a serene state.

The only flicker of life in this sad little book is when she flies to L.A. to interview Clancy Sigal, who was Lessing’s lover in the ’60s, the model for Saul in The Golden Notebook. Sigal doesn’t give interviews, buy said he’d  have coffee with her if she ever came to L.A.  The interview was very short, but he is by far the liveliest character in the book:  he mocks Feigel’s ideas of freedom and says he never read anything Lessing wrote.  Refreshing!

All right, I can’t spend any more time on this disappointing book.  But–spoiler alert–Feigel and her husband are divorced at the end and she has a daughter conceived (if that’s the right word) via IVF.  Freedom?

“Frump with a Bun?” & Other Literary Matters

Doris Lessing

Although I have cut back on reading reviews because I don’t have room on the shelves for more books (sound familiar?), I was excited to discover Sara Wheeler’s fascinating review at The Spectator of Lara Feigel’s new book,  Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing.  

“Free Woman,” a phrase Lessing uses throughout The Golden Notebook,  is a smart title for a book that is a mix of criticism and personal writing.  As I  wrote about The Golden Notebook last fall,  “The heroine, Anna Wulf, a blocked writer, and her friend Molly, an actress, are both single mothers and ‘free women,’ as they ironically call themselves.”

What does it mean to be a “free woman”?  Are we “free”?  Were we ever? Lessing doubted it.   And we are now so big on censorship online–do say this,  don’t say that, and apologize on Twitter if anyone complains–that I wonder what Lessing would say.   One phrase in Wheeler’s excellent review bothered me.  I must emphasize that I am not complaining, but criticizing one phrase.    Wheeler says  that Feigel’s book moves chronologically “from childhood… [to] the post-menopause adoption of an identity of asexual frump with a bun.”  And I hate that word “frump.”

Why concentrate on a writer’s looks at all?  We don’t talk about male writers as frumps, do we? But from George Eliot (ugly) to Virginia Woolf (beautiful), from Carson McCullers (a bit odd) to Mary McCarthy (great smile), we are fixated on women writers’ looks.

In one of my favorite novels, The Summer Before the Dark, Lessing criticizes the pressure to look young and writes about the transformation of the middle-aged heroine Kate’s looks.  When her family is away for a summer, she takes a job as an interpreter and has an affair.   And then she spends the remainder of the summer in a rented room in London, having a breakdown.  At the end, as a middle-aged woman, she ceases to try to look youthful.

Her experiences of the last months, her discoveries, her self-definition; what she hoped were now strengths, were concentrated here–that she would walk into her home with her hair undressed, with her hair tied straight back for utility; rough and streaky, and the widening gray band showing like a statement of intent.  It was as if the rest of her–body, feet, even face, which was aging but amenable–belonged to everyone else.  But her hair–no!  No, no one was going to lay hands on that.

Personally, I think Lessing was beautiful, but I don’t have a problem with frumps. Some of us do our hair, some do not.

Wheeler’s review certainly made me want to read Lara Feigel’s Free Woman. The book is not available in the U.S. yet.


Erin Kelly at The Guardian wrote a fascinating article, “Ebooks are not ‘stupid’ – they’re a revolution.”  She wrties,

I was a relatively late convert to the e-reader, getting my Kindle five years ago when it became clear that reading 600-pages of A Suitable Boy while breastfeeding wasn’t going to work. After a frenzied few months of almost exclusive e-reading, I returned largely to the traditional printed book for a number of reasons: screen fatigue, a tendency to scrawl in margins, because I want my kids to see me reading, and because I’m a passionate supporter of bookshops and booksellers. Hachette Livre CEO Arnaud Nourry recently called ebooks “stupid” – but last summer, they changed my life.

The Women’s Prize longlist has been announced.  The only one I’ve read is The Idiot–I loved it and wrote about it here.

3.  And Barnes and Noble just launched its first nationwide book club.  The first selection is Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion,  and you get free coffee and a cookie at the book club.  May 2 is the date.

Is Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” Relevant?

How many times can you read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook?   I  read it once or twice a decade, and always find it brilliant and relevant. Not surprisingly, I respond differently to it every time.

During the Obama years, I read Lessing’s 1962 masterpiece almost as a historical novel.  I admired the experimental structure, and the way it captures the fragmentation of the post-war society, the fragile psyche of a mid-twentieth-century radical woman,  and the difficulty of writing meaningfully.  And, as always, I felt Lessing was expressing my feelings for me.  But would parts seem dated to modern readers, I wondered?  Do women still feel the strain of being “free women,” i.e., living without husbands and raising a family alone?

This summer I am reading the book slowly, and am finding it especially pertinent to our political times.

The heroine, Anna Wulf, a blocked writer, and her friend Molly, an actress, are both single mothers and”free women,” as they ironically call themselves.  They love sex, but their married lovers will never leave their wives, and Anna was shattered when her lover Michael, a psychiatrist with overwhelming personal problems, abruptly left her. Men have ambivalent  attitudes toward Anna and Molly:   sometimes they treat them as equals, sometimes as courtesans.

Anna  lives off the royalties from her popular first novel, the story of an interracial relationship in South Africa.   She considers it sentimental and a failure.  She says she will never write another novel.

But Anna does write.  She writes for hours every day in four notebooks, each a different color. She tries to compartmentalize her life, since the novel didn’t work.  She writes,

I didn’t buy them on a plan. I don’t think I ever… actually said to myself: I keep four notebooks, a black notebook, which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer; a red notebook, concerned with politics; a yellow notebook, in which I make stories out of my experience; and a blue notebook which tries to be a diary. In Molly’s house the notebooks were something I never thought about; and certainly not as work, or a responsibility

This time through, I am paying special attention to the red notebook, her political notebook.  In the red notebook, Anna vividly describes her war years in Africa, her political activities in a small communist group, and her brief incompatible marriage of convenience to  a German communist. In 1950 in London, she has briefly given up on writing her personal reactions, and experiments with recording brief news items from different newspapers.  Is this closer to the truth than recording her personal story, she wonders?

March, 50

The modeller calls this the “H-Bomb Style,” explaining that the “H” is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. Daily Telegraph

July 13th, 50
There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express

July 29th, 50
Britain’s decision to spend £100 millions more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman

Aug. 3, 50
America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express

Grim, isn’t it?  Why did I never notice how terrifying Anna’s times were?  And not so different from our own.

When I was growing up in a university town, this book seemed utterly real and true, the story not yet of us, the feminist girls in wire-rimmed glasses, but of the radical women who formed collectives, co-ops, and discussed women’s liberation, as it was called then.  The Women’s Liberation Movement faded long ago, but The Golden Notebook is a relevant book for our times.

Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor & Under My Skin

Doris Lessing memoirs-of-a-survivor-my-copy

I’m checking in briefly to make a few remarks about Doris Lessing.   I  just finished rereading her superb 1974 post-apocalyptic novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and want to say a few words about it while it is fresh in my mind.

Some read The Memoirs strictly as dystopian fiction, but it is also a psychological, often surreal, portrait of Lessing. The narrator, an “older woman,” tries to understand the breakdown of society as the city crumbles around her and the media become increasingly unreliable and propagandistic.  She knows that eventually she will have to leave her flat, because the city is becoming dangerous, people must scrounge and barter, tribes of young people are leaving the city, and only the rich are still on the grid.  In a surreal scene, she becomes the guardian of a young girl, Emily: throughout the novel, the narrator struggles to help Emily, obviously her younger self  (and very like Martha Quest in The Children of Violence series).  You should also know that Lessing’s mother was named Emily, and that Lessing frequently explored mother-daughter relationships in her work.

A few years ago  Jenny Diski, in her “memoir” of Doris Lessing, which was first published in the London Review of Books, claimed that she was Emily in the novel.  Well, I was skeptical, but my assumption was that all writers and most sophisticated readers  realize that memoirs are to a certain extent made up, and that all would take this with a grain of salt.  Some of the material in Diski’s book is mined from Lessing’s novels,  without attribution.  So I was surprised that so many bloggers, at least, read her book as the literal truth about Lessing.  And so it makes me wonder about the breakdown of critical thinking, as well as the breakdown of society.  (But has there ever BEEN critical thinking?)

under-my-skin-lessing-41gwuvmd8yl-_sx330_bo1204203200_Well, obviously I’m not writing a thesis about this, but  tonight I opened Lessing’s Under My Skin:  Volume One of My Autobiography at random, and, as I suspected, my reading of The Memoirs is correct:  Emily IS Lessing (and sometimes Lessing’s mother)!

Compare these two incidents, one from Memoirs of a Survivor and one from Under My Skin, in which Emily/Doris is sadistically tickled by her father, a World War I veteran.  In Memoirs of a Survivor,  we see this scene because the narrator frequently visits the past: she travels behind the walls of her flat where there is another house in a different dimension in which rooms (her psyche) need tidying, painting, etc.  She also visits Emily/Doris’s past, set in different times, sometimes at the turn of the (20th) century, sometimes mid-century, but always long before the time of the events of the novel.  Well, Lessing was born in 1919, hence our travels through the 20th century.

From The Memoirs of a Survivor:

In a large chair set against the curtains, the soldier-like man sat with his knees apart, gripping between them the small girl who stood shrieking.  On his face, under the moustache, was a small tight smile. He was “tickling” the child.  This was a “game,” the bedtime “game,” a ritual.  The elder child was played with, was being made tired, was being given her allowance of attention, and it was a service by the father to the mother, who could not cope with the demands of her day, the demands of Emily.  …  her body was contorting and twisting to escape the man’s great hands that squeezed and dug into her ribs, to escape the great cruel face that bent so close over her with its look of private satisfaction. …  She shrieked, “No, no, no, no”…helpless, being explored and laid bare by this man.

From Under My Skin:

And then the moment when Daddy captures his little daughter and her face is forced down into his lap or crotch, into the unwashed smell–he never did go in for washing much, and–don’t forget–this was before easy dry-cleaning, and people’s clothes smelled, they smelled horrible.  By now my head is aching badly, the knocking headache of over-excitement.  His great hands go to work on my ribs.  My screams, helpless, hysterical, desperate.  Then tears…

… But I did not stop having nightmares about those great hands torturing my ribs until I was seven or eight.  Those nightmares were clear in my mind now as they were then, though the emotion has long gone away.  I became an expert on nightmares and how to outwit them when I was a small child, and the nightmare of being helpless and “tickled” was the worst.

A horrifying scene!  And I’m sure there is more, much more, in her autobiography to  parallel scenes in this novel.  I am writing this because I think it is important to realize that this novel is not about Jenny Diski.

Here is what Diski said (I don’t have her book, but I copied this excerpt from the LRB into a blog post a few years ago):

t made familiar and disturbing reading. I could see Emily in me, just as I could see my elderly neighbour’s description of me aged three. It is as accurate a reading of me as Emily’s harsh commentary on others. It is true, but it is, of course, a doubly edited version, a view of me from the narrator’s point of view, which itself has been taken and worked for fiction’s purpose from Doris’s point of view. If there is pity in the narrator’s response to Emily, it is strained for. I discovered after a while that Doris had a habit of describing people in fiction and in life as, for example, ‘heartbreaking’ in her most distant, coolest tone, as if to mitigate her dislike of them. She saw it as being fair, I think.

I do not believe for a minute that The Memoirs of a Survivor is about Diski.  It is a misreading, and, believe me, this is one of her kinder interpretations of Lessing.  I guess it’s possible to publish anything, if you say it’s about Doris Lessing.  Honestly!  Writers.  (I really have nothing against Diski,  but this book…ugh.)

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook & the BBC Radio Four Adaptation

The Golden Notebook lessing orig paperbackThe other night I listened to a brilliant BBC Radio Four adaptation of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, dramatized by Sarah Daniels.  If you loved the book, or if you have meant to read Lessing but never gotten around to it, this two-part radio play will inspire or revive your interest.  There is a vividness to listening instead of looking at a stage, though the voices of the heroine Anna (Susanna Harker), a blocked writer, and her friend Molly (Fenella Woolgar), an actress, are not as I imagined. Why?  Apparently I read Lessing’s books with an American accent!  Who knew?  But Harker and Woolgar bring exactly the right mix of trust and impatience to this long-standing friendship:  they are truthful (to a point) and intense, witty and observant, sophisticated and yet raw.  Much of the dialogue comes right out of Lessing’s book.

In 2012, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Lessing’s 1962 classic, I posted the following at my old blog about The Golden Notebook. This is a rerun.

Lessing, the Nobel Prize-winning writer whose brilliant novels rely as much on her interpretation of history as on the delineation of the lives of modern women, has always denied it is a feminist novel. But for many feminists, its publication dwarfed other historical events of 1962: it had more impact on me than did the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Rolling Stones’ debut, and The United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning South Africa’s racist apartheid.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Her powerful novel centers on Anna, a writer and single mother whose life is fragmented because she somehow cannot write the truth. She has contempt for her best-selling novel about an interracial relationship in Africa, is disillusioned by the reports of communist torture and anti-Zionism in the Soviet Union, and seemingly falls in love only with men who cannot love deeply. But this painful, honest novel suggested alternative futures for women who had decided that society was breaking down, that marriage wasn’t viable, and that they needed to experiment. Lessing chronicles a collapsed society, broken by the trauma of war, fear of the bomb, and emotional frigidity.

So has The Golden Notebook stood the test of time?

It was my favorite novel when I was 15. For some reason, though I was a virgin and my giggling friends and I hung glittered tampons from trees in the yards of boys we liked, I identified with Anna. (A very immature Anna, I might add.)  When I reread it in my 30s I understood Anna’s difficulties with writing (I had sold out as a “pop-culture” freelance writer, and enjoyed writing trivial nonsense), her encounters with men (when you’re divorced in your 30s, you’re lucky if you ever meet a normal unmarried man again), and her radical politics.

The experimental structure of the novel is bold. Lessing alternates sections of a short traditional novel about Anna, “Free Women,” with Anna’s writings in four notebooks–black, red, yellow, and blue–in which she tries to measure out the truth about her life of organized chaos, often writing in fragments, experimenting with different styles, chronicling her experience straightforwardly in the communist party in Africa, her marriage and love affairs, her difficulty with writing. She also writes a novel about an alter ego, Ella, who is more brittle than Anna, but undergoes similar emotional upheaval.

Musing on the post-war fragmentation, Anna observes:

But it isn’t only the terror everywhere, and the fear of being conscious of it, that freezes people. It’s more than that. People know they are in a society dead or dying. They are refusing emotion because at the end of every emotion are property, money, power they work and despise their work, and so freeze themselves. They love but know that it’s a half-love or a twisted love, and so they freeze themselves.

I recognize that emotional freezing.

Lessing newer edition the_golden_notebookIn some ways, this was a novel for its time. Anna’s quest for sexual freedom is commonplace in the 21st century, although it often occurs without intelligence or self-respect: just a “hook-up.” Freudian analysis–Anna has been in analysis with a psychiatrist she calls Mother Sugar, who keeps trying to get her to write–has been replaced by pharmaceutical remedies (at least in the U.S.). Anna’s portrait of her misogynistic gay lodger, Ivor, seems believable in the context of the book–he and his lover mock her, refer to her as a cow, use her makeup, and so she has to throw them out–but many would feel more comfortable if Ivor were rewritten as Paul Rudd’s character in that movie with Jennifer Anniston.  Which is true to the times?

Lessing’s Children of Violence series, about the heroine Martha Quest, treats similar material. The first three novels, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, and A Ripple from the Storm are traditional in form, the fourth, Landlocked, is slightly experimental, and the fifth, The Four-Gated City, is so over-the-top that it makes The Golden Notebook look straightforward; parts of The Four-Gated City are science fiction. Martha is altogether a harder character than Anna–she leaves one unloved husband and daughter, then marries another man she doesn’t love just because they’re in the communist party together, works hard as a communist until the reports of concentrations camps come in, divorces her second husband, and then escapes to England…where I must say unexpected things happen.

Some of you will prefer The Golden Notebook. Political attitudes have changed in the last 50 years, and you have to respect those attitudes of the ’50s and learn from them while you inhabit the book.  Many of Anna’s experiences still ring true.

I can’t wait to reread the book.

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.

Amatory Lit 101: Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid & Doris Lessing’s Landlocked

pulp love cover cd0c32c52e8a6ed2730d959432329ddeThe first amatory classic I read was Jane Eyre.  I don’t think Peyton Place,  The Robe, or Max Shulman’s Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, count, do you?  At 12, I was enthralled by Jane’s love for  Mr. Rochester.  I knew that one day I, too would fall in love with Mr. Rochester.  The operative word was “fall.”

But is “falling” love?

I suppose so.

Amatory lit can be sexy.  But so often it is not quite about love.

Take two amatory classics I read recently.  They are about sex and passion, but love?

Aeneid Rolfe Humphries c99ea633518bd50c8c3027ab79b6d8a6Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the world’s most famous tragic love stories.  I reread it every year, preferably on the Mediterraean, actually at Ahkwabi State Park, since I never  find myself on the Mediterranean.  Dido, Queen of Carthage, is desperately in love with the Trojan hero, Aeneas, who is is driven off course to Carthage by a storm on his way to Italy.  There are many different interpretations of this elaborate, glittering poem:  it is the sympathetic portrait of a passionate woman, or a condemnation of a queen who puts love before duty, or a vindication of Aeneas’s obedience to the gods and devotion to the pursuit of power. It was the most influential Latin poem in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance,  the inspiration for Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, Berlioz’s opera, Les Troyens (The Trojans), and innumerable works of art.

Dido is a powerful widowed queen in exile, building a new city for her people.  But in Book IV, she is obsessed with Aeneas, and fears it is disloyalty to her dead husband.  Virgil describes her love as a disease:  wounded by love, she feeds the wound.

One of the best translations of the 20th century is Rolfe Humphries’, which is close to the Latin and reflects the economy of the language. (I also love Robert Fagles’ translation, but he adds phrases that are not in Virgil.)  Book IV begins,

But the queen finds no rest. Deep in her veins
The wound is fed; she burns with hidden fire.

The Latin lines are alliterative and arranged in interlocking word order:  The second line of the Latin below shows the repeating v’s and c’s, as you can see here:

vulnus alit venis, et caeco carpitur igni.

(vulnus = wound)… (venis = veins),,, (caeco = blind) (carpitur = consumed)

"Dido Building Carthage," b JMW Turner

“Dido Building Carthage,” b JMW Turner

The balance and style of the poem are elegant and the plot is compelling, especially for women.    During a storm, Dido and Aeneas take refuge in a cave and make love.  Dido regards their relationship as a marriage.  But Mercury comes with a message from Jove, ordering him to go to Italy, reminding him he must found Rome for his son.  Aeneas prepares the fleet’s departure without telling Dido, but she confronts him.  After he leaves, she commits suicide.  And Virgil revives the images of the fire and the wound:   she builds a pyre, then kills herself by falling on his sword.

Virgil’s description of the end of her life is  grotesque.

And her wound made a gurgling hissing sound.
Three times she tried to lift herself; three times
Fell back; her rolling eyes went searching heaven
And the light hurt when she found it, and she moaned.

Traditionally, classicists speculate that the Romans would have mistrusted the love affair, comparing  the dalliance of Dido and Aeneas to that of Cleopatra and Antony. Antony’s affair with a foreign queen fueled a war and drove Cleopatra to suicide.  And Augustus had defeated Antony, and Virgil was a patriotic poet, very much Augustus’s poet.  So would the audience  at Virgil’s poetry readings have approved Aeneas’s flight from Dido?  Or would the women have been fuming?  Should we be postmodern? Or traditional?

Love is a wound.

Lessing landlocked 328419Doris Lessing’s Landlocked., the fourth in Nobel Prize winner Lessing’s Children of Violence series.

 Landlocked, written after her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, which certainly taught Lessing how to write about love and sex, is the most polished novel in this series.  Set during World War II, Martha waits in Africa for the end of the war to divorce the husband she married for political reasons.  She  left her first husband, a civil servant, and their daughter Caroline to  become a Communist activist and support herself as a secretary.   She made the disastrous marriage to Anton Hesse, a communist refugee from Germany, so he would not be interned in a camp or deported.  Anton is terrible in bed, they have no chemistry, and Martha insists on having affairs, reminding him that they are not really “married.”

The political climate changes, the town again become hostile to the left, and the communist group is unraveling..

But the most important aspect of the novel is Martha’s discovery of sex.   Tomas, a Polish Jew, a farmer, and a communist who simply loves women, introduces her to great sex.  She has never been happier. But the affair is a brief idyll, and she knows it.  He will not leave his wife, and is determined to go back to Europe.  She will go to London.

Nothing can wipe out the memory of violence.  Martha is  aware that if he had not left Europe with his wife, he would have died.

If he had not–well, none of his family was left alive, several dozen brothers, sisters, cousins,, relations–they were all dead, they had died in the gas ovens, on the gallows, in the prisons and the concentration camps in those years of our Lord, 1939-1945.   But here Thomas was alive.  And all her life Martha would say to herself–whatever else had  been untrue, whatever else had not existed, this had been true:  this was true, she must hold on to it, even though, when she touched Thomas it was with the anxiety that related not to Thomas now and here, but to the scene she could create by a slight dislocation in her mind: Thomas very nearly had not left Poland.

This is a gorgeous novel, with some of Lessing’s best writing.  It is the gateway to the experimental, genre-busting fifth book in the series, The Four-Gated City, which is actually my favorite.

It is so good to see Martha happy.  So much lies ahead of her after the war, when she goes to London.

Doris Lessing’s A Ripple From the Storm

lessing a ripple from the storm 9780586090008Some books are so deep on the backlist that discovering them is like digging up a rare fossil.

Take the Nobel Prize winner, Doris Lessing.  Everybody reads (or pretends to read) her experimental masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, but few boast of cognizance of her stunning political novel,  A Ripple From the Storm.  There are even statistics of to prove this:  at Goodreads, there are 11,983 ratings of The Golden Notebook, but only 397 ratings of A Ripple From the Storm.

The third novel in the Children of Violence series, A Ripple From the Storm, is a brilliant, layered study of the rise and fall of a small communist group.  Here is a quick recap of the COV novels:  the heroine, Martha Quest, is a true “child of violence” in that she is born after World War I, the daughter of a wounded shell-shocked veteran and a nurse. She comes of age at the beginning of World War II. The first four novels are set in Africa; the last in London, where Martha finally moves. Like Martha, Lessing grew up in Southern Rhodesia (called Zambesia in the novels) and then moved to London.

Lessing writes beautifully, but one doesn’t read her for style. In A Ripple From the Storm, Lessing brilliantly portrays Martha’s struggles to escape the deadening conformity and tenets of a provincial, racist, sexist society.  Martha has traded in suburban marriage for independence in a rented room.  She naively hopes the radical political meetings she attends will break down the “colour bar” and create world peace.

ripple from the storm doris lessing 41X9C5yPgeL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_At the end of the second book, A Proper Marriage, Martha left her civil servant husband and their daughter Caroline to live on her own.  (You can read my post on the second book  A Proper Marriage, here.)

In A Ripple From the Storm, Martha works as a secretary to earn a living, is active in several leftist groups, and has no time to think. Her mother writes a letter “casting her off”  but then proceeds to pester and criticize her as usual.  Martha’s estranged husband, Douglas, makes sentimental scenes and threatens to cite her RAF boyfriend, William, in the divorce case.  Ironically, Douglas was unfaithful first.

None of the suburban hysteria and hypocrisy affects Martha intensely, except the loss of her daughter.  And Martha learns not to think of what she can do nothing about.

Most of the time she was very careful not to allow herself to think of Caroline.  Once, missing Caroline, she had borrowed Jasmine’s car and driven several times up and down past the house, to watch the little girl playing in the garden with the nurse-girl.  the sight had confused her, for she had not felt as unhappy as she had expected.  She had continued to drive up and down past the house until she saw a female figure through a window and believed she recognized Elaine Talbot.

Martha pours her passion into politics, and Lessing brilliantly captures the mix of excitement and exhaustion:  the intensity and dreariness, the analysis and self-criticism, and the daily meetings (usually more than one) at which there is much talk, little action.   Martha types, does mailings, lectures, does social work in the “coloured” community, sells the communist newspaper, and never has time to sleep.

The political atmosphere of the small African town has become more liberal with the influx of  British Air Force personnel. RAF and townspeople alike attend the meetings of  “Save the Allies” and  other political organizations. Temporarily, everyone loves the ally, Russia.  A radical core of activists, including Martha , form a small communist study group, while remaining active in the other groups,. There are frequent clashes between Anton Hesse, an intellectual communist who is a refugee from Germany, and Jackie Cooper, a charismatic pilot who is often late and “undisciplined” but without whom there would be no group. Anton makes pompous statements like, “Yes, the development in this country accurately reflects the development in the Union of South Africa, and it is proof of the necessity for a Communist party.”  Jackie makes jokes.

And then William, Martha’s boyfriend, is posted elsewhere, and Martha is alone.

Even when Lessing is writing about politics, it is her talent for interior monologue and analyzing Martha’s feelings that give us the feeling we are there.

…she was not so much lonely as self-divided.  Her loneliness, the moments when she said to herself, ‘I am lonely,’ had a pleasurable pain:  her old enemy, the dishonesty of nostalgia, was very close, and the ease with which she succumbed to it made her irritated with herself.

Lessing a ripple from the storm hardback 2154316In her loneliness, Martha makes a terrible mistake.  She marries Anton so he will not be interned in a camp or deported. Martha does a good deed, but it is a disaster.   Once again she finds herself married to a man she doesn’t love.  And he is terrible in bed, so it is worse.

Politics or marriage?  What matters to Martha?

This can be read as a stand-alone novel.  If you have ever been involved in a leftist political group, whether it be a food co-op or feminist  consciousness raising group,  you will very much admire Lessing’s pitch-perfect mimicry of political jargon, the insistence on criticism and self-criticism, and  the characters’ idealism:  Martha really does  believe in her twenties that communism will save the world.

The story continues in the fourth novel, Landlocked.

Bill Moyers’s Tribute to Doris Lessing

I plan to write soon about the superb third novel in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, A Ripple From the Storm.  Meanwhile, here is a video of Bill Moyers’s “Tribute to Doris Lessing,” with excerpts from his fascinating 2003 interview with her. She speaks of being a child of World War I, of becoming a writer , of the compulsion to write, and the politics of war in Africa.