The Wittiest Mystery of the Summer: Lindsey Davis’s “The Grove of the Caesars”

Some years ago, we took a short drive to to see an exhibition, Art in Roman Life Villa to Grave, at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. Best known for a superb Grant Wood collection and a collection of prints by Mauricio Lasansky, it was a little skimpy on the Roman side. But what really charmed me was finding Lindsey Davis’s witty Marcus Didius Falco mysteries in the art museum shop.

I am a great fan of Lindsey Davis, who, in my opinion, is the best of several wise-cracking writers who set their mysteries in ancient Rome. (I also recommend Stephen Saylor and David Wishart.) Davis’s writing is charming and witty, the plots seamless, and I love her new Flavia Albia series. Albia is the adoptive daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, an auctioneer and former private investigator (and the star of Davis’s first mystery series), and his equally smart wife, Helena Justina. Now that her parents are older, Albia has taken over the “informer” business.  Times are dangerous:  she is living in the age of Domitian.

Sometimes Albia is in the mood for a case, sometimes not.  Without looking for trouble, she stumbles upon a case in the Grove of the Caesars. While supervising her husband’s employees as they prepare a building site, the workers make an unlooked-for discovery: they dig up some musty, damaged scrolls, written by philosophers she has ever heard of. Albia wonders if they are originals or forgeries, and intends to find out; either way they could be valuable. (Romans  love a good forgery scandal!)  But then a horrendous second crime is unearthed; the body of a woman is found, one of several women murdered in the Grove of the Caesars over a period of years.

Davis manages to keep the dialogue light, even when the most ghastly crimes are committed. And Albia has a good working relationship with this particular branch of the police, who seem to adopt her as a mascot-cum-second-in-command.   In a common mystery trope, Albia’s investigations of the scrolls in bookshops and the murders in the Grove of the Caesars turn out to be related.

But the novel opens with Albia’s witty, exasperated. dissertation on  gardens.

I want to make a complaint. Poets are wrong about gardens. Your average poet, scratching away to impress his peers in the Writers’ Guild at their dusty haunt on the Aventine, the Temple of Minerva, will portray a garden as a metaphor for productive peace and quiet. In such secluded places, poets will say, men who own multiple estates engage in happy contemplation of weighty intellectual matters, while acquiring a glow of health. These landowners, idiot patrons of ridiculous authors, take pleasure from topiary cut in the shape of their own names, yet they avoid the slur of self-indulgence, simply because their box-tree autographs have roots in the earth.

You can’t get much wittier than that.   And the dissertation goes on…

I also like this quote from an auctioneer trying to sell the scrolls.

“Who’s read The Oresteia? Oh, we’ve got some clever ones in! …. Aeschylus, smart fellow, was the first writer to realise that if you write a trilogy, you will sell three times as much.”

I highly recommend this amusing mystery.

The Book Club Goes Multicultural

“Oh, don’t give me that. I’m multicultural as hell,” I said crossly. “Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I have to subject myself to The Twelve Tribes of Hattie.”

Liz, a well-meaning member of our informal book club, felt we should acknowledge Black Lives Matter, i.e, what used to be called Black Power.   The Twelve Tribes of Hattie had been on her shelf for years.  Unfortunately, I assured her, this best-seller is poorly written and devoid of style.  Anything but that!

“You really can skip The Twelve Tribes of Hattie,” our friend Janet suggested tactfully. “Perhaps we could read a classic.  Ann Petry or Ralph Ellison?”

We agreed to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  And then we discussed multiculturalism. Does it mean race and ethnicity? Does it have to be about different cultures in the U.S.? What about the cultures of other nations? Does literature in translation count? French novels in French? African women’s novels?  Greek or Roman poetry in Greek and Latin? The Tale of Genji?

It’s a puzzle.

In my white neighborhood, quite a few white people have Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns. But a sign means nothing if they/we don’t get the vote out in November.  Should we join the Women’s League of Voters?

And let’s hope my book club can meet face-to-face again soon.  Zoom is not like being in the same room.  No wonder people have gone berserk and are racing around to bars and restaurants (hence spreading the virus). Please staay home.  Listen to Dr. Fauci!

By the way, I just read an excellent article at The New Yorker, “Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man’ as a Parable of Our Time.”

A Friend of the Book: What’s on my Small-Press TBR?

” Woman with Parasol” 1921 Henri Matisse

Middlebrow, highbrow.  Books, books, books.  I can curl up happily with Jane Gaskell’s fantasy cult-classic Atlan series, William Faulkner’s southern classics, Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere, and Rumer Godden’s nun books.

I do have my brooding literary side: I earnestly reviewed small-press books for a now-defunct literary journal. And when I say “small” I mean publishers you’ve never heard of. I hoped to discover literary classics, but I became philosophical.   Some were brilliant, others may have been published because the writer was the editor’s friend. Perhaps that is the case with all publishers.

But there are small presses and small presses. The best still publish the best. Among my favorites are Small Beer Press, established by Kelly Link and her husband; Melville House Books; Tachyon Publishing; Europa Editions; Michael Walmer; and Library of America.

If you’re looking for interesting small-press book, here are four I look forward to.

Sigrid Undset’s Olav Audunssøn: I. Vows, translated by Tina Nunnally (University of Minnesota Press). I am a huge fan of Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s Norwegian medieval sagas, which I’ve read over and over. The translator Tina Nunnally won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Award for her translation of The Cross, the third novel in Kristin Lavransdatter. She has recently translated Olav Audunssøn, another medieval saga, best known in English as  The Master of Hestviken.  Nunnally has reverted to the original title, Olav Audunssøn, which consists of the first two books of The Master of Hestviken.  (The publication date is November 10). You can read the Goodreads description here.

The Memory of Babel, The Mirror Visitor, Book 3, by Christelle Dabos (Europa). I am truly loving these novels.  I reviewed the first in the series,  A Winter’s Promise, and said, “This French fantasy novel, just published by Europa Editions, is one of the most absorbing books of the year.  The heroine is a museum curator who reads the history of objects by touching them. She can also travel through mirrors. (You can read the rest of the review here.)  The publication date is Sept. 8.   And here is the Goodreads description.

Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, The Abolition, The Unconquerable World (Library of America). Here is the Library of America description: From the Vietnam era to the war on terror, Jonathan Schell (1943–2014) produced a body of work as brave, humane, and consequential as any in the history of American journalism. His legacy rests especially on three books about the threat of nuclear weapons—“the gravest danger of our age”—and the changing nature of modern warfare. On the 75th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Library of America brings together these essential works in one volume for the first time.  It was published in April.

Woe from Wit, by Alexander Griboedov (Columbia University). Here is the Columbia University description:   Woe from Wit is one of the masterpieces of Russian drama. A verse comedy set in Moscow high society after the Napoleonic wars, it offers sharply drawn characters and clever repartee, mixing meticulously crafted banter and biting social critique. Its protagonist, Alexander Chatsky, is an idealistic ironist, a complex Romantic figure who would be echoed in Russian literature from Pushkin onward. Chatsky returns from three years abroad hoping to rekindle a romance with his childhood sweetheart, Sophie. In the meantime, she has fallen in love with Molchalin, her reactionary father Famusov’s scheming secretary. Chatsky speaks out against the hypocrisy of aristocratic society—and as scandal erupts, he is met with accusations of madness.  It was published in the spring.

Please let me know your favorite small presses.  What’s on your small-press TBR?

A Biography of a Little-Known Victorian: “The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives” by Diane Johnson

In the twentieth century, many of us grew up reading  Diane Johnson, a novelist, a contributor to The New York Review of Books, and the author of the screenplay of The Shining. Nowadays her novel Le Divorce is a frequent portal, because it was adapted as a Merchant-Ivory film, starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts. But in 2003, when the film was released, I had already devoured most of Johnson’s superb novels (my favorite is Persian Nights), and a few years ago discovered her memoir, Flyover Lives, about growing up in Moline, Illinois.

But I did not come across Johnson’s biography, The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives, first published in 1972, until it was reissued this summer. Being a fan of the 19th-century writer George Meredith, best known for his comic novel The Egoist (the only one of his novels in print), I was curious about his wife.

Drawing of Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith, by Henry Wallis

And Johnson’s book is worth reading.  Who was this first wife, you may ask? Mary Ellen Peacock Nicolls Meredith, a strong-minded, self-educated woman, was the daughter of the novelist Thomas Peacock. An avid reader of French and English novels, a gourmet cook (but George Meredith was dyspeptic), a writer of essays and poems, and, briefly, the editor of a magazine, she was seven years older than George, and she eclipsed him socially, though not, of course, in writing.  At the age of  20, he fell in love with attractive Mary Ellen at first sight. And their marriage  was happy for a time. But she became restless in her mid-thirties and left him for the artist Henry Wallis. Biographers seemingly blackballed her with scant mentions.

It was the absence of Mary Ellen that first intrigued Johnson. Who was this forgotten first wife? There was so little about her.

Johnson wrote in the preface,

Since 1968, on brief visits to England, I had been looking for traces of Mary Ellen Peacock Nichols Meredith, resenting on her behalf the way she was always dismissed in biographies of George Meredith: the unhappy wife who left him and, of course, died, as if death were the deserved fate for Victorian wives who broke the rules.

Finally, Johnson was alerted to the discovery of a box of Mary Ellen’s letters, found under the bed in an old house in Surrey in 1970. The letters were written to Mary Ellen’s lover, the artist Henry Wallis, for whom she left George Meredith.

Most of Mary Ellen’s short life was lived without George Meredith. As the daughter of a novelist, she grew up among writers and artists. Mary Shelley was a family friend. Mary Ellen educated herself at home, was let loose in the library, and never asked to conform to the limits of femininity. Her mother, alas, was mad and depressed, and lived apart from the family. But at least on the surface that did not affect Mary Ellen.

Mary Ellen fell desperately in love at age 23  with “Darling Eddy,”Captain Edward Nicolls of the Royal Marines. Their happy marriage in January 1844 lasted only a few months: Eddy died while trying to save a drowning man. The writer Mary Shelley worried about the devastating effect on Mary Ellen, who was pregnant. Shortly thereafter, Mary Ellen gave birth to a daughter Edith. And she did not seek a second husband. One gathers she liked, but was not in love with, George Meredith.

Johnson’s stunning writing makes this book a gem. At times she seems to imitate George Meredith’s witty style, partly as a homage, partly as gentle mockery. She writes impressionistic, novelistically-vivid scenes of literary friendships and squabbles, the Meredith family’s life in poor lodgings, and the popularity of cookbooks written by Mary Ellen’s first daughter, Edith.

A fascinating biography!  First wives are too often neglected.

“The Lives of Edie Pritchard” by Larry Watson

A few years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed Larry Watson’s brilliant novel, As Good As Gone. Set in 1963, it examines the eruption of violence in a small town in Montana and its effect on a middle-class family. (You can read my review at my blog Mirabile Dictu.)

In Watson’s smart new novel, The Lives of Edie Pritchard, the heroine Edie is haunted by the fear of violence. In small-town Montana in 1967, men constantly harass her. Edie is cool, dignified, and smart. She ignores the comments and halts the passes  with the coolness and poker face of a cowgirl. (Actually, she works at a bank.)  She also deals with harassment from her husband Frank’s identical twin brother Roy, who is said to be charming. I don’t see it.

The novel deals with three eras of Edie’s life: 1967-68, when Frank becomes pathologically jealous:   Edie saves Roy’s life after two redneck brothers run Roy off the road because they objected to his buying their grandfather’s truck . In 1987, Edie has left town and is now the wife of Glen, another jealous husband. One day Roy calls her to say Frank is dying of cancer and would like to see her again.

As you can imagine, jealous husbands do not like their wives to visit ex-husbands. Glen grabs her wrist and sprains it, so the next day she  takes off with her teenage daughter Jennifer, meaning to leave Glen forever. In her hometown, she visits her ex-husband, weak with cancer.  Roy has become less obnoxious, now married to Edie’s old friend Carla. (There is no jealousy between women.) Unfortunately, Edie’s husband Glen tracks her down and things turn ugly. But in 2007, at age 60, Edie is single and serene.

Does history repeat itself?   When her granddaughter stops to visit on a road trip from Spokane, Edie recognizes that the two vagabond brothers who accompany her are moody and violent.

The structure of the book is nearly perfect. There are three parts, and Three is the magic number  with brothers: twins Frank and Roy,; the two brothers who ran Roy off the road in ’64; and now the two brothers with her granddaughter in 2007.

I have one criticism: there is too much objectification of women. Edie constantly goes to bed with abusive husbands, and we see, in my opinion, too much of her figure. Like Edie, I object to the word “tits.” And Edie’s granddaughter’s sundress straps fall off her shoulders while she eats pizza. Now how many times have I seen a woman’s sundress straps fall off while she is eating pizza? Zero.

Well, many great male writers, from Philip Roth to Jim Harrison, have had similar obsessions. Still, I liked Edie, who does take care of herself and has more control as the times change.

Overall, it is an absorbing summer read.  Watson is an excellent read, and Edie is a strong woman.

Covid-19 Times: Free Hair in the Formerly Free World

“Hair,” 1967

Do you ever wish you had sung in a local production of Hair? “Hair, hair, long beautiful hair…” Were you so vain that you thought of your hair all the time during lockdown? Did you rush to the salon the minute the  state reopened?  (Not quite the message of Hair.)

How I wish I hadn’t cut my hair!  But the home haircut is necessary if your bangs suddenly stab you in the eye. Honestly, one of my eyes was red for days.  And once you start cutting unmanageable hair, it’s hard to quit. First it sticks out on one side, then on the other, then you cut your bangs, and then you’ve got a Grapes of Wrath haircut. Forget the YouTube videos: your hair is not like that of the fashion models posing with scissors and hair clips.

A hairdresser could fix this in a minute.  Social distancing, however, is impossible in a hair salon.   And  the close interactions between hairdressers and clients are unsafe at the moment:  a record number of Covid-19 cases was reported in our state and in the U.S. today.

To reach this point, American behavior has been monstrously selfish. Instead of staying home and avoiding the crowd, people have been gadding about in crowds, both indoors and outdoors. Finally some states have had to reverse their dimmer decisions, like the reopening of bars.

Let’s face it, a lot of politicians have blood on their hands. Many of them lied to their constituents about the seriousness of the pandemic. (They said it was not serious.)   The U.S. is now wrestling for the No. 1 slot in the spread of Covid-19, along with India, Brazil, and South Africa.

Ah, if only the world would work together for  The Age of Aquarius (another song from Hair).

Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
Aquarius
Aquarius

A Novel about a Bookstore: Robert Hellenga’s “Love, Death & Rare Books”

“We’re fine,” I say on the landline. (I’m keeping it real.) Of course things are not fine. They are far from fine. At least we have enough books.  Should we start a bookstore in our living room?

What I miss is browsing in bookstores. Sounds trivial, doesn’t it?   I miss the dusty stacks where you discover South American novels you’ve never heard of, and  bright displays of new books with crisp pages.

A few bookstores are open again.  I stood in a socially-distanced line and noticed a copy of Robert Hellenga’s new novel, Love, Death, & Rare Books.  I had not read any reviews of this, but I bought it.

And it is everything I need in a novel right now: it is a book about books! I am racing through this fictitious history of a family-owned antiquarian bookstore in Chicago, Chas. Johnson & Sons, from 1970 to 2011.

Gabe, the narrator, grows up at the store, and eventually works side-by-side with his father and grandfather. As you can imagine, he inhales books, beginning with The Hardy Boys, and The Catcher in the Rye, and moving on to Ovid, Homer, Wordsworth, Walter Mosley, and Salman Rushdie (the store is bombed when they display The Satanic Verses in the window). As Gabe gets older, he is drawn to Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. And he is a melancholy guy himself, reserved, introspective, and rejected by the woman he loves.

We see how the business changes over the years, and I am fascinated by the details about the valuation of rare books, the bookseller’s deep knowledge of a book’s provenance, a trip to assess 100,00 books in a library at a bankrupt Jesuit college, book sales at Christie’s, and antiquarian book fairs.

Although Gabe is immersed in bookselling, his personal life is somewhat messy.  In his twenties he falls in love with Lydia, an independent, beautiful young woman writing a thesis on Keats (she works in the bookstore and recites “The Eve of St. Agnes” at the dinner table). Alas, she is too focused on romantic poetry to marry him: she goes to graduate school at Yale to learn to deconstruct Keats.  When she returns pregnant by her married English professor, Gabe remains her friend, and is with her in the delivery room. She still refuses to marry him.  He does not compare to the professor.

Why, why doesn’t she marry Gabe, we moan.  Truth to tell: I found Lydia irritating. She is so strong-minded and personable (though caustic) that she has more romantic choices than Gabe does. “I’m not a nun,” she says at one point.

I haven’t finished this well-written book yet, but if you want to read about the book business,  Hellenga’s enthusiastic description provides a good balance to actual bookstore owner Shaun Bythell’s more caustic view in Diary of a Bookseller.

How to Read Dickens without Reading about How to Read Dickens

Penguin Clothbound Classics edition of “Hard Times”

I often read Victorian novels without reading about the Victorian novel first. I love a good Penguin, but I eschew the introduction and footnotes. You don’t want to interrupt the spell of Dickens’s charming  novel, Hard Times, with  a footnote on St. Giles’s Church, London. Not that it wasn’t a great note:

Chapter 4. Note 3. “St. Giles’s was a notoriously poor area of London. See Dickens’s piece, ‘On Duty with Inspector Field,’ Household Words, III (14 June 1851), pp. 265-70.”

I read the note fondly (the introduction and footnotes in the Penguin Clothbound Classics edition are by Kate Flint), but it is  too much in hot mid-July.  I do recommend Peter Ackroyd’s exhaustive 1990 biography, Dickens, though.

I picture myself at the British Library.

After years of reading Dickens and about Dickens, I would love to discover some area of Dickens studies that scholars haven’t done to death. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit with pencil and notebook at the British Library or the Dickens Museum or the Bodleian Library or the Harvard Library or the University of Texas at Austin library or God knows what other library and read musty old papers and discover a detail that changes Dickens studies? With the pandemic raging, that is unlikely to happen. I wonder if I’ll ever see London again.  Austin, Texas, maybe.

This week, I was fascinated by my third reading of  Dickens’s Hard Times. It almost seems like a new book, because I haven’t read it to shreds as I have, say, Our Mutual Friend. Published in 1854, Hard Times is a charming little book, and a good introduction for Victorian newbies who do not embrace 900-page books. Like Bleak House (1853), Dickens’s previous novel, Hard Times begins with a stylish repetition of the same word in successive sentences; note facts and principles in the first paragraph.  And the repetition of the word facts occurs throughout the first chapter.

“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle upon which I bring up these children!”

Fans of Dickens’s elegant whimsy realize immediately that he is satirizing education whimsically–again! Dickens thought poorly of the schools.  The character Thomas Gradgrind, who depends on facts, math, and a philosophy of self-interest for the system of education at his model school, detests whimsy and imagination. His unfortunate children, Louisa and Tom, are not the better for their facts:  they are not allowed to go to the circus, and are admonished for peeking through a gap in the tent.  A circus is not a pastime for reasonable people.

Ironically, they become connected to the circus when the pupil Sissy Jupe, known as “Girl Number Twenty,” is abandoned by her father, a circus clown.  Thomas kindly takes her into their home. Sissy’s sunny personality improves the outlook of his youngest daughter, Jane, but it is too late for Louisa and  Tom. Louisa is married off to Mr. Bounderby, a boastful middle-aged owner of a factory and a bank, to whom marriage is certainly a hell, and Tom becomes a dishonest clerk at Bounderby’s bank who begs Louisa to pay his gambling debts and other debauchery.

The education of the Gradgrinds has not served them well.  In some ways, Dickens is more sympathetic to the uneducated factory workers than to the Gradgrinds, though some of them are also frankly awful, too.  One thread of the novel is spun around the hard life of 40-year-old Stephen Blackpool, a weaver stuck in a loveless marriage to an alcoholic, and in love with kind, sweet Rachael, whom he can never marry. When he asks Mr. Bounderby about the laws of divorce, Mr. Bounderby says they are not for the lower class. There is one law for the rich, and another for the poor, as Stephen discovers.  And yet Stephen has paid his alcoholic wife to go away several times, and she always returns down-and-out, and sells the furniture for drink while he is at work.

The workers are poor and have no rights; but a dishonest union organizer turns on Stephen when he says he believes in the principles but doesn’t agree with the manner and will not join because he needs the money so badly. And so a campaign of ostracism against him begins.

Dickens loves to write about social issues, and I thought of other industrial novels, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and Mary Barton (1848), and Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849). Such issue-driven novels were “in the air” at that time. I wonder, Is anyone writing novels about labor and unions these days? Or does that belong to an earlier time?

Hard Times is such a brilliant read! It is satiric, elegantly written, and Louisa is an especially vivid character.  Parts are sentimental, but Dickens can get away with it.  In fact, where would we be without sentimentality?

The Book Journal Crisis: What to Do When Numbers Become Meaningless

Reading is my solace. I do not recognize myself without a book; but in the mild, beautiful spring of 2020, I was so jittery, sometimes terrified, that I took three walks a day just to calm down. Everything was closed, including the parks, but there was no limit on exercise.  When I came home from my walks and did read, I gravitated toward short books, particularly short stories by Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield.

And then I began to worry about my new attitude toward reading. Where were my usual Victorians?  They had disappeared from my night table.    My book journal, in a curious way, was as terrifying as the lurking Covid: it showed how my way of life had been destroyed, or at least derailed–and I didn’t even have the virus. During an old-fashioned phone call, I was gloomy. “All these f—- book lists, book journals, book blogs, indecipherable Twitter, Goodreads–I wish I’d never been born.”

“I haven’t read a thing in months,” my friend confided.  “Yesterday I hummed a Van Halen song in a Zoom meeting.”

“What was the song?” I wanted to know.

Before I stopped making entries in my book journal, I talked dramatically about my determination to WIPE IT OUT.  You would not believe how many notebooks I have with lists and lists and lists.  On Feb. 16, 2013, I read Norman Collins’s London Belongs to Me.   Oops, maybe it is worthwhile to remind myself of that excellent novel.  I finished Felix Holt on May 17, 2020,  my third reading of this classic, but I have no idea what year I first read it.  Does it matter?

I do remember telling a friend I was “bored out of my mind,” and was reading “too much” and keeping a book journal with “frightening numbers.”

“What is too much and why write a list?” she asked.

When did the book lists start? I can only think it had to do with blogging. Book bloggers make a lot of lists, and the early blogs were especially fun, full of spontaneity, full of reading recommendations. I loved the early days of blogging when I read short books by Pamela Frankau, Pamela Hansford Johnson, C. P. Snow, and Angela Thirkell in a day, and posted my thoughts the minute I finished.

Now I seldom visit my old blogs and rarely look at the lists in the book journals.

It is one thing to post about my reading at the blog, but keeping lists of every book I read seems pointless. Perhaps I’m less narcissistic than I used to be?  Or perhaps more?  Surely this issue is pointless!

I’ve stopped making lists.  Now I’m a free woman!

Not a Covid-19 Dystopia:  Doris Lessing’s “The Memoirs of a Survivor”

We all remember that time. It was no different for me than for others.  Yet we do tell each other over and over again the particularities of the events we shared, and the repetition, the listening, is as if we are saying, “It was like that for you, too?  Then that confirms it, yes, it was so, it must have been, I wasn’t imagining things.”–Doris Lessing’s “The Memoirs of a Survivor”

This weekend I reread Doris Lessing’s  beautifully-written novel The Memoirs of a Survivor, because I needed to get my bearings in an increasingly unreal world.  I was in need of comfort, in fact in need of a “cozy catastrophe.” After rattling the pages of the daily newspaper and perusing the record number of Covid-19 cases, I was embarrassed by the government’s inability to protect us as numbers spike after a huge number of unwise state reopenings.  I was also embarrassed that we are practically a third-world country in the view of the world now, and banned from traveling to other countries. (Not a good time to travel, but still.)  I longed to escape into an alternate chronicle of the fall of civilization–which is and isn’t happening here and elsewhere.

Lessing gets everything right, on a metaphorical level.  In another way, she gets very little right.  Of course this is fiction, a kind of dream-like fable, in which it is possible to survive the fall of civilization and travel through walls to other times.  There are epidemics, but that is only one cause of the disintegration.

The narrator, a middle-class older woman who lives in a comfortable flat in London, describes the crisis known in her times as “it.” There are food shortages: people get tips from each other on where to get potatoes, imitation meat, and other necessities. Official sources of news are unreliable, though the government still exists in a talking-heads way.   Hardly anybody bothers with electricity, though the narrator has running water. Squatters move into empty hotels and houses in the narrator’s neighborhood, and gangs of young people, some of them cannibals, many of them armed, pass through and camp on the pavements, sometimes for days, finally leaving for the north.  And then the residents of the neighborhood sigh with relief.  But soon they, too, are thinking of joining the gangs and traveling with them.

And into the narrator’s life comes Emily, a 12-year-old girl dropped off at her flat one day by a strange man who says she is now the Emily’s guardian. Emily is inseparable from her pet, Hugo, which looks part dog, part cat, and which is really part of her personality.  Much of the book talks about the rapid coming-of-age of Emily:  soon she is known as “Gerald’s girl,” the girlfriend of one of the gang leaders who has a house in the neighborhood.  But just as easily Emily could have led a gang herself, the narrator muses, as she is the one  with the most information about where to get what.    And the narrator believes the catastrophe has crushed the years of the struggle for women’s rights.  Women are content to be in second place now.

Lessing tries to define the crisis she calls “it.”  She writes,

For ‘it’ is a force, a power, taking the form of an earthquake, a visiting comet whose balefulness hangs closer night by night, distorting all thought by fear–‘it’ can be, has been, pestilence, a war, the alteration of climate, a tyranny that twists men’s minds, the savagery of a religion.

And, much to our surprise, she explains the government is still at work. 

All this time, while ordinary life simply dissolved away, or found new shapes, the structure of government continued, though heavy and cumbersome and becoming all the time more ramified….  What government really did was to adjust itself to events, while pretending, probably even to itself, that it initiated them.

Although Lessing hated people to interpret her books as autobiography, I do recognize some scenes from her Children of Violence (Martha Quest) series  and her autobiography.   

But I agree that is the wrong way to read her books.  I’ve always loved this novel, but this time I was reading for directions.