I cannot identify my favorite critics: I barely seem to register their names. That astounds me, and yet it must be common for those who read many book reviews.
For instance, The New York Review of Books recently published a review of Dima Wannous’ The Frightened Ones, a short, tragic Syrian novel which I would not otherwise have heard of – and yet I did not look at the name of the reviewer. In this delicate novel, two damaged people who have survived the Syrian revolution meet in a psychiatrist’s office. The sullen Naseem, a brooding writer who ought to have a DANGER warning on his lapel, wordlessly invites Suleima, a shy 40-year-old woman, out for drinks. Between drinks, they slice pills and pop them: these are prescription pills, not the recreational drugs of Bright Lights, Big City.
Identity becomes an urgent question for Suleima when she is unable to find Naseem’s books in a bookstore. He publishes under a pseudonym; his books are everywhere. He decides to leave Syria and gives her an unfinished manuscript of a novel – which is about her! If you’re depressed, like Suleima, you will soon descend into hell (and she’s already been there). In alternate chapters, we read Suleima’s narrative and Naseem’s book about her. The weight of history, her own, Naseem’s, and the country’s, is almost unbearable… And the two stories intertwine and get mixed up.
And so should I thank the critic, Lydia Wilson, a Research Associate at the Computer Laboratory and in Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge and a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford? (I looked her up.) It is a tribute to her that I read The Frightened Ones, but I must stress that I was not the ideal reader.
Then, as if I were not depressed enough, I picked up Doris Lessing’s The Diary of a Good Neighbour. This smart, realistic novel is one of two she published under the pseudonym Jane Somers. It was an experiment: she wanted to see whether critics recognized her style without her name brand (they did not) and what reception they would give a “new” writer.
Lessing writes, “One of my aims has more than succeeded. It seems I am like Barbara Pym! The books are fastidious, well-written, well-crafted. Unsparing, unsentimental and deeply felt. Funny, too. On the other hand they are sentimental, and mawkish. Mere soap opera. Trendy.”
Lessing’s books are always remarkable, whether under her brand or not. So should I trust the critics? Apparently not!
Let me stress that I did not remember The Diary of a Good Neighbour was depressing until I embarked on it this week. It wasn’t depressing when I was younger! The Diary deals with the problems of old age, which became grim and apparent to me during my mother’s illnesses and at the end of her life. Lessing’s heroine, Janna, is a middle aged, glamorous assistant editor of a women’s magazine. Her husband died, and she regrets she never really tried to talk to him. She keeps her relationships superficial. She did not take care of her mother or grandmother when they were dying: that task was her sister’s. Janna’s whole life is work.
By chance at the drugstore one night, she meets 90-year-old Maudie Fowler, a bent-over witch-like woman whose nose practically hooks down to her chin. Maudie wants aspirin, rather than the prescription pills that “deaden” her, and charming Janna expedites the transaction. Then Janna accompanies Maudie home to her rent-controlled basement flat – which is filthy, cold, and has treacherous old electric fixtures, a coal fire, and an outdoor lavatory.
Maudie refuses to go to a nursing home, or to welcome volunteers called “Good Neighbors.” Doing good has fallen into Janna’s hands. She brings groceries, calls an electrician, buys her new underwear, nad chats for hours to Maudie. Both women genuinely enjoy their conversation, but when Janna returns home, she spends hours washing the terrible smell off her body and clothes. Maudie’s flat reeks of urine, unwashed clothes, and worse. And yet Janna is now responsible for her.
Perhaps what interests me most this time round is Janna’s personal experiences. When her only friend, Joyce, the editor of the magazine, decides to follow her unfaithful husband to America, Janna understands that she has unwittingly been part of Joyce’s marriage for years: without Janna at the office, Joyce would never have had the flexible hours to work at home , save her marriage (though it is very bad), and raise her (horrible) two children. The loss of Joyce is more terrible for Janna than was her husband’s death. Poor Janna grieves.
I look forward to moving on to Jane Somers’s more cheerful second book, If the Old Could, in which Jane falls in love. Love is more sprightly somehow, though this is not a happy book, either.
But it’s Lessing. I mean Jane Somers! And so I must read it.
Do you ever come upon a book that is almost too depressing to read? This seldom happens to me, but when it does…