Classics to Take Your Mind off Dystopia: Doris Lessing, James M. Cain, & D. H. Lawrence

Inside a coronavirus ward in California.

I am trying to cut back on reading the news.  I hate to say it’s all bad, but it  is, as you know, because you’re living through it, too.

Perhaps, I thought, as I sat in an Adirondack chair looking at the stars, it would be BETTER if I read dystopian novels rather than the news.  I  recently reread Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, the fifth in her Children of Violence series,  the last part of which segues into a dystopian  collection of documents that record the experiences of Martha and her familly after a catastrophe destroys the world as we know it.  Oddly, it felt cathartic to read about a catastrophe that isn’t happening here.  The  hopeful note is:  some people do survive.

Martha Quest and her employer/sometime-lover Mark believe the inception of the disaster was in the ’60s, when suddenly nothing worked.   New items were broken when you bought them, and it was nearly impossible to report a problem to the telephone company or a store.  A freezer door would fall off a new refrigerator, and you would spend months calling the company, which would refer you to the parent company, which would eventually send an incompetent repairman who would say you should buy a new one . Or something as simple as a loose bolt or an improperly attached bit of plastic would be responsible for blowing up a  manned space craft. And the air and water had long been  poisoned (like ours), people are shattered into mental illness by noise pollution, and there are unreported  nuclear plant disasters.  And after the final catastrophe, many are born mutants.  Mark’s son Francis grimly works in a refugee camp in Africa where children are  born two-headed .  But Martha, somewhere on an island where the community has a hard life, reports their  children look normal, but are often born with different kinds of brains–psychic abilities, for instance.  And she hopes they never get rescued, because she mistrusts the scientists.

Well, that’s very Doris Lessing.  The book was published in 1969, and her disaster takes place in the late ’70s. Let us hope that we never have such a disaster.

Alas,  record numbers of Covid-19 cases have been reported in Southern states and California now that things are reopening.  At the end of last week in Oklahoma, the number of cases skyrocketed, and there was a new wrinkle:  54% of the cases were among people age 18-34.  The number of new cases among older people was, bizarrely, down.  


I adored James M. Cain’s masterpiece, Mildred Pierce (1941), a psychological novel that dissects the dynamics of work and surviving the Depression.  Mildred Pierce, a  young woman in her late twenties, is raising  two daughters alone after her husband’s business crashes and he has an affair with another woman.  She is determined not to lose the house and to keep up the middle-class lifestyle, but bitterly discovers she is qualified for nothing. So she becomes a waitress, a  job she conceals because she doesn’t want to embarrass her daughters.  But after she  starts selling her pies to restaurants, she opens her own fried chicken restaurant. Her climb to wealth–a woman who had been  told her housewife skills would get her nowhere–is  fascinating.  Alas, she has one problem:  she worships her sociopathic daughter Veda, a cold, calculating girl who  actually co-opts Mildred’s upper-class polo-playing boyfriend.

I couldn’t put this down!  Cain’s style is spare and elegant, his portrait of Mildred unforgettably realistic, and his dialogue pithy and slangy.  This is my favorite book of the summer so far.  Somehow I never thought I would enjoy a book by the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice.  (Hated the movie.)

D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.  This brilliant, lyrical novel was banned–it just kept happening to Lawrence, whose novel Lady Chatterley’s  Lover is famous mainly because it was banned.   WIL has particularly vivid portraits of two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, who are teachers in a coal-mining town.  They don’t particularly want to get married, but they are curious about different kinds of love with different men.  Rupert Birkin, a school inspector, falls for Ursula, but has a strange idea of love:  he doesn’t think it will be complete unless he also loves a man, though this love is supposed to be beyond sex.  And Ursula, like me, a has a difficult time understanding why she is not enough.  

But their relationship is very healthy compared to that of Gudrun and Gerald.  Gerald owns the coal mines, is sadistic to horses (there is one horrible scene where Gudrun screams at him to stop beating his horse, which he is determined should stand in front of the railroad tracks as a train passes), and is drawn to Gudrun’s beauty and talent as a sculptor.  But these two clearly shouldn’t be together, as we discover when the four take a trip to the Alps.  

In a way, this is a sequel to The Rainbow, much of which is devoted to Ursula’s early experiences. but you can read WIL on its own.  Somehow it is more famous, though The Rainbow is a better novel, I think.  You can read my post about The Rainbow here.  

Doris Lessing and Me: How Martha Quest Saved Me

“The bad time had been going on for-  but one of the qualities of a bad time is that it seems endless”–Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City 

One summer evening when I was sixteen, I found myself eating dinner at a posh house in Westchester County, New York.  The 32-year-old lesbian teacher with whom I  lived (she’d seduced me, I realized later, because I was not living with my parents) was visiting her wealthy ex-father-in-law.  First we went on a “tour” of his house, which was not quite the Metropolitan Museum of Art; but  he pontificated about a few framed prints on the walls.  Later, the European housekeeper served us dinner, something simple, perhaps chicken.  

It was a difficult, nearly intolerable situation.  He radiated disapproval, and in retrospect, I understand that it is far from ideal for an ex-daughter-in-law-turned-lesbian to show up with a teenage girlfriend.  And the butler at his dark New York penthouse, where we had stayed a few days, had reported that we didn’t let him cook for us.  The lesbian, whom I will henceforth call Hilda, was on a steak diet, so had cooked for herself.  Her ex-father-in-law found this absurd.  I remember little else about the conversation, except I said I  liked Doris Lessing’s books, and he informed me that he “couldn’t read her; her writing was flat-footed.” 

On this particular trip, I became resigned to disapproval. A few days earlier, in a small college town in the Midwest, Hilda’s professor brother had stormed out of the house and refused to speak to her after he saw she was dating a child.  His wife and daughters were kind, trying to save the relationship, I suppose.  But there was something definitely wrong with Hilda:  she  confided she was “attracted to” one of her nieces.

I felt trapped by Hilda, and also felt bored:  my close friends knew all about her (“We thought she was a dirty old woman,” one of them told me years later), but I had to keep the dark secret at school, because she told me it was illegal, and she would get fired from her job; and, to make things worse,  I always had a yeast infection.  (I never had another after I left.)  To show you how far I was from any semblance of maturity, my friends and I used to bicycle at night and hang glittered tampons (feminist art) on trees.   

During this period of anxious cohabitation with Hilda, Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest novels saved me.  That will sound like an exaggeration, but the books were a lifeline. Not only did I become the character when I read; I became the books.  Martha, the heroine of Lessing’s five-book Children of Violence series, was my role model, and everybody else’s, as I learned when I was older.

Martha encourges us to resist and struggle out of traps.  In many ways, she is an escape artist, trying on roles and rejecting them. The cycle of books, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City, delineates Martha’s experiences from her teens and young adulthood in Africa, and, finally, in the last novel, she immigrates to London, where she lives into old age–until a disaster makes London a dystopia.

From the beginning, Martha is a resister.  In  Zambesia, a fictitious name for Southern Rhodesia, the white-dominated colony in Africa where Lessing grew up, we first meet 15-year-old Martha, a dropout who spends her days reading Kinsey, Freud, and Marx.  After battling her controlling mother, she moves to town, where she becomes a secretary, and attends”sundowners” at the country club every night.  Soon she is astonished to find herself married to a dull man and the bored mother of a toddler, Caroline.  She leaves the marriage and her daughter, feeling guilty about Caroline, but convinced she has set Caroline free–and maybe she has, because Martha was so unhappy.

The next three books concentrate on politics and sex (which is mostly bad, alas), as Martha struggles to escape the deadening conformity  of a provincial, racist, sexist society.  Martha, a member of the Communist party, does her typing job between meetings and lectures, and is always sleep-deprived (it makes me tired just to read it). Lessing’s descriptions of the leftist group dynamics and political jargon are  fascinating and familiar; there are countless fights and complex sexual interactions, just as there are today. And yet Martha makes another tragic mistake:  she marries Anton Hesse, a German refugee and a leader of their Communist group, so he won’t be interned or deported.  The two are sexually incompatible, and she is once again trapped. But once again she escapes:  In the fourth novel, Landlocked, she has great sex with a charming married farmer who she knows will never leave his wife. Finally, Martha!   But Martha has always meant to go to London, and finally she does. 

The first four books are starkly realistic, an African coming-of-age story, and of these Landlocked is by far the best.  But the last, The Four-Gated City, an experimental novel, is the one I’ve returned to agains and again.  It not only charts the changing politics of post-war London but the changing  trends and styles during the ’50s and ’60s.  In the last part, Lessing turns London into   dystopia, after an unknown disaster strikes the world.

Why did The Four-Gated City speak to me?  Is it because I was trapped, and Martha gets out of her trap?   Back then, we were gloomy about the bomb, the environment, overpopulation, etc.   I could only too easily imagine a dystopian catastrophe, but The Four-Gated City does offer some hope.  

Certainly Martha knows we need dreams to survive, though she  leads an extremely difficult life.  At one point,  Martha and Mark, her employer in London, a writer and factory owner, discuss an ideal city.  Mark begins describing it to tease her out of bad humor.

“Do you know what it is you’re really wanting, Martha? ’

And he proceeded to tell her. She was seeking, without knowing it for the mythical city, the one which appeared in legends and in fables and fairy stories, and (here he laughed at her, but affectionately) it was a hierarchic city, which is why she refused even to consider it. He proceeded to describe it, as clearly as if he had lived there; and she, laughing affectionately at him, who knew this archetypal city so well yet said he believed in nothing but a recurring destruction and disorder joined him in a long, detailed, fantastic reconstruction which, by the time they had finished, was as good as a blueprint to build.”

I left Hilda when I was eighteen. My mythical city turned out to be books, boyfriends  (I married the man I loved), and taking walks in the country.

And though life is always a struggle, it helps to read Doris Lessing.  Really, it does.

Living in Doris Lessing’s World: A Pandemic Unforeseen

I get it.  I don’t want to, but I do.  Men think they’re invincible. How wonderful that must be.

There is still a crazed notion here that COVID-19 is just the flu.  Everything I’ve read contradicts this; everything you’ve read contradicts this. Since the outbreak here can be traced to a small group of vacationers returning from a cruise, people assume it is contained. They are not reading enough newspapers, whereas I’m at the point where I can make charts with colored pins and sticky notes, like  Martha Quest and  Mark in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City.  But unlike the narrator of her apocalyptic novel, Memoirs of a Survivor, I cannot gather information from people on the street.

It’s actually unclear to me whether it is safe to take walks. There are so many gaps in these articles.   When we went out yesterday for a walk, I broke all rules of etiquette and crossed the street if I saw a person coming.  Mind you, hardly anybody was out.  My husband is so stubborn that he mocked a person who was walking in the street.  Frankly, that was the smartest person I saw all day.

Infectious disease experts are saying, “Work at home,” but not all employers have approved this homework situation (yet).  We’re a little behind here, just beginning to take it seriously.  The universities, schools, movie theaters, and libraries are closed.  The mayor declared  a city emergency and squelched the chutzpah of a belligerent group who had refused to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day parade. 

Mind you, I’m not panicking. We are all in a state of derealization. That’s a joke, but it’s also true you can’t take it all in.  I pay close attention to the details in the op/ed pieces by experts, but am more critical of journalists’ accounts of what’s unfolding.  Sometimes there is a note of hysteria, for which I cannot blame them. 

But why, oh why, didn’t the Senate meet this weekend to approve the relief bill drafted by the House?   Isn’t this a National Emergency? 

But two things we know for sure:  keep on washing your hands and avoid the crowd.

Politics and the Threat of Reading in Doris Lessing’s “The Sweetest Dream”

In Doris Lessing’s The Sweetest Dream, one of her neglected later novels, she reconstructs the political themes of her two great 1960s experimental novels, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City.  She sketches the hypocrisy of the post-war Communist party in Britain, recalls the very real terror of the atomic bomb, and explores the alternative cultures of hippies and dropouts. 

But The Sweetest Dream is straightforward and realistic—there are no flights into science fiction, and any portraits of mental illness are clinical rather than empathetic.  This solid book is more accessible than her masterpieces, and it is a page-turner.  It might be a good place to start reading Lessing.

Lessing writes a note at the beginning of the book explaining that she never wrote the third volume of her autobiography because she did not want to hurt people.  She offers this novel in its place. And though she claims the characters are not based on any people, her readers will recognize recurring themes and characters from her canon.  

The Sweetest Dream begins in  the 1960s and takes us through the ‘90s.  It is a bookish novel, alluding not only to Lessing’s earlier novels, but to the role of reading in the characters’ lives. It focuses on the Lennoxes, an extended family which expands to include the children of the ex-wives of Comrade Johnny Lennox, whom his mother Julia calls “an imbecile.” 

The Lennoxes live in a large house in London, a house where people don’t particularly like each other. It is managed by Frances, an actress and journalist, the first of Johnny’s ex-wives, and is  owned by Johnny’s mother, Julia, a German aristocrat who came to England after World War I.  Frances and Julia  dislike each other but tolerate each other for the sake of Frances’s two teenage sons, who need a stable home.  Andrew and Colin have been traumatized by the irresponsibility of their father, “Comrade” Johnny, a Communist superstar who left them years ago and has since ruined the lives of other vulnerable women.  

And though the house is not meant to be a rooming house, Frances is too kind to turn people in need away. Partly out of guilt toward her sons, she allows their friends to “crash” on weekends.  Soon some of the “waifs” are living there.

The most problematic of the “waifs” is Rose, a furious girl whom no one likes, who moves into the basement flat and refuses to leave.  Her hatred of the Lennoxes, especially Frances, poisons the atmosphere.  Years later, when Rose joins the Communist party, Rose jeers at the elderly Julia as she struggles through a crowd at an anti-war rally.  When Julia faints on the curb, trying to call a taxi,  Rose yells to the crowd that “Ma Lennox” is drunk, and the crowd laughs.  Rose does get a taxi for the old woman, but continues her campaign to discredit the family.

But what I’m really interested in is the role of books in Rose’s burgeoning hatred and resentment of the Lennoxes.

Since Rose had first come into this house she had been possessed by a quiet fury that these people could call it theirs, as of a right.  The great house, its furnishings, like something out of a film, all that money…but all that was only the foundation for  a deeper anguish, a bitter burning that never left them.  It was their ease with it all, what they took for granted, what they knew.  Never had she mentioned a book—and she had a period of testing them out with books no sane person could have heard of—that they hadn’t read, or hadn’t heard of.  She would stand in that sitting-room, with two walls all books from ceiling to floor, and know that they had read them.  “Frances,” she challenged, being found there, hands on hips, glaring at the books, “have you actually read all these books?”  “Well, yes, I believe I have.”  “When did you? Did you have books in your house when you were growing up?”  “Yes, we had the classics. I think everyone did in those days.”  “Everybody, everybody!  Who’s everybody?”  “The middle classes,” said Frances, determined not to be bullied.  “And a good proportion of the working class as well.”

This goes on for pages.  A young African boy  is also intimidated by the books, but, unlike Rose, he is awed and thrilled to read them. 

Books so often are the center of debate, aren’t they?  Especially in this day and age, when the Left and the Right both “censor” books by discrediting the writers’ politics or personal lives. This is a very strange time, but maybe we’ll forget all about it in ten years.

I wonder what Lessing would have thought.

The Doris Lessing Effect

Doris Lessing

Thinking back over my wide reading in the canon and pop genres, I often muse on how lucky I am to be surrounded by books. After a lifetime of buying books, I have an eclectic library that is better than many bookstores. I’ve grazed happily in ancient and modern literature: Aeschylus to Austen, Catullus to Colette, Tolstoy to Elizabeth Taylor, Dickens to Drabble. But I must admit that Doris Lessing is the writer who has influenced me most.

Her masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, opened up new worlds to women in the mid-twentieth century (and later). Anna, the heroine, is a “free woman,” a single mother, and a blocked writer who despises her own best-selling first novel. She refuses to write another “sentimental” novel and instead she writes for hours every day in four different-colored notebooks. She is brittle and unhappy because her married lover has left her:  she writes a fictional version of this.  There does not seem to be much future in love for her.  When I first read this remarkable novel, I had never visualized a future where a woman’s primary goal wasn’t marriage or motherhood. Life is difficult for Anna, but it shatters the myth that all women attain what is supposed to be the feminine dream.

Lessing was exasperated that The Golden Notebook was considered a feminist classic.  It is primarily an experimental novel about  the breakdown of personality in the fragmented post-war society. It may not be a feminist novel, but it certainly inspired feminists.

Lessing has always been a controversial writer. She was a member of the Communist party, until she (and many others) discovered what was going on in Russia.  According to the Guardian, MI5 spied on her for 20 years, “listening to her phone conversations, opening her mail and closely monitoring her movement…”And the political aspects of her work that appealed to women readers in the ’60s and ’70s seem to be lost on future generations.

And then, after her death in 2013, Lessing was attacked by several journalists and critics on the basis of her personality: in short,  as a woman, not as a writer. They sternly dubbed her “a bad mother” because she “abandoned” her two children to be raised by their father in Africa. That seems a very sexist criticism to me.  And then they turned around and criticized for having a third child who lived with her until his death. The logic of this utterly defeats me.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

I never understand the attacks on a writer’s personality anyway. We read their work, but surely do not expect them to be perfect people.   That’s why they’re writers after all: to express ideas that might be extremely unpopular or unappealing if we had to listen to them drone on in person. But nothing they dug up on Lessing seemed terrible to me. They were determined to turn her life into a celebrity gossip column.  After all, she was a former Communist and an outspoken woman.

At Goodreads, the average star rating of The Golden Notebook is 3.8. That’s not terrible, but it’s certainly not what I’d expect. I wonder if she is less read and understood now:   only 30% of the world’s population today was alive in 1962 when The Golden Notebook was published. But then again, this is a complicated experimental novel.  It’s a lot of work to read.

Honestly, if I ever again see a headline like the following, “Doris Lessing: from champion of free love to frump with a bun” (The Spectator), I am writing a letter of protest to the editor.

The Leggings Protest & Doris Lessing’s “The Summer Before the Dark”

What should women wear?  Pant suits? Jeans?

What about leggings?

Last week at Notre Dame University and St. Mary’s College, the student paper published a letter that sparked a protest. The subject:  leggings.  Maryann White, a Catholic mother of four sons, asked women students to renounce the  fashion of tight leggings with short tops .  She was disturbed by the sight of women’s derrières at Mass, and thought leggings too provocative in the presence of men and her sons.  She said it made it more difficult for her to be a good Catholic mother.

The students did not say “YES” TO Maryann White’s letter.  Instead, they protested by wearing leggings for two days.  Well, the energy could have gone into protesting the denial of global warming or the closing of Planned Parenthood clinics, but I don’t care whether or not they wear leggings.

I assumed from the mockery of the press that Maryann White was dotty.  Then I read the letter.  She makes some good points about the fashion industry’s exploitation of women.

She writes,

The emergence of leggings as pants some years ago baffled me. They’re such an unforgiving garment. Last fall, they obtruded painfully on my landscape. I was at Mass at the Basilica with my family. In front of us was a group of young women, all wearing very snug-fitting leggings and all wearing short-waisted tops (so that the lower body was uncovered except for the leggings). Some of them truly looked as though the leggings had been painted on them.

A world in which women continue to be depicted as “babes” by movies, video games, music videos, etc. makes it hard on Catholic mothers to teach their sons that women are someone’s daughters and sisters. That women should be viewed first as people — and all people should be considered with respect.

Again, I don’t care who wears leggings, but it is true that clothes send a message.

For instance, in Doris Lessing’s novel The Summer Before the Dark, the middle-aged Kate has a kind of fashion breakdown. She has a makeover before taking a summer job as an interpreter, and is much admired.  When she returns to London, she rents a room in a young woman’s flat for the rest of the summer.  She doesn’t dye her hair and loses so much weight her clothes no longer fit.  When she finally goes out again in baggy clothes she is invisible to men.

All this changes  when she borrows a fashionable dress from her young roommate.

Mrs. Brown strolled in the park all afternoon. She had not at first realised she was again Mrs. Brown, but then she noted glances, attention: it was because she wore Maureen’s properly fitting shift, in dark glossy green, because she had done her hair with the twist and the lift that went with “piquant” features—because she was, as they say, “on the mend,” and the lines of her body and face had conformed? A man came to sit near her on a bench and invited her to dinner.

A woman walking in a sagging dress, with a heavy walk, and her hair—this above all—not conforming to the prints made by fashion, is not “set” to attract men’s sex. The same woman in a dress cut in this or that way, walking with her inner thermostat set just so—and click, she’s fitting the pattern. Men’s attention is stimulated by signals no more complicated than what leads the gosling; and for all her adult life, her sexual life, let’s say from twelve onwards, she had been conforming, twitching like a puppet to those strings.…

Doris Lessing is brilliant and articulates ideas the rest of us can’t.

I myself ignore fashion so didn’t even realize that leggings were the fashion.

Leggings or not?