The Reinvented Bildungsroman: Doris Lessing’s “The Summer Before the Dark” & “Children of Violence”; George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”; and Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Girl”

 Like many avid readers of the bildungsroman, I have noted that coming-of-age novels never go out of fashion.  Not a week goes by that there is not a review of a new coming-of-age novel.  I often reread my favorites, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, and The Mill on the Floss. My preference is for the nineteenth century novel; perhaps they did it better. Yet as I grow older, I appreciate the modern reinvention of the bildungsroman as a form that focuses on a transitional period, such as the beginning of middle- or old age.  

So what exactly do we mean by this term?  Doris Lessing insisted that her five-volume Children of Violence series was a bildungsroman.  The first four are naturalistic novels minutely documenting the life of the heroine, Martha Quest, up to the age of 30. But the fifth is problematic.

Many 20th-century women readers  identify with Martha’s desperate struggle to escape the limits of the family and geography that defined their parents’ generation.  The last book in the series, The Four-Gated City, is so experimental that it stands apart as a separate entity, and redefines the novel:  I love it, some hate it. it is the story of Martha in London from age 30 to old age, set against the history of radicalism and sexual politics in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  Lessing also explores the wobbly definition and treatment of madness, and ends with the kind of apocalypse that will doubtless happen, where all is confusion, and no one knows the origin. So is this novel part of the bildungsroman?  I’m not sure.

Lessing’s short 1973 bildungsroman, The Summer Before the Dark, is much more conventional. She focuses on one summer, the transition in Kate Brown’s life from busy, youngish wife and mother to middle age and independence.

That summer, her husband and grown-up children will be out of the country. So Kate is coerced into taking a job as a translator.  Soon she is translating not only Portuguese into English, but the conference-goers’ needs and insecurities into information and services.  And so she is upgraded to a manager, and realizes ironically that she is making a living out of her mothering skills.

Lessing, as well as Kate, wonders, Is this how Kate wants to spend the rest of her life?  As a professional mother?  And after the conference, during a month in a rented room in a hippie girl’s apartment, she changes her expectations, reads, and experiments with clothes: how do her looks affect how people see her?

Most important, she learns how to be middle-aged:  you learn to adapt and move on or are trapped in a role that no longer fits.

Needless to say, George Orwell has little in common with Lessing. I recently reread Orwell’s novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, because I remembered that it is set partly in a bookstore. I did not recall, however, that the raging hero, Gordon Comstock, quit his advertising job to avoid the “money stink.” This novel is essentially a comedy, but it is also about working for poverty wages in a used bookstore and the demands of money in our materialistic culture.  

In this mini-bildungsroman, Gordon is confronting (or avoiding?) the crisis of turning 30.  What do you do when you quit your well paid job in your late twenties and take a job at a second-hand bookstore, because you are too idealistic for the “money stink”?  Now he can barely afford to go out for a drink with his editor friend, Ravelston,  or take his girlfriend, Rosemary, to dinner, and he refuses to let them pay his way.   

Gordon is also a poet, the author of a slim volume of poetry, reviewed by prestigious publications.  He glares at the bookshop’s poetry section.  “His own wretched book was there – skied, of course, high up among the unsaleable.  Mice, by Gordon Comstock; a sneaky little foolscap octavo, price three and sixpence but now reduced to a bob.”

Gordon has lost his inspiration, and his new manuscript is a crossed-out, inky mess. Orwell comically describes Georges desperation for cigarettes, his inconvenient lodgings, and a drinking spree that gets him fired. – so he falls down even lower on the social ladder.  The question is:  can Ravelston, Rosemary, and his sister Juilia, who lives in genteel poverty, persuade him to take a job that pays?  His biological clock, or do I mean time bomb, is ticking:  what does one do at age 30

And now I will end on a lighter note. I am a fan of a little-known bildungsroman by Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl, which is a kind of unraveling of a Vanity Fair, which the heroine radically rejects and shoots down. (Gordon in Keep the Aspidistra Flying would approve.) Alcott, who had a contract to write girls’ books, is often criticized for her tendency to “moralize.” Yet this criticism  reflects either ignorance or denial of her upbringing and idealism.   Her father,  Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist philosopher who socialized with Thoreau and Emerson,  not only  founded a vegetarian commune but  started a radical school open to students of all races – which, alas, was shut down.  In An Old-Fashioned Girl, Alcott pits the values of friendship and hard work against materialism and slavery to fashion. 

The impoverished  heroine, Polly, a lively country girl, is used to hard work and is close to her family.  On a visit to  the the Shaws, a nouveau riche family in the city, she is appalled by her worldly friend Fanny’s affectations.  Money drives the family’s inappropriate actions and shallow manners, but Polly quietly smooths the relationships among Fan, her “fractious” younger sister, Maud, and their neglected grandmother, who has marvelous stories to tell. 

As you can imagine, the lives of Polly and Fan differ in adulthood.  Polly become a hard-working music teacher, while Fanny is still absorbed in parties, fashion, and love. Polly introduces Fanny to her bohemian circle of artistic friends, a struggling group of  New England women striving to be taken seriously.   And Fanny is impressed.

Becky Jeffrey, a sculptress, lives with an engraver, Lizzie Small, in a small studio; Kate King is an authoress, struggling with her new novel; and Fanny’s landlady, Miss Mills, a philanthropist,  instead of living alone, rents rooms at low rates to impecunious people.

And Polly and Fanny do have to struggle to survive: they undergo radical changes and unforeseen difficulty. There is also romance.

And of course Alcott moralizes, but that doesn’t bother me in the least.

The Invisible Woman: “The Summer Before the Dark” by Doris Lessing

   At  the age of eighteen, one of my favorite novels was Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark.  I went so far as to type up my favorite quotes and tape them on the mirror. Looking into the mirror, the heroine, Kate Brown, tries to figure out who she is, under all the gloss and expectations.  It made sense to me to read her words on the mirror, because at that time, Lessing’s novels were a template for my life.

This short, intelligent novel is what I call “Doris Lessing-lite.”  She explored this material in more detail in her masterpieces, The Golden Notebook and the Children of Violence series.  Kate Brown wonders what the point is. Women get points for being a good wife. They get more points for being a good mother.  They still get points for being a bad mother. But what happens when no one needs her?

Things get dicey if you are not a wife or mother, Lessing knew.  Many  disapproved of Lessing for divorcing her first husband and leaving their two children with him.  After her death, many women writers raged about her allegedly unmaternal feelings   And even though Lessing married a second time, and had a third child whom she raised,  these women were still enraged.  Astonishing, isn’t it, that some of those women considered themselves feminists?

Over the years, I have internalized Lessing’s doctrines to the point that I see connections between The Summer Before the Dark (1973)  with The Golden Notebook (1962) and the last half of The Four-Gated City (1969).  In all three  novels, the heroines question stereotypes, not just gender stereotypes, but the intricate, yet senseless mechanical organization of society.  

Kate Brown is in her forties, a little older than the heroines of Lessing’s ’60s books. In her summer before the dark, she is torn from her suburban home by her  husband, Michael, a doctor who plans to spend the summer in some medical research exchange in America: and she knows that he  will be unfaithful. One of Michael’s friends needs a translator of Portuguese for a world food conference, so instead of spending a leisurely summer thinking about her future and keeping the house open for her four grown-up children, she finds herself working overtime as a translator, and becoming beloved of her colleagues.

Kate learns that looks – the way she presents herself – define who she is.  She gets an expensive, gorgeous haircut and has her hair dyed the dramatic red it was when she was a girl.  She buys beautiful, eye-catching clothes.  Suddenly she is not just a stand-in but has administrative potential:  she is promoted to help the conference-goers with everything from where to buy a certain shampoo to getting an immediate appointment with a top medical expert. Her decades of maternal skills ironically have landed her in a job that pays a staggering amount of money.

But does she want to be a professional? In August, she travels to Spain with a younger man, a dropout in his thirties, who gets very ill.   During this horrible vacation, Kate realizes that her flirtatious friend, Mary, would never so much as have looked at this particular young man.  Kate knows  she should be spending the summer figuring out who she wants to be, not as a mother-figure to a young man in his thirties who is ill but also having a nervous breakdown.

And then, not surprisingly, Kate gets very sick.   And she ends up in a very expensive hotel in London, having a breakdown, because she has nowhere to go:  her house is rented till the the end of October.  At this expensive hotel, a young woman whose role is very like Kate’s administrative role at the conferences is assigned to take care of her.  And Kate realizes that rich people all over the world can buy this expensive care and expertise.

Kate loses sense of time. By the time she is recovering, she has become an invisible woman. She loses so much weight that her beautiful dresses hang on her, and her hair has grown out, frizzy with gray roots.  People mistake her for a madwoman, and honestly she is a bit mad.   

She goes into a greasy spoon restaurant where she is ignored by the waitress.  And she is so outraged after years of being treated as that special person, Mrs. Kate Brown, that she spills a glass of water on the table;  the waitress says she will change the tablecloth after Kate finishes her meal.  Kate wants to cry and scream.

She realizes she needs to learn how to be alone.  She rents a room in a basement apartment where she can have her breakdown without expensive intervention.

The basement is the opposite of Mr. Rochester’s mad wife’s attic.  In The Four-Gated City, the heroine Martha Quest has a breakdown in a basement apartment, where her employer’s mad wife, Linda, lives.  Lessing read Laing in the ’60s, and Martha and Linda are not mad but in touch with other realities that could help mankind.  The basement is significant:  closer to the earth?  More escapable?

Kate’s breakdown is a source of pain and grief.  She may not have wasted her life, but she has painted by the numbers.  She has never lived alone.  As a young girl, she devoted herself to finding a man.  She dropped out of college to get married. 

And then there is the issue of invisibility.  In her billowing clothes, she is an old woman, a stick figure.  Men ignore her, and she has always been noticed.  But when she wears a tight sheath given her by her roommate, the men look and ask her out. 

Before the summer is over, Kate will have to decide whether to work or return home. And if she goes home,  she will win back her status, but will she be able to hang onto herself? The Summer Before the Dark is not quite my jam anymore. But Kate’s life is more ordinary than Martha Quest’s or Anna Wulf’s, so I think this novel would be more relatable to new readers than her 1960s classics.


More Summer Reading: Doris Lessing’s “The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five”

On a summer reading scale of 1-10, how would I rate Doris Lessing’s science fiction novel, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, the second book in the Canopus in Argos series? Lessing is my favorite writer and I view her as a goddess; yet the title is so portentous that I was apprehensive about rereading. And I have not even typed the entire title yet: in tiny print, it goes on to say “as narrated by the Chroniclers of Zone Three.”

This short dogmatic fable (I know not what else to call it) is, in a way, about utopia and dystopia. The planet is broken up into five zones, which the jacket copy calls “indeterminate lands.” Zone Three is inhabited by sophisticated artists, singers, farmers, and craftsmen who live in peace and beauty. Like old hippies and the characters of John Updike’s fiction, they do not have monogamous relationships. Zone Four is ruled by a war lord and hence is always at war; it is also very poor and narrow-minded. Inhabitants rarely go from one zone to the other, mainly because the air is different, and they need special shields to breathe. But they also do not care about people from other cultures.

So when the “providers” (vague god-like beings we never meet) send a message to Queen Al-Ith of Zone Three that she must marry the military King Ben-Ata of Zone Four, all is topsy-turvy. Neither Al-Ith nor Ben-Ata wants this marriage. At first Al-Ith laughs, but Ben-Ata’s army meets Al-Ith and guides her to Zone Four, where she must live in a special house, which, before she teaches the rudiments of good taste to her husband and women friends, looks a bit like a bordello.

There is much unhappiness as a result of this culture clash, as you can imagine. I am still not sure what the providers were thinking! Al-Ith and Ben-Ati do not want to be together, and neither understands the other. But gradually Al-Ith teaches Ben-Ata that there is more to life than war. She thinks they are together because both zones have experienced low birth rates and illness among humans and animals, and their procreation of a child must be the purpose. Al-Ith’s teachings about art benefit Zone Four, but it is difficult to see what Zone Four gives Zone Three. The rebellious women of Zone Four do introduce her to their secret festivals, which are reminiscent of the rites of Bacchus recast as a women’s music festival.

And yet the outcome of Al-Ith’s travel to Zone Four is sad. She becomes an outcast when she goes home to Zone Three…an outcast with a purpose. But it is still tragic. As for Zone Five, I have not the energy to describe it, but it plays a very small role.

This is a clunkier book than Shikasta, but I do recognize Lessing’s themes and repetition of character from earlier novels: the heroine Martha Quest can be clearly seen in Al-Ith, particularly when it comes to politics and sex. (Martha is intensely radical before and during World War II, but she doesn’t discover good sex until Landlocked, the fourth book in the Children of Violence series.)

Doris Lessing said that she found “space fiction” freeing. In the preface to the first book in the series, Shikasta, she wrote: “The old realistic novel is being changed, too, because of influences from that genre loosely described as space fiction. Some people [in academia] regret this…. Space fiction, with science fiction, makes up the most original branch of literature now; it is inventive and witty; it has already enlivened all kinds of writing…”

By the way, Philip Glass wrote an opera, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, with a libretto by Doris Lessing , translated into German. It premiered in Heidelberg, Germany on 10 May, 1997. (See photo below.)

Lessing wrote brilliant science fiction in the late sixties and early seventies. My favorites are The Four-Gated City (the last part of this realistic novel segues into SF) and Memoirs of a Survivor. But I must say The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five is very slight. I read it quickly, and it went by like a summer breeze. I will have forgotten it by next week. If I were to give it a number…well, it would have to be Zone Three! No, really, did you think I would rate it with a number?

Doris Lessing Gets It Right: The Future of Earth (“Shikasta”)

Doris Lessing

First, I must insist that Nobel winner Doris Lessing gets it right in her “space fiction.” In her neglected 1979 novel, Shikasta – the official title is unnecessarily wordy, Canopus in Argos: Archives Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta – she unflinchingly relates the history and the future doom of Earth ( Shikasta), borrowing freely from myth and the Old Testament. The hero, Johor, a quasi-angelic agent from the galactic empire Canopus, shapes human history at the Edenic beginning of Earth, and works even harder to correct its course after agents of Shamat, a criminal (quasi-devil) planet, corrupt the humans. And so, more or less, angels and devils, inhabitants of planets with different systems of belief, compete for the good and bad in Earth/Shikasta.

You’ve got to settle in slowly at first, but soon you’ll be turning the pages. The mythic and Old Testament origin stories, the versions of the flood myth and the Tower of Babel, are clever but can be monotonous; the pace picks up when Lessing reaches the twentieth century and then unfolds the drama of a future that we are beginning to experience. Many of the characters, who shudder at the prospect of returning to Shikasta after death but must line up to be reborn, become activists in their new lives and struggle to help the starving, uneducated, sickly masses.

You will recognize the problems killing this planet : climate change, melting polar ice caps, poisoned water, polluted air, droughts, epidemics, World Wars, overpopulation, dictatorships, famine, genocide, the dominance of the military, poverty, riots, bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. In fact, this is almost our present, and this future was already irreversible in 1979 when Shikasta was published. Certainly we were well- informed about the environment, but the culture of fossil fuels was out of our control – particularly because we could never, as Lessing says, quite “take it in.”

Shikasta was the first of five books in the Canopus in Argos series. In general the critics disliked these novels, especially Ursula K. Le Guin, who, having traversed the same territory in some of her anthropological science fiction, perhaps felt competitive: she complained that Shikasta read like a debut science fiction novel. George Stade of the New York Times mocked Lessing’s SF but said she succeeds when her storytelling trumps her rants. And then he adds that he prefers the theosophic rants of D. H. Lawrence to Lessing’s. (Oh my God, I wonder if he ever suffered the rants in Kangaroo and The Plumed Serpent. And I’m a fan of Lawrence!)

Well, no one likes a doomsayer, and Lessing is hardly an optimist. In the Iliad no one likes the Greek guy who tells the ugly truth. And I wonder if Lessing’s thorough documentation, written in the form of official reports, documents, letters, and journals, might have not only have bored some readers but upset them. It was too literary for science fiction readers, and too SF-y for literary readers.

Lessing reworks some of the material from her 1969 novel, The Four-Gated City, which is three-fourths bildungsroman and one-fourth science fiction. One of the characters, Lynda Coldridge, who has spent years in psychiatric hospitals but actually has a kind of supernatural ability to know things others did not, appears in Shikasta. A psychiatrist asks Lynda to writer about her illness: her papers tell us that “hearing voices” was more of a sixth sense killed and distorted by psychiatric care. And so Lynda and the psychiatrist fight heir own underground resistance movement as they look for others like Lynda.

The most important character in the novel is George (the agent Johor, the being from a superior planet who has helped Earth for millennia). He has been painfully reborn into a human body, so that he may help the luckless, starving, and ignorant by telling them thing that matter, cheering them up and helping them survive. But on one of his many walking tours (fuel is scarce and so is transportation), he writes a letter to his girlfriend Suzannah about his qualms.

…and when talk starts about the awfulness, then it is as if people are not hearing. Not that they are not listening. Not hearing. They can’t believe it. Well sometimes I look back and it is such a little time, and I can’t believe it. I think that dreadfulness happens somewhere else. I don’t know how to say that. I mean, when awful things happen, even to the extent we have all just seen, then our minds don’t take them in. Not really. there is a gap between people saying hello, have a glass of water, and then bombs falling or laser beams scorching the world to cinders. That is why no on seemed able to prevent the dreadfulness. They couldn’t take it in.

Today there are many Shikastans suffering: that has hit home during the pandemic. As Johor says, we thought “that dreadfulness happens somewhere else.” This is not Lessing’s best book , but it is a very interesting one. And that is the reason to read it.

Two Depressing Novels: Dima Wannous’ “The Frightened Ones” & Doris Lessing’s “The Diary of a Good Neighbour”

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…

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.  

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.