I was on the point of packing Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook for this trip to Italy, in spite of being rather daunted by it. Margaret Drabble, after all, said it was one of three books that helped her to know how to live her life, along with The Bell Jar and The Group, and it seems to be one of those books that people go on and on about, one of those seminal books which one ought just to have read. Doris Lessing is such an embarrassing gap in my reading, which I have been determined to fill for a while, and yet … I don’t really know why, but I’m afraid I just can’t quite face The Golden Notebook.
Luckily, a wise bookshop colleague suggested I take The Grass is Singing instead. It wasn’t just that its size was instantly much more appealing, but I was particularly intrigued to read Lessing’s first novel. When one is working on one’s own first novel, it can be very inspiring to read one that has become such a classic. Also, sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a particular drive, energy and rawness to a first novel which can become subdued as the writer’s career progresses. For instance, Under the Net is by far my favourite Iris Murdoch, as it doesn’t feel quite so weighed down with the Iris Murdochyness of her later books.
I read The Grass is Singing over the past couple of days, mostly sitting on the huge walls which surround Lucca, where the grass wasn’t so much singing, but rustling in the breeze.
It is a horrible book, and a brilliant one. The story is devastating, depicting a situation which is thoroughly nasty on various levels, and yet in its horror it is very powerful and compelling. The experience of reading it reminded me a little of reading Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins. There is the same inevitability of the awfulness of what is to ensue, the grimness of having to read it, the futile hoping against hope that the disaster might somehow be averted – in spite of knowing full well that this is impossible – and the gruelling process of having to get through it, not sure that you can bear to read another page of it, while at the same time finding the pages are turning themselves.
The Grass is Singing begins and ends with a murder. It opens with a brief newspaper announcement of a ‘Murder Mystery’: Mary Turner, the wife of farmer Richard Turner was found murdered on her verandah. The mystery isn’t as to who has done the deed, for we are informed that ‘The houseboy … has confessed to the crime.’ The mystery is as to the motive: ‘It is thought he was in search of valuables’, we are told, but on the very next page we learn the Turners are ‘poor whites’, so are unlikely to have any valuables as such.
The first chapter shows the aftermath of the murder: the routine police investigation, and the man recently arrived from England who knows there is more to the situation than the others are making out, but who is hastily ‘shut up’. Then we go back to the beginning and discover for ourselves the disturbing, uncomfortable truth of the matter.
We begin with Mary’s poor childhood with a complaining mother and drunk father. ‘The happiest time of her childhood’ is when her two older siblings died from dysentery, as then there were fewer mouths to feed and her quarrelling parents were briefly united in their grief. She was sent to boarding school, which was a happy escape, and then became a successful girl about town. There she thrived: an adept office-worker, with several friends and ‘innumerable men who “took her out”, treating her like a sister’. She went to the cinema, played hockey and tennis, and generally had a gay old time. Significantly, Mary never grows up, persisting in dressing like a pretty little girl even when she turns thirty. It is as though these years are spent enjoying a delayed happy childhood. She has been so scarred by her parents’ miserable marriage that she is unable to contemplate more adult relationships.
Then, Mary overhears some friends gossiping about her, saying how ridiculous it is that she hasn’t got married. Profoundly wounded out of her naivete, she starts looking for a husband, and soon settles on Dick Turner, a hopeless farmer, incapable of being a success.
When she first arrives at his farm, it seems as though all is not lost:
In the first flush of energy and determination she really enjoyed the life, putting things to rights and making a little go a long way.
She decorates and sews, whitewashes and cooks. As the months pass, however, she soon runs out of tasks and finds herself faced with idleness. This is when the problems really begin. Mary has never had to look after servants before and her cold, uncompromising manner with Samson, Dick’s kind and long-standing houseboy, upsets him. Samson is used to an unspoken agreement whereby he helps himself to a third of Dick’s food. Mary, however, allows him nothing:
This woman never laughed. She put out, carefully, so much meal, and so much sugar; and watched the left-overs from their own food with an extraordinary, humiliating capacity for remembering every cold potato and every piece of bread, asking for them if they were missing.
Things reach a head when Mary is reduced to tears because:
She knew there had been enough raisons put out for the pudding, but when they came to eat it, there were hardly any. And the boy denied stealing them…
Dick’s relaxed attitude – ‘He probably did, but he’s a good old swine on the whole’ – if troubling in its own way, is the antithesis to Mary’s pernickety intolerance, which results in her insisting on deducting the cost from his pay. Samson soon resigns, but Mary’s frustrations and poisonous naggings only increase with the various new houseboys who come and inevitably leave. With nothing else to do, Mary becomes obsessed with bossing them about, inspecting each bit of work they do, complaining over the slightest slip. She forces one of them to scrub the bath for an entire day, sitting at the table and listening to him work:
She remained there for two hours, her head aching, listening with every muscle of her tensed body. She was determined he should not scamp his work.
This friendly, successful, harmless woman has been turned into a monster. In part it is due to having nothing to do other than supervise the servant. She rebuffs the neighbours’ advances at friendship, interpreting their overtures as patronising and full of pity. It is also due to the insufferable heat:
It was so hot! She had never imagined it could be so hot. The sweat poured off her all day; she could feel it running down her ribs and thighs under her dress, as if ants were crawling over her. She used to sit quite, suite still, her eyes closed, and feel the heat beating down from the iron over her head.
And there are of course many other reasons for Mary’s descent into madness, such as their inescapable poverty; the fact that she and her husband don’t understand each other at all; that she takes no interest in the running of the farm; and that all Dick’s business ideas resolutely fail. It is also thanks to her difficult childhood and, in spite of her desires, seeing herself inevitably fall into her mother’s role, and Dick her father’s.
The Grass is Singing is a compelling and disturbing portrait of a woman undergoing a slow, horrific, nervous breakdown. By the end of the book Mary can barely speak, or get dressed. It is not, however, just a novel about a woman who suffers a nervous breakdown; it is about a woman who cannot survive in Southern Rhodesia. It is about the impossibility and injustice of the whole system, of the punishing land itself. (Dick, after all, may be useless and never make any money, but he loves the land and runs his farm responsibly, planting trees and rotating crops, whereas the commercially successful farmers are rewarded for plundering the land, and putting nothing back into it.)
Mary doesn’t just have a nervous breakdown; she is murdered by her black servant. Lessing renders a gripping, menacing portrayal of the relationship between the two of them. Mary’s fear of the black man – as ‘every woman in South Africa is brought up to be’ – is recognised and challenged by Moses, the houseboy, who starts to look after and gently care for her, thereby transgressing the barrier between white and black:
There was now a new relation between them. For she felt helplessly in his power.
His absolute control over her is what is expressed in the final murder, his taking away of her life.
This radical shift in the power balance is what is so disturbing to the other characters in the novel, and I suspect it is also what caused the book to be rejected by South African publishers. It brings to my mind the resounding final sentence in Forster’s A Passage to India, another book in which the established native-British relationship is challenged:
But the horses didn’t want it – they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there.’
Reading it on the walls of Lucca, as the grass blew in the breeze, I felt only too grateful not to be living in Southern Rhodesia then, when it seems as though you could choose between death, madness or being complicit in a terrible regime. The novel has too epigraphs. Firstly a quotation from ‘The Waste Land’, including the phrase ‘the grass was singing’. Secondly, from an unknown author:
It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.
The novel is not a critique of Dick and Mary Turner – the ‘failures and misfits’ – but of their ‘civilization’, in which they are unable to survive. Indeed, it is to their credit that they are unable to succeed in this terrible way of life. One feels it would be better to go mad than thrive in such an awful civilization.