Posts Tagged ‘Doris Lessing’

Emilybooks of the Year

December 17, 2014

The thing about sleeping in 3-4 hour chunks is that time bends into something altogether new. So when I say it’s been an age since I last posted here, I mean an age in a peculiarly nebulous sense. It has been an amount of time of which I can’t really conceive. Life before Vita – what was that?

I had hoped to be writing here a little more regularly, but little Vita has proved to be rather a lot to take on and doing everything one-handed means it all takes twice as long. We’ve also moved house, and any writing time I’ve managed to carve out has been siphoned into a couple of journalism commissions which sprung up and couldn’t be refused. There’s one for the Spectator, which you can read here. And the other one is still in the pipeline, so watch this space…

But wow it’s Christmas next week, which is thoroughly disorienting. Not only is it the first Christmas after Vita and therefore, as I explained, it has approached in a strange new way, it is also the first time for years that I’ve not been working in the bookshop during what is always a madly busy, derangedly exciting time. So I thought I must stir myself from my semi-comatose state at least enough to be able to write my EmilyBooks of the Year – for that has become a Christmas tradition from which I would hate to part. So I hope you enjoy the round-up below. The links go back to my original reviews of them, in case you’d like a little more info on the various books.

Looking back on what I’ve read this year has proved both enjoyable and revealing. I think everyone ought to do it, as an exercise in self-reflection. If so, I’d love to hear how you get on and any of your picks for books of the year.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns2014 introduced me to rather a large clutch of what I might fondly term ‘EmilyBooks’ – the oft-overlooked but brilliant novels that I adore reading. I picked many of these for the Walking Book Club, so thinking back to them now yields very happy memories of chatting away on Hampstead Heath. The Home-Maker and Fidelity, two Persephone Books, were both extraordinary. Both are set in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both are about women who step beyond their allotted place – going out to earn the family’s living, or having an affair with a married man. Both books are good on how society struggles to handle these misfits, and how the misfits are strong enough to survive. (Incidentally, we were honoured to have a week of the excellent Persephone Post – the Persephone Books daily blog – inspired in part by Vita!) Other brilliant old novels discovered this year include Angela Carter’s Wise Children, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing (but only read it if you are ready for something seriously harrowing), William Trevor’s Love and Summer, Elaine Dundy’s excellent The Dud Avocado (a MUST if you are going to Paris) and – perhaps my two favourites – Meg Wolitzer’s brilliantly funny and very clever The Wife, and Barbara Comyns’ disarmingly simply told and terribly affecting Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This last will definitely be a future walking book club book – it is tremendous!

The Letter for the KingI was pleased (and not surprised) to see how many of my books of 2014 are published by Pushkin Press. Those of you who’ve not yet discovered this terrific independent publisher, which specialises in bringing the best European fiction to our shores, should do so NOW. Red Love by Maxim Leo is a fascinating family memoir – I’d say it’s up there with The Hare with Amber Eyes for the way he manages to get the bigger picture of history through the filter of his immediate family. It’s all about the GDR and how the author’s two grandfathers – one a Nazi and the other a freedom fighter – could both come to believe so fervently in the new regime. There was also Gazdanov’s The Spectre of Alexander Wolf, strange and brilliant, and Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, also strange and brilliant. Both have an eerie, dreamlike feel to them, and thinking back on the now it’s this special atmosphere of the books that has really stuck with me, rather than the ins and outs of the plots. A special mention should go to Pushkin’s children’s book The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. I started reading this as soon as I went on maternity leave, thinking that it would be the ideal gripping piece of escapism for my exhausted brain. It was, and I spent a heavenly few days on the sofa with it. In fact I enjoyed it so much that the husband wanted to read it as soon as I had finished. And then I went into labour. And rather a lot of that strange first day of labour, before we could go into hospital, was spent with me rolling around on a big pilates ball while the husband read the book and I kept asking him irritating questions about where he’d got up to, only he wasn’t allowed to be annoyed with me because I was in labour. Ha! Truth be told, I think having such a good distraction for a book was the only thing that kept him sane, so thank you Pushkin!

Where Angels Fear to TreadJourney by Moonlight is just one of several books I read that are set in Italy, as our blissful two month sojourn in Lucca called for a great deal of geographically appropriate literature. Looking back on it now, I still can’t really believe we got away with it – two months of eating ice cream and lazing around, reading, writing, sketching, sleeping … I wonder if Vita, who was wriggling around in utero, might grow to love these books too? Certainly I’m sure she will share her mother’s love of pasta.

Thinking of pasta, there was The Leopard, with its infamous macaroni pie, a wonderful novel, which I loved discussing on a walking book club at the Perch Hill Feast. There was Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence – obviously good, because everything by her is good, but perhaps not quite as good as her others. Christ Stopped at Eboli – a classic piece of anthropological observation, which made Southern Italy in the 1930s seem like another world entirely. There was Portrait of a Lady, which was good but something about James’ coldness, and the nastiness of it all, made it seem rather sour. Best of all the Italy books was the double-Forster hit of A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread – it was such a treat to have an excuse to revisit them.

H is for HawkI loved re-reading various classics this year, as well as the Henry James and the EM Forsters, there was Brideshead Revisited – so much more enjoyable to read for pleasure rather than studying it for A Level – and Jane Eyre, every bit as good as I remembered, and also Pride and Prejudice. This last was wonderful, and the other thing we did when I went into labour was watch the boxset of the BBC adaptation – a great way to pass quite a lot of time!

There was a substantial chunk of non-fiction: The Examined Life, which was the perfect January book – ideal for a bit of sober self-examination. How to be a Heroine – a paean to many brilliant novels, written so charmingly that you end up feeling that Samantha Ellis is a bit of a heroine herself. The Rings of Saturn, which was a rare instance of a book being both heavy-going and brilliant – I kept wanting to say thank you Sebald, for stretching my brain in so many of these bizarre directions. And, finally, two wonderful memoirs: The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg – astonishing insight into Germany during the war, written by an English woman who’d married a German – and H is for Hawk, which I adored so much that I nearly called my daughter Mabel in homage to the hawk. I was very happy to see that this won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

How to be Both by Ali SmithI also enjoyed some new novels: the wonderful Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, who I should say is a friend, and I should also say has just been shortlisted for the Costa Prize – hurrah!!! And also Homecoming by Susie Steiner, which I started off thinking would be all about sheep farming, but actually it’s about families and change. And there was, of course, the supreme treat from Ali Smith: How to be Both. How I adored this book. Smith has a way of writing that makes modern fiction seem so exciting and makes me feel lucky to be a reader.

Last but not least, comes a book which is particularly special to me: Park Notes by Sarah Pickstone. Not only is this a beautiful book about women writers finding inspiration in Regent’s Park, but it also features my first ever piece of work to be published in a book!

I hope this little round up might provide some inspiration for Christmas reading, or indeed shopping. Once we get to 2015, Emilybooks will be back for real, and so will the walking book club – our next meeting is on 25th January to discuss Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone. Vita’s rather excited about it!

Park notes

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The Grass is Singing

May 27, 2014

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.

The Grass is SingingLuckily, 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.

A Passage to IndiaThis 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.

A young Doris Lessing