SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Book Reviews & Essays on Literature

The Grass Was Singing – Goodbye Doris Lessing

Photograph: Francesco Guidicini/Rex

Photograph: Francesco Guidicini/Rex

Doris Lessing, the Zimbabwean-raised author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, died on 17 November 2013.  Luckily for her, and Alice Munro, they were honoured during their lifetimes. However, while Munro accepted the award with grace and talked about her love of writing, Lessing was infamously curmudgeonly about it.

She received the prize at the age of 88 years and 52 days, making her the oldest winner of the literature prize at the time of the award and the third-oldest Nobel Laureate in any category. She was out shopping for groceries when the announcement came, arriving home to tell reporters who had gathered there, “Oh Christ! I couldn’t care less.” “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one, so I’m delighted to win them all. It’s a royal flush.” She titled her Nobel Lecture “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize” and used it to draw attention to global inequality of opportunity, and to explore changing attitudes to storytelling and literature. In a 2008 interview for the BBC’s Front Row, she stated that increased media interest after the award had left her without time or energy for writing. Her final book, “Alfred and Emily”, appeared in 2008.

Writing as a struggle activist

For those of you who think she was rather ungracious in her response, remember that Lessing was, originally, a “struggle activist”.  Her work had always been political, and considering her background, it couldn’t have been anything else. Growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, like other Southern African people, she could not have avoided having a legacy of political awarenesses, agendas and convictions that dominated other concerns – like winning literary awards. Though Lessing has not in many years been an advocate for specific change, her work has always had political messages, explicit in the beginning, later in life more catholic, perhaps more resigned. For most of her career, Lessing expressed the politics of disavowal – meaning she circumvented (bypassed, ignored) any explicit reference to the politics that caused her exile. For a white African like Lessing, exile from her homeland was a particularly painful thing, and even when she returned to Zimbabwe decades later, she said that she felt she had lost something of importance. The country was no longer as she remembered it. In “African Laughter” (1992), she wrote: “You cannot be forbidden the land you grew up in, so says the web of sensations, memories, experience, that binds you to the landscape.”

Lessing on motherhood

Lessing fled to London to pursue her writing career and communist beliefs, leaving two toddlers with their father in South Africa (another, Peter, from her second marriage, went with her). In 2005 she gave an interview to the Lucy Cavendish of The Evening Standard (London, England) in which she reflected on the untenable situation in which she found herself at that time. She is often misquoted about this, and people like to say she was a bad or uncaring mother. This is what she actually said:

“It was a terrible thing I did,” she says. “I can see that now but I didn’t see it at the time. Of course little children need their mothers but now women have choices and they can choose not to have children. But I had these two children and I just couldn’t afford to keep them. I had no money. What on earth else was I supposed to do? For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. I mean women did not do that but there is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.”

Cover design of the first edition of the book, published by Michael Joseph, London, 1950

Cover design of the first edition of the book, published by Michael Joseph, London, 1950

The redesigned cover of the reissue of the book in 2002.

The redesigned cover of the reissue of the book in 2002.

Exile and first novel

In 1956, because of her campaigning against nuclear arms and apartheid, she was declared a prohibited alien in both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. Her first novel, “The Grass Is Singing”, was published in 1950. Her breakthrough work, “The Golden Notebook”, was written in 1962. “The Grass is Singing” is set in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, depicted the brutalities of colonialism and racial segregation. The book was made into a film in 1981 that featured respected actors John Thaw, Karen Black and John Kani in the lead roles.

Themes in her writing

Lessing’s fiction is divided into works on a Communist theme (1944–56), a psychological theme (her books from 1956–1969), and a Sufi theme, which was explored in the “Canopus in Argos” sequence of science fiction novels and novellas. She had a huge output, and wrote novels, two opera libretti, a graphic novel, dramas, poetry, short stories, novellas, autobiography and memoirs, and non-fiction.

Debut novel  – The Grass Is Singing:

Unlike the books of other Southern African authors of world class stature, Breyten Breytenbach, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton or André P. Brink, that I have read and re-read, the only book of Lessing’s I have read is “The Grass Is Singing”.  And I read it only once. I mostly liked it because of the title and the use of nature as an antagonistic character and a source of conflict – the sweltering heat, the need and waiting for rain. The phenomenon of grass “singing” in the heat is typical of the Sub-Saharan region and something perhaps only someone born there can truly understand. It’s not only something you hear, it’s something you can feel on your skin, and taste. It gets in your head. She quotes a highly evocative section of T.S. Eliot’s “Wasteland” on the dedication page, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel:

Photo by Mike O'Brien of a deserted church, called "Mungo Samaki", in the village of Saio/Sayo, DRC, the site of a massacre on 18 November 2002, carried out by the UPC.

A deserted church, surrounded by fields of long grass, called “Mungo Samaki”, in the village of Saio/Sayo, DRC, the site of a massacre on 18 November 2002. (From “CONGO”, by M.F. O’Brien and M Bijman)

“In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico, co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Bringing rain.”

Like in AP Brink’s “Devil’s Valley” (2000) and JM Coetzee’s “Disgrace” (1999), it is an unnerving thing for South Africans – or that matter anyone from a country with a recent history of colonialism and racial segregation – to read about intimate relations between white landowners and black workers. Historically, it was a punishable offence. In “Devil’s Valley”, the punishment for this is expulsion from the community. In “Disgrace”, it is violence and despair. In “The Grass Is Singing”, it is death.  It is an uncomfortably sensitive subject. This, combined with the relentlessly down-beat tone, the political agenda and the theme of heat and isolation, make “The Grass Is Singing” a depressing book to read. Evocative, yes, well-crafted, certainly. Enjoyable? Not really.

It is never easy to read books that are hard to digest. Lessing’s entire oeuvre is made up of books that are hard to digest. This – and her fearlessness of criticism – ensured that she had as many adoring fans as critics.

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