Doris Lessing’s Centenary & The Grass Is Singing

Today would have been Doris Lessing’s 100th birthday; she in fact died in 2013. Reading Lara Feigel’s Free Woman last year encouraged me to try more from Lessing, and I’m glad that I did so this month. I started with The Fifth Child, a horror novella for R.I.P., followed by the novel Lessing brought with her when she left Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for England.

Doris Lessing at Cologne Literature Festival, 2006. Elke Wetzig / Juan Pablo Arancibia Medina [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D.

The Grass Is Singing (1950)

I had trouble believing that this novel a) was Lessing’s debut and b) is now nearly 70 years old. It felt both fresh and timeless, and I could see how it has inspired writing about the white experience in Africa ever since, especially a book like Fiona Melrose’s Midwinter, in which an English farmer and his son are haunted by the violent death of the young man’s mother back in Zambia 10 years ago.

For The Grass Is Singing begins with two sly words, “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. It’s a tease because in one sense there’s no mystery to this at all: we know from the first lines what happened to Mary. And yet we are drawn in, wondering why she was killed and how the Turners went from an idealistic young couple enthusiastic about their various money-making schemes – a shop, chickens, tobacco – to a jaded, distant pair struggling for their health, both mental and physical.

The breakdown of their marriage and the failure of their farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail, all while exposing (with neither judgment nor approval) how Anglos felt about the natives at that time.

There’s a sense in which this was all fated: Dick is weak, someone Mary pities rather than loves and respects; and Mary’s mixed-up feelings toward her black servants – fear, contempt, curiosity and attraction – were bound to lead to an explosion. The land itself seems to be conspiring against them, too, or is at least indifferent to their plans and dreams.

So many passages struck me for their effortless profundity. I cringed to see myself so clearly in Mary’s boredom and restlessness, along with her ambivalence about the idea of motherhood: “She hated the idea of a baby, when she thought of its helplessness, its dependence, the mess, the worry. But it would give her something to do.”

This was the fifth full-length book I’ve read by Lessing, and by far the best.

My rating:

 

Alas, I had a Lessing DNF this month, too:

The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974)

This was shelved in with the memoirs in The Bookshop, Wigtown. I’m not blaming Mr. Bythell or his staff, as this would be a very easy shelving error to make, even for those well versed in literature. But I was disappointed to realize that it’s actually one of Lessing’s detached, dreamy dystopian novels. I tried really hard with this but couldn’t make it past page 48. There’s just not much detail to latch onto. You know that it is set in a vague but believable near future (London?) in which there has been political and social breakdown, followed by gangs, looting and fighting. The narrator hides out in her apartment and is able to live a fairly normal life (“We can get used to anything at all”), at least until an adolescent girl named Emily Cartright is deposited into her care. The novel still feels relevant – the comments on rumor and gossip being as important as news; the sense that the narrator’s generation has ruined things for Emily’s generation and should accept guilt and responsibility – but there is just no plot to speak of.

 

Next up for me from Lessing’s works will be at least one of her heavily autobiographical Martha Quest novels.

19 responses

  1. Lessing is someone I tried and failed with as a teenager. I was just too young I guess, so thank you for encouraging me to put her back on the list.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read The Golden Notebook in my mid-twenties and enjoyed it somewhat, maybe mostly as a cultural document from its time. It’s considered a feminist classic.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know, and I know that I would feel differently now. It was just the wrong time for me.

        Like

    2. Timing can make some difference. Alternatively, some of her books simply may not have aged well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. fantastic review, I will have to add The Grass Is Singing to my reading list!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a real problem with Lessing, in that I love her London novels – The Golden Notebook and some smaller ones, but I can’t be doing with the African and sci fi ones. So I have to be very careful what I pick up!

    Like

    1. I tend to shy away from Africa-set books, but this one was excellent and worth making an exception for. Sci fi / dystopian I too would definitely avoid, though.

      Like

      1. But why? You’re not the first person I’ve heard say this, but why eliminate such a wide swath of works, an entire continent’s worth?

        Like

      2. In my case, most of the African books I’ve come across, and indeed the South American ones, another continent I don’t really read much, centre on conflict and/or magic realism. While I totally recognise the need to write about and process conflict, and make sure voices are heard, etc., I have a problem reading about the details of war and conflict, which inevitably make their way into the books. So that rules out a lot for me; ones that aren’t that way I will happily read, but it’s a bit like trying to find books set in Iceland that aren’t Scandi-noir/filled with violent crime. I hope that explains my own reading better! I do read a lot of Asian and East Asian books and books about experience of other people, races, etc than mine.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s just not a setting I gravitate towards. Same with Asia. But there have been some wonderful exceptions for both.

      Like

  4. I loved The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest books in my adolescence – they kind of gave me a blueprint for living my life as a budding feminist. Don’t know how I’d feel about them now if I reread them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That would make an interesting rereading project, I’m sure. Do you know Lara Feigel’s Free Woman? It’s a memoir about what Lessing’s books have meant to her at different times of her life. Highly recommended.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There you go, blithely recommending things again to tempt you, with no thought at all about my teetering TBR hordes…

        Like

    2. That’s what I’m here for 😉

      Like

  5. I’ve always found Doris Lessing’s novels hard going …. I read The Grass many, many years ago ; maybe I should give it another try. My ex-Rhodesian memories are very fond ones, so on the other hand – maybe not!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a bleak tale, alright, but I thought it exquisite.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I really would like to do more exploring books by a single author as you’ve done with Lessing. I get the impression that you’re starting to recognize themes in her work especially in your review of the dystopian novel .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It can be very rewarding to delve deep into one author’s works. I don’t tend to do it because I don’t like to overload on one voice or style; usually I limit myself to three books by one author in a year. But I know there are people who will read one author’s works all the way through in chronological order. Jeanette Winterson does this, for instance, and my blogging friend Liz Dexter is doing an Iris Murdoch readalong of one novel per month for two years.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: