Doris Lessing's Belief in Survival

THE SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK by Doris LessingKnopf, $6.95
Doris Lessing is one of the few novelists writing today who deals directly with ideas. She is never content simply to tell a story and be done with it. Her plots and characters, striking though they may be, are only excuses for rooting around in the gardens of the mind.
One of her particular themes has been the fate of the tremulous girl who becomes institutionalized by the inexorable demands of accommodation—to husbands, houses, children, lovers, colleagues—and the consequences in loneliness and loss if she should choose not to accommodate.
In her new novel, The Summer Before the Dark, she has come back again to this theme of woman’s place in man’s world. Women who feel that standing guard over the kitchen sink is ignoble, or should be, may find only a small grain of comfort in the book.
The news about Mrs. Lessing, though, is that she seems to have made an adjustment, allowed herself an evolving, if grudging, acceptance of the reality, and even of the interesting necessity, of the society she once condemned.
In her previous novels she has tried one after another of a series of “answers” to the painful business of living, only to find that there is no abiding salvation in politics, literature, biology, dreams, marriage, fidelity, sex, even in apocalypse. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell she examined the possibilities of madness as the true sanity, a theorem that has achieved a certain glamour in other quarters, notably that of psychiatrists like R. D. Laing. But apparently that was too shaky a ledge for Mrs. Lessing to rest upon. She seems willing now to accept the forces of mystery and darkness in our lives but not to enshrine them.
Like all of her novels, particularly those since The Golden Notebook, this latest one is again a quest for individual meaning, a dogged preoccupation with self, accompanied by an undeviating determination somehow to prevail. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Lessing’s heroines are sensitive, artistic, warm, undidactic, and although they are often loners (tough even if not toughminded), they are ready to pay for their independence in whatever coin may be demanded of them. These women endure quite outside the concept of courage or heroism as enunciated by Hemingway and similar admirers of virile aplomb. They are not graceful. Their will is not to triumph or die, but simply to live, to make the best of all the horrors and embarrassments that lurk in fortune’s corner ready to assail them.
In The Summer Before the Dark the heroine, Kate Brown, forty-five years old, is also Mrs. Michael Brown. There are four grown children and Kate has spent her substance raising them and creating a nest. She seems to have been constantly occupied as a provider and organizer. Her husband is a successful neurologist and she has behaved appropriately to his station. She says to herself that she has always conformed, “scaled herself down.” to the image of a sensible though respectably up-to-date wife of a doctor. Here, one thinks at first, is something of a letdown, a sudsy heroine for Doris Lessing, who in other novels has stared doom down. But she still has plenty to tell us, even if on this occasion she does make quite a job of getting there.
Kate’s family, husband included, are all to be scattered for the summer: conferences, exchange medical post, plain tourism. She realizes with panic that her role as Mother Earth is ended. Then she takes a short-term job as a United Nations translator for a London food conference. She succeeds at it, is promoted to an administrative job, stays on. Her work—she is a conference organizer—is just a salaried adaptation of what she has always done at home, although sillier, she thinks, because so much more wasteful, a kind of false life superimposed upon the reality of starving people who are always, of course, starving elsewhere.
Kate suffers, or actually embraces, a psychic withdrawal from her family, which in any case is no more than a metaphor. Her motherhood is not so much real as symbolic, serving to separate her from her true nature. She decides, quite coldly, to have an affair with a younger man, an American, and they go off to Spain. This affair is a fiasco of illness and frustration, and in fact is no match for the diabolical family. Back in London, Kate must carry out the terms of her selfordained contract of familial estrangement. She lies feverishly for a month in an expensive hotel. When she recovers at last, her dyed hair has grown halfway out and she has aged so terribly that she is for a time unrecognizable.
So is Kate Brown reborn. The remainder of the novel, and the most interesting part of it, deals with her true growing up. She rents a raffish fiat near the Edgware Road with a beautiful young girl, Maureen, who is facing the same roller coaster—or treadmill—of choice that caught Kate twenty-five years earlier. Maureen has to decide “whether to do it,” to marry, have children, Kate mothers her but cannot really help her. The novel ends with Kate going back to her own family. We have no idea what she will find, except that the children at least have done quite well enough without her. But that doesn’t matter to her. What does matter is that she can go back and that she has made herself into “her own woman, well at ease.” In fact, what Mrs. Lessing at long last is saying in answer to the question “Whither woman?” is “I don’t know.”
So much for freedom, revolution, fulfillment. So much for self-expression. So much, if you will, for the women’s movement. Mrs. Lessing got into that anteroom of the twentieth century long before the rest of us and I respect her quiet exit from it. Perhaps she was repelled by the frantic, febrile, gynecological jumpiness of it. She still can say that “the faces and movements of most middle-aged women are those of prisoners or slaves,” but she is no longer able to give them any more sympathy than did the Delphic Oracle when it said, “Know thyself.”
As novel rather than ideological springboard. The Summer Before the Dark is vintage Lessing. She has great natural fictional gifts but may choose to circumvent them with disdain when she is worrying an idea. She manipulates her characters unmercifully: fortuitous events, unmotivated actions abound. Her symbolism tends to be crashing. In The Summer Before the Dark Kate is occupied for pages carrying a wounded seal overland to the sea in her totally remembered, ever recurring dreams. Amazingly enough, the seal represents her own life! Mrs. Lessing’s preoccupation with self frequently muffles her other characters. She can have such a grotesquely tin ear that she can give this bit of dialogue to a normal American male: “It would be so lovely if you did have the time, it would be such a pity to waste the free place in the car.” Sometimes she writes heavily, awkwardly, with an exasperating lack of precision. For instance: “What he was good at was to be the supplier of some kind of invisible fluid, or emanation, like a queen termite, whose spirit (or some such word—electricity) filled the nest, making a whole of individuals who could have no other connection.” But why not find the right word, not some such word?
These annoyances, however, must be put aside, because what is most interesting about Doris Lessing is the journey she is making, one of the important instinctual journeys of the twentieth century.
We have suffered a time of irrational behavior of men and nations, fragmentation of lives, erosion of confidence and continuity in both society and cultural tradition. We have all too easily accepted that failure of nerve that Henry James called “the imagination of disaster.” Doris Lessing has been compared to Simone de Beauvoir and Mary McCarthy because of her passionate involvement in so many of the tumultuous issues of the twentieth century—nihilistic racism, atomic devastation, political repression, the poisoning of the earth—but most of all in the cause of women. Her concern and active participation in social causes and movements have provided her with material for her fiction, but the pertinent fact is that as she has gone from one platform, one point, to another, she has learned how to live, how to wiggle out of narrowness, out of naivete, even out of the period’s catch-all angst.
When Mrs. Lessing was a young woman growing up in Rhodesia, she joined the Communist Party because it was virtually the only group doing anything about the degraded, and to the whites degrading, status of the Africans. It was a number of years before she realized she didn’t belong in the arms of Communism, but when she left the Party, it was quietly. No public tears, no recantations. She had learned, but felt no bitterness. Or if she did, she felt no need to exploit it. Later she seized upon literature—“Art”—as a deliverance. And the freedom of women. And practically every other panacea of the Western world. All have been not so much abandoned as absorbed. What remains, really, is passionate intelligence.
Her center has always been a solid insistence that the individual mattered, mattered gloriously, even if with the passage of years her voice has come to be tinged more deeply with irony. Her view has not been truly societal, no matter how outraged, in the same sense that the outer-directed conscience of Charles Dickens, for instance, illumined Victorian England. She has always looked inward, and increasingly since The Golden Notebook in 1962, a brilliant novel about (among other things) self-emancipated, as distinct from free, women who are vulnerable as well. They aren’t striding about the barricades shouting at the enemy to shoot them down; they’re somewhere undercover evolving their own intensely imagined moral life and brewing a pot of tea. Or perhaps of hemlock.
She is not an observer of shifting manners. Manners are neither important nor comic to her; they are simply irrelevant. She is hacking away at reality: cruelty, sex, politics, death. But these subjects are treated in a large-minded way that is truly valiant.
What makes Mrs. Lessing most angry is what she insists is the easy refusal of almost everyone to feel. She has energy in abundance, and an acute if fervent mind. McCarthy and De Beauvoir are certainly more fastidious thinkers but there is something cool and bloodless about them compared to Doris Lessing. She is a wounded woman who after repeated bashings still cares for men. She is not logical or analytical. She is simply full of passion, ready to take enormous risks. At times perhaps her stockings sag, or she talks too much. More often she gives in to a justifiable sense of elitism in her desire to be one with the great novelists of the past (she calls them, and herself, “architects of the soul”). But her woes are not trifling. She refuses to tremble; If she weeps, it is in private. She wants to survive and she wants the earth to survive at a time when many other writers seem to have a sickish half-wish for extinction. Mrs. Lessing represents what remains of the continuum of humanism in this difficult century.