Archive for October 10th, 2012

From The Grass Is Singing, a Studio 4 film (1962)

Dear friends and readers,

Returning to my promise to try to write shorter more frequent blogs, over the past week and one half I’ve been mesmerized by one of Doris Lessing’s early novels: The Grass is Singing.

Lessing is the kind of writer who can produce such very different books (and thus takes on pseudonyms so as not to disappoint her readership under her first name): she has the intensely realistic social critique novel and/or memoir, often with a heroine at the center (but it can be a cat), where we are invite to experience the nature and sources of commonplace destruction of people, places, environment, relationships, communities on this earth. The Golden Notebook belongs to this type, and alas has overshadowed the others, e.g., The Summer Before the Dark, The Memoirs of a Survivor, and A Small Personal Voice. I remember being mesmermized by The Summer Before the Dark.

She also writes allegories where the action is fantastic, and susceptible to moralistic exhortation, feminist, anti capitalist, to my mind not persuasive because so unreal (you can prove anything when you get to make up the evidence), often dwelling on exterior delineation, e.g., the Martha Quest books, the Canopus in Argos series (some under a pseudonym). There are writers where even the stance or message is utterly different between two or more sets of books (e.g, Margaret Drabble with her traditional heroine’s texts versus successful careerist books; Margaret Atwood again with heroine’s texts, this time made contemporary versus environmental fantasies & allegories). In Lessing it’s the realization.

The epigraph to the novel tells us the title comes from T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland which is then immediately parsed for us:

In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the rumbled 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
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Hirnavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder

It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.

The story: We begin with a brutal murder. Mary Turner, a white woman has been killed by Moses, her male black house-servant. The novel seems to hark back to Olive Schreiner in its immediate reaching out to use the incident for a depiction of the class and racial divides of South Africa, countryside and town, and a sense of landscape dreadfully hard to endure, farm, survive in.

Then we move back to focus on Mary whom we first meet as a exhausted corpse. While not overtly feminist, we experience how she was driven to marry Dick Turner, a man she barely knows after years of living a detached successful enough (not unhappy) life in an office as a clerk. Lessing says Mary’s way of life offering liberty to women would not be possible in the era she is writing the book, 1950; that’s interesting. It means women have recently lost ground.

Mary is driven because she begins to overhear people mocking her, feels she is somewhat ostracized. Delicately it’s suggested people assume she’s a closet lesbian. She is not. She didn’t want to marry because she saw the misery of her impoverished parents, and especially mother’s life and now she finds she’s
repeating it. There is much compassion for the man too.

A colorized still from the 1962 movie

As with Schreiner, a contrast is set up between the veld and the city. The city is hollow, hypocritical, anonymous, mindless impersonal relationships which based themselves on daily repetition of numbing activities (like drinking), but the veld
is hot, dry, impossible to make a living on unless you pour huge amounts of money in and pay no wages for work; death dwells there; catastrophe and egoistic patterns of behavior where people lose perspective emerge. In both places a race and debt system controls everyone’s behavior. Mary’s husband, Dick, refuses to be co-opted into the debt system; he wants to live in harmony with his land and eek a subsidence life from it. This means living in continual bare poverty with small groups of crops providing small amounts of money from month to month. A tin roof which makes the heat worse. No holidays.

In Claire Denis’s White Material (partly based on this book), she emphasized Mary’s hatred of the store Dick tries to run as a version of what partly killed her mother as it died.

Feeling herself to be going mad with heat, poverty, loneliness, nothing to do, Mary at least determines to flee. She takes what has has left of decent clothes, what she can put together to get to a train (but she has to enlist a disapproving neighbor to drive her there), and leaves a note. Once back in town she goes to her old boss whose ad for a person to fill her old job she saw. He tells her sorry he’s just gotten someone else. A lie. She doesn’t look right and anyway she’s married. He’s shocked and alienated – at her looks too. The forces that drove her to this marriage are driving her back. Dick is at the hotel when she returns. He is abject and desperate and she returns.

Mary demands a child. Let’s have a baby and it will give us a meaning. He refuses. A child will only make life harder and how can they bring another human being up with any hope or good life in this place. Mary tries to get him to plant tobacco in huge amounts (he does borrow money) to make cash crops, but the year is a bad one and the crop fails. He hates what it has done to his land.

For a short while his behavior has (from Mary’s standpoint) been better, but he sickens badly. Then she has to run the team in the field; she is ugly in her behavior, inhumane, taking out her despair on them. A physician tells her they must build a decent roof, renovate the house to get rid of the bugs, and take a 3 month holiday. He offers no funds, but does not charge.

Mary has been taking out her rage on her house servants, and her one pride is that she is above them. She treats them like instruments, scolds, slaps, insults. Gradually no one will work for her, and there is left only Moses, and Dick now menaces her: he warns her not to lose Moses. To keep Moses she must bend, and we see him take over as she weakens, sickens, comes to depend on him to dress her, to make her eat. It’s suggested she begins to go to bed with him while Dick is out in the field all day with a small group of black men.

So, it’s a thoroughly implicitly feminist story. An anti colonialist expose of the capitalist system and the lives of poor to middling people who try to escape their grinding lives by emigrating. This is the set of people Trollope wrote his colonialist stories about too (see Returning Home). They mostly die or go to pieces or somehow, just, survive.

But the novel’s greatness is not in this message as in the way the prose begins to soar as Lessing enters Mary’s mind and we exist inside what Mary sees and feels as she desperately holds on against disintegration. It’s here her genius shows itself.

The outer pattern is that of The Golden Notebook. No we do not have four parallel differently colored notebooks where the action in each shows us versions of the heroine — in contemporary London as a bourgeois divorcee living off the proceeds of her one successful novel; in South Africa as a communist; as a fictional heroine invented by herself as magazine writer; as a diarist writing down what is said as she visits a psychiatrist. Then all dissolves into one golden notebook, a sort of final plunge in the final notebook which became identified with the almost Lawrentian idea that what the heroine needed was a long series of good orgasms.

At the conclusion of The Grass Is Singing we also have a dissolution. The heroine has lost her struggle and we return to the impersonal third person perspective we began with. An outsider, a neighbor who was the man who found the dead body now comes to the farm in hopes himself of taking it over and also out of pity for Dick. He sees a woman who has gone utterly to pieces, and become a sort of subject presence to her black servant and her husband gone equally crazed with his inability to cope with what’s needed in capitalist farming. The long stretch of meditation is extraordinary (some typical utterances from the book), but the insight is not sheerly erotically based as the circumstantials details of the disintegration have been exterior to Mary as well as what was in her and Dick.

Loneliness, she thought, was craving for other people’s company. But she did not know that loneliness can be an unnoticed cramping of the spirit for lack of companionship.

Dick often stood at the edge of the field, watching the wind flow whitely over the tops of the shining young trees, that bent and swung and shook themselves all day. He had planted them apparently on an impulse; but it was really the fruition of a dream of his. Years before he bought the farm, some mining company had cut out every tree on the place … it wasn’t much, planting a hundred acres of good trees that would grow into straight, white stemmed giants; but it was a small retribution; and this was his favorite place on the farm. When he was particularly worried, or had quarreled with Mary, or wanted to think clearly, he stood and looked at his trees …

Mary, with the memory of her own mother recurring more and more frequently, like an older, sardonic double of herself walking beside her, followed the course her upbringing made inevitable. To rage at Dick seemed to her a failure in pride; her formerly pleasant but formless face was setting into lines of endurance ….

Though what thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection were compounded with the satisfaction of [Moses’] completed revenge, it is impossible to say. For, when he had gone perhaps a couple of hundred yards through the soaking bush he stopped, turned aside, and leaned against a tree on an ant-heap And there he would remain, until his pursuers, in their turn, came to find him.

We are told briefly (by the narrator) the evil was not this woman, nor was there anything wrong with her, nor her husband, and by implication, not even this “wicked” angry (enraged) black man, but the evil was all around them. The words refer to her past, the farm, how they have been taught to cope. Alas, many readers will not get what these vague or general pronouncements mean: she means the way Mary was driven to marry, the way Dick was not permitted to love his land and cultivate it without exploitation (as economically it’s not viable), the whole race system which when the black man is taken away is referred to when he is made to stand for “hurt human affection.”

In the book this is not spelled out clearly in the way I have just done, only implied and the book could be read as simply a story about a weak or neurotic woman. In her movie, Claire Denis makes sure that we see the larger picture and she writes a part for Isabelle Huppert which turns her into a strong presence who does not turn mad or become a slave, but is externally destroyed by the black revolution. There is a wikipedia article which sums the book up this way:

The Grass Is Singing is a bleak analysis of a failed marriage, the neurosis of white sexuality, and the fear of black power that Lessing saw as underlying the white colonial experience of Africa.[citation needed] The novel’s treatment of the tragic decline of Mary and Dick Turner’s fortunes becomes a metaphor for the whole white presence in Africa.[citation needed] The novel is honest about the fault-lines in the white psyche.

I think from the lacunae in The Grass Is Singing we see why Lessing turns to fantastical books with super-strong (supposedly exemplary admirable) characters and why her rhetoric remains unsatisfying. Lessing has said that people must force themselves, through effort of imagination, to become what they are capable of being, so there is a judgmental view in the book, a way of presentation that can be read as a punishment.

Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907), Girl with Cat

To return to her reading of Eliot’s poem, it’s almost silly to epitomize its meaning as about how failures and misfits reveal to us the weaknesses of society. Eliot’s poem is about a peace that can come when you give up the illusions of hope through civilized progress. Some might call it equally despair, but when the grass is felt to sing with life we are not being exhorted to find ways to build and share better tractors.

The Grass Is Singing is a great book because it shows us human nature and the worlds we create unsparringly.


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