it all keeps adding up…

R.I.P. Mark Fisher

Doris Lessing

Harper Perennial 2007

I can’t put down Lessing’s big book. It’s an unpleasant novel filled with unattractive people. I was moved to read it by the political climate (same with CORIOLANUS) and it’s a wonderfully bitter pill for the people of its analogous class and social position and political sympathies. It’s a Nietzschean novel, in that the protagonist Anna Wulf and her lifelong friend Molly are Nietzschean figures, and it’s of a classically nihilist cast of mind. It’s a long and lovely elegy for the left, for feminism, for certain conventions of literature. More deeply, it articulates a tension between desires and the emptiness of the world. For example, there’s a disgust in the tone aimed both at morality and at the amorality of the story’s reality. In its storytelling it argues that the modern novel can’t be moral, and this fact is lamentable. Odd to start here since TGN is only ever mentioned in the context of its Marxist feminism. It’s interesting to read the sharp reactions on Goodreads against this novel from modern decidedly non-communist feminist perspectives today.

I’d heard so much about TGN and never once heard about its structure. A psychologically realist bourgeois English novel unfolds, called Free Women. “Free” as in unmarried. Anna and Molly are single mothers, middle-aged, not the 1% but privileged in the usual social and class ways. It’s 1957; the two women are still leftists if disenchanted, but their friend Richard, who is father to Molly’s adult son Tommy, has grown up into a married liberal business man who serially cheats, leaving his now alcoholic wife with two children. Anna is living off the royalties of her novel, The Frontiers of War. She hasn’t been writing anything publishable. Instead she keeps notebooks, black, red, yellow, blue, and the last one of course. And these unfold, containing drafts for novels, newspaper clippings, memoirs and essays, diary entries, who knows what else could appear in the second half.

The notebook sections split Free Women into five numbered sections. They’re experienced like slow eruptions; the usual modernist figures like the return of the repressed, or a rhizome’s vines running through pavement. It’s as if the modern novel has to hatch out of the realist one. (Lessing’s book invites grand statements like these because it really is that ambitious in its scope and stakes.) But of course, modernism wouldn’t criticize the conventional nature of realism if the two’s desires weren’t the same: to capture an impression of the real. The modernist conventions that replace the realist ones will ossify and be criticized as such soon enough. If the novel of Lessing’s moment must capture an impression of the real, it will have to deny resolution and harmony. The notebooks are Anna’s life fragmented and sectioned off, but still bleed into one another despite all that. The Free Women sections act like lenses for all the far-flung and friction-generating material in the notebooks.

The black notebook is Anna’s writing workbook, in a sense. Its first major part is a long novella about her time in “the Colony,” as a Communist Party organizer in Rhodesia. This is a kind of anti-novel to her single literary hit. She writes a sardonic, satirical synopsis for a film adaptation, which could have been a late 1950’s Douglas Sirk kind of melodrama, with love across the color line.

As Anna writes about what really happened, she interrupts herself by reflecting on her writing:

(I am again falling into the wrong tone — and yet I hate that tone, and yet we all lived inside it for months and years, and it did us all, I am sure, a great deal of damage. It was self-punishing, a locking of feeling, an inability or a refusal to fit conflicting things together to make a whole; so that one can neither change nor destroy; the refusal means ultimately either death or the impoverishment of the individual.) (79)

Anna writes much later in the yellow notebook that literature is “analysis after the event.” These memories of the Colony date around 1944. Communist feelings are at an all time high, but it can’t be helped that Anna’s writing of it captures the bottoming-out of those feelings and all the rest of it.

She’s there with Maryrose, a well off German kid named Willi (they are in a “sexless” relationship), and three pilot boys: Paul, Jimmy, and Ted. While they do Party work they’re also trying to save people’s souls. Ted’s project is an old dude named George, a family man with a black mistress on the side (she’s the wife of the cook of the Mashopi hotel our characters go to for the weekends) open to socialist ideas. It’s when George is introduced that Anna breaks her reflections to wonder why she is quick to think George “nice” and Paul and Willi not.

Heaven knows we are never allowed to forget that the ‘personality’ doesn’t exist any more. It’s the theme of half of the novels written, the theme of the sociologists and all the other -ologists. We’re told so often that human personality has disintegrated into nothing under the pressure of all our knowledge that I’ve even been believing it. Yet when I look back to that group under the trees, and recreate them in my memory, suddenly I know it’s nonsense. Suppose I were to meet Maryrose now, all these years later, she’d make some gesture, or turn her eyes in such a way, and there she’d be, Maryrose, and indestructible. (115)

The death of the personality or the subject is ludicrous in the face of Anna’s own vivid memories. But right away she casts doubt on memory as that which constitutes a personality.

The moments I remember, all have the absolute assurance of a smile, a look, a gesture, in a painting or a film. Am I saying then that the certainty I’m clinging to belongs to the visual arts, and not to the novel, not to the novel at all, which has been claimed by the disintegration and the collapse? What business has a novelist to cling to the memory of a smile or a look, knowing so well the complexities behind them? Yet if I did not, I’d never be able to set a word down on paper; just as I used to keep myself from going crazy in this cold northern city by deliberately making myself remember the quality of hot sunlight on my skin. (115)

These wonderful anxieties trade on representation vs. reproduction. Later on, in a debate with her employer, friend, and comrade Jack at the Marxist publishing firm she volunteers at in the mid 50s, he points out the massive rush of technology in their lives and what it has to do with the exhaustion of idealist hopes and the continuing madness of history after the bomb. I bring it up to highlight that what made writing special from the very beginning was its technical reproducibility. And yet it is photography and cinema that define an industrial age of reproduction at a profoundly material level: a photograph of a smile is neither simply real nor not-real. Writing of the superficial imagery of a smile or any other gesture or any cherished memory is insufficient after these developments. Anna doesn’t want to make a movie that you read. Text has room for analysis and concepts that movies don’t. And yet the last word is the material effects of sensual memories. Her craft depends on this act that seems more hollow than ever.

After many scenes of Anna and Maryrose more or less putting up with the chauvenism of the rest, we find out that their drunken partying, through a chain of events with Mrs Boothby, the hotel’s proprietor, leads to Jackson, the black cook, losing his livelyhood and putting his whole family at risk. These unseemly events get spun up in to Anna’s hit novel. It’s profoundly false, and she is disgusted with herself. It is her personal end to the communist myth, and to that original version of political correctness that gets so grating (no criticism of Stalin or the Soviet Union’s political atrocities allowed) that she leaves the party in ’54.

It’s tempting to be disgusted with the whole thing. Maryrose remarks that there was a genuine hope that she and her comrades could make the world better, which has completely dissipated — and here they are still partying. Dancing and drinking represses the disgust, to be sure, but moreover, what else is there to be done? The disgust with what’s in front of Anna is also a disgust with herself, because there doesn’t seem to (realistically) be anything else for her to do except to “succumb” as the narrator puts it when she plays the parts cast for her in every fraught, micromanaged interaction with men, gay or straight.

And the way all the men treat women in this novel is disgusting; we get example after example with dry, probing, realistic scenes. And Anna reflects in the second black notebook set that this disgust can give way to a certain hysteria. Anna’s novels and the problems she identifies with English fiction make me wonder about her own status in the novel Free Women. The stability of character is also in question. Although we have a rich view of Anna’s past life, she’s born in Molly’s London flat in 1957, in an act of speaking, when she gives the key line: “The point is, that as far as I can see, everything is cracking up.” The British CP, the communist dream in general, the form of the novel, and the human self under capitalist patriarchy.

For a novel to capture reality, it’s no longer enough to pile up details and observations into a coherent character and situation. Things pile up all right, but not into a novel but several novels: The baseline novel Free Women, the anti-novel of Frontiers of War, a novel called Shadow of the Third, in which Anna works through a painful relationship with Michael (Paul in the novel, the names are traded around pretty systematically).

Michael, we learn in this third novel, is a doctor from a working-class background. And we see this political friction unfold. Get out your identity politics scoreboards: Michael is lower class than Anna. But Michael is just as entitled and hurtful as any other man. Anna herself runs into plenty of anti-communist women, women so tainted with liberal bourgeois ideology they may as well be cut off from reality entirely. But can they still like each other or help each other as women under patriarchy? It’s not so easy. (Anna’s political life is for the red notebook, but politics bleeds into all the other colors effortlessly.)

All these novels within the novel occlude each other at least as much as they illuminate the whole picture. The text, in order to be true, has to hold up other texts in the effort to understand itself, is indeed made of other texts so that there is no choice but to invest in a modernist relation to itself. Just as all novels had been doing the whole time.

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