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  • Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013): A Tribute…of Sorts

    image“These women are insufferable!” Every day for about two weeks, the same refrain.

    Before October of 2007 neither Sam nor I had read a word of Doris Lessing. We knew her by reputation only: a minor colossus, not in the Proust-Joyce-Mann-Woolf-Faulkner range, but prominent in the Naipaul-Grass-Morrison-Gordimer range, whose work had, by some arguments, wider social impact than any in either range. For years a copy of The Golden Notebook had taken up its blocky space on our shelf, occasionally shifting position one way or another as new books squeezed in around it. Whatever might have seemed forbidding about it – its specs, its status as icon – had long since been mitigated by familiarity, like with the bulky house a few blocks from the street on which I grew up which my childhood cohorts and I delighted in taking for haunted, the possibility of which, somewhere along the line, we lost interest in verifying. But on that October morning, when reporters met her outside her London home as she returned from shopping to inform her she’d won the Nobel Prize and she uttered her now famous “Oh Christ! I couldn’t care less”, Sam decided it was time. He decided to crack The Golden Notebook first.

    And quickly decided to make it his last. “These women are insufferable,” he’d moan every twenty pages or so. “Cold. Heartless. Narrow!” Not having read it myself, I nonetheless felt compelled to come to the famous book’s defense. I put it to him that she was breaking new ground. “Maybe she’s showing what can happen to women’s psyches when they decide to not to capitulate to the society that holds them down. In other words, maybe she deliberately drew them to be as you are finding them.”

    “But it’s about choices, isn’t it,” he would counter. “These women never really grow or change. Toni Morrison’s characters face profound oppression. But there’s real drama in their choices, with real consequences, and they don’t become narcissistic bitches.”

    “A character doesn’t have to be likable for a book to be good.”

    “But there has to be something about a character that gives the reader a stake in her fate. These women are just bores.”

    “The writing itself?”


    And so it would go.

    My late partner Sam was one of the two or three most serious readers I have ever known. Books were an indelible part of our life as a couple. And yet we read very differently. He entered into a book far more completely from an emotional standpoint than I do. If he was moved, it was a physical experience for him. If he loved a character, it was almost as a lover. He thought about them outside the context of the printed page. I’ll never forget how riled our friend Nathan got when Sam, who was reading Ulysses, said he wondered if Stephen Dedalus brushed his teeth and whether or not he thought about girls. “It’s not in the text!”, Nathan protested. Because his relationship with a book was so intimate, so totally personal, if a writer, such as Doris Lessing, struck him poorly, his refusal to forgive was absolute.

    My own relationship to books is, I believe, hardly less personal. But even the books that affect me the most tend to retain about them something of the artifact, an object that can be turned over, sniffed, tasted, examined and wondered about as part of the large world outside my body. This does not make me a better reader than Sam, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m an “objective” reader, because I don’t believe there is such a person. I might even consider that the bit of distance I keep from the printed page in some ways limits me; Sam’s openness to his own passionate response was part and parcel with the fullness with which he engaged with life. But it does mean that a writer such as Lessing, for whom I, too, will never have much fondness, can remain at least interesting to me.

    I’ve now read five of Lessing’s novels (though, strangely, not yet The Golden Notebook), and, have noted that a hard, rather self-involved female protagonist, much as Sam described Anna Wulf, seems to make the rounds to each of them. I was struck by an observation Michiko Kakutani made in her review of Under My Skin (1994), the first installment of Lessing’s autobiography. Responding to a passage in which Lessing discusses her decision to leave her husband and two small children, Kakutani writes:

    This matter-of-fact tone informs much of this volume, leaving us with a vivid, if somewhat chilling picture of the author as a self-absorbed and heedless young woman. Ms. Lessing tells us that she was not in love with her first husband, or her second, and that her maternal instincts temporarily “switched off” after the birth of her second child. Again and again, she describes her actions as a mere reflection of the Zeitgeist, a point of view that may illuminate the social dynamic animating so many of her novels, but that also suggests a certain reluctance to assume responsibility for personal choices.

    A chilling picture indeed. Lessing’s use of the equivocal virtue of candor to convey what should be a monumentally difficult piece of personal information is fraught. There can be humility in candor, and there can be arrogance. When humility is up, we feel invited to take a look around the subject itself and see complexity. Forgiveness becomes moot because we see ourselves and feel braced by an honoring of our fragile humanity. When it is arrogance, we can feel under assault, and may experience the need to forgive without being sure we have the reserves for it. To say “matter-of-factly” that one walked out of the life of one’s young children, and to style this as zeitgeist-driven, is really no different than self-absolution via “the Devil made me do it.” We sense an attempt to warp the moral universe to one’s own needs. Our response becomes truncated; it’s either “you monster” or “you trailblazer”, and our sense of human possibility becomes thin fare indeed.

    imageI, like Sam, and apparently many others, both among her admirers and her detractors, have noted her rather pedestrian and occasionally leaden prose. “Indigestible,” in the words of one critic. After her Nobel win, American critic Harold Bloom (himself a marvelous windbag of genius) said he found her novels of the last fifteen years to be “unreadable”. I was interested to read in the New York Times tribute that no less a writer than J. M. Coetzee weighed in on this, saying, “Lessing has never been a great stylist — she writes too fast and prunes too lightly for that.”

    And yet there remains something about Lessing. Her standing as a major writer seems to transcend the writing itself. When she turned her own problematic choices into materials and brought them to bare on her novels the result was nothing less than the clarion call of a new epoch, especially for educated women, and by extension, everyone else. She was, indeed, a zeitgeist prophet. Margaret Atwood put it this way in her tribute in The Guardian:

    If there were a Mount Rushmore of 20th-century authors, Doris Lessing would most certainly be carved upon it. Like Adrienne Rich, she was pivotal, situated at the moment when the gates of the gender disparity castle were giving way, and women were faced with increased freedoms and choices, as well as increased challenges.

    It is perhaps a touch whimsical to illustrate Lessing’s greatness by invoking that famous piece of gigantic kitsch in the hills of South Dakota. But Atwood’s meaning is clear; in a very real way, at least in the land of literature, there was a “before Lessing” and an “after Lessing”. Virginia Woolf was, by orders of magnitude, the greater writer, but she didn’t write about women’s orgasms. More importantly, she didn’t level her sights directly on a society which, by precluding such discussion, showed its true, imperialistic colors, its dependence for continuance on the enslavement, either emotional or actual, of huge segments of the Earth’s people. Whatever else may be said of the work of Doris Lessing, her vision was necessary and transformative. For this, Sam’s opinion notwithstanding, her honors are merited.





  • Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s THE SPIRE (part 2)

    I began my previous post, “Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s The Spire (part 1)”, with a quick rundown of the pitfalls of allegory, how it can grab a narrative by its throat, twist it about, and force it to kiss its own rectitude, and how it can make for lifeless characters whose only function is to represent a particular moral principal.  Ever since publishing Lord of the Flies William Golding has regularly born the charge of failing to miss the banana peel at the edge of the allegorical pit. I then wrote about how The Spire (1964), his fifth published novel, is read by some as confirmation of this criticism (It is, after all, about building a “spire”, wink wink.), making his career, at least up to that point, a possible subject for an allegory about the “folly of good intentions”. Then I shared my own experience of actually reading it, how I had expected its flaws to skitter over the pages like medieval demons over the doorstep of a lost soul. But after two careful readings, I was unable to make any of the complaints adhere. Instead, I found it magnificent. Which means that if someone where to write an allegory about the virtue of “just appraisal” or “the giving of second chances”, the author might invent a character named “Snotnose, a reader with a blog”, and relate his comedown and subsequent redemption through a reading of Golding’s The Spire.

    Salisbury Cathedral, visible from Golding’s window at Bishop Wentworth’s School for Boys, where he taught from 1939 to 1961 (with five years off for wartime service in the Royal Navy), was the inspiration and model for the catheral in THE SPIRE. Salisbury Cathedral’s 404-foot spire is the tallest in Great Britain.

    One of the ways Golding uses, and then transcends, allegory is through his portrayal of his protagonist.  Jocelin is dean of a medieval English cathedral for which he believes God has commanded him to construct an impossibly tall spire. Like most who claim this kind of direct connection with God, he comes across as thoroughly glazed, eyes never dropping lower than the mid-distance. Lacking the gravitas of, say, Noah, he is dependent upon his position of authority to counter all challenges to this vision. His most vocal opponent is Roger Mason, his master builder, who recognizes the insanity of pressing onward and upward with the great stone phallus known to all, save Jocelin himself, as “Jocelin’s Folly”. Jocelin traps him with a narcissist’s acumen for detecting the weaknesses of those within his orbit. First, he cuts off the possibility of other, better, work for Roger and his men. Then, more deviously, he allows an affair to bloom between Roger and Goody Pangall, wife of an impotent and crippled verger. “She will keep him here,” he rationalizes.  The affair has the double function of allowing him to distance himself from from his own stifling and stifled sexual desire. He treats the liaison, ultimately a lethal one, with a kind of willed blindness, perhaps his most salient attribute. As building progresses, and the menace of disaster looms ever larger, Jocelin proves a virtuoso of the blind eye turned. The cost of building materials, the alienation of his clergy, his spiritual duties to his “flock”, the paganism of the workmen, the mental dissolution of Roger, his own misbegotten position, even a case of human sacrifice in which the victim is walled into the foundation of the cathedral (an event Golding conveys with masterful ambiguity), all of it goes unmarked by the obsessed dean.

    Golding uses his creation as would an allegorist, disallowing him that final measure of freedom, to fidget about and exhibit incongruities, that is the hallmark of  more lifelike fictional characters. A more flexible and far-ranging novelist, like Patrick White, creates characters who are buffeted by the winds of their own consciousnesses, apparently separate from the author’s, and who experience such vicissitudes of circumstance and event that they can’t help but respond with vicissitudes of their own, emerging as essentially dignified agents, however flawed, of their own lives. By contrast, one never senses that, in the process of writing this book, Golding ever woke up wondering what stunt that crazy Jocelin was going to pull next. Rather, he brings his character into sharp focus solely through the lens of his sin. Pride, the deadliest of the famous seven, is referenced into everything he does, says, or thinks.  But the sin itself, and any moralistic stance towards it, is not really Golding’s subject. More, it is the impetus to sin, and in The Spire the impetus is multiform, a miasma of sexual repression, physical disease, narcissistic scaffolding, spiritual fragility. Golding is willing to trade a measure of “realism” for a more concise and dramatically useful embodiment of these complex dynamics. Jocelin is guilty of pride, but is not Pride himself. He is more a figure from Greek myth than medieval allegory.

    Mythic though he may be, Golding is too sophisticated a writer to allow a single reading of Jocelin. On the one hand, he is a narcissistic demon, oblivious to the lives he destroys. Golding’s rendering of him as such is subtle. To the criticism, mentioned in the previous post, that Golding has “seriously underwritten” his novel, showing characters and their settings in mere outline, I rejoin that he has, with a remarkably steady hand, drawn his readers into his protagonist’s consciousness. The Spire is what Wayne Booth (The Rhetoric of Fiction) describes as a third-person narrator-agent novel, a third person novel whose central character so influences the action that he functions nearly as a first-person voice. Through the sparsity of the setting, and those outlines and gestures which pass for people, we see the world as Jocelin sees it. That is, we see the attenuation of all that does not immediately come to bare on his God-haunted vision.

    On the other hand, Jocelin is the portrait of an artist. He confronts the modern Western reader with one of our culture’s most cherished archetypes: the Visionary. We are gluttons for stories about the artist-hero who, against all odds and opposition, and unlike most of us, remains true to his or her vision, seeing it through to its triumphant completion. (No matter how clear-eyed our world view, there is always a little Ayn Rand lurking behind a polyp in our soul.) While Jocelin brings destruction, not least of all to himself, he is also the agent of creation. His sin may be pride, but his virtue is a kind of simplicity, a singleness of purpose that any true artist must exhibit. Whatever is demonic in him, his faith is genuine, and it is It is not, I think, a spoiler to say that at the end of the novel, having undergone a highly ambivalent redemption in which he is, paradoxically, shorn of this very faith, together with his “vision”, Jocelin dies, but —his spire still stands.

    I hope Golding sent at least an expensive bouquet of flowers to whoever talked him out of his original title, An Erection at Barcester, for he would have done his own vision a grave disservice.

    “Round about the year 1200, Bishop Poore was standing on a hill overlooking the confluence of the local rivers, according to legend, when the mother of Jesus appeared to him, told him to shoot an arrow and build her a church where the arrow fell. The arrow flew more than a mile and fell in the middle of a swamp. There, with complete indifference to such things as health, foundations, access and general practicability, the cathedral was built. Eighty years later, with a technological gamble which makes space travel seem child’s play, the builders erected the highest spire in the country on top of it, thousands of tons of lead and iron and wood and stone. Yet the whole building still stands. It leans. It totters. It bends. But it still stands…a perpetual delight, a perpetual wonder.” —William Golding, “An Affection for Cathedrals”

  • Transcending Allegory: William Golding’s “THE SPIRE” (part 1)

    Allegory, the use of symbolic figures or actions to convey abstract, often moral, principles or ideas, can, in the hands of a skillful writer, add a layer of meaning to a narrative. But, how skilled that writer must be lest characters shed flesh and blood and become mere signifiers, “Truth” or “Avarice” in all but name. How subtle, lest every action, every gesture become a schoolyard tattler pointing a righteous finger at its own meaning.  When allegory infects a narrative’s structure, it becomes as false and awkward as “asset enhancing” underwear, worn to trick the eye into thinking there is something there when there isn’t. The Victorian bustle is perhaps the most famous example, worn by women of all shapes and sizes as an “allegory” of their own sexual identity. William Golding has often been faulted for being an allegorist, a designer of literary bustles.

    “Le Stryge”, Charles Meryon’s 1853 etching of one of Violloet-Le-Duc’s gargoyles perched on a balustrade of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which Golding acknowledged as one of the inspirations for the “ravonlike” egoism of Dean Jocelin.

    One need read no further than the title of The Spire to suspect confirmation of this criticism.  If the novel turned out to be about nothing other than what the cover claims, then we could already assume the author has used his Everyman quill to give us a good medieval talking to. At its most mundane, a spire is an allegorical piece of architecture. Even without invoking Freud, it is a symbolic declaration of power, void of function apart from its meaning. And when the bespired  building is a Christian cathedral, the allegorical gruel thickens. The general upward thrust of the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe, and of their spires in particular, was intended to lift the people’s eyes upward, releasing their attention from the ground where they labored, and into which their lives were headed, and to remind them of the direction their souls would take at the end of a life of obedience to the church. The higher the spire, the wealthier the diocese, or the more wealthy it was perceived to be, and therefore, the more favored by God.

    And then, so sorry, there is Freud.

    I read The Spire (1964), William Golding’s fifth published novel, the first time at least, with an ear out for what could be problematic. So primed, the problematic obliged. Jocelin, Golding’s protagonist, is the quintessential out-of-touch clergyman with, oh dear, a divine vision. He believes God has ordered him to build a four hundred foot spire on the cathedral of which he is dean. Can you say, “Pride”? Only, guess what, the building has foundations barely sufficient to support itself as it is, spireless. A spire, we are told, must “go down as far as it goes up,” surely the moral of something or another. The master builder, Roger Mason (Can’t fault the name. People in the middle ages were often identified by their trades), digs a deep pit at the church’s crossing to prove to Jocelin the lack of adequate foundations. Not only is his point made, but, it turns out, the earth creeps; the church – wait for it – has been built on shifting sands. Already there is enough portent here to tempt even the greatest writer’s heavy hand. But then, how about those four pillars on which the weight of the tower will rest. They are far too narrow. Joceline attributes all arguments against building the spire to Roger’s lack of faith and forces his vision towards completion. As it rises, ludicrous, priapic, and the pressure on the pillars increases, they being to “sing”, emitting a high pitched “eee”. And then they begin to bend, as solid stone should never do. As it turns out, their apparent solidity is the common illusion of ashlar stone, that is, a veneer of  squared, “dressed” stone fronting rubble. To top it all off, so to speak, the obsessed Dean is observed at one point holding the model of the spire close,  and stroking it. Oh, honestly!

    Another common criticism of Golding is that he is ill-adept at depicting complex adult human relationships. The Spire could be read as corroborating evidence. The characters who flicker in and out of Joceline’s line of vision are composed of outlines, gestures. Father Anselm, Joceline’s tight-lipped confessor, is little more than a posture. Goody Pangall, wife of the crippled and impotent cathedral servant, and the object of Joceline’s insufficiently sublimated lust, is finally reduced to a tuft of red hair. The setting, too, is narrow, almost amputated. There is, we deduce, a town, with townspeople, but when rains threaten to wash the town away, the sense of emergency seems purely theoretical, and a reader may even be a bit surprised that there is a place in the world Golding has evoked for rain to fall, apart from the roof of the nave. Event is similarly sparse in its rendering. Golding offers barely a hint of the religious activity native to any active cathedral. As the spire rises, we are shown dust, snapshots of progress, but no sweat, a minimum of muscular exertion. All this haunting lacuna prompted one critic to describe the book as “seriously underwritten.”

    So, if one is predisposed to dismiss this novel, one need not look far for reason. I found myself unable to do so.

    Within the first dozen pages, I believed I had the novel pegged. The consistently taut and beautiful prose notwithstanding, I knew where this story was going and could see no prospect for surprise. Yet, following the trail of those fascinatingly poised and pointed sentences, I kept on, and found that, page by page, the narrative never went where I thought it would, at least not quite, and in the end, not at all. So that months later, needing a brief respite from The Brother’s Karamozov, I opened The Spire again, this time setting aside my reservations and allowing for one of two possibilities:

    A. that I might have bad taste and be easily manipulated by heavy handed symbolism and shameless allegory, or

    B. that Golding, whatever his limitations, might just have known what he was doing after all.

    I read with growing fascination as Dean Jocelin’s mania transformed him from a blind narcissist into a gargoyle (quite literally; a craftsman, dumb and smiling, carves his beaky visage to be placed on each of the four corners of the tower), which, in the end, cracks open to reveal a deeply flawed and broken human being. I tried rolling my eyes a little when the rains brought forth the smell of corruption from the open earth at the crossing where the tombs of long forgotten bishops had been disturbed, but found it somehow unsatisfying, as if caught in my own caginess rather than Golding’s. The singing pillars, in spite of their admittedly underlined reference to the fall awaiting the sin of Pride, nonetheless evoked a very real and hypnotic sense of menace. The play of Light (sun bursting through the stained glass windows) and Dark (the pit, human sacrifice) blurred in the cathedral’s dust-laden atmosphere.

    In the end, it turned out that I had read, for a second time but as if for the first, a complex novel, not at all “underwritten”, whose final ambiguity enables it to transcend the sum of its frequently allegorical parts. Unlike with a bald faced allegory, such as Lord of the Flies, I emerged from The Spire unsure what to think, wondering just what had happened here, but having been deeply moved.

    I don’t frequently reread books.  In my next post I will say more about why, this time, I am glad I did.

    Have you read The Spire? Any other of Golding’s novels? I would love to hear your thoughts.