Friday, 15 August 2008

The First and the Last: An Art Show and Doris Lessing's Novels

One of the things we did last weekend was take in a fascinating exhibition of engravings done by artists associated with Atelier Circulaire. Called La première et la dernière, it features early and recent work by about 35 artists. Some of the pairs show a great difference in theme or technique but other demonstrate a continued interest in ideas that have evolved over time.

I've thought of the contrasts that the exhibit presented a lot these last few days as I try to make headway in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. It is the first book scheduled for two of the book groups I lead (September 8 in English at the Pierrefonds Library and September 9 in French at the Bibliothèque Robert-Bourassa in Outremont) Although I read it years ago, I have found re-reading it quite a new experience. Not only had I forgotten much of it, I have been struck by how much it resembles Lessing’s most recent novel, The Sweetest Dream,(published in 2001) which I read last winter. Fifty years ago she was concerned about the same things—the fate of Africa, the betrayal of idealism in the Communist Party, the difficulty faced by women trying to raise children on their own, in particular. Much of the more recent book I found annoying, and I’m afraid I’m losing patience with the characters in the older book. I’m just about to declare that her best work was the stories from her youth in Africa, The Grass Is Singing (1949) and the Martha Quest books (1952-59.) What a dismal thought that would be!

But it may also say something about early success. For a writer or composer to be wildly acclaimed in his or her 30s (and Lessing was just 30 when The Grass Is Singing became a best seller) usually means being cut off from ordinary life, and a narrowing rather than a widening of experience. The quasi-science fiction that Lessing wrote in the 1970s and 1980s can be seen as an attempt to escape that constraint. Her last novel--as well as her memoirs--show that first and last she has the same preoccuptions, however.

1 comment:

Jack Ruttan said...

I enjoyed The Golden Notebook because it reminded me of my time in University, when members of political groups could only say the truth about whatever was bothering them about the group. after they had been drinking. Not that it's a great thing, simply that I could relate to the experience, though my idealism was pretty well shattered over those years. The author seemed to reflect this, so I could identify.