Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Diaries of Jane Somers, by Doris Lessing

The Golden Notebook, by Lessing, was one of the major influences of my life as a wife and new mother. Published in 1962, it was a strong voice among many novels published by women who were just discovering their voices.  It is long and intense and as I remember I spent weeks, maybe months, immersed in it, during the scattered moments I spent in reading, while tending a toddler and expecting our second child.
Since that time she has written more, somewhat less commercially successful books.  She has written science fiction and distopian fiction (this may refer to all of her books, which cast a stern eye upon our times), and also non-fiction, none of which have I read.  It was as though, having survived The Golden Notebook, I was released to go in other directions.
But boy! can she write!  The Diaries of Jane Somers is a collection of two novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could...  As an experiment in the power of reputation, she arranged to have them published pseudonymously.  The result was that although some publishers and reviewers thought they found a similarity to Doris Lessing, publication took place only after a struggle, and the books were reviewed only briefly and without much fanfare.  Not until Lessing made it clear that it was her work did any measurable amount of publicity occur.  The experiment, unfortunately, was a success.
As one might expect from Doris Lessing, Diary of a Good Neighbour is in many ways a very grim tale.  Jane Somers, a highly successful magazine editor, becomes involved with Maudie, an aged, ill, poverty-stricken woman who lives a mean life, barely able to care for herself -- after all, she is in her nineties.  Almost in spite of herself, Jane continues to visit Maudie, run errands for her, buy her little treats, and, when it is necessary, washes her.  Nobody, iincluding Jane herself, can really understand Jane's motives and her stubborn determination to care for this woman who proudly rebuffs her attentions.
In its unsparing detail and its continual focus on the two women, the novel has elements of sociological case study, political paper, feminist essay.  As a novel it's monochromatic and without the suspense and surprise one expects from fiction.
But I kept reading it.  I am not planning to start the second novel, which continues Jane's life, because as always my tolerance for Lessings' ferocity is limited.  But I continue to respect her work, and, when I have recovered from Good Neighbour, I'll most likely hunt out another one of her books -- like any strong medicine, she is most effective in small doses.


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