The Summer Before the Dark–Doris Lessing (1973)

I first tried this book a couple of years ago (apparently on a trip to Chicago—the boarding pass was tucked after p 46). For whatever reason, it didn’t take. But I returned to it much more successfully last week because I’d an inkling it could be interestingly compared to one of my favourite novels, Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), in a way that would fit a call for papers for a session at next year’s MLA. (Here’s hoping the organizers agree.) I’ll leave the comparison itself aside for now, and instead take it on its own merits. Although I’ve only read a fraction of Lessing’s vast corpus, I rank Summer as one of my favourites, alongside The Grass is Singing (1950) and the puzzlingly underrated The Good Terrorist (1985). It gives us so much to think about that it really deserves to be better known.

I love Lessing because she is one of those writers who so easily wrong-foot me. I don’t find reading Lessing an easy or always pleasant experience. (Pleasure is a great virtue in reading, but some things are great because they refuse us pleasures we might unthinking expect.) I’m always tense, reading Lessing, because she’s always on the verge of being clumsy and obvious, but actually rarely is. (In this she is like my absolute favourite writer, D. H. Lawrence. Lessing has written about his influence on her.) (That this should make me tense is odd, isn’t it?) Lessing is often taken to be strident and humourless, a reputation based, I would say, on ill-informed ideas about feminism (ideas she rightly rejected) and plain-old misogyny. (The outspoken female writer is a harridan; the outspoken male writer is a visionary.) As I’ve written in a different context, one of the things I most admire in Lessing is her uncanny play with realist literary conventions, which she never quite abandons in the literary thought experiments that make up her work.

The experiment in Summer is to explore what happens to a person who has the chance to stop serving others, even living for them, after a lifetime of doing so. As its title suggests, the novel is set over the course of a single summer. (Like Engel’s, incidentally. And if you haven’t read that book, I suggest you do so right away.) That quasi-Aristotelian constriction only adds urgency to the events of the plot, which comprise a voyage of discovery that can only end, as the title also suggests, in obscurity.

The novel’s protagonist is Kate Brown. (Various references to her as “Mrs. Brown” remind us of Virginia Woolf’s great essay “Character in Fiction” (1924), in which Woolf imagines a character that literature has had no time for, one Mrs. Brown, based on a woman Woolf once saw on a train, a character that she urges modern novelists to pursue at all costs.) Kate is the middle-aged wife of an eminent neurologist and the mother of several almost grown children. The title thus also refers to the period in Kate’s life, with the coming darkness being old age, even late middle age, and, more pertinently, the time when women stop being meaningful to contemporary society, the time when they literally become invisible. In some justly famous scenes near the end of the book, Kate experiments with her appearance and its effects on others: when she does not fix her hair and makeup or dress a certain way, she becomes invisible. Walking past a construction site, she realizes that the workers have taken no notice of her:

The fact that they didn’t suddenly made her angry. She walked away out of sight, and there, took off her jacket…showing her fitting dark dress. [The comma after “there” brings me up short. There’s a kind of stutter in the prose, like the larger existential stutter Kate experiences in the book.] She tied her hair dramatically with a scarf. Then she strolled back in front of the workmen, hips conscious of themselves. A storm of whistles, calls, invitations. Out of sight the other way, she made her small transformation and walked back again: the men glanced at her, did not see her.

More interesting than Kate’s sociological experiment is her reaction to it: her anger. The passage I’ve quoted continues: “She was trembling with rage: it was a rage, it seemed to her, that she had been suppressing for a lifetime.”  How best to express rage is one of the central questions of the book, how hard it is to express it at all one of its central observations.

The build-up to this expression of rage begins when Kate is given an opportunity. Her husband is about to leave for several months’ work in America. The children are about to scatter across the globe on various expeditions. A friend of her husband, an American come to London to attend a conference on global food production, particularly coffee, asks her to help the conference organizers. They need simultaneous translators from Portuguese, which Kate speaks fluently; her father was an English-naturalized Portuguese. (A handful of beautifully sketched out scenes describe Kate’s year in Lorenco Marques—now Maputo, Mozambique—with her grandfather in 1948.)  Kate agrees, with some reluctance. The house is hastily shut up and let until the end of September, when the children will return from their various pilgrimages. Kate settles quickly into her new job, enjoying the anonymity, the relative ease of the work, and what she thinks of as the preposterously large salary. But the break from family life isn’t suitable to introspection. And she will soon have even less time for herself—greater responsibilities await. The organizational flair she has developed running her busy, graceful household over the years translates neatly into a larger role with Global Food. She becomes the chief factotum, seeing to, even anticipating, the needs of the ministers, secretaries and other dignitaries. She arranges hair appointments, knows where to buy the best British woolens, ensures that refreshments and supplies are always ready to hand. She is a nurse, a nanny, in short, a mother once more.

After organizing a second conference in Istanbul, Kate leaves the organization. She is afraid of how easily she has replicated her role as housewife, almost as afraid as she is of what she will do next. The novel brilliantly depicts how frightening it is to leave established patterns of behaviour, even dangerous or oppressive ones. Kate resists the introspection that freedom from responsibility will force upon her, even as she is moving in that direction. That resistance is one way to explain her sudden decision to travel to Spain with a younger American man that she becomes involved with in Istanbul.

At this point the book really gets good, becoming increasingly strange and compelling. Kate and the American, Jeffrey—pretty much an irredeemably tedious character—arrive at the Costa del Sol. His disgust at its tourist economy leads him to take Kate first up the coast and later inland. The journey is increasingly feverish, not least because Jeffrey is literally so; he is only to be stopped when he is delirious and nearly unconscious. Kate finds herself marooned in an impoverished, isolated village several hours inland from Alicante. Jeffrey is taken to a monastery, where the nuns look after him until the only doctor in the area returns from a call in another valley. Jeffrey’s illness is as much psychological as physiological. At 32 he is at a crossroads of his own, unable to decide how to live his life. He rejects the life of responsibility that awaits him in the US (he comes from a family of means) but no longer able to drift in the (post) hippie lifestyle that we glimpsed in the brief section set on the Spanish coast. But the book isn’t interested in his dilemma, only in Kate’s struggle to resist mothering him, cooing over him, offering advice and a comforting shoulder. We never find out what happens to him. Before long Kate herself falls ill. She takes the bus back to coast, then a fevered, dazed flight back to London. Jeffrey is abandoned, returning neither in the plot’s events nor Kate’s thoughts.

The return to London is another surprising and interesting choice on Lessing’s part. The book is highly attuned to global capital, and it never glamourizes non-Western or third world countries (rural Spain under Franco seems to count as both) as exotic repositories of authenticity and value.  Indeed, Kate is only too aware, based on her experiences in the Spanish village, where the peasant women look up from their incessant labour with expressions of hatred at and contempt for her leisure, how difficult and not to be idealized life is for women who aren’t white and middle class and sheltered. So the “voyage out” that Lessing sketches here (and she must also have in mind Woolf’s novel of that name, with its own fevered and feverish female protagonist) isn’t really a geographic one. Lessing is famous for saying that in order to break through (to something like psychic health) one has to break down (via something like madness). But Lessing’s psychological exploration is always a material one, too. She repudiated the Communist party already in the 1950s but certain insights of Marxism, based on her experiences growing up in a colonial society, Rhodesia, never left her.

Kate can’t go home when she returns to London because her house is still let. She checks herself into the only hotel available in the summer tourist season, a posh one where she is coddled by a series of excellent caretakers until she recovers, if that is the right word, from her own mysterious illness.  But this reversal of affairs (the mother now gets mothered) doesn’t suit the novel’s purposes, for the reversal doesn’t negate the central problem (are there any roles for women that don’t involve being a mother of some sort?). The literal, physical fever finally breaks, but the figurative, existential one persists.

We see this in a wonderful scene that left me squirming. Just before leaving the hotel, the Global Food money nearly spent, she attends a sold-out production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Kate finds herself talking aloud about the ridiculousness of the situation of the female characters, to the point of heckling the production. She doesn’t mean to do this, part of her doesn’t want to. Here’s how Lessing starts the scene:

A woman sat prominently in the front row of the stalls, a woman whom other people were observing. Some were looking at her as much as they did at the play. She seemed quite out of place there, an eccentric to the point of fantasy, with her pink sacklike dress tied abruptly around her by a yellow scarf, her bush of multi-hued hair, her gaunt face that was yellow, and all bones and burning angry eyes. She was muttering, ‘Oh rubbish! Russian my aunt’s fanny! Oh what nonsense!’ while she fidgeted and twisted in her seat.

The disorienting thing here is that the woman is Kate—we’ve shifted from the close “she” or “Kate” of the previous paragraph, and of most of the novel, a position closely aligned to Kate’s consciousness, to one that is distanced from her.  This split in point of view echoes the split in Kate’s self-understanding. The “eccentric” is rebuked in the best passive-aggressive English way by other audience members, every one of them a version of her former self. Kate has only contempt for their contempt:

Oh for God’s sake, though Kate—but alas, had said it, too, for a woman several seats down leaned forward to give her a contemptuous stare. The woman looked like a cat, an old pussycat that has gone fat and lazy; but enough now, stop it, she should keep her attention well away from the stage since she couldn’t behave properly—really, why was it that no one but she could see, couldn’t anyone see that what they were all watching was the behaviour of maniacs? A parody of something. Really, they all ought to be falling about, roaring with laughter, instead of feeling intelligent sympathy at these ridiculous absurd meaningless problems.

Lessing makes us feel the ambivalence of the moment: we want to side with Kate here, but it’s hard to know exactly what that means, since Kate doesn’t even side with herself, part of her is mortified by what she’s doing even as most of her could not care less. The novel is fascinated by laughter—indecorous, gut-busting, unseemly, anything-but-prissy laughter. Such laughter would be revelatory, would shake this tight-assed world with its ridiculous conventions. But this laughter is more often imagined in the book than realized. And what exactly would it achieve? The string of unpunctuated qualifiers in the passage’s last sentence makes me think the book is taking some distance from Kate. These are her thoughts, not its. To be sure, the more embarrassed and uncomfortable we feel, though, the more Lessing indicts our own bourgeois complicity, not least as readers of novels who have certain expectations of characterological decorum. But I’m unconvinced the book thinks it would be best for Kate simply to howl out her rage and disgust, and for us to follow suit. It isn’t easy to escape social life, which we could rephrase in the terms of the book by saying it isn’t easy not to be domesticated, not to be a mother. Maybe these are roles we don’t want to escape, or oughtn’t want to. The dilemma is further dramatized in the book’s last act, in which Kate takes a room in a flat owned by a young woman, Maureen, a hippie drop-out type who finds herself choosing between a series of suitors, none of whom she much likes. This is the period when Kate performs the experiment with the workingmen quoted above. She learns what it is to be an old woman, which seems to consist of a fundamental shapelessness. She visits her old street, sees her house, where she is ignored, unrecognized by her neighbours.

Like Maureen Kate sleeps a lot of the time, sometimes she wanders the streets. She resists mothering Maureen, refuses to be her confessor. We could think of this part of the book as a dramatization of Alison Bechdel’s celebrated test of a text: do two women have a conversation about anything other than a man? We could read the novel as asking: can there be a relationship, across generations no less, between women that don’t revolve around the care-giving roles established by the patriarchy? Both Kate and Maureen want to resist, but they’re scared, too, because they don’t know what would come after that resistance. What would the darkness be like, other than dark? The book never tells us. It ends at an impasse, deciding to emphasize the enormous difficulty of escaping a certain way of thinking rather than to describe a solution to that difficulty. If there is a way to live in the dark that isn’t effacement, the novel doesn’t show it. It’s significant that one of the last locales in the book is the London zoo, where the ones who are really imprisoned are the people visiting it.

I haven’t mentioned an important character, one that appears frequently but only indirectly, in Kate’s thoughts, her neighbour Mary Finchley. Kate admires her je-m’en-foutisme but cannot duplicate it. I can’t tell whether the novel thinks of that as a failure on Kate’s part. It seems to me that if Lessing wanted Mary to be the book’s ultimate heroine she would have given her a larger role. On balance it seems Lessing looks a bit askance at the almost comical absence of repression in Mary’s life. Here Lessing distances herself from any Reichian idea that we should simply ignore or liberate ourselves from oppression.

The Summer Before the Dark is mostly concerned with (middle-class) women, but the rather terrifying vicissitudes of identity that it studies will speak to anyone who is—whether through the vagaries of individual psychological makeup or, in more properly Lessing-like fashion, through the structural imbalances, especially economic, that characterize lived reality—defined by their complicated need to live for and through others. In this way it continues to be relevant, assuming that’s even something we want from books. A blurb on the cover tells me The Economist thought it her best book to date. I don’t know whether to chide myself for an evidently narrow minded sense of its values (and I say that as a subscriber) or to laugh at the fundamental misreading that could make that publication say such a thing about this book.

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