For my book club this week, I got the chance to re-read Doris Lessing’s 1951 The Grass is Singing. It’s an extraordinary book—not only because of its thematic project, which is complicated and stands up to all sorts of varied interpretation and socio-historical analysis, but because her prose is somehow both utilitarian and majestic all at the same time. That word utilitarian is so ugly, I know, but I use it because Lessing is just such a competent writer. Nothing ever superfluous, and yet… she can be wonderfully, incredibly lyrical.
I marked out a long passage yesterday that struck me as symbolic of something Lessing is doing, quite cleverly, throughout the book:
In the early mornings, when Dick had gone to the lands, she would walk gently over the sandy soil in front of the house, looking up into the high blue dome that was fresh as ice crystals, a marvelous clear blue, with never a cloud to stain it, not for months and months. The cold of the night was still in the soil. She would lean down to touch it, and touched, too, the rough brick of the house, that was cool and damp against her fingers. Later, when it grew warm, and the sun seemed as hot as in summer, she would go out into the front and stand under a tree on the edge of the clearing (never far into the bush where she was afraid) and let the deep shade rest her. The thick olive-green leaves overhead let through chinks of clear blue, and the wind was sharp and cold. And then, suddenly, the whole sky lowered itself into a thick grey blanket, and for a few days it was a different world, with a soft dribble of rain, and it was really cold: so cold she wore a sweater and enjoyed the sensation of shivering inside it. But this never lasted long. It seemed that from one half hour to the next the heavy grey would grow thin, showing blue behind, and then the sky would seem to lift, with layers of dissolving cloud in the middle air; all at once, there would be a high blue sky again, all the grey curtains gone. The sunshine dazzled and glittered but held no menace; this was not the sun of October, that insidiously sapped from within. There was a lift in the air, an exhilaration. Mary felt healed – almost. Almost, she became as she had been, brisk and energetic, but with a caution in her face and in her movements that showed she had not forgotten the heat would return. She tenderly submitted herself to this miraculous three months of winter, when the country was purified of its menace.
All that underlining is mine, obviously, but these were all the places where I thought Lessing was doing something interesting. So many small elements in just one paragraph. If you read this paragraph quickly, I think you could mistake it for just a simple pause in an otherwise unsettling narrative. It feels like a break. Here is Mary (who is elsewhere in a state of constant stress and emotional breakdown), relaxing, feeling somehow at peace. And I suppose there is that. But there are warnings here too – those ice crystals, the mention of her ever-present fear of the bush, that shivering, which she oddly enjoys, and then the dazzling, glittering sun without menace. There are sharp points dotted all along this restful passage.
The repetition of the word menace struck me as well. And the way it becomes an extended, albeit sideways, discussion of “heat.” She never talks about desire, but the entire book is about the heat that seems to drive Mary crazy. And of course heat is another way of talking about desire, so I can’t help seeing that here too. Ultimately that last line, “when the country was purified of its menace,” is also about desire and about the exploration that Lessing has got going about the master/servant situation, and about the catastrophic “desire” that infuses the racial situation at the same time. I don’t mean desire in normal terms, but in the broken way that Lessing treats it. And it makes me think of one of the most incisive lines from another favorite of mine, Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving:
Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.
This is, I think, what drives all that marvelous (and by marvelous, I do mean horrific) subtext throughout The Grass is Singing. And Lessing never once forgets it. She puts it into the sky and the sun, and into the very landscape. Everything is intimate.