Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Finally made it through recent Nobel prize winner Doris Lessing’s Love, Again (1996), not a read I’d particularly recommend. I find myself wondering why the novel isn’t better than it is. I haven’t read a great deal of Lessing -- and of course they can’t all be The Golden Notebook (1962), her masterpiece -- but this one seemed lackluster in several ways. And it’s not as if the topic wasn’t interesting: a woman in her 60s suddenly finding herself in love with a married man considerably younger. In fact, I read it in hopes that a major female novelist would be able to get at the heart of the phenomenon known as the May-December romance, but this time from a point of view rather different than its usual version, i.e., May, female -- December, male.

There is effort expended to give us a feel for what love -- not unrequited but unconsummated -- can do to people old enough to know better, and also old enough to know this is the last time such desires and emotional disruptions are likely to happen in a lifetime:

"By early summer Sarah’s anguish had lessened to the point that she would say it had gone. [. . . ] She stood in a landscape like that before the sun comes up, one suffused with a quiet, flat, truthful light where people, buildings, trees, stand about waiting to become defined by shadow and by sunlight. This is the landscape recommended for adults. Over the horizon, somewhere else, was a place, a world, of tenderness and trust, and she was removed from it not by distance but because it was in another dimension. This was right, was as things should be . . . but the parallel line continued, of feeling. For if she was removed from grief, she was removed too (her emotions insisted) from that intimacy which is like putting your hand into another hand, while currents of love flow between them."

But there just isn’t enough effort to make the far too teeming cast truly interesting or involving. In part because it seems that Lessing wasn’t satisfied with simply taking on the logistics of the disparate romance per se, but wanted to combine it with observation of the folk who dedicate themselves to local theater groups and who make up the troupes, and of the differences between upperclass English and provincial French, where putting on plays is concerned, as well as of problems with marriage -- when you marry a woman not for love and she ends up taking on a female lover -- and with raising children -- when your brother and his wife can’t manage their kid and you end up having to look after her, sort of.

In other words, the novel is busy, busy, busy but it often seems like busywork. As if Lessing wasn’t convinced her heroine Sarah, if only left to her ineffectual longing, would be enough to sustain a novel. But, in my view, the only reason she doesn’t is that Lessing doesn’t invest all that much emotional resonance in Sarah or any of the plights she’s faced with -- over men, over that brother’s kid, Joyce, or over the fact that the play her group -- The Green Bird -- is dedicated to, gets revamped in a more commercial and less artistically satisfying version. Then there’s all the effort expended in the novel’s opening sequences to create interest in the heroine of that play, a composer named Julie Vairon -- even going so far as to make an initial investor, Stephen, the tragic figure of the novel, suffer a kind of unconsummated love in his longing for a woman dead before he was alive. But that plot element becomes rather empty because we only experience Stephen’s longing through Sarah’s take on it, which is to say it seems like someone else’s private obsession and not something we have a lot of basis for empathy with, or, which is fatal for this kind of novel, much intimacy with. Far too often in this novel, particularly in the final third, we’re just reading about situations, not inhabiting them.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Definitely not one of her best. "The Fifth Child" ...