From Achebe to Lessing: What Reading Aloud Reveals
Though reading is almost always a solitary act, the books that change us as individuals also bind us to unseen communities. Staging a live reading is a way of drawing out these hidden collectives into the open, each of us emerging, perhaps tentatively at first, only to discover that our solitary experience connects us to a contingent of various yet equally discerning readers. Having staged several live readings over the years at Southbank Centre – from Moby Dick to If This Is A Man – encountering readers en masse in this way has proved an opportunity to see era-defining works in a contemporary light and enact a kind of congregational reflection on the reasons we return to them time and again.
Now with the reopening of Southbank Centre’s newly refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room after two years of restoration in April – spaces that have given audiences across five decades their first glimpse of groundbreaking new works and performances – we’re staging live readings of two books which emerged in the same period as the buildings themselves and radically changed the way novels have been written and read since. Those novels are Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, first published sixty years ago in 1958 – it chronicles the decline and fall of Okonkwo, a wrestler renowned throughout West Africa who is rendered increasingly powerless by the inexorable spread of colonial rule – and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which came four years later in 1962 – against the backdrop of political awakening in postwar England, the rise of communism and the emergence of feminism, it charts writer Anna Wulf’s attempts to stave off madness by keeping a series of four coloured notebooks that detail different aspects of her life and identity, with the fifth a golden notebook in which all the disparate strands are gathered together.
Though distinctive in their sensibilities and sheer size ( Things Fall Apart is a deceptively slender 50,000 words while The Golden Notebook is a mighty 260,000), these two books share a concern with capturing different kinds of breakdown, either at the level of traditional African village life fracturing beneath the weight of colonial rule or within the inner lives of women brought, by internal and external pressures, to the brink of ‘cracking up.’ Another uniting aspect is the commitment both novels share in capturing the truth and complexity of experiences previously confined to the margins of literature. And because the medium is also the message, both broke open the mould of the novel itself, and in the process revitalised it for the generations who followed, seeing nuanced representations of selves like and unlike their own on the pages of a novel for the very first time. In 1991, reflecting on the enormous popularity of his debut which has gone on to sell over 12 million copies in over 50 languages, Achebe told an interviewer:
Well, the popularity of Things Fall Apart in my own society can be explained simply, because my people are seeing themselves virtually for the first time in the story. The story of our position in the world had been told by others. But somehow that story was not anything like the way it seemed to us from where we stood. So this was the first time we were seeing ourselves, as autonomous individuals, rather than half-people, or as Conrad would say, ‘rudimentary souls’. We are not rudimentary at all, we are full-fledged souls.
Though the new vantage point that Achebe’s novel gave to its readers is of course particular to the region’s history and peoples, there is a link here with Lessing’s far from rudimentary depiction of the lives of women, each composed of several fragmentary selves, which read as a kaleidoscopic whole are certainly nothing less than ‘full-fledged.’ And yet, looking back at their initial reception, the recognition of these works as classics was far from instant, with critics receiving them with a mixture of faltering praise or downright derision.
In the case of Achebe, who was making his debut as an unknown Nigerian author working at the time as a journalist at the BBC, literary critics on
both sides of the Atlantic tended to overlook the literary qualities of the work, and focus more on it as an object of anthropological curiosity written by an ‘insider.’ The Times Literary Supplement stated that ‘the great interest of this novel is that it genuinely succeeds in presenting tribal life from the inside’ while The New York Times called it one of the ‘sensitive books that describe primitive society from the inside.’ Despite the interest that Achebe’s depiction of ‘tribal’ or ‘primitive’ society brings these critics, little consideration is given to the formal properties of the work, with the narrative dismissed by the TLS as ‘simple.’ While its critical reception in Africa was predictably more nuanced, one of its earliest reviewers, Ben Obumselu, writing in 1959, criticised what he saw as Achebe’s attempt to ‘imitate a European fashion’ and lamented his failure to capture ‘so little of the lyricism which marks our village life.’ Despite these wildly divergent positions, it wasn’t until decades later that a critical consensus on the novel’s range and significance began to emerge. Writing in the New Yorker in the 1970s, John Updike recognised many of the literary qualities which had previously been neglected and pinpointed the properties which, despite its abject content, saw it become a new wellspring for African literature: ‘Writing with a beautiful economy, Achebe seized the basic African subject – the breakup, under colonialism, of tribal society – so firmly and fairly that the book’s tragedy, like Greek tragedy, felt tonic; a space had been cleared, an understanding had been achieved, a new beginning was implied.’
The Golden Notebook, in the words of Lessing herself, writing in a preface to the 1971 edition, had a ‘difficult birth.’ Given the focus on a generation of women exploring the limits of their freedom, this was partly due to predictable responses from certain quarters, who, Lessing later recalled, described her as a ‘man-hater’ or even a ‘ballsbreaker’. But beyond these brickbats, what Lessing found more troubling was that the reviewers entirely overlooked the original structure of the novel:
Then as now there was a cry that the novel is dead, with a demand for new kinds of novel, but not one of these reviewers noticed that the book had an original structure... The Golden Notebook had a shape, a composition, that itself was a statement, a communication.
The subject matter of the novel seems to have distracted critics from the fact that its structure, and what it wordlessly communicated in the gaps between its discrete sections, could give cause for cautious optimism about the novel’s prognosis. This lack of consideration for what Lessing’s work might mean for the future of the novel is something echoed by Achebe, reflecting in 2012 on the critical response to his work:
My kind of storytelling has to add its voice to this universal storytelling before we can say, ‘Now we’ve heard it all.’ I worry when somebody from one particular tradition stands up and says, ‘The novel is dead, the story is dead.’ I find this to be unfair, to put it mildly. You told your own story, and now you’re announcing the novel is dead. Well, I haven’t told mine yet.
But now that both Lessing and Achebe have told their stories, and breathed new life into the novel, what effect have they had on contemporary readers? I asked journalist and writer Claire Allfree, who is abridging The Golden Notebook for our live reading, about her first encounter with the book:
I first read The Golden Notebook in my twenties and enjoyed it very much, even though I was aware I found large parts of it a bit of a mystery. Yet coming back to it several years on was a bit like reading an entirely different book. Perhaps this is partly because my life had become necessarily more complicated in the intervening years, marked by the usual pile up of work, relationships, children and the greater awareness of selfhood that is part of adulthood for many people. Or perhaps it is also because finally the world has caught up with Doris Lessing.
If the world is catching up with Lessing, how does it continue to be instructive about the debates around feminism and equality? Though it ‘never occurred’ to Lessing herself that she was writing a ‘feminist bible’, and she was wary of becoming narrowly partisan, even underlining that her subject was nothing new exactly (‘“The Woman Question” dated from the 15th century’), Allfree sees the novel as an indispensable exploration
of the particular challenges women face: ‘The great subject of The Golden Notebook is the question of how to live an emotionally honest, artistically authentic, culturally free and morally responsible life. These are questions, of course, that have occupied novelists for centuries. Yet Lessing places them explicitly – and with visceral clarity – within the political and emotional territory of being female, with all the additional, and potentially irreconcilable conflicts, demands and desires this can bring. Feminism has been grappling with the question of female identity for more than 100 years, but I can’t think of any book that pulls it apart, interrogates it and refuses to shy away from its many implacable difficulties the way The Golden Notebook does. There has been an explosion of thinking, argument and debate in this area in the last few years, most recently with the urgent conversations sparked by the #MeToo movement. Working so intensely on The Golden Notebook over the last few months has therefore been a privilege since, more than anything else I have read, the novel has greatly deepened my understanding of the enormous challenges all women – and yes, men too – face in the quest to live a free life.’
This quest is taken up by one of our participating readers, writer Lara Feigel, whose recently published book Free Woman: Life, Liberation and Doris Lessing plunges headlong into the question of how to live through a innovative combination of incisive literary criticism and unflinchingly honest memoir about Feigel’s own life. By combining her search for Lessing with an account of her own search for freedom, Feigel has created a revelatory work that fully inhabits the space that Lessing opened up, and goes even further still. It’s a distilled example of Lessing’s profound influence, which extended across Europe (Lessing commented it was translated into German and French ‘just in time for feminism’) and beyond. Another participating reader, the Chinese author and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo recalls her first encounter: ‘In my disbelief I discovered an English woman author who could write with the same intensity and intimacy about politics and love as the best French writers and was also a ex-communist.’ Our cast counts many who had comparable surprises when they first encountered The Golden Notebook and continue to be influenced by it, including writers Eimear McBride, Bernardine Evaristo, Laura Bates, Penny Pepper and
Rachel Long and actresses Lydia Wilson and Adjoa Andoh.
Things Fall Apart is often regarded as the touchpaper that lit half a century of African literature that followed, and has influenced writers and artists from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Kendrick Lamar (who references the novel in his song ‘King Kunta’). Our cast for the live reading reflects this breadth of influence, with actors including Lucian Msamati and leading lights of Nollywood, Olu Jacobs and Adesua Etomi, alongside Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, and writers Chibundu Onuzo, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi and Ben Okri. The editor responsible for ensuring that the novel found its place in the Penguin Modern Classics series, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, who is also abridging the novel for our live reading, is in no doubt about the novel’s immense and ongoing influence on contemporary African literature. When I asked Allfrey what surprised her most about the novel, returning to it to make the abridgement, her response reveals other instructive parallels between the concerns of Achebe and Lessing: ‘I was struck by the persistent focus on the quotidian task of womanhood. I was wanting to work out what Achebe was saying about women. The protagonist’s views are clear and of their time. But the attention he pays to women and their role in village life, the power (often soft, never overt) they wield and the intersection between men and women, between father and daughter, as well as father and sons, was particularly striking to me.’ Beyond the shared concern with the lives of women, there’s yet another parallel in the way that both authors are communicating to us not only through the words on the page but in the way they frame our attention. It seems we are still discovering the ways we inhabit their visions already without realising it. What better reason to read them again, aloud and together.