Ted Hodgkin­son

From Achebe to Less­ing: What Read­ing Aloud Re­veals

The London Magazine - - NEWS - Ted Hodgkin­son

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.

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