Madeleine Schwartz

Free Woman: Life, Lib­er­a­tion, and Doris Less­ing by Lara Feigel. Blooms­bury, 323 pp., $28.00

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Madeleine Schwartz

Free Woman: Life, Lib­er­a­tion, and Doris Less­ing by Lara Feigel

What did Doris Less­ing mean when she called Anna and Molly in The Golden Note­book “free women”? Cer­tainly not that they were happy. The two friends, liv­ing in late-1950s and ear­ly1960s Lon­don with­out men, sup­port­ing them­selves through their art, de­vot­ing them­selves to pol­i­tics, still wish to be mar­ried. Re­garded by gen­er­a­tions as a bi­ble of women’s lib­er­a­tion, The Golden Note­book was Less­ing’s break­out work, a com­plex and shift­ing ac­count of a woman mak­ing a life for her­self among the com­pet­ing ide­olo­gies of the 1960s. When it opens, Anna Wulf has writ­ten a novel that pays her bills, has had af­fairs and ad­ven­tures, has fought racism in Africa, has a child. She knows that her in­de­pen­dence comes at the price of her hap­pi­ness, and that hap­pi­ness, which for her means love, would cost her her mind. Less­ing later said that “Free Women”—how she named the five chap­ters about Anna and Molly’s lives, which are in­ter­spersed with ex­cerpts from Anna’s note­books—was “an iron­i­cal ti­tle.”

“Men. Women. Bound. Free. Good. Bad. Yes. No. Cap­i­tal­ism. So­cial­ism. Sex. Love...” The themes of The Golden Note­book are in­tro­duced baldly, “with drums and fan­fares,” yet the con­clu­sions Less­ing draws from them are tan­gled, even fifty years af­ter the novel’s pub­li­ca­tion. Anna is self­suf­fi­cient but emo­tion­ally de­pen­dent. Sex is a bind. She hates the sense of re­liance it cre­ates but can­not avoid it. And what of the men she falls in love with? Even the in­ten­sity of her at­trac­tion to Saul Green, the Amer­i­can rad­i­cal based on the writer Clancy Si­gal, can’t ob­scure his aw­ful­ness: “He talked—I . . . re­alised I was lis­ten­ing for the word I in what he said. I, I, I, I, I—I be­gan to feel as if the word I was be­ing shot at me like bul­lets from a ma­chine gun.” (Rag­ing male in­se­cu­rity was a spe­cialty of Less­ing’s.)

Molly and Anna have agreed to this life. They fre­quently con­firm this to each other. “We’ve cho­sen to be free women, and this is the price we pay, that’s all,” says Ella to Ju­lia in a nov­el­iza­tion of their re­la­tion­ship that Anna writes in one of her note­books. But po­lit­i­cal eman­ci­pa­tion does not en­sure joy:

Both of us are ded­i­cated to the propo­si­tion that we’re tough . . . . A mar­riage breaks up, well, we say, our mar­riage was a fail­ure, too bad. A man ditches us—too bad we say, it’s not im­por­tant. We bring up kids with­out men—noth­ing to it, we say, we can cope. We spend years in the com­mu­nist party and then we say, Well, well, we made a mis­take, too bad.

Un­like The Fem­i­nine Mys­tique, pub­lished the next year, The Golden Note­book did not prom­ise hap­pi­ness for women in work or col­lec­tive ac­tion. Molly and Anna get out of the house; they sup­port them­selves. They go to meet­ings and to par­ties. They Le­sen & Schreiben,

don’t spend all day read­ing House and Gar­den. Still, they suf­fer from “the prob­lem with no name.” “Women’s emo­tions are all still fit­ted for a kind of so­ci­ety that no longer ex­ists,” thinks Ella. “It’s pos­si­ble we made a mis­take,” says Anna. They live the lives they want, which must be its own re­ward.

“It seemed that Less­ing was a writer to dis­cover in your thir­ties; a writer who wrote about the lives of grownup women with an hon­esty and full­ness I had not found in any nov­el­ist be­fore or since,” Lara Feigel writes in the open­ing pages of her mem­oir Free Woman: Life, Lib­er­a­tion, and Doris Less­ing. Feigel, the au­thor of books about artists in Lon­don and Ber­lin around World War II, re­turns to The Golden Note­book dur­ing sum­mer wed­ding sea­son. Af­ter “white wed­dings, gold wed­dings; wed­dings in vil­lage churches, on beaches, at woolen mills,” she finds her­self won­der­ing: Is this it? Why do her friends seem so ea­ger to throw their selves away for a man or a fam­ily? “They be­gan by iden­ti­fy­ing as part of a cou­ple and then once a child ar­rived they iden­ti­fied them­selves pri­mar­ily as mothers.” She is hap­pily mar­ried and try­ing for a sec­ond child. Yet she be­gins to re­sent “the ap­par­ent as­sump­tion that this re­mained the only way to live.”

Less­ing, Feigel hopes, will teach her how to find free­dom, a word she leaves en­tic­ingly vague. Sit­ting un­der “a hun­dred me­tres of taste­ful Lib­erty print bunting,” she hears Anna’s pro­nounce­ment from the be­gin­ning of The Golden Note­book: “I am in­ter­ested only in stretch­ing my­self, in liv­ing as fully as I can.” Less­ing wrote the novel in her early for­ties while liv­ing with her son and friends in Lon­don. She had re­cently left the Com­mu­nist Party; her years fight­ing apartheid in South Africa were long be­hind her. Could the writer guide Feigel to a life out­side con­ven­tion? “I wanted to learn from her how to stand in the bush look­ing up at the sky and to lib­er­ate my­self from the con­flict­ing de­sires that stopped me be­ing free.”

I imag­ine I am not the only reader who paused a lit­tle here. Sin­gle life, gay mar­riage: choices that would have seemed dar­ing in Less­ing’s time are un­re­mark­able to­day. A life lived with­out a part­ner is no longer a form of so­cial de­fi­ance. For a large num­ber of peo­ple, it’s just the way things are. Still, even by to­day’s stan­dards, Less­ing’s life went against con­ven­tion. She mar­ried twice and had many af­fairs. She wrote frankly about sex. Most press­ingly for Feigel, she aban­doned two of her chil­dren in Africa so that she could live and write in Lon­don.

Less­ing never apol­o­gized for the choices she had made, but she never seemed quite set­tled with them ei­ther. “I did not feel guilty,” she said about the eight- and nine-year-old she left be­hind in Africa. She also said, “I know all about the rav­ages of guilt, how it feels, how it un­der­mines and saps. I en­er­get­i­cally fight back. Guilt is like that ice­berg, but I’d say with ninety-nine hun­dredths hid­den.” As she wrote in her mem­oir, she told her chil­dren that she was leav­ing for their own good:

I ex­plained to them that they would un­der­stand later why I had left. I was go­ing to change this ugly world, they would live in a beau­ti­ful and per­fect world where there would be no race ha­tred, in­jus­tice, and so forth. (Rather like the At­lantic Char­ter.). . . One day they would thank me for it.

She con­tin­ues, “I was ab­so­lutely sin­cere. There isn’t much to be said for sin­cer­ity, in it­self.”

Her own pol­i­tics wa­vered, driven by anger, ex­pe­ri­ence, and also sel­f­righ­teous­ness. She was a staunch Com­mu­nist. She be­came dis­il­lu­sioned and railed against the party. In The Golden Note­book she de­scribed in great de­tail women’s state of con­fine­ment. When the book was praised by fem­i­nists, she called the con­cerns of the women’s move­ment “small and quaint.” Jenny Diski, who lived with Less­ing as a teenager, de­scribes in her mem­oir how Less­ing shut­tled from com­mu­nism to psy­cho­anal­y­sis to Su­fism, each time look­ing for a to­tal­iz­ing sys­tem to con­tain her thoughts. A fear of an im­mi­nent apoc­a­lypse of­ten had some­thing to do with it. (“She said I shouldn’t tell a mu­tual friend of ours about the forth­com­ing end of the world,” Diski writes, “be­cause it would be hard for a ‘young woman with a baby to take it.’”) Less­ing’s works, wrote John Leonard in these pages, “add up to one big bill of in­dict­ment, one long his­tory of dis­en­chant­ments, and fif­teen rounds with a heavy­weight re­al­ity prin­ci­ple.”* She be­lieved what she be­lieved and then she moved on.

Like re­cent lit­er­ary mem­oirs such as Re­becca Mead’s My Life in Mid­dle­march and Bee Rowlatt’s In Search of Mary: The Mother of All Jour­neys, Feigel ex­am­ines Less­ing pri­mar­ily through her own ex­pe­ri­ences, an ap­proach that in­tro­duces Less­ing to a new au­di­ence and dulls her edge. The genre of the “bib­liomem­oir” has grown in re­cent years, in part be­cause its com­bi­na­tion of close read­ings and con­tem­po­rary in­quiry of­ten leads to new and lively in­ter­pre­ta­tions of clas­sic works. (Though just as of­ten, this gives the im­pres­sion that books only have lit­er­ary

*“The Ad­ven­tures of Doris Less­ing,” The New York Re­view, Novem­ber 30, 2006.

value when the sit­u­a­tions they de­scribe closely match those of the mem­oirist’s own life.)

Feigel reads thor­oughly and care­fully. In one pas­sage she dis­sects Less­ing’s writ­ing on her body. “There is no ex­ul­ta­tion like it, the mo­ment when a girl knows that this is her body, these her fine smooth shapely limbs,” Less­ing wrote. But sex brought with it emo­tions that of­ten seemed to en­trap her. “Does free­dom lie in es­cap­ing biology or in suc­cumb­ing to it? In hav­ing sex or avoid­ing it?” asks Feigel. “For me, as for Doris Wis­dom, it was not enough to leave girl­hood be­hind. Wom­an­hood did not gen­er­ously prof­fer the free­dom it had promised.”

She goes to see Clancy Si­gal to ask him about his time liv­ing with Less­ing. Dressed in shorts and a cap that says “Se­cret Agent,” he tells her that he’s never read any­thing Less­ing’s writ­ten. “She was a highly in­tel­li­gent, highly lit­er­ate, highly sexed woman, and here was I, this lum­ber­ing, non-writ­ing Yank, the only thing go­ing for me was I was sexy, but I didn’t treat her any dif­fer­ently from how I treated women in Amer­ica.” His cur­rent part­ner of­fers her a pos­si­ble con­so­la­tion prize: “We have some of her ashes in the liv­ing room!”

Feigel reads about the Com­mu­nist Party and mar­vels at Less­ing’s de­vo­tion to it. Less­ing, ac­tive in the party long af­ter rev­e­la­tions of Stalin’s crimes, didn’t leave un­til the in­va­sion of Hungary in 1956. She felt “very shat­tered” by Arthur Koestler’s rev­e­la­tions about Stalin’s purges in The Yogi and the Com­mis­sar, but then con­cluded that he had been bi­ased. “I was shocked by her at­tempts to de­fend Stalin and his regime in the face of such in­crim­i­nat­ing ev­i­dence,” writes Feigel. “But I en­vied the love af­fair” with pol­i­tics. By con­trast, she feels that the pol­i­tics of her gen­er­a­tion are tame. “Rad­i­cal pol­i­tics had be­come less pos­si­ble, and it seemed to make us less pas­sion­ate.” One sus­pects that she spends lit­tle time with en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists or left­ists. Feigel calls her­self “old-fash­ioned” and mar­vels at her own timid­ity in the face of pos­si­ble ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. A pass­ing ref­er­ence to “the queer world” makes it seem very dis­tant in­deed. She writes:

Once sex be­fore mar­riage, abor­tion and di­vorce had be­come more widely ac­cepted, once women had greater op­por­tu­ni­ties for ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment and were aided do­mes­ti­cally by the in­put of “new men,” there was less need to seek free­dom in rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent forms of life of the kind pro­posed by com­mu­nism or by the first forms of fem­i­nism.

Yet it is be­cause of pro­gres­sive move­ments that house­holds have changed and new forms of cou­pling are pos­si­ble. The trans­for­ma­tions of fam­ily struc­ture since the 1960s go largely un­ad­dressed in Free Woman.

More than Less­ing’s ad­ven­tures, what comes across most strongly in the book is Feigel’s sen­si­tiv­ity and thought­ful­ness. She seems dis­ap­pointed that she could not live the life that Less­ing led and that she does not even want it. Cu­ri­ous about Less­ing’s friend­ship with the psy­cho­an­a­lyst R. D. Laing, she de­cides to try talk ther­apy. She quits af­ter two ses­sions. She is in­ter­ested in drugs but doesn’t take any. “I was too anx­iously at­tached to the present con­fig­u­ra­tion of my brain to try LSD in the in­ter­ests of re­search.” She talks about di­vorce with her hus­band, but doesn’t act on it. Polygamy turns her off. “I might have been more en­thu­si­as­tic if I’d been liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia,” she jokes. She buys a house in Suf­folk with a friend and spends time there, writ­ing alone. “I was amazed that life should turn out to be this sim­ple; that free­dom should re­side in so bour­geois an ac­qui­si­tion as a sec­ond home.” One un­spo­ken source of free­dom: money. Less­ing bought a house in cen­tral Lon­don on the roy­al­ties from The Golden Note­book. Could a writer of lit­er­ary fic­tion do the same to­day?

In the end, Feigel finds she can no longer see “free­dom as an at­tain­able goal in life.” What she wants in­stead is hon­esty and peace. Writ­ing may be the best and most re­li­able source of per­sonal eman­ci­pa­tion, bet­ter than any spe­cific life choice. Less­ing wrote: “I was able to be freer than most be­cause I am a writer, with the psy­cho­log­i­cal make-up of a writer, that sets you at a dis­tance from what you are writ­ing about.” Feigel, too, has learned to write about her­self with­out in­hi­bi­tion. In a brief, sad af­ter­word, she writes that while she was fin­ish­ing the book, her hus­band left her for an­other woman shortly be­fore she gave birth to their sec­ond child:

I am tied to this new crea­ture by the kind of love that makes free­dom seem less ur­gent . . . . Now, un­able to leave the house with­out my child, un­able to quest af­ter new places or new lovers, I do feel freer than I did in the pe­riod de­scribed in this book. I think this is be­cause I have be­come more hon­est and be­cause I have dis­cov­ered that it’s pos­si­ble to live and to write hon­estly even in the pub­lic sphere, even at the risk of shame.

Her life as a free woman has fi­nally be­gun.

One hand­i­cap of the bib­liomem­oir is that it rarely delves into the books at hand. The pages must com­pete with the ups and downs of lived ex­pe­ri­ence. Yet to my mind what’s most in­ter­est­ing about The Golden Note­book is its shape: how it moves and twists through the note­books that Anna keeps, so that the ground al­ways seems to be shift­ing. It’s a form that, to me, seems par­tic­u­larly well suited to writ­ing about women. As Anna reg­u­larly thinks, women in a male so­ci­ety of­ten find them­selves cast into “roles”: the “leader’s girl friend,” “the free woman.” It is per­haps for this rea­son that the book seems to an­tic­i­pate so much of the nov­el­iza­tion of women’s lives in the past sev­eral decades by authors like Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, and Annie Er­naux, in whose works a pre­cise ac­count­ing of emo­tions sud­denly crashes against the sharp edge of so­cial sta­tus.

In one scene, Molly and Anna marvel that men call them up when­ever their wives are out of town: “Free,” says Ju­lia. “Free! What’s the use of

us be­ing free if they aren’t? I swear to God, that ev­ery one of them, even the best of them, have the old idea of good women and bad women.” It re­minds me of a scene in Hap­pen­ing, Annie Er­naux’s novel about her abor­tion in the early 1960s. The preg­nant pro­tag­o­nist goes to the home of a man she knows to get his ad­vice. He is mar­ried and a mem­ber of an un­der­ground con­tra­cep­tive group. While his wife is out of the house he gropes her: “Jean T kept press­ing into me while he was dry­ing the dishes. Then sud­denly he re­sumed his nor­mal tone of voice and pre­tended he was just test­ing my moral strength.”

Un­like much au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal fic­tion, how­ever, The Golden Note­book never gels into a sin­gle al­ter­nate ac­count. Less­ing’s for­mal in­no­va­tion means that there is no “real” Anna to com­pare to the so­cial Anna. No sin­gle in­ti­mate self chal­lenges her out­ward pre­sen­ta­tion; there’s no one mind, sim­mer­ing against the ag­gres­sions of the world, that is fi­nally re­leased here. In one note­book we have po­lit­i­cal Anna, then in an­other Anna the lover and in a third Anna the writer and then Ella as Anna, who thinks that “ob­vi­ously, my chang­ing ev­ery­thing into fic­tion is sim­ply a means of con­ceal­ing some­thing from my­self.” Which is the real one? All of them and none of them:

That Anna, in that time, was such and such a per­son. And then, five years later, she was such and such. A year, two years, five years of a cer­tain kind of be­ing can be rolled up and tucked away, or “named”— yes, dur­ing that time I was like that. Well now I am in the mid­dle of such a pe­riod, and when it is over I shall glance back at it ca­su­ally and say: Yes, that’s what I was. I was a woman ter­ri­bly vul­ner­a­ble, crit­i­cal, us­ing fe­male­ness as a sort of stan­dard or yard­stick to mea­sure and dis­card men. Yes—some­thing like that.

Less­ing would later say that with the form of the book she wanted to fight at­om­iza­tion, the divi­sion of the novel and of life into dis­crete parts that dis­torted the whole. “The book is alive and po­tent and fruc­ti­fy­ing and able to pro­mote thought and dis­cus­sion only when its plan and shape and in­ten­tion are not un­der­stood,” she wrote. For the reader, it has a more im­me­di­ate and less the­o­ret­i­cal ef­fect: the abil­ity to cap­ture the odd ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing a per­son in the world.

Reread­ing The Golden Note­book, I no­ticed some ug­li­ness I had not re­mem­bered. For one thing, there was Less­ing’s ho­mo­pho­bia, her in­sis­tence on “real men,” and her cruel de­scrip­tions of the two gay men whom Anna keeps as lodgers. There were her odd, rigid views about sex. She be­lieved, as Feigel dis­cusses, that only a vagi­nal or­gasm could prove a deep con­nec­tion be­tween a man and a woman, a view shared by Freud. Cl­i­toral or­gasms, by con­trast, were “a sub­sti­tute and a fake.” Yet so much re­mained fresh, of­ten sur­pris­ingly so. Mov­ing as it does from one Anna to the next, the book al­lows for a strangely gen­er­ous form of co­ex­is­tence. The in­con­sis­ten­cies of the self splay out with­out mud­dling into a sin­gle story. Free­dom and lone­li­ness are both present. Rad­i­cal­ism and per­sonal iso­la­tion are too. It is true that Anna and her friends have been dis­il­lu­sioned with what they’ve been able to ac­com­plish. Yet Anna be­lieves that

ev­ery so of­ten, per­haps once in a cen­tury, there’s a sort of—act of faith. A well of faith fills up, and there’s an enor­mous heave for­ward in one coun­try or an­other, and that’s a for­ward move­ment for the whole world. Be­cause it’s an act of imag­i­na­tion—of what is pos­si­ble for the whole world. In our cen­tury it was 1917 in Rus­sia. And in China. Then the well runs dry, be­cause, as you say, the cru­elty and the ug­li­ness are too strong. Then the well slowly fills again. And then there’s an­other painful lurch for­ward.

Mo­ments later, the char­ac­ter she’s been talk­ing to tries to kill him­self.

What to make of such mo­ments? Free­dom in Less­ing’s nov­els “is al­lowed to be con­tra­dic­tory,” as Feigel writes. It can re­main un­re­solved with­out los­ing any of its ur­gency. Ac­tivism is usu­ally pro­gres­sive and ide­al­ist; per­sonal lives are of­ten grasp­ing and re­ac­tionary. Both have their own logic. The Golden Note­book al­lows for the fact that the hope for progress, and the work it re­quires, can clash with the re­al­i­ties of life and still have worth.

Af­ter all, pol­i­tics is a slog and of­ten feels point­less. Mean­while, time passes and you get older. The prob­lems of the world seem to hover in a fright­en­ing and scary way. “It could be a Chi­nese peas­ant,” says Anna when ex­plain­ing her writer’s block. “Or one of Cas­tro’s guer­rilla fight­ers. Or an Al­ge­rian fight­ing in the FLN .... They stand here in the room and they say, why aren’t you do­ing some­thing about us, in­stead of wast­ing your time scrib­bling?” But good work takes a long time, even if ev­ery day the out­side world gets a lit­tle darker. What can you do? Love, work, and live as fully as you can.

Doris Less­ing at the Frank­furt Book Fair, 1981; pho­to­graph by Isolde Ohlbaum from her book pub­lished by Ars Vivendi last year

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.