Thursday, November 06, 2008

One surely ought to stay in character

More stories. I can't get enough of these stories. Just one more, I think, before I return to some of the weightier tomes I have on hand, but just one more leads to another, and then another. And each next one is my new favourite.

Doris Lessing is amazing! Clever, but not too clever. Simple and very complicated at the same time. Real, very real, yet that stark reality is expressed and framed in imaginative ways.

Here's another snippet that struck me:

A mutual friend, Betty, had been given a cast-off Dior dress. She was too short for it. Also she said: "It's not a dress for a married woman with three children and a talent for cooking. I don't know why not, but it isn't." Judith was the right build. Therefore one evening the three of us met by appointment in Judith's bedroom, with the dress. Neither Betty nor I was surprised at the renewed discovery that Judith was beautiful. We had both often caught each other, and ourselves, in moments of envy when Judith's calm and severe face, her undemonstratively perfect body, succeeded in making everyone else in a room or a street look cheap.

Judith is tall, small-breasted, slender. Her light brown hair is parted in the centre and cut straight around her neck. A high straight forehead, straight nose, a full grave mouth are setting for her eyes, which are green, large and prominent. Her lids are very white, fringed with gold, and moulded close over the eyeball, so that in profile she has the look of a staring gilded mask. The dress was of dark green glistening stuff, cut straight, with a sort of loose tunic. It opened simply at the throat. In it Judith could of course evoke nothing but classical images. Diana, perhaps, back from the hunt, in a relaxed moment? A rather intellectual wood nymph who had opted for an afternoon in the British Museum Reading Room? Something like that. Neither Betty nor I said a word, since Judith was examining herself in a long mirror, and must know she looked magnificent.

Slowly she drew off the dress and laid it aside. Slowly she put on the old cord skirt and woollen blouse she had taken off. She must have surprised a resigned glance between us, for she then remarked, with the smallest of mocking smiles: "One surely ought to stay in character, wouldn't you say?" She added, reading the words out of some invisible book, written not by her, since it was a very vulgar book, but perhaps by one of us: "It does everything for me, I must admit."

"After seeing you in it," Betty cried out, defying her, "I can't bear for anyone else to have it. I shall simply put it away." Judith shrugged, rather irritated. In the shapeless skirt and blouse, and without make-up, she stood smiling at us, a woman at whom forty-nine out of fifty people would not look twice.


— from "Our Friend Judith," in Stories, by Doris Lessing.

The Golden Notebook Project starts November 10, an experiment in close reading, from The Institute for the Future of the Book. It's not so long ago (3 years?) that I read The Golden Notebook for the first time myself. In its way, it was the subject of my own experiment in close reading, and quite apart from the power of its content, The Golden Notebook changed the way I read.

(It also has the distinction of being one of only two books not properly shelved or stacked, sitting in my desk drawer, unless you call that an organizational class of its own, because it's still waiting for me to deal with it.)

Barack Obama lists it among books significant to him. Surely he is staying in character to say so. (What does that say about the man? That he's a feminist? He understands what it is to have a romanticized vision of a political life? That he understands what it is to compartmentalize the facets of one's being, to be fragmented, and sees the necessity, and the way, of consolidating the whole?)

Many people are daunted by the novel's reputation. I was. But it's brilliant.

Read it when you're ready for it. In the meantime, I heartily recommend Doris Lessing's Stories.

2 comments:

Bybee said...

I think Obama likes it because of how Anna's life is broken into pieces, compartmentalized, then reassembled. I'm reading his memoir now and he sure had a hell of a task making sense of who he was and doing his own reassembling. I don't for a moment think it's just lip service to feminists, but of course he is smart enough to realize that his preference would please a certain group of women.
I so want to read the collected stories again!

Isabella said...

I think you've got it, Bybee! I can totally picture Clinton listing it as a significant book just so he could get in some girl's pants. But Obama — one believes that he really understands it.