Monday, November 10, 2008

What's the joke?

A bus nosed to a standstill; half a dozen people got off; a man passed and said: "What's the joke?" He winked, and she realised she had been smiling.

Well-being, created because of the small familiar busyness of the street, filled her. Which was of course why she had spent so long, an hour now, loitering around the foot of the tall building. This irrepressible good nature of the flesh, felt in the movement of her blood like a greeting to pavements, people, a thin drift of cloud across pale blue sky, she checked, or rather tested, by a deliberate use of the other vision on the scene: the man behind the neat arrangements of coloured vegetables had a stupid face, he looked brutal; the future of the adolescents holding their position outside the music-shop door against the current of pressing people could only too easily be guessed at by the sharply aggressive yet forlorn postures of shoulders and loins; Ada, whichever way you looked at her, was hideous, repulsive, with her loose yellowing flesh and her sour-sweat smell. Et cetera, et cetera. Oh yes, et cetera, on theses lines, indefinitely, if she chose to look. Squalid, ugly, pathetic . . . And what of it? insisted her blood, for even now she was smiling, while she kept the other vision sharp as knowledge. She could feel the smile on her face. Because of it, people going past would offer jokes, comments, stop to talk, invite her for drinks or coffee, flirt, tell her the stories of their lives. She was forty this year, and her serenity was a fairly recent achievement. Wrong word: it had not been tried for; but it seemed as if years of pretty violent emotion, one way or another, had gelled or shaken into a joy which welled up from inside her independent of the temporary reactions — pain, disappointment, loss — for it was stronger than they. Well, would it continue? Why should it? it might very well vanish again, without explanation, as it had come. Possibly this was a room in her life; she had walked into it, found it furnished with joy and well-being, and would walk through and out again into another room, still unknown and unimagined. She had certainly never imagined this one, which was a gift from Nature? Chance? Excess? . . . A bookshop had a tray of dingy books outside it, and she rested her hand on their limp backs and loved them. Instantly she looked at the word "love", which her palm, feeling delight at the contact, had chosen, and said to herself: Now it's enough, it's time for me to go in.

— from "Dialogue," in Stories, by Doris Lessing.

Do you know this feeling? I've been living it for months. There are days I think I must be going crazy. This sense of well-being — it's completely unreasonable. I can't say it has anything to do with love, exactly, but the same could be said of this story's nameless protagonist.

(A few weeks back, a woman caught my attention in the metro. She was smiling, near laughing, to herself. A happy relief from the usual blank stares of the daily commute, but also unsettling, unnatural. I realized that most days I'm just like her.)

How reassuring to find someone who knows exactly how I feel, even though she be a figment of Doris Lessing's imagination.

I am swimming through this collection of stories, and indeed, each next one is better than the last.

(Have you read "To Room Nineteen"? Oh, my god!)

The Golden Notebook Project is under way, by the way, and though I won't be reading along, I do intend to follow the commentary.

Go read some Doris Lessing.


Bybee said...

I read "To Room Nineteen" many years ago, and would you believe I still think of it at least once a week?

Isabella said...

Really, Bybee? Wow. I guess I believe it. I tried explaining it to a couple people this week, and I kept choking up, didn't get very far.

Bybee said...

My husband used to have a cheap old lockbox and the combo was 219. He only told it to me once and never had to again because I immediately flashed on it as "Two/To (Room) Nineteen"