Thursday, January 27, 2011

A girl and her cat

"No one has any idea, do they, until they have children, what it means. It's all I can do just to keep up with the rush of things, the meals one after another, the food, let alone giving the children the attention they should have. I know that Emily is ready for more than I have time to give her, but she is such a demanding child, so difficult, she always has taken a lot out of me, she want wants to be read to and played with all the time, but I'm cooking, I'm ordering food, I'm at it all day, well you know how it is, there isn't time for what there has to be done, I simply don't have time for the child. I did manage to get a girl for a time last year, but that was really more trouble than it was worth, really, all their problems and their crises and you have to deal with them, she took up as much of my time as Emily does, but I did get an hour to myself after lunch and I put my feet up for a bit, but I did not find I had the energy to read, let alone study, no one knows how it is, what it means, no, children do for you, they do you in, I'm not what I was, I know that only too well I am afraid."

The child on her knee, two or three years old, a heavy passive child dressed in white wool that smelled damp, was being jogged faster now; his eyes were glazing as the world bounced up and down around him, his adenoidal mouth was open and slack, the full cheeks quivering.

The husband, passive but really tense with irritation — with guilt — smoked on, listening, frowning.

"But what can you give out when you get nothing in? I am empty, drained; I am exhausted by lunchtime and all I want is to sleep by then. And when you think of what I used to be, what I was capable of! I never thought of being tired, I never imagined I could become the sort of woman who would never have time to open a book. But there it is."

She sighed, quite unselfconsciously. She was like a child, that tall, solid, confident woman; she needed understanding as a child does. She sat looking inward into the demands of her days and her nights. No one else was there for her, because she felt she was talking to herself: they could not hear, or would not. She was trapped, but did not know why she felt this, for her marriage and her children were what she personally had wanted and had aimed for — what society had chosen for her. Nothing in her education or experience had prepared her for what she did in fact feel, and she was isolated in her distress and her bafflement, sometimes even believing that she might perhaps be ill in some way.

— from The Memoirs of a Survivor, by Doris Lessing.

This is a very weird little book. The Memoirs of a Survivor is described as a dystopia, and by Doris Lessing herself as "an attempt at autobiography." It reads like part fairy tale, part tract, a report from another time and place, not quite like a confessional diary as one might expect from the title.

It is never entirely clear what it is that's being survived, or who is surviving it. There's the girl, Emily, and the woman, the narrator, on whose doorstep she turned up, charged with being responsible for her. And Emily's cat.

While it's the girl who thrives in the outside world, the anarchic, back-to-basics conditions where she establishes herself as a kind of leader (or, at least, a leader's girlfriend), it's clearly the woman who's a survivor of Emily's puberty, teenage years, sexual awakening.

The girl and the woman are incomprehensible to each other, yet also the same. They're at a bit of a standoff. The narrator very sagely recognizes that we too were once children, once young and in love. Yet it's somewhat unsettling, however reasonable, for her to stand back, so detached, and watch Emily grow up, let her grow up all by herself.

Meanwhile, there's the world falling apart outside, we know not why, and the walls of the woman's apartment melting away to show her other realities, past and future. (We know Emily's mother, as excerpted above, only through these glimpses through the wall.)

If you've never read Doris Lessing, I don't recommend this novel as an introduction to her. But even though this novel is kind of all over the place, there are some lovely thought-provoking bits, about children, about growing up, gender politics, etc.

New York Times review, 1975.

I almost think this book's really about the bond between a girl and her cat. Which makes for a pretty remarkable story, really. (I say this as someone who has lately enjoyed a good deal of quality time with her cat; it feels like she's finally chosen me to be hers — we have an understanding, she and I.)

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

I have not heard of this book by Lessing before. I will have to look for it.