I am terrible at writing reviews of anything. I can tell you if I enjoyed a book, and I can tell you about what it make me think about. You’ll never find me discussing the plot because, mostly, that doesn’t interest me. However, I do feel the need to try writing about Doris Lessing‘s “The Grass is Singing.”
Published in 1950 “The Grass is Singing” is the story of Mary Turner, a woman living in Rhodesia during the late 1940s. The primary focus of the novel is the racial politics between whites and blacks, as well as the utter and absolute mundane nature of Mary’s life in poverty married to an unsuccessful farmer.
It starts with the murder of Mary in the first chapter with each subsequent chapter a flashback until we reach the murder. We are shown Mary’s childhood and life before she met her husband. We are shown daily life on the farm, and we are given an overall impression of Mary’s horrible attitude towards black people and towards her husband’s farm. It can be said that Mary and her story are not sympathetic to modern readers.
Neither, I suspect, was it a sympathetic tale for most readers in 1950s England and America.
But that’s not the point of this book. Not every story has to be conflict driven with likeable characters. Doris Lessing’s first novel shows a real command of language which allows us to forget many of the commercial crutches that lesser writers are forced to rely on. (She would later go onto to win the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature.) This novel is an expression of literary realism. The sole focus of “The Grass is Singing” is an exploration of Mary’s life and death with no diversions into magical realism and no attempts at humour.
It is not an enjoyable book. It is not a light read. It is not escapism.
It is, however, compelling and fascinating. It is also depicting a society far more alien than most science fiction novels.
“The Grass is Singing” is alien because it shows a society which from our privilege position in a world after decolonisations utterly abhorrent to contemporary opinion. It is an honest snapshot of a time. It makes no attempt to justify or to denounce the actions and thoughts of the characters in the novel. It lets us do that.
I would not suggest this book to readers expecting instant gratification. What “The Grass is Singing” provides best as an experience is a carefully written window into a radically different place in human history.
“The term Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism) was forged by Pierre Restany during an early group exhibition in May 1960. By returning to “realism” as a category, he was referring to the 19th-century artistic and literary movement which aimed to describe ordinary everyday reality without any idealisation. Yet, this realism was “new”, in the sense that there was a Nouveau Roman in fiction and a New Wave in film: in the first place it connects itself to the new reality deriving from an urban consumer society, in the second place its descriptive mode is also new because it no longer is identified with a representation through the making of an appropriate image, but consists in the presentation of the object chosen by the artist.”
See also: J.G. Ballard.
Tag as what I want to do.
This is what happens when I listen to Connect_icut late at night.
Fiction should be like this.
I want stories by me and others to set the old world on fire and to fertilize the future.
And if you haven’t read the Invisibles I’m going to tut and shake my head until you do.
There are a few things I wish to draw your attention to from when I was reading newspapers earlier.
Michael White’s parliamentary sketch in today’s Guardian entitled ‘May sticks to autocue as Labour looks for revenge‘ is an excellent summer of yesterday’s major proceedings in parliament. I couldn’t help cheering Labour for their attacks on the Tories yesterday. This is the first major scandal that the current government has had to face and they aren’t dealing with it well.
Whether Andy Coulson is guilty or not is now almost mute at this point. The problem that the Tories have is that their head of PR is becoming the story. There are echos of Alastair Campbell here. You cannot operate a government if the problems that individuals in your party have, or have had, are overshadowing official government business.
‘I was wrong about veganism. Let them eat meat – but farm it properly‘, is the title of George Monbiot’s Guardian column this week. Broadly I agree with it, and have argued some of these points in the past. It makes no sense, to me, to waste viable grasslands or upland regions where cows, sheep and pigs can convert food inedible to humans into edible food. Just as it is terrible for the environment to grow tomatoes in the British winter using intensive farming methods it is equally terrible to not put the environment that we have made over the past five thousand years or so to its full use.
The ethical concern of is it right to eat meat is a different argument entirely, and is one that is attacked in much detail by both sides in the comments of this article.
Magnulus has produced a video on weekday vegetarianism which offers one way to cut down eating meat.
In a few hours I will be driving across the English countryside; bisecting the counties and travelling at 70mph towards a glass and steel edifice. As I write this I am sitting on the sofa in my suburban home, half watching TV, while thinking about the music that will accompany me on the morning leg of my trip south.
Music, you see, is essential to my experience of life. Without music life, for me, is meaningless. Two hours without a word spoken or a single note of music is an imaginable nightmare that I can avoid with planning. There will be a CD, of some sort, in the car’s stereo, and the radio mostly works. It has problems with the cuttings on motorways, and as long as I jam the buttons on the front of it at random for long enough I can normally get BBC Radio 4 or Five Live. But it has to be the right music. I am slightly proud to admit that I am one those people who tries to soundtrack their life by finding the write music for my mood.
I do think that it would be a good idea if I don’t repeat the mistake of last week’s trip again. Because, yes, the hour long dubstep mix called ‘Outraged by Silence‘ is brilliant, but listening to it three times in one journey is a bit much when you’ve been listening to it all week.
So the question I’ve been thinking about in my idle moments this week (one of the few questions running through my mind that is acceptable to write about in public) is what album do I stuff in the player? What do I think will keep me alert and sane for the four and a half hours road time?