Doris Lessing

Nata in Iran, ma vissuta quindici anni in Rhodesia, passo' attraverso due divorzi, e due maternita', prima di emigrare in Inghilterra, dove intraprese la carriera letteraria a trent' anni.
La sua narrativa ebbe origine dall' evocazione della vita dei coloni bianchi in Africa, con "The grass is singing"(1950), e si sposto' in seguito, anche per effetto del suo dichiarato comunismo, verso la critica della vita borghese nella pentalogia dei "Children of Violence", romanzi scaturiti da una spiccata tendenza all' autobiografismo: "Martha Quest"(1952) e' una donna cresciuta in Africa che sviluppa un carattere forte e determinato, e, attraverso "A proper marriage"(1954), dove e' sposata e madre, piano piano si emancipa fino a divorziare e diventare un' attivista, salvo poi pagarne lo scotto in "A ripple from the storm"(1958), nel quale l' eroina riconosce la propria insoddisfazione e abbandona il comunista tedesco con cui viveva, crisi culminata in "Landlocked"(1965) e conclusa da "Four gated citiy"(1968), testamento di un' agonia morale che porta Martha vicina alla follia e preludio profetico alla catarsi atomica dell' umanita'.
The sprawling "Golden notebook"(1962) employs experimental narrative techniques (a novel within a novel, or, better, within notebooks) while devoting large sections to psychological analysis (the notebooks are kept by a single mother on the verge of madness). This is mixed with a sociopolitical fresco of sexually liberated independent women and of ideologically struggling communists. The novel "Free Women" begins in the summer of 1957 with the sentence "The two women were alone in the London flat". Anna and Molly are both middle-aged single mothers who belonged to a Marxist movement and share the same psychologist, "Mother Sugar". Molly has a 20-years-old son, Tommy. She was married to Richard, back when he was a militant. Richard soon switched sides and took advantage of his rich parents to become a successful businessman and marry Marion, from whom he has had three sons. Richard visits Molly because he is worried about Tommy's sullen mood. He is also worried that Tommy grew up surrounded by communists. Anna has talent as a writer but she is wasting it. Molly has been an actress but admits that she has no talent. Richard's wife Marion has been venting her frustration with Anna. Marion has become an alcoholic. Richard cheated on her with several women (and he does not feel it's a big deal) and always made her feel stupid. Now her neurosis is so bad that he has been thinking of locking her in a mental institution. Molly and Anna escoriate in vain his pompous hypocrisy. Tommy has been raised to despise capitalism, and therefore does not want to join his father's business. Tommy doesn't want to end up failed and insecure like Molly and Anna, but at the same time feels that Richard is even less happy, and has made Marion even less happy. Tommy criticizes Anna for not having written anything after the bestselling novel that still pays for her bills. When they are left alone, Molly tells Anna how bored she is of her life as a communist (she has just returned from a year in the continent and she felt a lot freer there). Anna is less certain than her older sister about the course of their lives (single motherhood, communism and all). She lives with her 11-years-old daughter Janet after Michael left her for another woman, still living off her book's royalties. And she writes four notebooks, each a different color.
The black notebook contains a synopsis of her novel adated as a film screenplay (the doomed love between an Englishman and a black woman, that ends with him being transferred to another post and with her becoming a prostitute) and meditations on the contemporary novel. Anna argues that the novel used to be philosophical (up until Mann) and now is journalistic, and of course this is true of Anna's own novel, and of Lessing's novella up to now (but not of the notebooks themselves).
Anna was in Africa when World War II started and noticed the double hypocrisy: 1. the economy actually benefited from the war; 2. the war was meant to defeat Hitler's racism but most of Africa was ruled by Hitler's enemies on racist principles. Anna had come to the African colony before the war to marry a tobacco farmer, Steven. She promptly dumped him for Willi, a German refugee and a political activist, although she and Willi lived independent sex lives. Three former homosexuals from Oxford were also members of their cell, mainly the pilot Paul, who became the inspiration for the male protagonist of Anna's novel. Then his lover Jimmy. Willi would end up in communist East Germany after the war, Paul would died of a silly accident while drunk, Jimmy would marry a woman and have a child from her; and their friend Ted would move to Germany and marry a German girl. Then there was Maryrose, the only one raised in the colony, a former model who had slept with her brother before he was killed. They liked the Mashopi hotel, run by the Boothys and their teenage daughter June.
And then there was George, older than the group, a good man, unlike Willi and Paul, whom Anna felt were bad people. But George had his own family, whom he disliked, and a steady affair with the Mashopi cook's black wife, Marie. Marie had had a child from George and he was tormented that this illegitimate black son would grow up to be a colonial peasant while his three white legitimate children would go to college. Willi cynically showed him that changing this fact (i.e. recognizing the child) would have caused damage to both families. Both Anna and Maryrose were physically attracted to George. Maryrose felt that George was the one man who could make her forget about her dead brother and lover. Paul, meanwhile, was attracted to both girls, not to the guys, and therefore less homosexual than he himself had thought. Anna and Paul ended up sleeping together during one of the collective excursions to the Mashopi hotel, the last one. Paul admitted that it was his first sex with a woman. This made Willi jealous, although no sex had ever taken place between Willi and Anna. During that weekend more tragedies took place. Lattimer, a drunkard, found his wife Myra in bed with Stanley, half her age. And the Boothys fired their cook of 15 years Jackson suspecting him injustly of having sex with Jimmy, so that Jackson took off with his wife Marie and his children, including George's son. That was the group's last weekend at the hotel and provided the material for Anna's novel.
Now the notebook fastforwards to the Cold War, when Anna joined the Communist Party along with Molly. Three of Michael's friends were sentenced to death as traitors in East Germany, one of the many cases that shook Anna's faith in the Soviet Union.
And now the black notebook talks about the yellow book, that became a novel. Ella lives in Julie's house with her (Ella's) son Michael, Julie being an aspiring Jewish actress, Ella writing a novel about a man who doesn't realize until the last minute that he has been scientifically preparing his own suicide. Ella works at a magazine with Patricia, whose husband left her for a younger woman. Ella meets Paul, a doctor married with two children, the first man to arouse her interest since her husband George had deserted her to marry another woman. Ella tells Paul how she lost her mother very young and was raised by her father; how she contracted turberculosis and had to spent six months in a sanatorium; and that she wasn't really a writer. Ella is aware that Paul has probably had many extramarital affairs. Ona day she has her own affair with a married man just to experiment. Paul eventually becomes jealous. He also dislikes Julia, in which he perceives a lesbian motif. Paul has de facto annihilated Ella's intelligence and turned her into a fragile and naive being. Anna admits that this story is reflecting what happened to her with Michael. Back to her storyline, Ella completes her novel which is accepted for publication. Paul is largely indifferent to her success. Ella is sad that Paul does not want to give her a child. Her orgasms (or lack thereof) have been telling her the truth about Paul: that he doesn't care for her just like he doesn't care for his wife. And in fact one day Paul leaves for Nigeria and hints that he doesn't want Ella to follow him. Ella's boss, dr West, subtly tells her that Paul has been having an affair with someone at work, a Stephanie, who got a bit too serious and threatening about it, and that's one reason why he was advised to move to Nigeria. Paul was cheating on Ella just like he had cheated on his wife with Ella. She ridiculously continues to hope that Paul will come back to her. Finally, she hears that Paul is back and she waits in vain for Paul to visit her.
The black notebook now contains a note that the blue notebook started as a short story adapted from an argument between Molly and her teenage son Tommy. The black notebook ends with a diary that Anna started after that event, a diary in which she recorded the international events of the time from 1950 to 1954 (the hydrogen bomb, the Korean War, etc) as well as her visits to the psychologist, who had to interpret her dreams about Michael.

Now we are back to contemporary London (the novel "Free Women"). Molly is worried about Tommy, who went to see his father Richard and turned down two jobs (one in Canada and one in Africa) and then went to see the ever-drunk Marion. Tommy resurfaces at Anna's place. He tells Anna that his father ruined Marion's life and now he is ruining their children too. Tommy envies the milkman's son, who has only one chance in life: if he fails the exam, he'll spend his life working as a milkman; if he passes, he gets a scholarship. Tommy instead has too many options. Then he starts psychoanalyzing Anna. Anna can't explain why she keeps four notebooks instead of one. Tommy dislikes and distrusts her mind. Anna admits that she had a child from a man she didn't love, Michael. Then she has to let Tommy go because Marion is coming to see her. Marion shows up drunk. Marion suspects that Anna slept with her husband Richard, but Anna denies it. Marion knows that Richard is having an affair with his secretary, and that she, Marion, is simply being used as a nursemaid for his children. Marion envies that Anna was capable of leaving her husband and becoming an independent woman, but Anna confesses that she would like to be married. Marion falls asleep. The telephone rings: Marion is hysterical because Tommy has shot himself and is in terminal conditions. Anna rushes to the hospital.

The black notebook contains notes about Anna's bestselling novel and how Reggie tried to convince her to turned it into a film.

The yellow notebook continues the story of Ella. One year after being dumped by Paul, Ella is still thinking of him day and night. Her coworker Patricia sends her to Paris to close a deal with a French publisher, but Anna runs away after witnessing the happy couple of Robert (the French publisher) and his smart but ugly Elise. By comparison Ella comes to the realization that she is alone, She doesn't even car if the plane crashed. She decides to fly back home, and travels next to a young businessman from the USA, Cy, who later invites her to dinner. She is physically repulsed by him but accepts. Then over dinner she gets madly attracted to him and has sex with him just to give him pleasure, even if he is selfish and indifferent to her in bed. He talks to her about his wife and his five children. He never has sex with his wife anymore. He is ecstatic that she's so easy to have sex with. She is shocked that she is actually enjoying giving this man pleasure for free, without having an orgasm herself. He is a surgeon who aims to someday run for senator.

The blue notebook continues where Michael decided to leave Anna, three years earlier. She respected him for what he represented: many of his family members had been killed in Hitler's gas chambers, and many of his communist friends had been killed during the purges in Eastern Europe. The blue notebook then talks about Anna's boss Jack, a publisher, and their boss in the communist cell, John Butte, an elderly man loyal to the Soviet Union no matter what. Michael was an ex communist, a traitor to Jack, and Jack was a murderer to Michael. John approved that Jack would start publishing novels, and one such novel was Anna's. Anna also reviewed the novels submitted by other writers to Jack's firm specializing in leftist nonfiction. Jack had figured out that Anna was about to leave the party. Anna told Molly of her decision, then she waited in vain for Michael to come home to the dinner that she had just prepared for him.

The main novel ("Free Women") resumes with the miraculous recovery of Tommy after his attempted suicide. However, Tommy is left blind for life. Richard blames Molly for the incident (she was away for a year), and somehow does not blame it on himself breaking their marriage. Tommy moves back home with his mother Molly and starts living his new life. The odd thing is that Marion stops drinking and becomes Tommy's personal nurse, reading newspapers to him every single day. Her husband Richard, Tommy's father, is not pleased at all by the news: it sounds like he liked the drunk desperate Marion. Marion is now neglecting her own children. Anna understands what is going on in Richard's mind: Richard, a 50-years-old man, was looking for an excuse to dump Marion and marry his 23-years-old secretary Jean, but, as long as Marion was needed to raise his three children, he couldn't do it. Now his plan is to send Marion away with Tommy on a vacation so that he can introduce Jean to his children.

Anna has her own existential crisis. Suddenly she realizes her only goal in life is to raise her daughter Janet. Her tenant Ivor has been helping while Anna was at the hospital assisting Molly. Ivor took care of Janet, and now in return he sort of demands that Anna allows his friend and lover Ronnie, an unemployed actor, to live with him in his room. Anna initially consents, if nothing else because Janet likes Ivor so much, but then begins to resent the whole situation. Anna instinctively feels that Janet (and Anna herself) needs a "real" man, although rationally Anna feels that Janet would resent (be jealous) of a "real" man. Anna just feels that the company of a real man would be better than the company of a homosexual. She also begins to resent that she doesn't feel comfortable in her own home anymore. While this tension is building up, Marion shows up. Tommy has inspired her to start reading the newspaper and become politicized. She now wants to become pen-pal with a black political prisoner, Tom Mathlong, who is kept in a maximum security prison. Anna thinks it is a silly idea, but gives her the address. She knows that Richard wants a divorce, and she was leaning towards consenting to it, but Tommy has convinced her that it would be best for Richard to face up to his responsibilities. Marion is definitely a changed woman, determined to live for higher goals and not afraid of fighting her husband. Anna phones Tommy, and basically gets a therapy herself: Tommy has changed too, he has become a cold rational machine. Whether Tommy is an influence or not, the following day Anna finds the strength to tell Ivor that he has to move out. Eventually, Ivor makes a deal: Ronnie moves out and things go back to normal.

The black notebook has actually two sides. The side titled "Sources" reports an event that took place at the Mashopi's hotel. The landlady offered to make a pigeon-based dish and Paul volunteered to go and kill pigeons for her, followed by Anna, Maryrose, Jimmy and Willi. They ended up discussing the behavior of grasshoppers, of butterflies, of nature in general, and Paul ended up hurting Maryrose's feelings with his cynical view of life and death, and annoying Willi with his parodies of Stalin.

The other side, titled "Money", has notes about a US writer, James, who worked with her on a little project, while a handsome Englishman, Harry, suggested that she makes a theatrical play out of her bestseller. The notebook also includes clippings of a few reviews of her bestseller.

The red notebook continues with notes about the crisis within the British Community Party after Stalin's death and the repudiation of his methods.

The yellow notebook continues Anna's novel. Ella moves out of Julia's apartment having realized that she is being dominated by her friend. Her boss, dr West, tries to sleep with her while his wife is away. Ella turns him down but then she realizes that dr West has succeeded with her coworker Patricia. This story brings Ella and Julia together again, because they are both targets of married men when their wives are away. Julia just slept with one, an actor, except that he turned out to be impotent. At work Ella and her co-editor Jack write articles giving advice to wives. Jack is married with three children, and Ella has sex with him. Then she resents the incident, but she also realizes that she has become sex-starved: she needs to masturbate in order to fall asleep, Ella meets a Canadian scriptwriter at a party, also married, and sleeps with him too. She realizes she hasn't had a real orgasm since Paul left her and she gives up sex. Meanwhile Julia is tormented that the last ten men she has had in bed turned out to be either impotent or coming too soon. Ella sets out to write her book (this is a book written by Ella, who is a character a the book written by Anna, who is a character in a book written by Doris Lessing).

Here the notebook reflects that Ella is Anna, Then Ella's story resumes with Ella trying to put together a story (in which a woman takes revenge on the man who dumped her) and Ella paying a visit to her father. Ella hardly remembers her mother, who died when she was little, and her father is very cold and remote, even telling her that he doesn't feel much of a bond with her. He is not even interested in her life. She tells him that the most important man of her life was a married man she dated for five years. He replies with a cynical view of life (everybody is a cannibal). She guesses that he, surrounded by books, must have been writing poetry and he lets her read some: they are about loneliness. He doesn't say if he liked her novel, he only wonders why she had her protagonist kill himself.

The blue notebook contains only mundane facts for 18 months. Anna was going through a nervous depression. A note mentions that those factual notes are as false as her account of the breakup with Michael (that happened on the 15th of September, 1954). The blue notebook recounts Anna's bitter antagonistic relationship with her psychoanalyst "Mother Sugar", and Anna's recurring terrifying dream, and her brief affairs with a married Jewish-American, Nelson, a "sexual cripple" who was not capable of having sex with her and was neurotically torn about what to do with his attractive wife, and then with a penniless intellectual from Sri Lanka, DeSilva, who had abandoned his wife and children and was begging for money. Meanwhile, a communist comrade, Harry, a veteran of the Spanish civil war, returns from the Soviet Union where he discovered Stalin's atrocities against Jews.

"Free Women" continues with Anna undergoind a nervous breakdown. Ronnie has moved back in with Ivor, ignoring her order to stay out, and she can't find the will to confront them again. Marion has left Richard for good and moved in with Molly, in the rooms that used to be Anna's and Michael's (and where Janet spent her first four years). The bond between the formerly alcoholic Marion and the blind Tommy is getting stronger and stronger. Molly is uncomfortable that her son Tommy spends all his time with her husband's second wife Marion. Richard is happy that Molly left of her own will and already installed Jean in his house. He is only upset when Tommy and Marion are arrested at a political demonstration because Marion makes the headlines as the wife of a famous financier. He is delighted when Anna finally agrees with his original plan to send them on a trip abroad. Anna recovers her psychological strength and kicks Ivor out of the house for good.

The black notebook now contains only clippings of newspaper articles about violent episodes in Africa. The yellow notebook contains only clippings of articles about violence in the rest of the world plus a brief story about how Harry, a veteran of the Spanish war and an idealistic teacher, soon to be married to a war widow, traveled to the Soviet Union thanks to Jimmy and took the trip a bit too seriously.

The red notebook ends. The yellow notebook ends with several sketches for short stories. The blue notebook now tells how Janet, now 12 years old, left home for boarding school and Anna was left without the company and responsibility she had since the girl was born: basically she reverted to being a single woman. Then an employed young writer from the USA, Saul, who lost his Hollywood job because of senator McCarthy's persecution of suspected communists, moved into Ivor's old room. Anna, who had just decided not to sell the film rights on her bestseller, fell in love with him. Unfortunately for Anna, another woman, Molly's friend Jane, also fell in love with Saul. Anna's happiness quickly turned into unhappiness as she realized that Saul was sleeping with both. Eventually Anna entered Saul's room and read his diary, where she found records of endless girlfriends (one even tried to commit suicide after he dumped her), including Jane. Recent entries in the diary mentioned that Saul was not attracted physically to Anna and that he had broken up with Jane and started an affair with a new woman, Marguerite; and then Marguerite dumped him and he got attracted to another woman yet. Anna's jealousy increased to the point of bordering madness. She eventually told Saul that she was reading his diary. They had fights but remained together. She started having nightmares and hallucinations. But she also finally admitted that she was having a writer's block, something she had always denied to herself; and she bought a new notebook, with a cover of dull gold, the "golden notebook".

The blue book ends and the golden notebook begins. Anna is getting delirious, increasingly tormented by her dreams. However, somehow Saul manages to heal her writer's block and suggests that she starts her novel by separating the two Annas who live inside her. He suggests the first line of her novel: "The two women were alone in the London flat". That is the first line that we read in Lessing's novel, and now we realize that the main novel "Free Women" is a novel that Anna wrote. She reciprocates by giving Saul the first line of his own novel, a novel on the Algerian civil war. She writes it in the golden notebook, gives the notebook to Saul, and the golden notebook continues in Saul's handwriting and becomes his Algerian novel.

The last chapter of "Free Women" (that we now learned is the novel that Anna wrote, the real Anna being the one who wrote the notebooks, not the one discussed in "Free Women") is a fictionalized recapitulation of Anna's latest adventures. Janet left for boarding school clearly demonstrating that she didn't want to become weird like her mother: just ordinary like the other schoolgirls of her age. After kicking out Ivor and his lover, she is waiting for the return of Janet from boarding school, hoping that this will cure her from her madness, when she is introduced to Milt, a writer from the USA who is divorcing a wife who refused to have sex with him after their honeymoon. Anna falls in love with Milt, despite the fact that he has just had an affair with a friend of Molly's, but he leaves her. When Janet comes home, Anna is busy looking for a smaller apartment and about to start a job. Meanwhile, Molly got engaged to a rich man, Molly opened a dress shop, and Tommy took a job at his father's firm, so now they are all happily integrated in ordinary society. This final chapter is clearly written in an abrupt manner, unlike the notebooks that were full of psychological analysis. This is Anna trying to imagine an ordinary future for herself and everybody around her.


Con questi romanzi Lessing si e' concentrata su alcuni temi di fondo: la crescita (fisica, morale e intellettuale) della donna, il conflitto di generazioni, le responsabilita' della coscienza individuale nei confronti di quella collettiva. Lessing e' una una "angry young woman" piu' disciplinata e programmatica.
Si e' data alla fantascienza con "Argos: Archives", una serie di racconti (1979-1983) sul futuro della Terra come colonia di un impero galattico, e alla fanta-sociologia con "Fifth child"(88), una favola morale in cui il protagonista e' uno sbaglio di natura che fin da piccolo commette ogni sorta di efferati crimini e da grande diventa un leader carismatico per i piccoli teppisti della periferia.
In seguito ha posto al centro della propria opera lo squallore urbano, come in "Good terrorist"(86), su una donna che si sacrifica per sostenere i compagni rivoluzionari e che cosi' facendo sacrifica anche la propria sensibilita'.
"Fifth child"(88) e' una novella gotica che si svolge nell' ambito di una ambiguita' psicologica alla Henry James. Come in "Turn of the screw", il lettore viene lasciato senza una verita' certa. Come nel capolavoro macabro di James, la storia si svolge in un ambiente "normale": una famiglia borghese, un po' all' antica, che sembra essere stata risparmiata dalla barbarie dell' epoca moderna. La madre che ha temuto il figlio fin da quando lo ha sentito muoversi nel proprio grembo, quella donna nevrotica e paranoica, e' soltanto pazza, o davvero suo figlio e' un mostro di perversione ? Questo bambino guardato prima con sospetto, e poi con paura, da parenti e vicini, ha davvero dei poteri extra-terrestri, oppure e' semplicemente vittima di un' isteria di massa ? Il momento piu' sconvolgente del romanzo e', in realta', quando i genitori decidono di far ricoverare il figlio in una clinica specializzata: quando la madre va a trovarlo, si rende conto che quell' istituzione e' un mattatotio legale, dove vengono imprigionati, in condizioni disumane, e poi condannati (a morte o a vita) i bambini indesiderati. Incapace di tanta crudelta', lo riporta a casa, e tenta di "rieducarlo". Ma e' terrorizzata dall' ascendente che il bambino esercita sugli altri ragazzini, e immagina ogni sorta di trame criminali. Ossessionata dalle immagini televisive, dai cartoni animati e dalle riprese dei disordini studenteschi, sospetta che lui possa all' improvviso rivelarsi come l' Anticristo venuto a dare un senso a quest' epoca caotica. Profezia minacciosa di un metafisico pericolo che incombe sull' umanita', il racconto ha una morale da brivido: quale sia questo pericolo Lessing lo lascia intravedere quando descrive il giovane popolo dei bassifondi, quell' invisibile mondo di ragazzini che crescono alieni a tutte le convenzioni sociali, quella tribu' di barbari amorali che dilaga all' insaputa delle autorita'; per loro l' "anormale" e' un eroe, e' un leader naturale ...
Ha scritto anche per il teatro. I racconti contengono probabilmente il meglio della sua arte.
Martha Quest
Martha è una ragazza irrequieta, cresciuta in una fattoria del Sudafrica. I suoi sono mediocri genitori: la madre petulante, invadente e moralista, il padre assente; madre e figlia litigano in continuazione, il padre non le sopporta. Gli amici delle fattorie vicine non sono meno provinciali; unica consolazione è il negozio del paese, gestito da due ebrei, in cui si procura libri moderni. Stanca di quella vita, un giorno decide di cercarsi un lavoro in città, e d’andare a vivere da sola: la madre tenta ancora d’interferire, ma, a poco a poco, deve rassegnarsi a perdere il controllo. Martha entra a far parte d’un club di rampolli, e ha i suoi primi traumi sessuali: insicura ed insofferente, vuole un amante, ma non uno che la voglia sposare, non vuole abbrutire come tutte le madri che conosce, non vuole marito e non vuole figli. Né gli uomini né le donne la comprendono: la urtano tanto gli uomini che rispettano la sua verginità quanto le donne che la considerano sedotta, quando finalmente uno, Adolph, la svergina e se ne vanta con tutti; lei è umiliata che l’ipocrita amica Stella svergogni Adolph davanti a tutti, non è risentita dal fatto d’essere stata sedotta da lui (è quasi stato il contrario); alla fine si mette con un uomo quasi vergine, Douglas, e, poco entusiasta dell’idea, accetta di sposarlo, esausta di lottare contro le convenzioni. Poi si lascia andare, si concede, si rassegna ai preparativi per il matrimonio (intanto sta per scoppiare la guerra in Europa).
Bel ritratto di ragazza e d’ambiente. If English is your first language and you could translate this text, please contact me.
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