First published in 1950, The Grass Is Singing is the admirable Doris Lessing’s first novel. I bought it at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library used book sale. My copy, printed in 1976, was yellowed with age, its spine cracking and its pages falling out. The inside cover claimed it had been previously owned by a Mr. and Mrs. R.A. Dahl of San Francisco. The Dahls would have purchased this book after Lessing published her most famous work, The Golden Notebook, so they cannot be said to be discoverers of new literature. Like me, they had merely found someone whose work they trusted and then acted on that trust.
Did Lessing live up to that trust in this first novel? There is no doubt in my mind that by 1950 (when she was 31) the voice and themes present in her later works were already evident. When I compare her storytelling, the sheer fluidity of her words, with those of many modern wordsmiths, I cannot help but notice the lack of grace and simplicity in so much of today’s writing. There is never a word or phrase or sentence of Lessing’s that doesn’t fit, that is straining too hard at something that was never worth the effort.
Still, it did feel like a first novel. A glance at the epigraphs:
In this decayed hole among the mountains
In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing
Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
It has no windows, and the door swings,
Dry bones can harm no one.
Only a cock stood on the rooftree
Co co rico, co co rico
In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust
Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves
Waited for rain, while the black clouds
Gathered far distant, over Himavant.
The jungle crouched, humped in silence.
Then spoke the thunder
It is by the failures and misfits of a civilization that one can best judge its weaknesses.
The first (from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”) is the obvious inspiration of the story, particularly its ending, which contains the same elements: thunder, lightning, the crouched jungle (in the novel’s case, trees, standing in for a man, or a man, standing in for trees), the decayed, forgotten place. And of course it explains the origin of the title. All right, but it’s all a bit too straightforward, a bit too neat.
The second epigraph (unknown author) is worse. Quoting an aphorism seems beneath Lessing, whose work is best when it is subtle, sly, not quite so preachy. Still, for modern audiences, it is a clear sign of Lessing’s intentions, which (perhaps by the fault of her own skill) are sometimes obscured by, what, a certain uncomfortable political incorrectness? (Only in the closing chapters.)
But, in The Grass Is Singing, Lessing’s insight into the human mind is as clear and penetrating as it ever will be. Monstrous as almost every character is in this novel, he is also human, tractable, worthy of sympathy. If there is a flash of anger, there is also a moment of pity; cruelty is matched by fear. Lessing is clear in her analysis of white society in South Africa, particularly in its subtleties, its grays. As always, she speaks what others only know with a wordless knowledge so that one reads her and thinks, “Ah ha, that is it. She’s hit the nail on the head.” Of course, in this case, that knowledge is taken on trust. But I trust.
Despite this being the fifth novel of Lessing’s that I’ve read, it is the first that has taken place in her childhood home of Southern Rhodesia (the former British colony that is now Zimbabwe). And it is the first that has explicitly explored (excoriated?) so-called “race relations” in that region (or perhaps anywhere). Whether or not Lessing was directly influenced by Faulkner, I cannot say without more research, but the novel has echoes of Faulknerian themes: specifically, the decay of white society through the moral depravity inherent in slavery/apartheid.
It is clearly a novel from a white point of view. Though the perspective remains mostly with Mary Turner, the protagonist, we also at times know the mind of her husband, Dick, their neighbor Charlie Slatter, and the British transplant Tony Marston. The minds we never glimpse are those of the “natives,” who remain aloof, indecipherable, inscrutable. Even when the story’s most prominent African, Moses, gets his own pages at the end, we can barely grasp his thoughts. It is almost as the mind of an animal.
I’ve found that Lessing is consistently fascinated with the idea of Woman Falling Apart. I first saw this in The Summer Before the Dark, and it is most satisfyingly realized in The Golden Notebook, but hints of it are also present in The Good Terrorist (Alice’s frenzied activities often seem like an attempt to ward off a perhaps more dangerous type of frenzy) and The Memoirs of a Survivor (the narrator’s ventures into the other world are reminiscent of the dreamscapes of Mary Turner and The Golden Notebook‘s Anna). I wasn’t much taken with that narrative decision in The Summer Before the Dark, and I didn’t like it here as well. A woman goes mad. It’s quite easy then for the madness to go anywhere, quite easy for it to be all meaningless or cheaply symbolic. Why the recurrence of female insanity, Doris Lessing? Is our gender just prone to cracking?
Still, it makes for a fine construct. What decay is more profound, more horrifying than the decay of the mind?
I wish I could write like Doris Lessing.