Thursday, October 23, 2008

Lessing and the postwar

Here is a somewhat length passage from near the middle (269-70) of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook [1962]:

I dreamed marvellously. I dreamed there was an enormous web of beautiful fabric stretched out. It was incredibly beautiful, covered all over with embroidered pictures. The pictures were illustrations of the myths of mankind but they were not just pictures, they were the myths themselves, so that the soft glittering web was alive. There were many subtle and fantastic colours, but the overall feeling this expanse of fabric gave was of redness, a sort of variegated glowing red. In my dream I handled and felt this material and wept with joy. I looked again and saw that the material was shaped like a map of the Soviet Union. It began to grow: it spread out, lapped outwards like a soft glittering sea. It included now the countries around the Soviet Union, like Poland, Hungary, etc., but at the edges it was transparent and thin. I was still crying with joy. Also with apprehension. And now the soft red glittering mist spread over China and it deepened into a hard heavy clot of scarlet. And now I was standing out in space somewhere, keeping my position in space with an occasional down-treading movement of my feet in the air. I stood in a blue mist of space while the globe turned, wearing shades f red for the communist countries, and a patchwork of colours for the rest of the world. Africa was black, but a deep, luminous, exciting black, like a night when the moon is just below the horizon and will soon rise. Now I was very frightened and I had a sick feeling, as if I were being invaded by some feeling I didn’t want to admit. I was too sick and dizzy to look down and see the world turning. Then I look and it is like a vision – time has gone and the whole history of man, the long story of mankind, is present in what I see now, and it is like a great soaring hymn of joy and triumph in which pain is a small lively counterpoint. And I look and see that the red areas are being invaded by the bright different colours of the other parts of the world. The colours are melting and flowing into each other, indescribably beautiful so that the world becomes whole, all one beautiful colour, but a colour I have never seen in life. This is a moment of almost unbearable happiness, the happiness seems to swell up, so that everything suddenly bursts, explodes – I was suddenly standing in peace, in silence. Beneath me was silence. The slowly turning world was slowly dissolving, disintegrating and flying off into fragments, all through space, so that all around me were weightless fragments drifting about, bouncing into each other and drifting away. The world had gone, and there was chaos. I was alone in chaos. And very clear in my ear a small voice said: Somebody pulled a thread of the fabric and it all dissolved. I woke up, joyful and elated. I wanted to wake Michael to tell him, but I knew of course, that I couldn’t describe the emotion of the dream in words. Almost at once the meaning of the dream began to fade; I said to myself, the meaning is going, catch it, quick; then I thought, but I don’t know what the meaning is. But the meaning had gone, leaving me indescribably happy.

I read somewhere, probably on wikipedia, that Doris Lessing is the ‘epicist of the female experience.’ I’m a little over half way through this book, which certainly is epic, and it is true that it is female, about women and Woman. And yet, I think I am more interested in it as a book about the generation in their 20s during the Second World War, and about their postwar experience. (I notice an important word: experience—this is certainly a novel about experiences of certain kinds, hence, I think, the importance of the structure of overlapping fictions telling and retelling stories sharing a few nodes of character and situation). And in particular, the communist experience in the postwar. What it was like to be a communist of a certain class (the class in which simply everyone has a novel at least in the drawer) in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s. Also: I can't decide how I feel about what I guess is the British-English spelling 'marvellously.'

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