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Bad Housekeeping

The Diaries of Jane Somers: The Diary of a Good Neighbour & If the Old Could…

by Doris Lessing
Vintage, 502 pp., $6.95 (paper)

A while ago Doris Lessing seemed to have given up realistic fiction in favor of a high-flown and involved futuristic fantasy. Five volumes of Canopus in Argos had appeared; though they were praised by some critics, many of her most devoted readers found them impenetrable and profoundly discouraging. For years Lessing had been their guide through the mazes of racism, Marxism, South African politics, feminism, Jungian and Laingian psychology, and Near Eastern mysticism. Now, struggling alone with political and sexual backlash, they felt abandoned in the hour of their greatest need.

Then, late last year, it was revealed that Doris Lessing had in fact recently published, under a pseudonym, two modest but very well-written naturalistic novels. They had been reviewed equally modestly or not at all, and soon disappeared from the bookshops. Reissued under her own name as The Diaries of Jane Somers, they were news everywhere; such is the effect of the literary celebrity system.

Considered in combination, however, The Diary of Jane Somers and Canopus in Argus were disturbing. They suggested that the creative high-tension in Doris Lessing between wild, imaginative energy and practical realism had finally snapped, splitting her into manic and depressive selves who produced, respectively, cloudy, optimistic fantasy and pessimistic tales of modern life.

Jane Somers,” Lessing’s depressive self, was originally said to be the editor of a woman’s magazine and the author of popular historical romances. The central issue of her novels was the proper relation of a successful, educated, middle-class person to the chaos and suffering that surround her. In the first, The Diary of a Good Neighbour, Jane Somers has emotionally failed both her dying husband and her dying mother. She becomes involved with a feisty, suspicious, dirty old cockney woman who lives in a squalid basement flat near her elegant London apartment. Through her attachment to Maudie Fowler, Jane is gradually redeemed; she also ends up furious at Maudie’s family, which “had simply written Maudie off years ago…used her and dismissed her,” and, by extension, furious with the world. “I’m so angry I could die of it,” she concludes. In this novel the only solutions Lessing offers us are private charity, and a burning rage against public and private indifference.

If the Old Could…is a more conventional story. Here Jane Somers falls in love with a married man; he returns her feelings but is too moral either to sleep with her or to leave his wife and retarded son and marry her. She is also involved in the care of another, less attractive old cockney woman, Annie, and with her own deeply neurotic, lumpish niece Kate. Kate comes to stay in Jane’s flat, steals, lies, refuses to go to school or get a job, throws up in Jane’s bed, and invites her creepy friends in to wreck the place when its owner is away. Life in London today, this book suggests, is pretty hopeless, and most people, most of the time, are selfish and miserable; but true love exists, even if it must be sacrificed in the end.

In her new and far more ambitious novel, The Good Terrorist, published under her own name, the two Doris Lessings are happily reunited. She continues to cast a cold eye on contemporary Britain. She asks questions of the sort that must have occurred to many people there in the past few years. How could their ordinary fellow citizens—not hysterical foreigners or obvious crazies—have planned and carried out the bombings of stores and offices that have killed and injured so many? Who could set out to do such a thing, and why? Whether her answers are right or not, Lessing has succeeded in writing one of the best novels in English I have read about the terrorist mentality and the inner life of a revolutionary group since Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

Lessing’s terrorists, however, have none of the glamour and mystery of Conrad’s. The shadowy atmosphere of secrets and feints is gone; in The Good Terrorist we see everything in icy clarity, from the fading bunch of forsythia on the revolutionaries’ kitchen table to the homemade bombs upstairs, which have been cobbled together out of “cheap watches, bits of wire, household chemicals, copper tubing,…ball bearings, tin tacks,…plastic explosive,…dynamite,” and string. “Everything…looked cheap, makeshift, sharp-edged, and for some reason unfinished.”

Most of the members of the group, too, seem makeshift, sharp-edged, and unfinished. At the start of the novel they are not yet terrorists, only a bunch of young dropouts camping out in an abandoned London house. All but two of them are unemployed, some by choice; they live on the dole or by scrounging or stealing from their relatives, justifying this to themselves as a sharing of the national wealth.

The squatters all consider themselves socialists, but their politics range from the mild ecological and antinuclear variety to a theatrical, theoretical Marxism. Collectively, they are at odds with their origins and estranged from their families. Though they come from virtually every social background, most have adopted false names and phony London working-class accents. Even the lesbian couple, Roberta and Faye, who in moments of crisis revert to the “clumsy blurting labouring heavy voices” of the northern slums from which they came, usually pose as bright, voluble cockneys.

All these young people see themselves as living in a corrupt, dishonest, and chaotic society that has no use for them. Mrs. Thatcher disgusts them, and the Labour party seems to be full of wimpy, ineffective liberals. As one of the most obsessed members of the group expresses it, they “want to put an end to this shitty fucking filthy lying cruel hypocritical system.”

For some time, these people’s rage and despair have been satisfied by picketing and demonstrating. As the book starts, however, most of them are beginning to feel frustrated and have fantasies of more radical forms of protest. They are not yet a revolutionary group, however; they are isolated, restless, suspicious of one another, and physically uncomfortable. The house in which they are squatting is ugly, cold, and derelict, without light or heat or plumbing, surrounded by and filled with foul rubbish.

Into this disorganized, fragmented society comes Alice Mellings, the “good terrorist” who is Doris Lessing’s heroine. Alice is strong, emotionally intuitive, and sympathetic, brave, warmhearted, hardworking, and generous—the sort of woman whose domestic skills and maternal sympathy have traditionally held the world together. (She also does not conceal her middle-class origins, and speaks in her own natural accent.) In nineteenth-century popular fiction Alice would have been celebrated as an “angel in the house.” Louisa May Alcott or Charlotte Yonge would have admired the way she takes over the derelict building and turns it into a comfortable home. Nothing daunts her, not even the two bedrooms full of plastic buckets of excrement which the squatters have used because the water has been turned off by the Council and the toilets filled with cement.

While most of the others stand about looking on, Alice goes into an almost supernatural frenzy of cleaning and contriving, painting and hauling furniture, and persuading the local authorities to restore services. Her love for the finished product is intense and personal: “The house might have been a wounded animal whose many hurts she had one by one cleaned and bandaged, and now it was well, and whole.” And Alice’s maternal care is not confined to the building; she shops and cooks nourishing health-food dinners for the other squatters, who have been living on cheap takeout meals, gets a job for one of them, and tends others in their illness or grief.

There is a darker side to Alice’s nature, however. She is given to slightly psychotic fugue states, hysterical lapses of memory, and uncontrollable fits of rage at the unfairness and chaos of the world:

She exploded inwardly, teeth grinding, eyes bulging, fists held as if knives were in them. She stormed around the kitchen, like a big fly shut in a room on a hot afternoon, banging herself against walls, corners of table and stove, not knowing what she did, and making grunting, whining, snarling noises—which soon she heard. She knew that she was making them and, frightened, sat down at the table, perfectly still, containing what she felt.

Alice also suffers from a passionate asexual attachment to a good-looking but singularly unpleasant young layabout named Jasper. Jasper is neurotic, violent, dishonest (he even steals money from Alice), sulky, self-important, mean-spirited, verbally and physically cruel, absolutely no help about the house, and given to homosexual binges. He is so disagreeable that most of the other characters in the book continually advise Alice to get rid of him, but she will not listen. What seems to bind her to Jasper is, simply, his need of her. If he were more agreeable, maybe someone else would take care of him, but she knows she is his only hope. In this unwavering loyalty to an impossible man Alice, of course, also joins hands with her Victorian sisters.

Ordinarily one would expect to find someone of Alice’s domestic talents and sympathy for the disadvantaged in a comfortable earth-mother situation—running Alice’s Restaurant, for instance. But circumstances, or something in her own nature, lead her into a job as den mother to what gradually becomes a gang of revolutionaries. It is to Doris Lessing’s credit that she does not insist on a psychological explanation, though she does point to parallels between Alice’s childhood and her present life. We are told, for instance, that Alice’s middle-class parents were intensely social; that they gave parties so large that Alice was often sent to stay with friends, which made her furious and miserable:

They took my room away from me, just like that, as if it wasn’t my room at all, as if they had only lent it to me…. It went on for years. What the fucking hell did they think they were doing?

Yet apart from their parties the senior Mellingses seem to have been model liberal parents, warm and affectionate and concerned. Until the start of the book they have steadily kept on trying to help Alice out. (Mrs. Mellings, for instance, allowed Alice, and Jasper, to live with her for four years and supported them both.) And this seems right both psychologically and artistically: as we all know, it is not only “bad,” unloving parents who produce antisocial children.

One thing that differentiates Doris Lessing’s terrorists from Conrad’s is that most of them are female. On the other hand, the professional revolutionaries, and the policemen who make the group’s lives miserable, are all men. It’s not clear whether Lessing means to make a comment on the persistence of patriarchy among serious revolutionaries and their opponents. It is interesting, however, that the most violently angry characters are all women, and so are the two who, at the end of the book, manufacture the bombs and time them to go off in such a way that many people will inevitably be killed and maimed. A decade ago many of us believed that women were naturally better than men, and that if they were in power the world would be a better place; today we are not so sure. Power, even the power of an angry young woman playing with gunpowder and string in the attic of an abandoned house, corrupts.

Alice’s own inclination is not at first toward public violence, though she hates the upper classes, universities, and Mrs. Thatcher. She has a romantic admiration for real revolutionaries: when she first meets a Russian agent with the improbable name of “Comrade Andrew” a thrill goes through her, “as when someone who has been talking for a lifetime about unicorns suddenly glimpses one.” The existence of a Communist underground reassures and comforts her:

All over the country were these people—networks, to use Comrade Andrew’s word. Kindly, skilled people watched, and waited, judging when people (like herself, like Pat) were ripe, could be really useful…. Nothing was too small to be overlooked, everyone with any sort of potential was noticed, observed, treasured…. It gave her a safe, comfortable feeling.

As Doris Lessing says of Alice in the last sentence of the novel, “poor baby.”

Alice, who otherwise feels a revulsion from sex, gets a charge from being arrested: “She yearned for it, longed for the moment when she would feel the rough violence of the policeman’s hands on her shoulders, would let herself go limp, would be dragged to the van.” But what she really enjoys most is going out at night with Jasper and spray-painting “No to Cruise!” on public buildings. For her friends, too, demonstrating and marching and shouting slogans and getting arrested have been a form of entertainment which also gave them a sense of social purpose. Now, however, they are becoming impatient, and beginning to agree with Alice’s mother, who says, “All you people, marching up and down and waving banners and singing pathetic little songs…you are just a joke. To the people who really run this world, you are a joke. They watch you at it and think: Good, that’s keeping them busy.” The sense of being politically ineffectual and even ridiculous drives Alice and her friends slowly but inexorably from protest toward terrorism.

As revolutionaries, however, Alice’s housemates are amateurs, and not especially gifted ones. The two men who think of themselves as the leaders and theoreticians of the group, Bert and Jasper, are eager to be co-opted by some larger organization. But the professionals, as it turns out, do not want them. In a series of wild-goose chases that would be comic if they were not both pathetic and frightening, Bert and Jasper travel to Dublin and to Moscow to offer their services first to the IRA and then to the KGB; they are ignominiously turned down. Alice’s abilities, on the other hand, are instantly recognized by Comrade Andrew. He tries to recruit her for the Party and send her away for training, but though Alice is flattered, she refuses to leave Jasper.

Rejected as allies by the political enemies of England, the group eventually decides to go it on their own. In a kind of awful caricature of Britain’s stance in World War II, they declare: “We have to decide what to do, and we will carry it out. We don’t have to ask permission of foreigners.”

It is one of the most disturbing ironies of this disturbing novel that Alice’s best qualities, her domestic genius, her generosity and sympathy and energy, are ultimately responsible for the transformation of a collection of dissatisfied radicals into a terrorist gang. She gives them a place to live and plot, regular meals, and a sense of community; she makes it possible for them to stay together long enough to learn to trust one another and work together to organize a “successful” bombing. Her love of order and beauty and harmony, her ideal of social justice, first destroy her, and finally destroy many innocent people.

Many of the characters in The Good Terrorist, with their rote revolutionary jargon and careless destructiveness, are frightening. But Alice Mellings, though she does not spout slogans or fill rooms with excrement, is perhaps the most frightening character of all, because she is, in the oxymoron of the title, both good and a terrorist. The grief and anger that many of us feel when we notice the waste, corruption, violence, and ugliness of the world is, in Alice, magnified tenfold. Unlike us, however, she does not block out this consciousness; she is almost continually consumed by rage and pain.

When a major character’s name scans or half-rhymes with that of an author, it is natural to suspect some hidden connection between them. The fact that “Alice Mellings” sounds rather like “Doris Lessing” suggests that in some ways Alice stands in for her creator, and represents, in a distorted and exaggerated way, her own reactions to contemporary England.

Also, to anyone raised in the British tradition, it seems quite likely that Doris Lessing acted consciously in giving her heroine the name “Alice.” After Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll is the most frequently quoted author in English literature, and we are surely meant to think of this Alice as being, in one of her aspects, the sensible, innocent, inquiring child, by turns puzzled and appalled by the ridiculous, cruel, and nonsensical adult world in which she finds herself. An inventive critic could probably find parallels between many of the incidents in Alice in Wonderland and those in Lessing’s novel: for instance, the two nearly identical Russian agents, both badly disguised as Americans, reminded me strongly of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

It is also possible to consider Alice as a personification of England itself. She has the traditional English sense of fairness, acute awareness of class differences, humor, courage, capacity for hard work, love of domestic cosiness, and unease about sex. Also typical is her and her comrades’ amateurishness, their involvement in muddle, which doesn’t always result in muddling through, and the contrast between their private affection and warmth and their capacity for public coldness and cruelty. Whether Alice’s increasing lapses of memory of her own past, and her inability in the long run to face the facts of her history, should also be taken as a comment on the contemporary English character is not quite clear.

If Alice is, in a sense, England today, the prospect is bleak. By the end of The Good Terrorist all her good impulses have come to nothing or worse. The ruined house she has transformed into a comfortable home will be turned into expensive flats, and its inhabitants scattered; the waifs and strays she has befriended are lost or dead or in despair. Her parents’ refusal to cut themselves off from her has ruined or nearly ruined their lives: her father’s firm is close to bankruptcy and her mother has become an embittered alcoholic. In its conclusions, this is a deeply pessimistic book; but its energy, invention, and originality cannot help but make me optimistic about Doris Lessing’s future work.

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