It took me three months to read ‘The Diaries of Jane Somers’, my first Doris Lessing ever.
I can’t say I enjoyed it, because it is not the kind of read that you ‘enjoy’. But it definitely had an impact….like a series of punches to the stomach. I found myself crumpling into tears and even putting down the book to sob for a little bit at times.
In part one, the book is an up close and personal look at aging and old age, and all the infirmities and neuroses that go with it. It is about how the old cope. It is about compassion, without the sap and the sugar-coating, written in the first person by the protagonist, Jane, a successful and attractive magazine editor. Her vitality and strength stands in sharp contrast to the vulnerability of 90 year old Maudie Fowler, the woman whose fury is what holds her together, the fury that courses through her veins and keeps her alive. Jane encounters her in a grocery shop and is drawn to being her ‘friend’, going over to her poor filthy home to ‘visit’ and made that a pretext to look after her as much as she could, talk to her, listen to her, until Jane becomes the only thing Maudie looks forward to in her day.
There is a particular passage in the book that really struck me (there have been several really good ones) and it is this:
‘I am sitting here in my dressing gown by the electric fire. I should clean out this flat. I should really wash my hair.
I am thinking of how Maudie Fowler one day could not trouble herself to clean out her front room, because there was so much junk in it, and then she left it and left it; going in sometimes, thinking, well, it’s not so bad. Meanwhile she was keeping the back room and the kitchen spotless. Even now she does her own chimney once a week, and then scrubs the grate, brushes up the dust and cinders—though less and less thoroughly. She wasn’t feeling well, and didn’t bother, once, twice—-and then her room was not really cleaned, only the floor in the middle of the room sometimes, and she learned not to look around the edges or under the bed. Her kitchen was last. She scrubbed it and washed shelves, but then things began to slide. But through it all she washed herself, standing at the kitchen table, heating water in the kettles. And she kept her hair clean. She went sometimes to the public bath-houses, for she had told me she liked going there. Then she left longer and longer between washing her hair……and then she did not wash her clothes, only took out the cleanest ones there were, putting them back grubby, till they were the cleanest; and so it went on. And at last, she was upright in her thick shell of black, her knickers not entirely clean, but not so bad, her neck dirty, but she did not think about it, her scalp unwashed. When they took her to hospital, they washed her all over and washed her hair too. She sometimes thought humorously, when they cart me off back to hospital, I’ll get another proper wash! But she, Maudie Fowler ,was still there, alert, very much all there, on guard inside that old witch’s appearance. She is still there, and everything has collapsed around her, it’s too difficult, too much.
And I, Janna, am sitting here, in my clean, scented dressing gown, just out of my bath.’
In part two, Jane falls unexpectedly in love for what seems like the first time. She is over fifty years old now, still attractive, but no longer young. Love brings her joy and anguish in equal measure, and life throws her curve-balls in the form of some unlikely antagonists, who seem to mirror and echo her past, perhaps..? Middle-aged love is a different game altogether, especially when two established lives come together and must reconcile themselves to the baggage they bring…
Here’s another passage that I loved:
‘So vulnerable are we, so easy would it be to blow what we have apart. A word could do it; a word or a look does often rip aside our enjoyment in each other, leaving us fumbling, so that we both scramble with words or a movement to cover it all over, talking about something else, making up nonsense as we do, for the pleasure of words, words, the game of them; or we get up from where we sit in a pub or on a pavement and we walk rapidly away from where the danger was.‘
I can’t help drawing parallels between the helplessness of Maudie, and the difficulties my own parents face as they get older. There are so many things that my Mom can’t deal with because of a frozen shoulder and loss of feeling in her fingertips due to spondylytis, not to mention arthritis. She struggles with her clothes and has had accidents in the kitchen, burning herself terribly, overestimating the strength in her fingers while picking up a pan full of scalding hot tea. My mom, who has created so many beautiful things with her capable hands…
And my father never goes anywhere without his cane, has accepted the loss of muscle mass in his legs, valiantly trying to counter it with exercise and more protein in his diet. My father, the weight-lifter, the boxer…the man who never thought twice before taking on arduous DIY jobs around the house, now relies increasingly on his Man Friday… and I so wish I could go over and take care of them all the time.
I’m glad I read ‘Diaries..’, though it had to be in small doses, and I do recommend it very highly. It’s all very interesting and detailed, and beautifully, terribly realistic.
Nevertheless there came a time a few days ago when I decided I had to read the last 100 pages over two days and finish the damn thing so I could move on to another book that wasn’t quite so gut-wrenching.
Trust me then, to pick up a collection of short stories by Nadine Gordimer, the first of which was about an injured pigeon that can’t fly which gets badly mauled by a playful dog and has to be killed to put it out of its misery.
What about you? Ever read a book in spite of yourself?