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Florence in Words

Reading: Doris Lessing’s Geography

The Cleft, a novel of Lessing’s nineties, is portrayed both as a gigantic rock edging the sea on one side and a noxious cavern on the other, and the distance between male and female. It is also descriptive of female sexuality. Lessing has always been free to speak her mind about the sexes and to refuse to be labeled either feminist or anti-feminist. Here, she speaks from the persona of an aged Roman man, who is trying to write a history out of bits and pieces of recently recovered, and often incomplete, records of people called Memories. The early humans he writes about seemingly have no conception of time, nor does their land seem seasonal. At first the women bear babies from some mysterious concatenation of ocean and moon, and all babies are female. Then a baby, born with different sex organs, is placed on the Cleft to die, but is rescued by a giant eagle and taken somewhere. That place, which intrepid females uncover holds “monsters” the narrator knows were men, and from that time forward the two groups couple both for sex and for procreation, though they continue to live separately.

What drives the brief novel is the tension between the male’s desire to explore new territory, even to risk venturing out on a rough sea to reach perhaps another shore, and the female’s desire for the safety of the babies and small children. Possibly as interesting is the Roman narrator, who considers his world the best and most enlightened possible, and here Lessing cannot resist writing from an allegedly Roman point of view that resonates loudly for a twenty-first century British or American (or Chinese) reader. Here is a piece of that passage (p. 216):

I sometimes imagine how all the known world will be Roman, subject to our beneficent
rule. . . . Truly we make deserts bloom and the lands we conquer blossom. . . . Some
greater power than human guides us, leads us, points where our legions must go next.
And if there are those who criticize us, then I have only one reply. Why, then, if we lack
the qualities needed to make the whole earth flourish, why does everyone want to be a
Roman citizen? All, everybody, from any part of our empire and beyond, wants to be a
free man inside Roman law, Roman peace.

Do I recommend this book to you? Yes, if you are a Lessing addict as I am and have somehow missed it. Yes if you like imaginative recreations of the two sexes, and life without the New York clutter of the Glass apartment where Franny and Zooey live.

Yesterday I had lunch with an 86-year old sociologist who lives in my building and who was reading a copy of Lessing’s The Grandmothers, another recent volume I have missed, but will gather up soon and write about here. Yes, the blog is unleashing me.
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