Nobel Prize Winners discussion

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2001-2010 > Doris Lessing: The Grass is Singing

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Please post all your comments on The Grass is Singing in this thread. Many Thanks.


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I've extended the time available for The Grass is Singing until 26th November.

The question now arises as to whether we want to read Tomas Transtomer's Collected Poems for the next regular group read, or to read him gradually over the next year?

Any preferences?


message 3: by Inga (new)

Inga Bjornson | 7 comments I can't comment on Transtrmer as I do not know his poetry.

I found Lessing an easy to read; her long descriptions were lovely of the countryside.. The characters are in so much angst-at first Mary is somewhat happy then slides into dispair,her husband a similar road. The treatment and discourse about the blacks was shamefull but not seen that way at the time. The ending surprised me; I don't want this to be a spoiler so will read with interest the other comments.


message 4: by Silver (new)

Silver I find African culture fascinating and so I was quite intrigued when I first read what this book was about, and that it was set in South Africa. I think that the prose is beautiful and I agree it is such an easy book to read. Everything flows along so well. I think Lessing does a good job at being able to capture the landscape without becoming too overly descriptive and diverging from the story in order to set the scene.

I think that opening the book up with the murder is a good way of catching the attention of the readers and drawing them in into wanting to read Mary's story. Knowing what the end result is makes you eager to discover how it came to that point. I find reading about the steady decline of Marry quite interesting.


message 5: by Haaze (last edited Nov 22, 2011 02:09AM) (new)

Haaze | 67 comments Just joined so I doubt I will be able to catch up with Lessing's book (but it is on its way to my stacks). Transtromer's poetry would be fabulous!!! Is it ok if we read it in Swedish? He he! Actually, my partner had her students read one of his poems in original Swedish (they were of course dumbfounded) and then they were expected to interpret the poem (it was kind of an artsy linguistic project). Regardless, then they were allowed to hear the poem in Swedish (native speaker) and they were enchanted by the flow and sounds. I am digressing - just excited about Transtromer's being awarded the Nobel! Do you think the collection: "The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems" would be the one? I will return here as soon as I have my Lessing.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

Hi Haaze,
I've only just started The Grass is Singing myself (Can't help thinking I've read it before or was that a short story with a similar plot?). The Transtromer discussion thread in The Reading Room will stay open until the next laureate is announced and of course it's fine to read him in Swedish, I wish I could because I'm sure I'm missing a great deal having to read him in English. Please do contribute to the discussion there.


message 7: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 67 comments Thanks David - I will. Good to hear that you just started The Grass is Singing yourself . I just finished reading up on Apartheid which will likely provide a good foundation for Lessing.


message 8: by [deleted user] (last edited Nov 22, 2011 11:39PM) (new)

Haaze wrote: "Thanks David - I will. Good to hear that you just started The Grass is Singing yourself . I just finished reading up on Apartheid which will likely provide a good foundation for Lessing."

In the UK we recently had occasion to recall the evil injustice of apartheid with the death of the wonderful cricketer Basil d'Oliveira. His quiet dignity (and superb batting) was an inspiration to cricket fans of my generation.


message 9: by Inga (new)

Inga Bjornson | 7 comments David (Dafydd) wrote: "Hi Haaze,
I've only just started The Grass is Singing myself (Can't help thinking I've read it before or was that a short story with a similar plot?). The Transtromer discussion thread in The Read..."


Haaze wrote: "Just joined so I doubt I will be able to catch up with Lessing's book (but it is on its way to my stacks). Transtromer's poetry would be fabulous!!! Is it ok if we read it in Swedish? He he! Actual..."

I also thought that I had read this book of Lessings before. I checked my jounal of the last ten years, not there. I have most of her books but have not read them all. I've enjoyed an autobio and a bio of her life. I love this type of reading --many thanks for you input here Dafydd.


message 10: by Haaze (last edited Nov 26, 2011 07:05PM) (new)

Haaze | 67 comments I just happened to have covered a module on apartheid and South Africa in a sociology class I am taking. It has definitely been an eye-opening experience. As I began Lessing's novel I sensed how this knowledge helped to get a feel for the terrain the characters were navigating. It was written in the 1950s at the peak of Apartheid's dominance. Lessing's descriptions of the black Africans definitely brings this across. I agree with Silver's previous comment in this thread that the chapter makes the reader curious about the circumstances surrounding the murder. There also seemed to be an extreme tension as Lessing sets up the atmosphere to probe into race relations in South Africa in the 1950s. This is the first work of Lessing I have ever read although her fame precedes her (esp with The Golden Notebook. I will try to move through the rest of the book quickly to catch up with the group.

I cannot quite believe the number of books she has published in the course of her career!


message 11: by Silver (new)

Silver Haaze wrote: "I just happened to have covered a module on apartheid and South Africa in a sociology class I am taking. It has definitely been an eye-opening experience. As I began Lessing's novel I sensed how th..."

I think it is quite interesting the way in which through display a portrait of this one particular family, on an isolated farm and which such a minimalist amount of characters and little interaction with the outside world, she is able to establish such a complexity of emotions on the issue of race relations.

Mary goes through such a wide ranger of feelings and inner conflicts in her dealing with the natives, it is as if she is symbolic of the white population in South Africa.

I also really like the way in which she deals with questions of sexuality and gender relations of this time period and under these particularly complicated situation.

I find it quite interesting and one of the things which I am quite enjoying is how throughout the reading, the readers feelings towards Mary are given to frequently change. On the one hand she is portrayed as being sympathetic and she was thrust into this situation completely unprepared and beyond anything she had experienced or could expect but at other moments she is infuriating and it is hard to forgive or excuse some of the things she does.


message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

I'm about half way through the book and it strikes me as ponderous in places and extremely sad, firstly because we know the ending and secondly that it seems it is inevitable that the farm and its harshness will eventually engulf them. Am I enjoying it? No, I visited Durban in 1967-68 in the company of two Nigerians and we experienced the perverse world of apartheid. It was then that I realised the distorting effects of social isolation and the denial of freedom that it implies.

On a less serious matter, I am puzzled why Mary cannot be distracted by listening to the radio, in most isolated rural areas the radio, and nowadays television, are standard antidotes to extreme isolation?

Yesterday I began to feel some sympathy for Mary having to endure Dick's succession of catastrophic enthusiasms, but only a little. None of the characters, other than Mrs Slatter, seem to engender any feelings of support from the reader.


message 13: by Inga (new)

Inga Bjornson | 7 comments I am still pondering the reasons as to why the murderer chose to kill Mary. I found her exasperating in so many ways as not trying to befriend Mrs. Slatter or find a way to mitigate her loneliness but then if she is severely depressed this would be an impossible task. What an incredibly sad book.

What are we reading next?


message 14: by Silver (new)

Silver I have to agree I do not quite understand the reasons for killing her in the end. If it really was just to exact revenge upon her for what she had done, it seems that such was already fulfilled in the way in which Moses was able to gain power over her, and his presence was a daily torment upon her, reducing her to ultimately become dependent upon him. Killing a woman who is already at a point of sever breaking down, and it seemed was reaching a point in which she desired her own death, does not seem to acomplish anything.

Unless it was because they were going to be leaving and he did not want her to "escape."


message 15: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 67 comments In the early chapters - do you think that Lessing is painting a stereotype of Mary? Did those descriptions of her ring true to you or is it a caricature of the "modern" South African woman being part of a dominant society?


message 16: by [deleted user] (new)

Haaze wrote: "In the early chapters - do you think that Lessing is painting a stereotype of Mary? Did those descriptions of her ring true to you or is it a caricature of the "modern" South African woman being p..."

Not a stereotype exactly, rather a possibility, a woman who almost unconsciously finds herself thrust into a position where she has to confront the reality of the black population instead of her more remote notion of 'natives'. Until her marriage she seems to have been able to insulate and isolate herself from the non-white population. Yes, she acknowledges her 'duties' as a white to keep the natives suppressed for the good of the whites in general, but the reality of doing this on a day to day basis is something she finds immensely difficult.


message 17: by Silver (new)

Silver I agree I do not think that she is so much a stereotype, but rather I think she is representative of a young modern woman who is naive to the real world around her. She has isolated herself in this comfortable environment in which she is kept at a distance from the reality of the situation when she is suddenly thrust into this situation in having to deal face to face with the natives. She has had no prior experince or contact with them, and is victim to the ideas which had been bread into her.

I think a lot of the anger and fear which drives the way in which she treats the natives if meant as a reflection of the shame of the white race in general. Looking at the natives is like looking into a mirror of thier own soul but rather than admit to thier guilt, admit they are wrong or change what is being done, it is easier to blame the natives and take the anger out on them. They are driven by hatred becasue of what the natives make them feel about themselves.

Mary falls into the power of Moses becasue the very thing which she did to try and gain power over him was what ultimately gave him the upper hand over her, becasue she could not bare to be daily confronted with the knoweldge of what she herself was driven to do. But she could not afford to admit that the fault was her own.


message 18: by Haaze (last edited Dec 03, 2011 12:28AM) (new)

Haaze | 67 comments @David
@Silver

You are probably right - perhaps stereotype was a bit too strong of a word for Mary at that point in the story. I guess one can argue that she is almost approaching a psychotic state as she is becoming more attuned to getting married. Interesting how Lessing puts forward Mary as "being happy" (her greatest attribute) and single, while her behavior gets a bit absurd as she becomes a "spinster" waiting for a husband to come her way.

I also thought it remarkable how black Africans were completely excluded in this early portion of the book. Apart from being viewed as "cheeky" and having a hidden "shuffling" presence on the sidewalks the ethnic majority is virtually hidden from the reader's mind. Perhaps Lessing tries to make us understand how these people really are invisible to the white dominant society? I think Silver is right in that Mary's naivety of her world is emphasized here. She is very much a comfortable dreamer (apart from not following the expected "marriage path"). What is she escaping in this dreamlike zombie trance she is suspended in?

I like Lessing's style (as this is my first book of hers). Her African Stories looks quite interesting (written in the 50s and 60s).


message 19: by Haaze (last edited Dec 07, 2011 12:37AM) (new)

Haaze | 67 comments Hmm , what is the spoiler policy in this group?

Regardless, I have been thinking about why Mary got married. Lessing paints an almost psychotic picture of Mary as she becomes attuned to her future husband. Would any person really step into a marriage with a person they really know nothing about? Times and cultures vary, but in this case (as an independent woman) it seems like she could have made some excursions to her future home. The transition is extreme as we as readers also experience the shift passing from the comfortable city life surrounded by people (although still alone in a sense) to the extreme solitude and heat of the farm. The poverty shines through in Lessing's descriptions.
I sense that Lessing really is working on Mary's psychological turbulence here as she almost manically moves from task to task and focuses her anger/nagging on a row of servants (as well as visitors).

Would you agree with that Lessing is "winding up" Mary in these early "settle down in your home" chapters?

I have become quite interested in her life ever since I started reading this book!


message 20: by Silver (new)

Silver While in one since she was independent, in the fact that she was able to support herself and got a job, was living on her own, in another since I think she was still dependent upon the approval and opinions of other people. She wanted to fit in and belong, she never thought of herself as being different. As can be seen in the way she still dressed as if she were a young girl, and remained living in the girls boarding house, even after she should have moved out. She saw herself as always being like one of them.

When she had overhead the other girls talking about her, it was a shock to her to discover that she was an anomaly, that she was not like everyone else. They forced her to come to terms with the fact that she was a grown, mature woman, and at that period of time it was exepcted that when you reached a certain age you married.

In discovering herself as having become the focus of what she perceived as malicious attention, and feeling like she no longer could fit in with them, they they viewed her as something different than them, she was driven into desperation to marriage. She needed it as an escape from the gossip against her.

In her mind she did not think she would ever really be capable of falling in love, she never showed any real inclinations in that direction, and so for her, one man would do just as well as another to marry, for she was using marriage simply as a way to secure her normality, and not becasue of any true desires of marriage or belief that she would ever find real happiness in marriage.


message 21: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 67 comments You are right Silver! The trigger point is in when she reacts to the gossip from her friends. So in a sense she is simply escaping her previous life in an attempt to transform into being a wife. In a similar fashion her future husband is striving towards marriage for different reasons filling a void in his life at the farm, i.e. in a sense he is looking for a stereotype which is partially demonstrated by that he fell for her profile in the movie theater. He remembered and daydreamed about her profile excessively to the extent that he did not even recognize her when he finally met up with her in the town.

It appears as if these two people are looking to get married for extreme reasons that have nothing to do with the actual relationship between the two. So I completely agree with your last paragraph about marriage. I wonder if Lessing is creating a symbol of two entities being fused together???

Thanks for your thoughts on this Silver.


message 22: by Silver (new)

Silver I think that Lessing is bringing in questions of sexuality and gender expectations. One of the things which is interesting about Mary I think is the hang ups she displays about physical intimacy with another person. The idea of sex is something beyond her comprehension, and she does try and stay trapped in this idea of girlhood, she rejects the idea of herself as a sexually mature woman.

I think there is also and element of conforming to social convention in Dick's own desire to get married. His particular wantings to have children his reflective of the expected role of men, the propagation of heirs. And much like Mary he seems to establish this idea that having a wife will alleviate his problems.

It seems they are both looking for a form of escape as well as acceptance.


message 23: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 08, 2011 08:08AM) (new)

Silver wrote: "I think that Lessing is bringing in questions of sexuality and gender expectations. One of the things which is interesting about Mary I think is the hang ups she displays about physical intimacy wi..."

I'm not at all sure that Mary married to escape anything, I think she married because that's what people like her did, and once married her biological clock kicked in and she wanted children because that's what married women do. Tragically, she hadn't thought through the difficulties of rural and racial isolation.


message 24: by Haaze (last edited Dec 11, 2011 12:12AM) (new)

Haaze | 67 comments David (Dafydd) wrote: "I'm not at all sure that Mary married to escape anything, I think she married because that's what people like her did, and once married her biological clock kicked in and she wanted children because that's what married women do. Tragically, she hadn't thought through the difficulties of rural and racial isolation. "

Hmm, I definitely think there is a degree of escapism here so I guess I am following Silver's thinking. Mary is living in neverneverland reading books, watching movies, dressing like younger girls, and lives in a group home for younger women. The only problem I have with that is that Lessing paints her more like a stereotype than a real person. Silver's characterization of her sexuality seems important as well: he idea of sex is something beyond her comprehension, and she does try and stay trapped in this idea of girlhood, she rejects the idea of herself as a sexually mature woman.

Her future husband seems to think that marrying will complete his farm dream. As we quickly notice he is a dreamer that brings up project after project which then fails. Could one not view his marriage plans (or quest to get married ) as another of his dreamy projects doomed to fail?


message 25: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 10, 2011 11:51PM) (new)

Haaze wrote: "David (Dafydd) wrote: "I'm not at all sure that Mary married to escape anything, I think she married because that's what people like her did, and once married her biological clock kicked in and she..."

Yes, I totally agree with you about the husband's motive for marriage, but I remain deeply sceptical about the idea that Mary was actively looking for an 'escape' into marriage. Until shortly before the wedding and that 'overheard' conversation of her friends, I don't believe that Mary had the remotest intention of getting married, she was absolutely content with her succession of escorts to social gatherings in the town. Having said that I again agree very much with Silver's characterisation of Mary's sexuality and this, I would argue, bears out my point. She drifted into marriage as a societal convention rather from any deliberate intention.


message 26: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 67 comments When I first started out on this book I was convinced that the story would focus on Apartheid. To my surprise the core of the book is about something completely different (from my perspective) in terms of life paths, dreams and expectations versus the brute force of reality. It seems to that it is a study of sanity in the face of those forces. The main character is the landscape, the unrelenting flow of time and seasons in the African grasslands under which both human structures and minds crumble. I find myself quite a bit fascinated by the unfolding of this story. The parts I am particularly drawn to is when Lessing muses about the South African landscape, the colors of the sky and light as she embraces us with the sound of insects and scents of dust and flowers. The heat of it is apparently relentless warping the perception of goals and dreams. Mary's crumbling existence and mind are depicted in a way that make me feel uneasy. What was your perception of the book in terms of its "goals" and emphasis? Did you see different aspects coming through the pages?


message 27: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 67 comments I know that the title "The Grass is Singing" has its origin from T.S. Eliot's poem. Still, I find a certain resonance around that phrase from my own perspective. It seems to emphasize the everlasting presence and dominance of nature over the human activities in the novel. In a sense the plot almost turned paranormal towards the end with Mary's expectations and Moses' searching her out. It was all quite peculiar with no logic behind it all. Besides, the last chapter seemed to exist in a different dimension with the "crime" accented by the forces of nature across the sky. There seemed to some primeval emphasis as Lessing concluded her first novel. Would anybody else agree with this hypothesis or am I just hallucinating?


message 28: by [deleted user] (new)

Haaze wrote: "I know that the title "The Grass is Singing" has its origin from T.S. Eliot's poem. Still, I find a certain resonance around that phrase from my own perspective. It seems to emphasize the everlasti..."

What I think is conveyed very well is the relentless oppression of the heat, the aridity of the landscape and the struggle to make the land productive.

No I don't think you're hallucinating, I think the 'crime' represents a final and almost inevitable defeat of these particular humans in their battle with nature and the idea that, in Africa, nature will always triumph.


message 29: by Haaze (last edited Dec 16, 2011 02:41AM) (new)

Haaze | 67 comments David (Dafydd) wrote: "Haaze wrote: "I know that the title "The Grass is Singing" has its origin from T.S. Eliot's poem. Still, I find a certain resonance around that phrase from my own perspective. It seems to emphasize..."

@David,

True! The immensity of Nature's triumph over our lives seems omnipresent. The aspect that took me by surprise was how the last chapter turned completely surreal. This is in contrast with the rest of the book that had a strong realistic tone throughout (although Nature's whisperings and tendrils were present in some form or another in virtually every chapter). The more I think about this novel the more I like it, but it is the Nature aspect that lives with me while the characters already have started to dissipate. What take do you have on these aspects?


message 30: by [deleted user] (new)

Haaze wrote: "David (Dafydd) wrote: "Haaze wrote: "I know that the title "The Grass is Singing" has its origin from T.S. Eliot's poem. Still, I find a certain resonance around that phrase from my own perspective..."

It is also a subtle but damning condemnation of colonialism, especially British colonialism in Africa. This becomes particularly relevant when I think back to the illegal regime of Ian Smith when his extreme white, right party unilaterally declared independence of the old Southern Rhodesia in the 1970s.

Funnily enough, there was a lady living in our town in the middle of rural Wales whom I got to know quite well before she died last year who had been the private secretary of a previous Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia, Sir Roy Welensky. She was highly critical of Ian Smith and his party and immensely saddened by the eventual emergence of Zimbabwe under Mugabe with its similar intolerance of of racial difference. British colonial history across the world does not bear much scrutiny, but the more modern American version seems to be equally suspect.


message 31: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 67 comments I agree with you that Lessing certainly creates a strong undercurrent indirectly criticising colonialism. What a coincidence that you knew a person so close to the regime. I suspect that you got some good inside stories from her. The Mugabe regime certainly did not make things much better, although one can argue that colonialism itself indirectly led to this situation. It is such a depressing topic, but worthwhile for pondering today's global situation as well as the paths that led to it. I have had King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa on my TBR pile forever. Overall, I have an urge to jump into my history books as well as current events. This recent book also looks very interesting: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa.


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