Having had all my ‘first loves’ in London, I can confirm that it is one of the most romantic cities in which to wander. The markets, pubs and cafes, the West End, the Thames, the parks, canals, Georgian terraces and gardens provide a wonderful setting through which you can two step a dance of human discovery – as indeed do the protagonists in both Doris Lessing’s and Eimear Mcbride’s very different novels!
I have just finished The Diary of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing. It is a dense, intimate diary in two parts written by a professional, female magazine editor, (Janna at work, Jane at home) aged fifty plus, who in the first part discovers the horrors of old age for women. She reflects on the physical breakdown of the body and the mind, the growth in frustration, fear, stubbornness, and fury as the old women she befriends battle with family, neighbours, doctors, officialdom, anyone, for dignity and recognition. It struck a chord (an uncomfortable one) as I watch my own mother with anguish, irritation, and impatience. Doris Lessing shows how these emotions, moods, responses are universal. The anger, frustration, love are natural responses to a stimulant or provocation. The feelings of frustration that my mother experiences in her physical inabilities and the impatience and irritation I have in response to her complaints are commonplace. They are natural responses. Neither I nor my mother own these innate emotions. They are universal and are manifest by all of us. They are part of life.
In part two, Janna/Jane falls in love with a married man. In this section, Lessing reveals the potency of love as Jane tumbles into a physical, explorative relationship in London but without sex. Her affair becomes the most important aspect of her every day, her professional life peels away.
While the book is a diary of one person, what was revealed was the characteristics of human nature. It was not just about Janna/Jane, it was about the people around her and how they impacted on her. It was about the interaction of love, hate, bitterness, resentment. It was about pride and dignity and how they form a person. It cleverly focussed on the innate, natural emotions and behaviours of human beings rather than the person. Lessing used Jane as a blank canvas to paint a picture of society.
Contrast this with Eimear McBride’s novel, The Lesser Bohemians. This also deals with first love (also in London) from a personal perspective and abuse and incapacity also feature. The difference in this novel, is that the protagonists embody their emotions; they own them, they feed them. In this book, human nature, as revealed by anger, sorrow, love, burrows deep in their consciousness. It is not universal.
I enjoyed the poetry and flow of Eimear McBride’s prose, and her detail. Her narrative voice, the inner conscious, the muddle, the half thoughts, the observations, names of roads, pubs make reading the book real (particularly since it was the stomping ground in London of my teenage years). She describes the sex scenes in absolute detail with fabulous clarity, but the reader is focused on the sex and the relationship. The external factors barely feature and somehow this couple is isolated in London. The abuse is sordid, cruel and particular rather than inevitable and universal.
Both books are good reads. It was a coincidence that I read one after the other. They are both set in London. Both couples walk the city, alone, endlessly. Both couples fall in love. One couple discover each other through sex and the body. The other discover each other through the discovery of themselves. Both novels paint love in all its glory and destruction and I think both reflect the society and generation the writers live in, and so, interestingly, are very different. One reveals the response of someone living in the wider world, grappling with the impact of society and one shows a human grappling and dealing alone with emotions that have become subsumed in her inner consciousness.
I want to finish with a quick word about Sebastian Barry’s book, Days Without End. This is a beautiful story of love, death, cruelty, nature, vengeance, loyalty. All the virtues and sins of human characteristics teem across this book. But it is the voice of his protagonist, McNulty who carries the reader with him into battle, into bed, across deserts, mountain ranges, through fields of scalped heads, cut limbs, chopped body parts. It is an undulating voice, rich with wonder at the world, sonorous with wisdom, crackling with fear, and innocent with honesty. It scythes a path through the frontier of violence and reveals the metal of human dignity, perseverance, courage, loyalty and love. It is a book of sighs and gasps, perspicacity and intelligence and growth. It is a story that shows humankind in all its darkness and light.