Generation Gap: On Reading Doris Lessing’s The Diaries of Jane Somers While Watching My Father Die
by K. Thomas Kahn
[Preface: I wrote most of this piece, just as I read the book in question, while sitting beside my dying father in a hospital room. We have no shared language. My “I” is a “you” he has never pluralized into an eventually embraceable “we” — but then this is not something I have done, either.
Last moments; last chances. He is still ticking on, stubborn man that he is, not willing to let life go or to put his body down for some reason he alone can articulate, in some private language he alone can cipher.
Most days he does not even know my name, let alone other words.
Words, words, words, words.
As he deteriorates daily, I look to words to find a “you” to whom I can finally address what for years I have never been able to speak. Sometimes I find a “him” and keep digging.
Between the bed and the chair in which I sit, perched expectant and yet prepared to wrestle demons from him if I should ever catch a glimpse of any, there is a decade-wide chasm — perhaps longer, whenever the silence set in. The rushing in of nurses and orderlies proves in some reassuring but anxiety-ridden way that he is not yet dead. Yet. Still, it is hardly the flow of water for which we had both hoped in our silent and singular ways. Perhaps it is too late for such a shoddy bridge.
“There will be time,” Prufrock maintains, and then one day it will suddenly cease.
Code blue. No revisions.
To locate the as-yet-unfathomed words before then, then.
One human voice. Before he you drowns.]
Nobel laureate Doris Lessing is no stranger to tackling marginalized subject matter, not to mention marginalized characters, those who would all too often be relegated to the outskirts of narrative; instead of hurling these figures to the sidelines, Lessing casts her observant eye on them with criticism, humor, pathos, and an overall sense of immense humanity and compassion This talent of hers is but one of the things that the world of letters will miss given her recent death in November 2013. Luckily, however, Lessing has left us with a body of work that teems with readiness to be devoured by those wishing to confront the dark side of the societies in which we live, as well as the often unacknowledged dark sides of ourselves.
[I first came to Lessing years ago, in the same way I came to Proust: in the midst of great suffering, an impalpably tangible shadow world of which I could make no sense. Lessing’s masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, spoke to me in more ways that I can even bring the untrustworthy and untenable medium of language to bear on — though I had tried on many occasions, even on a rare evening speaking about books with you, the non-reader, the word-shunner.
It tore me apart. It left me bloodied, open, wounded, raw; I had wounds I had never noticed before until I read Lessing’s words. And yet I was left healed, primed, in some inexplicable way.
I bought The Golden Notebook for you when you turned eighty years old. The last time I saw it, it was hidden inside the entrails of your trusty toolbox, the once-shiny cover scratched by almost a decade’s worth of nails, blade-ends, thumbscrews.]
Lessing’s focus on social and emotional outcasts can be read as an answer to Virginia Woolf’s observations in “On Being Ill” — namely, that fiction fails to center on characters who are ill, choosing instead to use them as mere foils or counterpoints (Dickens’s Miss Havisham from Great Expectations comes to mind immediately as an example of this). Woolf believes that fiction has the power to shift the normative terrain on this point: to insist that characters who are ill, in whatever capacity, are valid and viable subjects in their own right. Indeed, Lessing’s deep focus on such characters as well as societal pathologies, tendencies, and how environment affects individuals’ psychological make-ups echo quite sonorously with Woolf’s call to fictionalize illness in literature — and, more importantly, for literature’s capacity to render illness in sympathetic rather than in pathological, galvanizing terms.
In her work of the 1960s and 1970s especially, one finds Lessing’s novels populated with an almost total saturation with such characters. There is the now classic and much anthologized short story “To Room Nineteen” which deals with a woman’s breakdown after seeking love outside the fetters of marriage and traditional domestic spaces. There is the unnamed narrator’s unasked-for “survival” in a futuristic world of violence not wholly unlike our own in The Memoirs of a Survivor, a world from which she longs to escape in scenes of risk, danger and fantasy that border on psychosis, despite the fact that being entrusted with the care of a child who is not her own in some way tethers her to a reality she can no longer accept as her own. There is a professor’s mental breakdown as he makes an intellectual pilgrimage in the bizarre psychological landscapes sketched in Briefing for a Descent into Hell. There is, obviously, Anna Wulf’s fracturing of identity in the massive, wonderful, and still relevant Golden Notebook, a novel that now begs to be read in the light of our world of social media and technological advances — advances that have all but turned us into cyborgs, without a concrete sense of self apart from where different “selves” of ours have had to be compartmentalized in order to tackle the demands of everyday existence. And, lastly, despite numerous other examples in Lessing’s later work, there are the endearingly but not unproblematically political squatters in The Good Terrorist and the child Ben — an Other if ever there was one — in The Fifth Child; and also his continued adventures in a world that labels him an aberration in Ben in the World.
[As I Lay Dying seems an apt title to read beside your bedside in the evenings, listening to the lull of the machines that monitor your vital signs, the sound of an unseen bag squeezed — a pop like a condom breaking in pitch-dark — injecting solution into your swollen veins.
Because I am sitting here with you dying, after all. Language has always forsaken us, as has knowledge. Do I know you? Do you know me? You know my presence, my smell, as if in an animal sense, something primal in you still despite the lure of loam.
But do you see me sitting here broken because you are dying, unable to form words with my lolling tongue?
Faulkner gets it right:
I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying top
say at…I knew that that word [love] was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack.
I do not trust words, especially the one I must say before it is too late.
Eliot soothes, unsettles, wounds. I dip into him at random, but steer clear of the Four Quartets. You are no one’s godhead.
And then I realize that As I Lay Dying is an attempt to fathom you, your experience — empathically not mine. I recall the “I, I, I, I, I”of Lessing’s Golden Notebook, and how Anna “began to feel as if the word I was being shot at [her] like bullets from a machine gun”; I remember how I slept for days after finishing the last pages and woke up feeling as if I had shed layers of skin, snakelike, brittle no more.
I begin The Diaries of Jane Somers, forcing myself to continue among the snap and the hiss, the frail intake of breath; I force myself to read even though it means living with my skin exposed daily to the elements. I open myself to death to try to find you somewhere. Somehow.]
Here, in The Diaries, Lessing divides her narrative into two long novellas. The impetus for Jane — known familiarly as Janna — commencing her diary-writing in the first part, The Diary of a Good Neighbour, is an immense feeling of disconnection stemming from unacknowledged guilt, remorse and shame after the deaths of her husband, Freddie, and her mother, both from cancer: “I have my diary here in front of me and I am writing in it, and it is as if there is no substance in me, I am empty, as if something has been taken away.”
[They take his untouched dinner away; he murmurs something inaudible, but I take this to mean he is dissatisfied with his meal. “Is there nothing else you can give him?” I ask an attending aide; “he hasn’t eaten all day.” “Doctor’s orders,” she says briskly, turning her hospital-issued blue back to me as she skips gaily down the corridor.]
As fashion editor of women’s magazine Lilith, Janna is all exterior: her clothing is made to fit; her flat is stylishly furnished; her hair is always the right color and perfectly trimmed. But beneath this facade of ostensible perfection is a lack of emotional connection with others. This facade is shattered one day by a chance encounter with an elderly woman, Maud, whom Janna helps at the shops — not realizing that Maud will consume her entire emotional life from this moment forward.
Perhaps more importantly, despite the arguments, the disappointments, and the heartache Janna receives from her friendship with the old and dying Maud, is this intense desire for a connection, a need for sorority — Forster’s “Only connect” — also shared by Maud in her singular state of loneliness.
Good Neighbours do indeed exist, at least at the level of governmental assistance — home help, Meals on Wheels, and so on — but Janna takes it upon herself to care for Maud, adding this responsibility on to her already hectic schedule at Lilith. In doing so, Janna is forced into contact with other elderly women in various stages of preparing for death; indeed, all these women demonstrate the same lack of connection, sense of isolation, and existential alienation from the world around them that first draws Janna into Maud’s world, magnetized, because it is so uncannily her own. By focusing on the elderly, much as Woolf desires novelists to center on characters who are marginalized in and by narrative, Lessing addresses our own fears of morality that all too often cause us to recoil from the thought of death itself, let alone its constant hovering presence around those whom we love: “The very old are too frightening, too much of a threat, we can’t stand it, mementoes mori, one and all.”
[I look at him; he looks at me, too, but he does not know who I am.
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
Already he has called me by several names, none of which are my own; he has even called me the name of my ex-partner, the one whom M. calls “the big ex” after Lacan’s big Other. I wonder if this is a desire, or a preference?
Am I frightened because of what you represent — memento mori, that I, too, must die — or am I terrified because I do not know exactly who is dying just as you cannot know who is grieving, in this body so alien to me, in a room palsied by such charades of repentance?]
Janna is a stoical presence for Maud: she listens to the older woman’s stories about life during “the Great War,” the First World War; she cleans up Maud’s commode, a chore Janna, being always so well-coiffed, has never undertaken before; she buys Maud cigarettes and tea and necessary household items. But what Maud requires most of all is someone to whom she can speak, to whom she can tell the stories that are housed within her, bursting for lack of release — stories that should be carried on rather than buried with her when her time comes.
To a degree, the relationship between Janna and Maud is one based as much on symbiosis as it is on narcissism, but, Lessing suggests, isn’t that true of all relationships?
I told Richard about Maudie. It was difficult, because I had this strong sense of her, that
awkward old woman, and how we were so involved, she and I, how —and here is the word
again —I loved her; and yet the words I had to use seemed so inappropriate, did not
convey anything. [So] I said that I had met this old woman, she was in need of help, I
offered it, got in deeper than I had meant, and had ended by being something not far off a
daughter to her, for a long time — years.
Maud as well as Annie, another elderly woman for whom Janna cares (and who figures more prominently in the second novella, If the Old Could…), are as reliant on her as she is on them:
Once I was so terrified of old age, of death, that I refused to let myself see old people in
the streets — they did not exist for me. Now, I sit for hours in that ward and watch and
marvel and wonder and admire.
[A rare moment of lucidity:
“The obituaries were my favorite part of the paper. Nowadays you all have your machines and devices; no one will know when I am gone.”
But I will. I will. I sit here waiting for it: the proverbial chess game with a man cloaked in a black cape, only I will be playing with someone else’s fate at stake, not my own.
Immutable as stone, and just as quiet.]
As Janna becomes more enmeshed in her relationships with the elderly women, particularly Maud and Annie, she realizes that hitherto she had thought that she had lacked nothing, was self-reliant, and did not require connections with others — but this has now obviously changed. This shift causes a vast psychological conflict for Janna, one with which Lessing deals skillfully and carefully. The underlying complicity involved in preparing someone to greet death, especially at the sociocultural level, is something Lessing examines in depth:
Annie, I know, is going to die of rage…And the rage is fed every day by us, by “them,”
who will drop in and out, with our smiling, lying faces; the faces of good friends, who will
leave two containers of food, wash her, sweep her floor, made her a cup of tea, but who —
now it has come to the point—fade out, start talking of a Home. “A home! But I have a
There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home.
The second novella, If the Old Could…, sees Janna continue her diary-writing, but the temporal scene has altered, as has her subjective viewpoint — not only of those in need of assistance or connection, but on her own questionable and often intrusive status as a bourgeoisie in 1980s London. Her niece, Kate, literally throws herself into Janna’s life, and, in this section, Lessing handles the myriad issues with which Janna deals (and yet issues which are necessary in that they force her to grow, adapt, expand) in deftly executed prose. There are repetitive entries wherein Janna records her life at Lilith; there are grocery list sorts of entries that see her visiting Annie, remembering to bring items that the Home Help have all too often failed to remember to provide. And there is a new love interest in Janna’s life, an experience she — having just reached the mark of half-a-century — did not expect, especially not in the form of a married man.
[Is there any way of still speaking to you, of still reaching you, when you are like this?
In films, there are those moments just before death: the protagonist whispers “I love you” into receptive ears; a smile blooms over a yellowed, stiff face; music come on from nowhere — a cacophony of futile piano plucks.
I cannot envision such a scene with you.
My husk, my shadow on the wall, I hope, says all that I cannot.]
What really drives Lessing’s novelistic gift home in the second section of The Diaries is how much she is juggling; all the same, the reader is never left feeling that he or she is out of hands that can manage all of the narrative balls and threads that have been thrown into the air. Lessing builds this section slowly, in effect rehabilitating Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in a new London, in a new era, and with a new kind of mental illness circling throughout the text like Woolf’s moth: something not to be forgotten, something that can scarcely be reckoned with. The juxtaposition of Janna’s niece Kate’s mental illness with aging and the marginalized status ascribed to the elderly; the encroaching violence (and yet oddly encompassing) mentalities of the squatters; the ways in which Janna is pulled this way and that by her work, by those with whom she socializes, by her lover Richard, and by Annie, whose care she is still overseeing… all of these eventually coalesce and converge in a way that only Lessing can manage.
The old can and often can do better than we can: this seems to be Lessing’s main argument. They cling to life with a tenacity those who are younger and healthier do not yet comprehend, preferring to remain unconscious about all matters to do with death and dying:
Why is it so hard to die? Is it legitimate to wonder that? Useful? Oh, it is hard, hard, hard
to die, the body doesn’t want to let go. There’s a struggle going on, it’s a battlefield.
[As I leave each evening before visiting hours end, I make sure that I am alone.
This is our battlefield.
I make sure that no one can see or hear or sense my presence — least of all my father. I lean over his skeletal body, his emaciated face; I do not recognize him at all, and yet he is, and always has been, who he is. I press his bony hand between mine without exerting any pressure: a patient etherized upon a table.
Is touch, unnoticed and unasked-for, enough?
Your wars shall become mine, in time.]
How do we learn from elderly people whose families have left them to nursing homes or to governmental assistance programs, families who have effectively washed their hands clean once the first signs of aging transformed their once-familiar relation into a total stranger? Who befriends these strangers, and what sorts of mirrored needs must they have in order to align themselves with these outsiders?
If nothing lasts, what do we — what does Janna? what do I? — take away from an inescapably increasing selfishness: it is about my pain watching you die, not about the pain you experience as your body degenerates, your organs fail, your gasps become tiny, arachnid miracles because they are so few and far between?
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Perhaps we are only the sum total of our intimate relations with others in a world that would have us ignore, condemn, and even relegate those who are dying — those imbued with the most history, the most wisdom, the most courage — to homes with improper care, overseen by those who view them as nothing but numbers on case files, surely not human beings in as much need of compassion and solace as the rest of us.
Can we morph this chasm between us and the dying into respect, compassion? What song has your life been singing to me forever, and to which I have been too insensate to listen when there was still time?
Do you think that you will sing to me? Still?
If I have the courage to speak to you before the song stops, I will have Janna to thank for it all.
About the Author:
K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Quarterly Conversation, 3:AM Magazine, The Millions, Music & Literature, Numéro Cinq, Bookslut and other venues. He can be found on Twitter @proustitute.