No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, May 18, 2008

#23: The Cleft -- Doris Lessing

The Cleft, Doris Lessing's latest novel, is a primeval fable about the origins of the sexes. The introduction gives an idea of what to expect: I had been wondering if men were not a younger type, a junior variation. They lack the solidity of women, who seem to have been endowed with a natural harmony with the ways of the world. I think most people would agree with this ...

Originally there were only women, the Old Shes, lolling around like mermaids (or like something from Elaine Morgan's The Descent of Women) half in, half out of the water. All babies were girls, until the frightful day when one woman -- impregnated as usual by 'a fertlising wind, or a wave' -- produced a Monstrosity. It (he) was not the first. Eventually it became common practice for the Monsters, or Squirts, to be exiled (with the help of some convenient giant eagles) to an inland valley. And all might have remained thus if not for an enterprising female who visited the valley and began the process of sexual reproduction. (I simplify, a bit.)

The story of the Old Shes, the very first sexual revolution, and the invention of housework (no, really) is wrapped in the story of a nameless Roman historian (male, of course) who's inherited a sheaf of documents purporting to be the oldest history of all. He provides context, and a certain perspective, though he's not without his own bias. Women, in his opinion, are prone to nagging and talking down to men, and he writes of the furtherance of the human race and the greater value of a pregnant female slave in the same sentence. The historian provides commentary as he recounts the adventures of one Horsa, first male leader -- whose expansionist tendencies indicate that he was, in spirit, a Roman -- and his female counterpart Maronna, who is either indignant or hysterical depending on which history you believe. There's plenty of revisionism going on here, in the historian's assumptions as well as in his account of the original tale.

All well and good. There's plenty of nice rich symbolism -- eagles! a rock with a huge, eponymous Cleft! an island that may be a peninsula! -- and some sense of character, even with the most ancient of archetypes. But this novel could have been so much more: there are passages which seem poorly edited, and loose threads that surely could have been tied off. The climax of the book is, well, anticlimactic. And The Cleft only escapes being labelled (by me at least) as misogynist because it's negative about everyone. True, the 'Old Shes' are barely human, rolling in layers of blubber, slow-witted, semi-aquatic and prone to murdering baby Monsters: but the Monsters are no better, being murderous, sex-crazed, unable to plan ahead, reckless and messy. (Their rude shelters are full of debris: luckily, when the women visit the valley, they "[tear] branches from the trees and used them as brooms," thus inventing housework and the battle of the sexes in one fell swoop. Oh, for ... no.)

There are issues with editing, too: with phrasing, with imagery, and in the absence of any prose that leapt from the page. I'm also suspicious of the distinction that's made -- by the historian -- between Diana and Artemis (the latter being the Greek original of the former, I believe) and wonder if there's some confusion between Artemis and Aphrodite. The Roman statue of 'Artemis' calls sea breezes and the seashore to the historian's mind, and she's smiling: it's Diana who gets the bow of gilded wood and the 'frisking skirt'.

I'm puzzled by the ecstatic reviews this novel has garnered. It is certainly not the height of Lessing's literary achievement: if it had been written by an unknown writer, I'd have been surprised if it saw print. And I'd hate to think that readers unfamiliar with Lessing's work would take this as representative.

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