Our lives are governed by social conventions that are almost inescapable if we wish to have meaningful relationships with the people around us: marriage, language, law, family, class, money. Indeed, to the social contract theorist, our very civilization depends on the mutual adoption of these laws. But what happens when these conventions are rejected? What happens when someone dares to be different, to be a Raskolnikov and take an axe to convention's head? In the political sphere, we get revolution, terrorism, even civil war; in the aesthetic sphere, we get stylistic innovation, new genres (and thus the creation of new conventions), quite often classic art. Doris Lessing's 1973 novel, The Summer Before the Dark, is the story of such conventions, but on a more personal level - in the domestic sphere, the familial province of upper middle-class London. It is the story of Kate Brown and her transcendence of these conditions, of her awareness of how she has allowed them to define her, and of her burgeoning social subversion in a time and a place where simply to question was itself unconventional.
Kate is haunted by a vaporous family of four children and a consultant neurosurgeon husband. So sketchy and minor are these characters that if they were needed for anything more than they give to the novel, they could not bear the load. They seem to exist for only two reasons: to define Kate by their presence (as the negative space about the portrait of a lady) and thus their absence, and to bestow upon her her roles for the novel: mothers, by definition, must have children, as wives must husbands. Though unemployed, her days are filled with the duties of mother and housekeeper: cooking cleaning listening consoling nursing; as often diplomatic as they are simply domestic.
The novel, having thus constructed her milieu, then flings Kate's family to separate parts of the world as they all take their own summer holiday, leaving Kate alone. Instead of sitting idly at home, Kate, a fluent Lusophone, takes a translating job with Global Foods, a company "whose decisions are of importance to people hauling sacks of coffee on a hillside thousands of miles away." Promoted to administrative duties (a position that draws on her domestic organizational skills), Kate ends up in conservative Istanbul, where she meets a wandering Jeffrey, a young man with whom she decides to have an affair - something her (relatively) open marriage allows. They travel to Spain where Spanish social conventions envelope them like a flexible grammar, as is visible in this finely wrought passage:
"...there are conventions in love, and one is that this particular sub-classification - older woman, younger man - should be desperate and romantic. Or at least tenderly painful. Perhaps - so these unwritten but tyrannical values of the emotional code suggest - a passionate anguish can be the only justification for this relationship, which is socially so sterile. Could it be tolerated at all in this form, which was almost casual, positively humorous - as if these two were laughing at themselves? They were indifferent to each other? Surely not! For their propriety was due to much more than good manners - so decided these experts, whose eyes were underlined with the experiences of a dozen summers, enabling them to flick a glance over such a couple just once, taking in details of class, sexual temperature, money."
But Jeffrey soon tires of the "red-hot coast during the months of bacchanalia" and, having been there before, promises to show Kate the 'real,' central Spain. Despite falling ill, they continue through oppressive heat until Jeffrey's weakness forces them to stop and seek medical aid. Kate leaves him in that small Spanish village and returns to London, taking a hotel room because the Brown family decided to let their home out rather than leave it vacant for some few months. It becomes clear upon arriving in London that she, too, has taken ill. She descends into a feverish delirium that burns away the last vestiges of Mrs. Michael Brown and, once weathered, allows her a clear view of herself, naked under the clear, unfiltered light of no particular social lens. Here we have reached the middle of the novel, the fulcrum of its story, and its best scene.
In an interview given just before the publication of The Summer Before the Dark with Joyce Carol Oates, Lessing said that she has always been interested in women who define themselves by their marriage, as Kate does. It is a small step to make of this particular something more universal: a person's defining themselves by any social convention. It is the roles we play that give us a sense of self; it is what we see reflected back from the person with whom we are speaking that reveals to us our own shape. In the different spheres of society we know (or come to learn) what is expected of us. In the economic sphere, we sing the buyer-seller duet; in marriage, husband-wife; in family, parent-child; in art performer-spectator. In and out of these bubbles of interaction we move as between rooms without doors: effortlessly. It is with gentle subtlety that Lessing reveals her conditional life to Kate, as, gradually, more and more light is revealed to one whose eyes have been closed for a long time.
It is in language that Kate's quest for meaning begins - quite literally. From her role as translator for Global Food to her time in Spain, a nation with a language so close to Portuguese that for Kate to hear it was like trying to look through "windows paned with sheets of quartz instead of glass." The seeming evanescence and comedy of meaning is felt not only by Kate, but by her neighbour and friend, the adulterous Mary Finchley.
"'She said', said Kate, 'that Eileen's problems would be easily supported and solved in a well-structured family unit like ours.' Mary suddenly let out a snort of laughter. 'A unit,' said Kate. 'Yes, a unit she said we were. Not only that, a nuclear unit.' They laughed. They began to roar, to peal, to yell with laughter, Mary rolling on her bed, Kate in her chair. Other occasions come to mind, each bringing forth its crop of irresistible words. At each new one, they rolled and yelled afresh. They were deliberately searching for the words that could release the laughter, and soon quite ordinary words were doing this, not the jargon like parent-and-child confrontation, syndrome, stress situation, but even "sound," "ordered," "healthy," and so on. And then they were shrieking at "family," and "home" and "mother" and "father.""
Later we are told that it was "Kate's guilt...that ended [the] occasion...", as though the words themselves are sacrosanct, as though to make light of them is to endanger the "foundations" of one's "identity," to shake one's trusses. Kate is becoming aware that words are representations of things and not the things themselves and her guilty reaction is generated probably as much by anxiety for the wider implication of this as it is by the alcohol she is drinking: if a thing is represented by words and pictures and an agreed meaning, what represents Kate? The realization she comes to is the same that not a few married woman come to: she is defined by her marriage, by her role as "wife," by her role as "mother." It is this idea that expands to create the theme of Lessing's novel and is wonderfully and ironically conveyed (as, with a theme such as this, it must be) in the central and best scene: when Kate goes to the theater. Feeling that an evening out is just the thing to accelerate her convalescence, Kate has the hotel reception book a ticket for a play. ("She did not care which play. She wanted to see people dressed up in personalities not their own, that was all.")
Here, at this play about a woman whose marriage suffers from the stifling ennui of convention, and whom, after a brief interlude of adultery, returns to her bucolic, bathetic life - here, Kate goes to pieces. "So very Russian," an audience member remarks - and indeed, Kate's eccentric behavior seems at times (fittingly for a play by Turgenev) to channel that of Dostoyevsky's Fyodor Karamazov or even his Underground narrator. She curses the actors in one scene and praises them in the next; her behavior, attracting attention for her vocalized thoughts, might be likened to Karamazov's acting the fool both because it is expected of him and because he believes himself to be the better man. However, despite her febrile ramblings, Kate is lucid enough to move beyond the conditioned response of sympathy, the response she gave when she first saw the play four years ago:
"She was thinking that there must be something wrong with the way she was seeing things. For although she was so close in to the stage, she seemed a very long way off; and she kept trying to shake herself into a different kind of attention, or participation, for she could remember her usual mood at the theatre, and knew that her present condition was far from that. It really did seem as if she looked at the creatures on the stage through a telescope, so extraordinary and distant did they seem from her in their distance from reality. Yet the last time she had sat here she had said of Natalia Petrovna, that's me. She had thought, What person, anywhere in the world, would not recognise her at once?"
"...and very soon everyone stood up to applaud and applaud, in the way we use in our theatre, as if the need of the actors to be approved, the need of the watchers to approve, feeds an action...which is a comment quite separate and apart from anything that has happened on stage, nothing to do with whether the events shown are ugly, beautiful, admirable or whatnot, but is more of a ritual confirmation of self-approval on the part of the audience and the actors for going to the theatre and for acting in it. A fantastic ritual. A fantastic business altogether."
It is a paradox of fiction, in particular of literary realism, that in its realistic depiction of human emotions and behavior we achieve respite from the barrage of the staged modern life. In his story "Zetland: By a Character Witness," Saul Bellow has his eponymous protagonist recommend Moby-Dick to his wife:
"...it [Moby-Dick] takes you out of the universe of mental projections or insulating fictions of ordinary social practice or psychological habit. It gives you elemental liberty. What really frees you from these insulating social and psychological fictions is the other fiction, of art. There really is no human life without this poetry."
In The Summer Before the Dark, Lessing has given us a portrait of a lady who becomes aware of her social conditioning but chooses to return to the life she lived before her enlightenment, suggesting not that it is the rejection and subversion of social convention that is the first step towards identity and self-knowledge, but simply the awareness of these civil codes and the refusal to sit so comfortably in their mold.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © David J. Single, 2010 [http://davidjsingle.wordpress.com]show more
by David Single