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When I get off the bus I realize that thinking about the coming fight has over-excited me: the essence of a successful battle with Comrade Butte is that one has to remain calm. I am not calm; and besides my lower stomach is painful. And I am half an hour late. I am always careful to be on time, to work the usual hours, because I am unpaid, and I don’t want special privileges because of that. (Michael jokes: You’re in the great British tradition of upper-class service to the community, my dear Anna; you work for the Communist Party, unpaid, the way your grandmother would have worked for the starving poor. It’s the kind of joke I make myself; but when Michael makes it it hurts me.) I go at once to the washroom, quickly because I am late, and I examine myself and change the tampon and pour jug after jug of warm water between my thighs to defeat the sour musty smell. Then I scent my thighs and forearms, and remind myself to come down in an hour or two; and I go upstairs to Jack’s office, by-passing my own. Jack is there with John Butte. Jack says: ‘You smell lovely, Anna,’ and at once I feel at ease and able to manage everything. I look at the creaking, grey John Butte, an elderly man with all his juices gone dry, and remember that Jack has told me that in his youth, in the early ‘thirties, he was gay, brilliant, witty. He was a brilliant public speaker; he was in opposition to the then Party officialdom; he was essentially critical and irreverent. And after Jack had told me all this, rather wryly enjoying my disbelief, he handed me a book John Butte wrote twenty years ago, a novel about the French revolution. It was a sparkling, vivid, courageous book. And now I look at him again and think, involuntarily: The real crime of the British Communist Party is the number of marvellous people it has either broken, or turned into dry-as-dust hair-splitting office men, living in a closed group with other communists, and cut off from everything that goes on in their own country. Then the words I use surprise and displease me: the word ‘crime’ is from the communist arsenal, and is meaningless. There’s some kind of social process involved which makes words like ‘crime’ stupid. And as I think this, I feel the birth of a new sort of thought; and I go on to think, clumsily: The Communist Party, like any other institution, continues to exist by a process of absorbing its critics into itself. It either absorbs them or destroys them. I think: I’ve always seen society, societies, organized like this: a ruling section or government with other sections in opposition; the stronger section either ultimately being changed by the opposing section or being supplanted by it. But it’s not like that at all: suddenly I see it differently. No, there’s a group of hardened, fossilized men opposed by fresh young revolutionaries as John Butte once was, forming between them a whole, a balance. And then a group of fossilized hardened men like John Butte, opposed by a group of fresh and lively-minded and critical people. But the core of deadness, of dry thought, could not exist without lively shoots of fresh life, to be turned so fast, in their turn, into dead sapless wood. In other words, I, ‘Comrade Anna’ — and the ironical tone of Comrade Butte’s voice now frightens me when I remember it — keep Comrade Butte in existence, feed him, and in due course will become him.

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  1. Naomi Alderman December 2nd, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    The washing disturbed me here. Partly I think I couldn’t quite imagine how Ella could be pouring “jug after jug of warm water” between her thighs in a washroom in a house/office that wasn’t her own. Was she standing in a tub? Why didn’t she run a bath? How did she get dry afterwards? How is it possible that she could do this “quickly”?

    But the “sour musty smell” also worried me. A woman having her period doesn’t smell so bad that it can be detected by other people. So, is this a feature of postwar Britain? Badly-made tampons and not enough soap? Or is it another example of Anna feeling that she has to erase herself?

    1. Lenelle Moïse December 3rd, 2008 at 1:54 pm

      I think Anna longs to erase her femaleness, Naomi. All those other smells listed on UK p. 304–sex, sweat, skin, shit–are universal human smells. Both men and women release these–and thank goodness! But menstrual blood, which Anna detests, comes from women, exclusively. Homegirl doesn’t want special treatment.

      Jack’s “You smell lovely, Anna” followed by her relaxation really annoyed me. She is so pleased with herself for fooling Jack with the perfume version of a “woman’s smell” which conceals the natural “woman’s smell” of her period.

      Why do some women keep their periods secret from men? When I was an undergrad and budding radical feminist, I challenged myself to discuss my periods with my guy friends. Their shock was often followed by relief. Some had spent entire childhoods with mothers and sisters who kept them in the dark about that good old regular champion of a visitor some call “Aunt Flow.” Why keep something so recurrent so mysterious? How do the secrets women keep from men benefit us?

      1. Naomi Alderman December 3rd, 2008 at 2:44 pm

        Oh god yes. I forget that some women do want to keep their periods secret. There was this horrible ad for compact tampons in the UK a few years ago.

        Woman is having lunch with male friend (maybe boyfriend?). Rummages in her bag for her purse. Tampon (compact one, in bright wrapping of this brand) falls out onto the table.
        Companion: Sweets? I thought you were on a diet.

        Everything about this ad infuriated me. My friends and I used to pause every time it came on, so that at the moment that the woman smiled silently, we’d shout:

        I wish I could remember the brand so I could excite some continuing ire against it.

      2. Lenelle Moïse December 4th, 2008 at 10:39 am

        A sweet!? A diet!? Argh!

  2. Helen Oyeyemi December 7th, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    I don’t think anxiety about smelling bad during your period is necessarily to do with wanting to erase one’s femaleness. It’s true that the mainstream media places a v unsubtle emphasis on women keeping the sight, smell and experience of their time of the month out of their everyday narrative, presenting periods as comically monstrous, like shabby werewolves, and obviously that’s no good for girls. (Naomi I laughed aloud reading about that terrible ad). But I felt closer to Anna reading about her menstrual discomfort - I’m pretty similar, stomach turning at the feeling and smell of bleeding, and I think I feel this somewhat independently of media messages that periods are yucky- I don’t care where the blood’s coming from or wherefore it arrives, whether that’s from my ladyparts, my thumb or my elbow! I think it’s more to do with a sense of being pathetically enfleshed (i hope enfleshed is a word - if not, let’s have corporeal) and spilling out inner juice. It’s probably misguided of Anna to try and smell like the idea of a woman instead of allowing herself to smell like an actual woman, as Naomi says, but surely it’s still possible for Anna to embrace, or at least not renounce her femininity whilst preferring not to smell of sex, sweat, skin &c? I like Lenelle’s point about her not wanting special treatment; I think Anna wants to be a woman on her own terms and in some essential way that can’t be interfered with or condescended to by other people she interacts with socially.

    1. Nona Willis Aronowitz December 9th, 2008 at 3:49 pm

      This just resonates to me as Anna being a private and inward person, and it comes in the package of cleanliness. The reason that she didn’t want her daughter to smell sex (even though she didn’t know what it was) is not necessarily because she wanted to erased her female-ness, but because she wanted to keep her many personas separate from each other. Cleaning herself until Butte tells her she smells lovely is erasing not femininity but rather any context or complication. Putting on a face keeps it simple. And I gotta say, I feel her on that one–whether it be the smell of blood or sex, sometimes you want to keep the more carnal part of you private life from people who depend on your stability and stoicism.

      But I agree with Naomi and Lenelle, in that Anna is also absorbing norms of what a woman “should” be (a theme that comes up again and AGAIN).

      Naomi, that commercial is ridic!

      1. Nona Willis Aronowitz December 9th, 2008 at 4:01 pm

        Hmmm…just rethought this after I just posted on UK 301…where I think I’m confusing the two night-and-day spheres of the domestic and the outside world. They can’t even be compared. A “face” is expected in professional settings, whereas this kind of repression in the home is just depressing.

  3. Philippa Levine December 7th, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    I came back to this section after I read the pigeon-shooting scene (UK edition, 367-384) because there, too, the smell of blood is important to the scene. Maryrose complains that the smell of blood will make her sick, and she does so, some few pages after Lessing makes quite sure we know that the group can smell it. On 375 (last line of the page in the UK edition), Lessing has a one-sentence paragraph that reads simply, “There was a smell of blood.” And at 384, “We were slightly sick with the smell of blood.”

    When she’s talking about menstrual blood she does certainly invoke something more gender-specific than is perhaps the case in the later scene, but still, even here the other smells she enumerates are bodily smells rather than specifically female ones. I do think there’s a kind of self-hating gender thing going on, but I suspect blood also occupies a more elemental space in Lessing’s imagination now I’ve read this later scene. It may be that women’s regular bleeding for her yokes them to the unfettered nature that’s conjured in the shooting scene, but I am now wondering if it isn’t a lot more complicated than the fear of being “smelled out”.