• CommentAuthorphilippa
    • CommentTimeNov 22nd 2008
    I'm fascinated (and was in my previous readings of the novel) by all the critiques of what the Communist Party does to its members -- the ugly tale Lessing tells about the plight of Jack Briggs, the writer, stabbed in the back by those he thought were his allies (pp. 153-4); Anna's disgust at herself and her politics, the pointless bit endless activity of the Party group in Africa, constantly meeting to discuss fruitless strategies. At the same time, though, it sometimes seems to me that the relations and the activity among the Communist groups in the novel is not so very different from the way that Lessing depicts love affairs. In both instances, there is an intensity, a kind of outside knowledge of the destructive capabilities of what is happening but an inability to close it down, and a relentlessness of often frenetic activity.
    Oh yes, Philippa, this is very helpfuL I hadn't formulated the parallels between the Communist group and the love affairs that way, but you're quite right. Lessing seems tremendously critical of all human relationships; and the relationships between human beings and their ideals are as destructive as those between people. I'm trying to think of a single relationship so far in the novel which isn't a source of at least as much distress as happiness, isn't at least as destructive as constructive. Ella's love affair with Paul, the real George's love affair with Jackson's wife, Ted's interest in Stanley, MaryRose's relationship with her brother... all these cause tremendous misery and loss of self. Only June seems to blossom in a relationship. Actually, in Free Women, only Tommy (so far) seems able to have a loving relationship - with his parents - without being crushed by it. Perhaps Lessing has some hope for the younger generation.
    I wonder also - and forgive me, this is only half thought-out - whether there's a parallel between the structure of the novel, the stories nested in stories nested in stories, and the structure of 'the Party' as Lessing describes it. The novel's structure seems to me to be a challenge to the reader at first to "seek the truth". As we read, we can't help asking ourselves which of these stories is the 'real one'? 'Free Women'? Anna's novel Frontiers of War? Her novel about Ella? Ella's novel about suicide? Are these stories becoming truer as we get further into them, or less true? Or is there really any 'truth' at all?

    The description of the way the Communists deceive themselves, pretending that they can win an election which is hopeless, looking towards the Soviet Union for guidance although they know it's corrupt, rejecting their friends if they've been rejected by the Party seems to have some parallels. Where is the 'true' Communism? Is it in the little group of cynic-idealists at Mashopi? Is it in the wider circle of the Party? Is it in the Soviet Union? Does it exist at all?
    • CommentAuthorphilippa
    • CommentTimeNov 23rd 2008
    Naomi, I love your reading here! The "Party" folk tell stories within stories within stories and Lessing skewers them for it over and over. The story of "Comrade Ted' and his meeting with Stalin made me wince, and it'd be easy to see this as a clumsy parody -- but it really isn't. This kind of 'socialist realism' was all too common, and it was more than just a clumsy Soviet aesthetic. It emerged at all levels of Party cultural activity. Oh dear...
    And of course, the "Comrade Ted" story is also a kind of love story, the kindly "Uncle Joe" with the twinkle in his eye, calming everyone's fears, teaching respect, and being adored and revered for his actions. It may not be sexual love, but then again, the whole issue of sexual love in the fledgling Soviet Union was a really tricky business anyway -- Lenin and the "soiled" utensil (I think it was a drinking glass...).
    At any rate, it seems to me that in Lessing's hands stories told and written from within the CP get further from, rather than closer to, "the truth" -- thus we have a worker's paradise headed by a benevolent Joseph Stalin. As if.
    • CommentAuthorlaura
    • CommentTimeNov 24th 2008
    It always was a critique of Marxism that it lacked a theory of subjectivity, and the various CPs carried forward that founding flaw at every level of their organizations. I imagine that by trying to subjectivize party work and the political questions of the day--by writing about organizing work and personal questions in the same paragraphs, by making sexuality and male-female issues inseparable from the political project--Lessing's staging a bit of a one-woman rebellion against left political dogmas of the time.
    • CommentAuthorSusannah
    • CommentTimeNov 24th 2008
    Is Anna being disingenuous when she describes political activism to Tommy as an "act of faith," an inevitable set of "painful lurch[es] forward" against the forces of cruelty and inhumanity "because every time, the dream gets stronger?" [p 221 online] It's treacly and Anna mocks herself, yet "she believed in what she had said."
    It might just be because of my background, but Lessing's portrayal of communism seems to me more and more reminiscent of religion. Having just got to the Comrade Ted story, Philippa, it reminds me very much of some 'novels' on sale in ultra-Orthodox bookshops in Golders Green. They're novels only in so far as the events in them didn't actually happen: actually they're ideological texts, stories about saintly Rabbis doing good works or equally saintly women working uncomplainingly while their husbands study Talmud. (I'm sure there are other similar examples in other religions, but this happens to be the world I'm familiar with.)

    The Comrade Ted story (UK page 73) is fascinating also because it starts off in the third person and suddenly moves to the first person. Rather like TGN itself. The shifts between "this is fiction" and "this is first person narrative" seem to be signposting something here: not just the way that novels are constructed out of experience but also perhaps something going in the other direction, how fictionalising is a way of... perhaps convincing ourselves of something? Why does Comrade Ted start his story in the third person and then move to the first person? Is it because the third person seems more authoritative? By distancing himself from the narrative, is he trying to be his own ally: bringing his own experience in to support his beliefs?

    Sorry, this is a bit rambly, I'm sort of thinking it out as I go. It seems significant to me that he moves from third to first person at the point where he mentions his doubts. "I must confess... that I had one bad half moment, remembering all the stories... in the capitalist press". There's something almost split-personality about this. At the moment that he experiences cognitive dissonance: fear about the Soviet Union which he's trying to believe is Good and Pure, at that moment he has to switch to another personality to avoid acknowledging something fearful. Are Anna's swift changes from one notebook to the next, from one nested story to the next, a way to avoid similar revelations? Is the Party so constructed, layer upon layer, to enable the blame for any 'badness' in the Party to be located elsewhere?
    Sorry, Comrade Ted is of course UK page 273, not 73.
    • CommentAuthorlaura
    • CommentTimeNov 30th 2008
    On 218 [UK] where she talks about the CP in the context of other romantic disappointments, she says she swings from fear and hatred to a desperate clinging to it, as if it were a lover. There's also a connection in the way both keep getting revealed as frauds: the Uncle Ted story is a placeholder for Stalin's fraudulence, similar to the the way Paul is revealed as a fraud in Ella's story, among various other failed romantic ideals.