Doris Lessing and A Woman on a Roof

Doris Lessing’s short story “A Woman on a Roof” transports us to a less complex time, to the early 1960s, when the roles of men and women were clearer, before the Sexual Revolution and feminism, to a time when “bourgeois” morality and patriarchy ruled.

Doris Lessing

Yet this deceptively simple story doesn’t seem dated, even nearly some 45 years later, in an age of “Sex and the City” reruns and “Girls Gone Wild” videos, because in it Lessing surfaces some elemental questions about male aggression and female sexuality, and about class and power.

“A Woman on a Roof” relies on a minimalist plot. “It was during the week of hot sun, that June,” Lessing begins, and tells a story of three London workmen—Harry, Stanley and Tom—who are replacing gutters on a roof, one with “a fine view across several acres of roof.” When they spot an attractive woman sun-bathing who “wore a red scarf tied around her breasts and brief red bikini pants,” they are annoyed and yet excited. Stanley, recently married, and Tom, seventeen, keep walking over to stare at her, to the dismay of Harry, who is older and responsible for the crew completing the gutter job.

The next morning when they return she is “already there, face down, arms spread out, naked except for the little red pants” and when Stanley whistles, she picks up her head, looks straight at him, and drops her head. This is enough to spark their hostility:

At this gesture of indifference, they all three, Stanley, Tom and old Harry, let out whistles and yells. Harry was doing it in parody of the younger men, making fun of them, but he was also angry. They were all angry because of her utter indifference to the three men watching her.

“Bitch,” said Stanley.

“She should ask us over,” said Tom, snickering.

Lessing has set her scene carefully: the men are both attracted and repelled by the woman (that peculiar English mixture of randiness and Puritanism) and, in turn, they are angered by the woman’s indifference. But how can we blame her? She wants to sun bathe in peace, to be left alone, and she has done nothing provocative…except for who she is and what she looks like. The men are stung at being dismissed by a desirable young woman—her indifference hits at their male pride, leaving them feeling powerless. As this is England, there is also the class question: is she ignoring them because they are working men? Does her indifference suggest that they are so far below her on the social ladder that they no longer count as male in her eyes?

(What is it about the 1960s and swimsuits and class envy? Lessing’s unnamed female protagonist wears the equivalent of a bikini; John Updike’s upper-class summer girls invade the local grocery store wearing scanty swimsuits in his classic “A&P.” It seems the bikini represents a challenge to working-class propriety, and the unattainable long-legged females who wear them can do so because their money and privilege allows them to ignore the rules.)

The roofers in “A Woman on a Roof” won’t leave the situation alone: they have been diminished and they resent it. Later, Stanley and Tom scramble across several rooftops so they can move closer to the woman. They find her reading a book and smoking and, once again, feel compelled to bother her.

They whistled. She looked up at them, cool and remote, then went on reading. Again, they were furious. Or rather, Stanley was. His sun-heated face was screwed into a rage as he whistled again and again, trying to make her look up. Young Tom stopped whistling. He stood beside Stanley, excited, grinning, but he felt as if he were saying to the woman: Don’t associate me with him, for his grin was apologetic.

The harassment continues over the next few days (even when she has moved her sunning spot to avoid them) until Harry “to save some sort of scandal or real trouble over the woman” pulls the crew off the roof. Tom, who has been fantasizing about the woman, convinced that he has acted to protect her from Stanley, sneaks over to see her, and is rebuffed. She tells him to go away and “in a low reasonable voice, where anger was kept in check, though with difficulty” she adds “if you get a kick out of seeing women in bikinis, why don’t you take a ride a sixpenny ride to the Lido? You’d see dozens of them, without all this mountaineering.”

It is a few minutes before Tom accepts that his fantasy-lover is just that—a fantasy. Lessing tells us:

Resentment of her at last moved him off and away down the ladder, through the building, into the street. He got drunk then, in hatred of her.

Next day when he woke the sky was gray. He looked at the wet gray and thought, vicious: Well, that’s fixed you, hasn’t it now? That’s fixed you good and proper.

The story concludes with the workmen returning to finish their work on “damp drizzling roofs where no one came to sun themselves.” There is something raw and disturbing about the whole thing. This innocent woman, trying only to enjoy the summer weather, has become the target of abuse and hostility. The men see her as a “bitch,” and Tom, who has dreamed about her, now hates her.

At least Lessing allows her nameless character to have a voice, to say “go away,” to express some of her anger at being hassled, but this is England in 1963 (the same year Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published) and that is probably as much as we can expect.

The story, seen from a feminist perspective, illuminates how easily men can be threatened by female independence (especially in sexual matters) and how they can respond violently when their sense of control and mastery is challenged. We are not far from the territory of degradation and rape, here, where the motivation is power, not sex.

What makes the story hold up well, even today, is that while much has changed, much has not. Even with the greater sexual openness of the past 45 years, and the advent of “sexual liberation,” even with more gender equality and autonomy for women, male sexual aggression—often expressed in ugly terms—has not disappeared from the scene.

Some of the work done in evolutionary psychology over the past few decades has helped explain the tension between male and female conceptions of sexuality, and why the hard-coded behavior of men has proven hard to change. (Sexual harassment remains a continuing problem, even in the most seemingly “progressive” institutions—universities, hospitals, the United Nations—despite years of consciousness-raising and training.)

Yet things are different. “You’ve come a long way, baby” is more than an advertising slogan; there has been a social revolution in the status of women since 1963. In most Western societies a woman is expected to control her own sexual destiny; barriers to employment and schooling have been dropped; domestic violence is now prosecuted; sexual harassment is frowned upon; male supremacy is considered an outmoded concept.

Certainly a woman sunning herself on a London roof today could encounter male hostility, but I’d like to think that the underlying dynamics have changed somewhat from Lessing’s time. The woman could, and would, respond more assertively, perhaps matching any verbal aggression with some choice words of her own. The men might very well back off, letting her enjoy the sunny weather in peace. Small beer, the English might say, as far as progress goes, but progress nonetheless.

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

The link for the reviewed story: Doris Lessing: “Stories”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Babylon Revisited and The Lost Decade: damaged men and fractured pasts

Two F. Scott Fitzgerald stories—”Babylon Revisited” and “The Lost Decade”—have always been favorites of mine, and I think it is, partially, because they make me think about the grandfather I never knew, and some of the “what-ifs” in my family history.

These stories focus on damaged men, hard drinkers with Social Register credentials, men struggling with the consequences of their fractured pasts. My grandfather, Carl Stanley Flanders, could have been one of Fitzgerald’s damaged men. A larger-than-life figure who played football for Walter Camp at Yale, Carl Flanders coached at the Carlisle Indian School just prior to Jim Thorpe’s arrival, and made a fortune as a lawyer and investor—but Carl was a binge alcoholic who squandered his gifts with his drinking. His immune system ravaged, the “Big Swede,” as he was nicknamed, died of pneumonia in March, 1936.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Over the years I have wondered about the “boom-and-bust” arc of my grandfather’s life; unlike the upper-class protagonists in Fitzgerald’s stories, Louis Trimble and Charlie Wales, my grandfather missed his chance at setting things right.

In “The Lost Decade,” Fitzgerald introduces us to Louis Trimble, a man who wanders around New York City, entranced by its simple wonders. “I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of,” he explains. Trimble is no stranger to the city; a native, he hasn’t left its environs in ten years—in fact, he has designed one of its premier buildings. But Trimble has been oblivious to its sights and sounds because he’s been “every-which-way drunk” for a “Lost Decade,” and has now only just emerged from his alcoholic stupor to begin to appreciate New York anew, aware of what he has lost and eager to reexperience life.

In “Babylon Revisited,” the setting is foreign, Paris (a Babylon of sorts during the Roaring Twenties), but the themes are similar. Charlie Wales visits the City of Light in hopes of gaining custody of his nine-year-old daughter, Honoria, and bringing her back with him to Prague. It has been three years since his wife Helen’s death (from “heart trouble”), and his own institutionalization for alcoholism, following a wild period of Jazz Age partying and dissipation with the American expats in Paris, and Wales is filled with remorse: “…he suddenly realized the meaning of the word “dissipate”–to dissipate into thin air; to make nothing out of something.” Like Trimble, he understands what has been lost can never be fully regained:

“I spoiled this city for myself. I didn’t realize it, but the days came along one after another, and then two years were gone, and everything was gone, and I was gone.”

Honoria lives with her guardian, Wales’ sister-in-law, Marion, and her husband, Lincoln Peters. Marion holds Wales responsible for Helen’s death; she questions whether he has conquered his need to drink. Wales tries to soften her hostility and bitterness by acknowledging the hurt he has caused.

“Family quarrels are bitter things. They don’t go according to any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material…”

In the end, when some of Charlie’s friends from the past surface, drunk and careless, it is too much for Marion; she cannot bring herself to forgive Wales and allow Honoria to go with him to Prague. Yet, we are left with the hope that Charlie and his daughter may be reunited at some point in the future (“He will come back some day; they couldn’t make him pay forever.”) We root for Wales to stay sober—he refuses a second drink at the Ritz bar—and we worry that Wales will backslide, even as he recognizes the stakes involved (“He wasn’t young any more, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself.”). There is a telling moment when the barman, Alix, questions him about the past.

“I heard that you lost a lot in the crash.”
“I did,” and he added grimly, “but I lost everything I wanted in the boom.”
“Selling short.”
“Something like that.”

There is an appealing authenticity to this conversation—it is the way people talk—but Fitzgerald gives us more. Alix thinks Charlie Wales has lost financially in the boom, but it is the loss of his family that is “everything,” and we appreciate the difference. Fitzgerald writes from personal experience: he understands the nastiness in a failing marriage (“…they had senselessly begun to abuse each other’s love, tear it into shreds”); he knows what it is to squander large amounts of money during the “lavish times”; and he has fought the demons of the bottle. Further, Fitzgerald understands, and regrets, the cost of “something like that,” even as he struggles (unsuccessfully in the end) to change his ways.

Whether my grandfather regretted his behavior remains unknowable. His drinking was intermittent: stretches of sobriety (and brilliance and prosperity) interrupted by binges. Those binges led to the end of his first marriage (a cause for scandal in the 1920s) and “splits in the skin” in the fabric of the family. I’m not sure my grandmother ever recovered. Carl Flanders entered into a brief second marriage and had another daughter, a half-sister who my father and his sister never met. He left very little money for his survivors, a rude awakening in the middle of the Great Depression; my father’s college plans were shelved (he landed a spot at the New York Herald-Tribune as a copy-boy through Ogden Reid, a friend of his father’s from college) and his sister, my aunt, quickly married a rich socialite.

What if, like Charlie Wales or Louis Trimble, my grandfather had been able to seek sobriety? What if he had sought to repair the damage from his past? To change? Such questions can not be answered, of course; alcohol addiction remains a difficult disease to manage, let alone master, and it appears that my grandfather was firmly in the grip of the disease. So the “what ifs” remain “what ifs.”

Fitzgerald lost his own battle with alcohol; dying at the age of 44 from a heart attack, the result of years of abuse. At some level, Fitzgerald must have fantasized about becoming a Charlie Wales or a Louis Trimble; it is a case of wishful thinking. Fitzgerald was attracted to the idea of redemption, of making amends, of somehow setting the past right. As a writer, he knew how appealing a story of redemption could be, and he relished telling good stories, even if he couldn’t make reality conform to his imagination.

Never a favorite of literary critics (who are often suspicious of storytellers with a popular touch), Fitzgerald has slowly been winning more respect as a writer: The Great Gatsby has found its way onto several best novels of the 20th century lists. Readers have continued to respond—Fitzgerald’s novels and stories have stayed in print. And other novelists, often the toughest critics, admired Fitzgerald’s smooth economical prose; John O’Hara once wrote to John Steinbeck: “Fitzgerald was a better just plain writer than all of us put together. Just words writing.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Ivan Turgenev’s First Love

Ah, first love!

That crazy, intoxicating feeling of being infatuated by another–totally lost, drawn magnetically to the object of your desire–for the first time.

Trust me, with two sons in college, and a third in high school, I can testify that this primal experience hasn’t changed. The iPod-Facebook generation rides the same emotional roller-coaster as did their mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, when it comes to l’amour.

Who has better captured that heady universal experience–and the dismay and despair when it doesn’t work out–than the great Russian short story writer Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, in his elegant novella, “First Love”?

Turgenev isn’t given his due in today’s literary circles. His detail-laden realism and attention to social class are out of literary favor; moreover, his work is deemed too spare emotionally by some modern critics. Further, Turgenev, like Thackery in “Vanity Fair,” explores with an unblinking scrutiny the importance of class and wealth and ambition, and its hold over humans. As Joseph Finder notes in “Where Have All the Strivers Gone?” in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, it isn’t fashionable to write about the intersection of class and commerce; he argues that perhaps only Tom Wolfe and Jay McInerney “remain defiantly old-school in their portrayal of ambition as a basic aspect of the human character.”

That being said, Turgenev was admired–for good reason–by some pretty damn fine writers, including Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and (perhaps surprising to some), Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway recommended that young writers read all of Turgenev’s work.

Turgenev understood the travails of the human heart–he spent his life in pursuit of a married woman, the then celebrated singer Pauline Garcia-Viardot–and his fiction often provides a window into that secret and guarded space.

“First Love” ostensibly tells the story of a 16-year-old Russian student, Vladimir, who falls hard for the 21-year old Princess Zinaida. Turgenev shows us how Zinaida’s family is clinging to a shabby social respectability; Vladimir’s mother dismisses Zinaida as an “adventuress.” But Vladimir is drawn into the circle of suitors around the young beauty, and, while he is aware he is acting the fool, can not help himself–he becomes obsessed with the girl. Turgenev’s story captures the sway an enchanting young woman full of spirit and life can hold over men; the crazy, intoxicating feeling of being deeply infatuated for the first time; the gut-churning attraction of the unattainable Other.

But first love is not restricted to the very young. We begin the story thinking that we are exploring Vladimir’s coming-of-age initiation into the mysteries of love; we quickly learn that Zinaida and Petr Ivanych, Vladimir’s father, are not immune to the power of love and desire. We watch as, compelled, the pair are pulled by a powerful attraction towards each other. The triangle becomes a complex one: Zinaida wants to treat Vladimir as a younger brother, but she also responds to his resemblance to his father (“‘The same eyes,’ she added, sinking into thought, and she hid her face in her hands.”) Vladimir spends much of the story blind to Petr and Zinaida’s entanglement, and only realizes late on that he is not the only one consumed by passion, his remote and seemingly masterful father is transfixed by it as well.

Turgenev’s appreciation of the transforming power of love is shown when Vladimir witnesses the final encounter between Petr and Zinaida. Turgenev handles the scene deftly; he holds back specifics of their quarrel, but lets us glimpse some of the tragic tug-of-war between the lovers. When Petr slashes at Zinaida’s bare arm with his whip, we recognize his frustration–he lacks the courage to defy social convention–but it is Zinaida’s disturbing reaction that seems compellingly authentic. “Zinaida shuddered, looked at my father without a word, and then, slowly lifting her arm to her lips, kissed the streak of red that had appeared upon it. My father flung the whip away from him and, hastily running up the steps, dashed into the house…”

The intimacy of the scene shocks. Petr, the “cold, reserved” aristocrat, is lost when confronted by Zinaida’s unconditional love; he has clearly also surrendered the “whip-hand” in the relationship. The story, we know then, will end badly (in the gloomy Russian way) and it does. Petr writes to his son: “fear a woman’s love, fear that bliss, that poison…” just before he dies of a stroke. Zinaida is doomed as well; she will die in childbirth.

Turgenev could never write the same story today, with its driving force the conflict between romantic love and a rigid social order. Today Petr could resolve his mid-life crisis by divorcing Vladimir’s mother and installing Zinaida as his trophy wife. After all, few care about society’s disapproval any more. It’s not as if there are significant negative social consequences to the break up of modern marriages–personal consequences, perhaps, but we seem to have exchanged the tragedy of being trapped for the tragedy of being abandoned.

It is telling that in the book and movie “Damage” (1992) which touches upon similar themes–a father and son in love with the same woman–the father’s passion for the mysterious Frenchwoman, Anna Barton, is made transgressive for us only because she is already his son’s lover and fiancee. We see the father, Dr. Stephen Fleming, as violating moral boundaries by this betrayal of his son, not by his adultery. Yet the pain, and the guilt, mirror that of “First Love.”

In an age of divorce, it may be harder for novelists to make star-crossed lovers believable, and consequently few try. Nonetheless, Turgenev’s basic themes still resonate–the power and pain of eros, the unexpected and inconvenient spark between a man and a woman–and they remain a mystery to us now as then. And we are most human when we experience the joy, and suffering, the twists and turns, which accompany that elemental connection.

Excerpts of “First Love” are from “The Essential Turgenev,” edited by Elizabeth Cheresh Allen, (Northwestern University Press).

American voices, American exceptionalism

American voices, American exceptionalism

Is there a distinctly American artistic voice? What adjectives might begin to describe that voice? Open. Direct. Optimistic. Democratic. Enthusiastic. Conscious of the natural order. Impatient. Naive. Experimental. Religious. Business-like. Experential. Bluff.

This isn’t just American exceptionalism speaking. There is something different about the American experiment (“a shining city upon a hill”) that should naturally be reflected in its art and literature. Hear Louis Simpson in his poem, American Poetry:

Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Wait, you may argue; are these qualities truly unique to American writers, poets, filmmakers? Aren’t they universal?

Perhaps. The proof is in the artistic pudding, however, and it isn’t hard to point to a number of recent American writers, poets and filmmakers whose voices are unmistakenly American. Cormac McCarthy. Tim O’Brien. Toni Morrison. Billy Collins. Rita Dove. Gary Snyder. Paul Mazursky. Steven Spielberg. Ron Howard.

You don’t have to be born in the United States to echo these characteristics: think of Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies or Peter Weir’s Witness, movies which fit this uniquely American category (or is it that these directors “get it” because the Australian experience mirrors the American one at some level?)

The point can be proved in another way. The Scandanavian film Insomnia, remade and set in Alaska (with Robert DeNiro replacing Stellan Skarsgård), never quites feels American; nor does The Birdcage, the 1996 remake of La Cage Aux Folles, even if Robin Williams and Gene Hackman are part of the Americanization.

Even a novel like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, which explicitly draws on the Odyssey for some of its themes and structure, is made authentically American by the depth of Frazier’s understanding of the hardscrabble life led by the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachians and the culture they established.

Yes, the film version of Cold Mountain features an English director, English and Australian leads, and a Canadian and an Irishman in key supporting parts, which perhaps suggests that as the world becomes flatter (to borrow Thomas Friedman’s metaphor), the appeal of a distinctly American voice will not be diminished.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved