Book Review

Winter in July by Doris Lessing

short stories about non-monogamous colonial types

This is the third Doris Lessing book I’ve read this year, and since buying it (on my birthday, waaaaaaay back in September I grow old I grow old and I actually sometimes do wear my trousers rolled now tho only because I accidentally acquired canvas shoes in the exact same black tone as two pairs of black jeans I have, so to avoid looking like I’m wearing weird loose tights I roll up the trousers to expose flesh and/or socks of a distinctly different shade) I have acquired three more. That’s a lot.

Lessing has taken the place of DH Lawrence in my second-hand book buying life: whenever I see one, I get it, even if I’m not at all excited to read the book itself.

I was kinda excited to read the other Lessing I bought on my birthday, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, but as I near the terminus of this self-imposed reading list (if you haven’t noticed (or have noticed but wilfully forgotten due to apathy) I have only been reading from the pile of books I bought on my birthday since then, at the start of September), Winter in July appealed less.

Winter in July is a collection of short stories, I think six or seven (obviously this can be checked but it won’t be), most of which are from the early sixties tho some are later. Like a lot of Lessing’s work, they are set in South Africa, and/or the other countries it borders that remained, until the middle of the twentieth century, colonial assets of the (vom) British Empire.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really much clear geographical context here except for vague mentions of South African or Rhodesian government behaviours and responses to major international crises (i.e. wars), and the use of Cape Town as a sole urban, well, city, location in the final, titular, story about a globe-trotting career woman who enters into a thruple with two handsome South African farmer-brothers, a thruple that eventually falls apart when the one she isn’t legally married to decides to get legally married to someone else.

Actually, there is a lot in Winter in July about alternative relationships, and non-monogamy (with implied tho never confirmed bisexuality, too), with the brothers essentially sharing a wife in ‘Winter in July’, and another piece (the name of which I’ve forgotten as it wasn’t the title of the book), the most literarily complex text here, is essentially about a group of buttoned-up but very much active, orgy-loving, swingers who accidentally invite a much less repressed married couple and their shared boyfriend into their clique, only to rapidly reject them because of the group’s discomfort at seeing what they do in the dark done in the light.

This story is narrated by a teenager, caught within puberty and in the limbo between childhood ignorance and adult knowledge. Maybe I – my adult prurience rutting against my intense repression slash naiveté – am projecting more sex into Lessing’s stories than was meant to be seen, but I’m pretty certain I’m not.

Why?

Because the tragedies, the sadness, in these pieces about non-nuclear families, non-heteronormative lives, comes not from the sex or the – as it mostly is – love and romance, but it comes instead from societal repression and a taught need for silence.

In ‘Winter in July’, the female protagonist begs the brothers – both of whom she loves and has sex with – to talk about their decade-long three-person relationship, but they won’t allow it.

Even though she is the partner – emotionally, practically, sexually, etc – to both men, she is only the wife to one, and when the other decides he wants children and a family, rather than asking her for this (they are all in their late thirties), he breaks their bond of trust for the first known time and secretly seeks out a wife for himself.

This family (that’s what it was) was able to live happily, harmoniously, unconventionally, for years and years until the external patriarchal features of inheritance, “legacy” etc came into play.

Similarly, in the other piece I’ve mentioned, the group of rural swingers are content with decades of orgies, but only in the evening when given the excuse of a few drinks, some music, a big dinner and a late hour. They wither with terror when encountering people who don’t need the false veneer of deniability to enjoy regular, extramarital, sex.

Lessing writes about the hypocrisy of and the repercussions of repression, not about the repercussions of sex.

Silence and denial prevent fulfilment, happiness etc; in these stories, it is not queer/queered relationships that cause unhappiness, but rather excess discretion caused by craved respectability.

I mean, that’s how I read ’em anyway.

///

Elsewhere in Winter in July, Lessing does that thing that makes a contemporary reader deeply uncomfortable, which is to depict the colonisers, the oppressors, as people worthy of sympathy while (mostly, but not exclusively) leaving African characters in these works as “types”, as servants of varying levels of submissiveness.

It is true that there is no championing of the “whites” in South Africa, and there is no erasure of the oppression they were part of or of their hypocrisies, but in the very structure of the texts here – solely focused on these moneyed people woefully defeated by Africa and/or the repressive social mores they have imported with them from the UK – there is something objectionable.

These men and women are unhappy, but “Africa” here is very much “the white man’s Africa”.

There is no differentiation between native cultures or even between landscapes that are hundreds of miles apart; it is all “Africa”. Though Lessing makes clear that it is/was a mistake for white people to be there, this idea comes across more as if it was a mistake for people to be there. Some of the characters are less explicitly racist than others, but always native Africans remain completely othered: not just uneducated but uneducateable. There is no pretence or thought of considering African peoples as equal to the European settlers/colonisers.

Lessing, yes, is against colonialism, but in these stories she is against colonialism because of the effects it has on its perpetrators rather than the effects on its victims.

These stories, of course, are from early in the career of Lessing, and though they are beautifully written, evocative and highly emotive and perceptive, by their very focus they exhibit a politics of centralising and normalising “white experience” as standard, which is something many other white progressives/liberals were beginning to acknowledge as problematic by the 1960s.

Lessing herself was a committed left wing voice and her attitude towards sexuality here convinces that she was in no way yoked to conventional ideologies. However, she was writing about racist people in a severely racist situation, so of course any consideration of these people as rounded characters batters against my own dialectical black and white morality, though of course I know that fiction is under no obligation to make us “like” its characters.

I will read more Doris Lessing, and – hopefully – I will find her less racist elsewhere…

They’re very well written. The pleasure to be found in reading them is high.

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