And then Doris died. I saw a TV programme on her, and liked her prickly, off-beat response to the Pulitzer fame, and her general air of hyper intelligence mixed with whimsy. Not long before she died, I had picked up The Cleft during my lunch-time bookstore browse, and now, finding myself strangely melancholic about a rumpled old lady that I didn’t even know, I decided to acquaint myself with her work. I had read The Golden Notebook a while back, found it fragmented, often impenetrable, at times breathtakingly direct, and mostly intimidating, both in physical size and breadth of is pre-occupations.
The Cleft, by contrast, is a slender volume. Manageable, I thought. It has an intriguing concept, inevitably met with raised eye-brows: what if women existed first, in a peaceful matriarchal society? How would the birth of a male child affect that society, and how would the increasing prevalence of males go on to change the power balance?
Dealing with the dawn of humanity, it is of course an origin story*, as much as it is an exploration of gender politics, and by framing it as the musings of an ageing Roman historian recording ancient oral histories, it’s also a story about stories, about what gets remembered, and what gets refashioned in the retelling (chiming nicely with recent revelations about the lack of biological veracity in the Bible).
The story opens with an all-female Eden where woman loll like seals in the surf, floating passively through their days, with the occasional human sacrifice to The Cleft, a sleeping volcano and tribal holy place. Birth happens spontaneously, and the women are content in their unisex world. The first male babies are seen as aberrations, monsters, and placed on a giant rock where eagles grab them away. It turns out that these eagles do not kill the male babies, but carry them to safety in a forest. Soon enough the two “tribes” encounter each other, to their mutual fascination and horror. This part of the story is fascinating, an exploration of the deep distrust we feel for the Other, regardless of whether the gaze is male or female.
The writing is quiet, with a rhythm that recalls firelight retelling of myths and folk tales, and it is almost biblical in its sparseness of character. But while the story, which spans many generations, largely compels one to continue reading, ultimately it fails to satisfy. Perhaps it is the meagre characterisation, which results in a number of named characters having nearly no distinctive trait. The Roman narrator fails entirely to come to life, and his interjections just seem unnecessary. And there seems to be a disappointing inevitability about the nature of gender relationships that reneges on the early promise of the book. It does not take long before the female characters resort to neurotic pleading and the male characters to boyish games and adventures.
I still think the concept is as good an example of Lessing’s superb imagination as anything, but in this instance her execution of it is too slight an affair.
*interesting aside: another name for original stories is pourquoi stories. I don’t know why I like it so much, but I do.