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Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) by Jane Somers (Doris Lessing)

Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing, photographed as a young woman.
Book Review
The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983)
 by Jane Somers (Doris Lessing)

   If I had to give a short summary of the career of Doris Lessing it would be, "Early success, both critical and popular, followed by a series of head scratching decisions regarding choices surrounding genre and theme, followed by her canonization as a living saint after she won the Nobel Prize in 2001.  It is telling that Lessing never won a Booker Prize, probably because nobody really liked anything she wrote between 1962 (The Golden Notebook) and The Good Terrorist (1985).   Her career, I think, points to the difficulties artists face when they achieve both critical AND popular success- basically obtaining a life time supply of money and artistic credibility over night, typically with the publication of a "hit" work of art.  Since the "hit" really didn't coalese until after the end of World War II, you can't really have this discussion for very many critical/popular successful authors publishing prior to 1950.

  Lessing, who had her first hit with the Grass is Singing IN 1950, is actually perhaps the first of these modern authors and her career is instructive.  The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published as the work of an unknown, new author, name of Jane Somers.  Lessing, of course, was a formidable force in the early 1980's, and her secret authorship was enough to ensure that it received ample critical notice, but did not prove successful either critically or popularly.

    The mystery was "revealed" in 1984, when Lessing published this book and a sequel under her own name as The Diaries of Jane Somers.  She then claimed that she had decided to publish under a pseudonym to make a point about how difficult it was for an unknown author to make a splash, ignoring that Jane Somers received all the support Lessing herself would have received.

   The Diaries of Jane Somers were published around the same time she was writing her five part Canopus series- a sequence of abstruse sufi-inspired science fiction novels which were roundly ignored by critical and popular audiences alike.  Both forays show the struggles of an author trying to change her artistic identity mid career, not because of failure, but because of success.

   The book itself is a marginal 1001 Books participant.  Like the book which represents her Canopus series of science fiction novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour was culled in 2008.  I firmly agree with the decision.  Jane Somers is a single (widowed), childless urban professional, on the cusp of what you might call a "yuppie."  She works editing a high achieving women's magazine, called Lillith, which sounds like Cosmopolitan mixed with the New Yorker.   Her life begins to change when her best (and only) friend, Joyce- who is also her boss at the magazine- decamps for America, the victim of a failing marriage and leaves her alone.

  She makes a chance connection with a 90 year old woman living by herself nearby,  Maude, and is slowly drawn into her world.  At the same time, she grapples with family issues and work, eventually providing a role model for her sister's daughter and writing a novel which proves successful.  If it sounds like a Hallmark movie, that's because it could be.  At times the writing reminded me of something like Bridget Jones diary- the magazine column, not the film.

  Ultimately, there is great depth to the Maude/Jane relationship, but it is not fun getting there. Unless you actually work with the elderly, the intimate descriptions of cleaning a ninety year old woman with stomach cancer are likely to make you, at the very least, pause.  The subject matter also made me question why Doris Lessing wouldn't want to publish this dark, serious, very literary material under her own name.  It's not like The Diary of a Good Neighbour is a romance novel, and she had already published more-or-less straight genre science fiction under her own name.

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