Doris Lessing’s novel, Love, Again, is a disturbing study of love and aging.
It is not, alas, her best book.
In the last couple of months I’ve blogged about several of her novels: the Children of Violence series (i.e., the five Martha Quest novels), The Golden Notebook, and Memoirs of a Survivor.
Lessing’s limit-stretching fiction chronicles the lives of independent, untraditional women of the 20th and 21st century, analyzes sex, politics, and aging, and speculates on the future of our fragmented society and doomed, environmentally-poisoned world.
Love, Again is one of Lessing’s more traditional novels. I enjoyed it in my thirties, but never went back to it. With reason. It’s a simply terrifying book about love.
In Love, Again, the 65-year-old heroine, Sarah, a powerful, busy writer and manager of The Green Bird, a “fringe theater” in London, writes a play based on the journals and music of Julie Vairon, a French artist and composer. The public is fascinated by Julie, the daughter of a Mulatto woman and a plantation owner in Martinique, who follows her magnetic first lover, Paul, a soldier, to France, and becomes a brilliant artist and musician. Later, she has two other lovers. She commits suicide in 1912 while engaged to the third, a printer whom she does not love.
Sarah is writing lyrics for Julie’s songs, based on her own translation of Julie’s journals. The process of translation has enabled her to know Julie better than anyone else does. But at a meeting with the other three managers of the Green Bird, her interpretation is seen as controversial: one of the men argues that it’s not sentimental enough, and prefers a romantic play about Julie written by a rich theater patron, Stephen. The women see Julie as Sarah does, ironic and complicated, and Sarah temporarily wins: she agrees to incorporate elements of Stephen’s play.
In France, where they rehearse the play for a festival to be staged near Julie’s house in the woods, the atmosphere becomes romantic and enchanted; Julie’s troubadour-style music, with Sarah’s lyrics, charms them all. The sexual tension is palpable. People begin to fall in love.
Much of this novel is about love at the wrong time. A widow with adult children, Sarah hasn’t had sex, or missed it, in 20 years. But Sarah falls in love with Bill, an American actor in his twenties who plays Paul.
Sarah does not want love. Consummated or not, it hurts. Bill cannot help but flirt. He has a bit of an Oedipal complex, but he also zeroes in on Molly, the young American actress who plays Julie, and Sandy, a male actor: anyone who is attractive or powerful.
He’s so gorgeous that Sarah finds herself burning with desire.
She’s not the only one. There are other love matches among her colleagues.
The saddest case is that of Stephen, a rich patron of Julie Vairon, who is in love with Julie. This is really love at the wrong time. He doesn’t like Julie’s journals: he is in love with his own Julie. It is hard to believe he means it, but he does. He is absolutely miserable because he never had a chance to know her.
Later, after Bill goes back to America, and they are rehearsing another production of the play in England with different actors, Sarah has a kind of love affair with Henry, the 35-year-old married director.
And there is a third American actor who falls in unrequited love with Sarah.
There are many scenes where Sarah looks in the mirror and rages that even though she is attractive, her dried-peach skin will never have the resilience of that of her young rivals. She does not want to be in love, but it disturbs her that she cannot really compete anymore. (There are too many mirror scenes in Love, Again.)
The plot is a reversal of the more common scenario of an old man’s pursuing a young woman. It is a little disconcerting that Sarah’s suitors are so young, but it is clear that they are pursuing Sarah, who is vital, brilliant, witty, and powerful.
I did, however, wonder if Bill were trying to use her.
My main problem with this novel is the long story of Julie Vairon, who I must confess I found boring. The production of the play will interest some, but it is really about the love affairs catalyzed by the play. If you’re interested in Julie’s love affairs, you’ll love this.
This is my second theater novel in a week. Lessing is fascinated by theater and opera: she wrote the libretto for Philip Glass’s opera, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, based on her Shikasta books.
But I am more interested in her observations about women’s aging.
Forgotten selves kept appearing like bubbles in boiling liquid, exploding in words. Here I am–remember me? She told herself she was like one of those chrysalides attached to a branch, outwardly dry and dead, but inside the case the substance loses form, seethes and churns, without apparent aim, yet this formless soup will shape itself into an insect: a butterfly. She was obviously dissolving into some kind of boiling soup, but presumably would reshape at some point. Never mind about butterflyhood: she would settle for as-you-were.”