Nobel prize winning writer Doris Lessing published an impressive number of novels, short story collections, poetry, plays and works of non-fiction in a writing career spanning nearly sixty years. Her first novel The Grass is Singing (1950) was the only novel of her’s I read prior to The Cleft – and really it couldn’t be more different.
The Cleft was picked by one of my two book groups as our February read – I don’t think I realised what I was getting into. So The Cleft is many things but for me it wasn’t often enjoyable – there were a few sections when I almost came to enjoying it – but they were few and far between. Yet, despite the fact I wasn’t generally enjoying it – I kept reading – and not just because it was a book group read. There are aspects of this novel which are extremely unusual but still strangely interesting, as a novel it shouldn’t work at all – and many readers don’t think it does – there is virtually no plot and the only characters that emerge toward the second half of the novel are necessarily two dimensional. This is definitely a book which splits opinion – over at Goodreads I was forced to give it three stars – the writing is good, the premise fascinating and overall although I can’t really say I enjoyed it, I didn’t hate it either.
The Cleft is based around a scientific premise that the first humans were female – and that males appeared later.
“The Cleft is that rock there, which isn’t the entrance to a cave, it is blind, and it is the most important thing in our lives. It has always been so. We are The Cleft, The Cleft is us, and we have always made sure it is kept free of saplings that might grow into trees, free of bushes. It is a clean cut down through the rock and under it is a deep hole. Every year, when the sun touches the top of that mountain there, it is always the cold time, and we have killed one of us, and thrown the body down from the top of The Cleft into the hole.”
Clefts a species of pre-human, porpoise like creatures live alongside water where they live an almost amphibious existence giving birth to other clefts. The name clefts of course refer to their female genitalia and also to the rocky outcrop where they live. At some period one of the females gives birth to a creature which looks different – in place of a cleft the baby has lumps and protuberances of a different kind. Considered deformed, monstrous the baby is left out on a rock for the eagles. Other monsters are born and the process of cruelty to these male babies continues, The Clefts regarding these creatures with suspicion and horror. Some of the abandoned male babies are rescued by the eagles and taken to a nearby valley – where they are suckled by deer.
“And, of course, the babies being born. They were just born, that’s all, no one did anything to make them. I think we thought the moon made them, or a big fish, but it is hard to remember what we thought, it was such a dream. How we thought has never been part of our story, only what happened.”
In time two separate communities develop, one in the valley a community of messy, adventurous males, while on the rocks by the sea The Clefts live placidly in dreamy contentment.
Our narrator is an unnamed ageing Roman senator in the time of Nero. He is in possession of ancient records – a mixture of oral testimony that has been gathered over time. From time to time – the life of the Roman senator intrudes into the story of The Clefts. He is an old man who is married to an attractive much younger woman. In a novel about the battle of the sexes – the story of this Roman senator – who marries a woman so she will give him children and not for any sentimental reason – adds another dimension.
“In Rome now, a sect – the Christians – insist that the first female was brought forth from the body of a male. Very suspect stuff, I think. Some male invented that – the exact opposite of the truth. I have always found it entertaining that females are worshipped as goddesses, while in ordinary life they are kept secondary and thought inferior.”
In time (that word again – we never get a real sense of exactly how much time has passed – sometimes generations – the narrator returns again and again to the word ages) the two communities start to come together. This coming together isn’t particularly harmonious – but the males and females find they have need of each other, particularly as the women have now discovered they can no longer reproduce without the male ‘squirts’ as they are now often called.
The communities grow and evolve further; at last we have a couple of characters – Horsa and Maronna. Maronna is a kind of early matriarchal figure, Horsa; her son. Horsa leads a large party on a perilous expedition, which Maronna begs him not to undertake. These early humans are so far removed from us, that these characters can only ever be two dimensional, and are difficult for the reader to even envisage. Ignorance, wanderlust and natural disaster threaten these fragile communities, the women live in harmony with their world, while the men with their erratic adventurousness are frequently subject to their ‘nagging.’
Lessing writes well of course, and this novel of change, evolution and particularly the complicated relationship between the sexes is written very well indeed. Lessing gives stereotypical ‘male’ and ‘female’ traits to her Clefts and Squirts – the males shrugging off any fatherly responsibility, recklessly endangering the offspring they take for granted, the females violently protective when roused to fury – but largely more passive, in tune with the natural world, nagging and nurturing by turn. I came to wonder what Lessing was trying to say in all of this – how much if any of it, was parody – I don’t think I have reached any conclusions – but I suspect all of this will make for an interesting discussion this Wednesday evening.