June 17, 2012 by petrujviljoen
There never was a time that I didn’t read. I get nervous when there isn’t a book or five lying around to dip into. Often, as a child, I would hide under my bed with a book to avoid chores. The other people in my family thought I was strange because I read so much. I would laugh out loud at the funny bits and cry out loud at the sad bits. I still do. And I still avoid chores in preference to reading (or making art) but I no longer have to hide under my bed. I think I can safely say I’m mostly on it or in it when I read.
I don’t plan my reading. I’m mostly just grateful that there is something good to read. I’ve lately begun to enjoy reading biographies, depending on who is being written about.
The small town I moved to do not have an extensive collection of books, unfortunately. I was however, lucky enough to have found a biography written in Afrikaans, my home language, about Olive Schreiner, by Karel Schoeman. It was very well researched and provided insight into Schreiner’s life and times objectively but very sympathetically. I learnt a lot about my own country through his descriptive narration of events during her time and travels in South Africa. I commend Schoeman for handling the subject sensitively.
I then borrowed Simone de Beauvoir’s – She Came to Stay – from a new friend’s shelf. I had Great Expectations 🙂 of this writer since I’ve heard about her philosophies and feminism from various sources but never had the opportunity to read any of her work. I followed it up with a biography on Simone de Beauvoir by Claude Francis and Fernande Gontier. It was well-written and researched. Naturally (?), or of course, Jean-Paul Sarte was mentioned. Then a blog discussion on The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing on the internet. And I reread Violette le Duc’s autobiography, la Batarde (in English) that has been on my shelf for years. Simone de Beauvoir wrote an introduction to this book.
Apart from the two biographies all the books were written by women, writing about the woman’s condition, each in their particular historical, cultural and economic contexts. All these women came from difficult and poor backgrounds and had to break away or break through the confines imposed on them by their respective circumstances and cultures. They all advocated freedom for women from patriarchy. The two biographies were supportive of these writers.
Olive Schreiner’s Story of an African Farm (first published in 1883 in London) is an astonishingly clear and determined feminist thesis in fiction form. Research confirms that she used autobiographical detail for her fiction. It was first published under the pseudonym of Ralph Irons. I’m not surprised that she needed a pseudonym because, as we all know, women writers at the time was excluded from publishing houses. It predates all the other writers by at least 60 years. I can’t improve on the reviews I read and therefore refer interested readers to http://thingsmeanalot.com. It is a reposted blog from http://www.projectgutenbergproject.com. Maybe she should’ve been the mother of feminism.
She Came to Stay (first published in 1943; the translation in 1949) by Simone de Beauvoir is, so far, the only book I read by her. The biography confirms that she was advised by Sarte to use autobiographical detail in writing. She wrote it to revenge herself on Olga Kosakievicz – Xaviere in the fiction – for coming between her and Sarte (Pierre). I must admit, at first reading, I found the book outright sordid and am dismayed that she was or is named the mother of feminism. The constructed relationship with Jean Paul Sartre – as mentioned a few times in the biography – and their love affairs, often with the same woman was perhaps aimed at deliberately creating controversy in their pursuit of fame. In fact, the entire relationship with Sartre contra-indicated (as far as I am concerned) the idea of feminism. That she was conscious of the oppression of women, set her journey on a path of emancipation of herself as woman and pondered the condition of women is clear in the following quote – “At this moment there were thousands of women scattered over the earth who were listening intently to the beatings of their hearts, each her own, each for herself.” I would’ve left Sarte though. I would have to read The Second Sex as well as this is the book that earned her the title of being the mother of feminism. A review on She Came to Stay can be found at http://www.madbibliophile.wordpress.com and http://www.goodreads.com/shecametostay.
I first read la Batarde (published in 1964) by Violette le Duc many years ago. The book was a gift from a friend and I am forever grateful. In rereading it, I was as … well, enchanted may not be the word, even if some descriptions of nature are just that, … as impressed by a life and the overcoming of the events in this life … well, not overcoming but description of these events … As I find it difficult to put into words my impressions of Violette le Duc as a writer I refer to the article about her writing by Leonora Skolkin-Smith at http://www.readysteadybook.com I would not be able to improve on the review or add anything either.
Doris Lessing has never failed to simply change my life. The Golden Notebook was no different. As with la Batarde I read in somebody else’s words what I haven’t been able to express, or even acknowledge, myself. Most people found The Golden Notebook (published in 1962) very difficult to read and quite a few reviews mention exasperation at both the protagonist and the composition of the book. I read this book some years ago and did not have any problems following the plot and was unable to read anything else while I mulled it over. The reviews that agree with me are to be found at http://www.vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/thegoldennotebook and at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/jan/27/featuresreviews.guardianreview25. The reviews that did not like the book can be found at indeed http://www.thegoldennotebook.org, at http://www.themoderatevoice/16558/guest-book-review-the-golden-notebook
When I found the discussion on this book in 2012 on the ‘net I was disappointed that it was over by 2009. It can be found at http://www.thegoldennotebook.org. The entire book can be read online at this site. Should there by interested readers to start a new discussion let me know. All the (female) participants in this web discussion said the book was outdated and irrelevant. What I found interesting is that one participant came back to the discussion in 2010 with further thoughts. It is clearly the kind of book that stays with one.
At the time of reading it I texted a few friends with the following quote (p 70 in the online version): ”… that the human personality, that unique flame, is so sacred to me, that everything else becomes unimportant.” Everyone responded (which is quite something in the technological age); most people felt it was a selfish thought, that other people are also or more important than ourselves. If everyone consider themselves sacred, how much more respectful wouldn’t we be? Just a thought.
All through history there were women that broke out of the accepted norms of their time. That didn’t want to be put on a pedestal (and then be expected to dust it). And somehow survived as heroines of their times even if only recognised as such as time passed. George Sand, the Brontë sisters, Mary Ann Wolcroft, etc. The latter has been utterly vilified by her society for daring to speak for the rights of women.
I made a little calculation – regarding the discussion of the four women writers … It has been 129 years from 1883, when The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner was published, to now. And it seems we are still having exactly the same conversation. Why is that? The unlearning continues. I’d like to hear from women regarding a theme I’m working on. What is Life like for you, as a Woman, in Place (location) and Time (now)?
I posted a jazz composition called The Great Karoo (featuring Nancy Walker) by Will Fisher Coastal Quartet to celebrate Olive Schreiner as that is where she spent a huge part of her life.