I am reading The Calligrapher by Edward Docx and absolutely loving it. Like all the best 20th century fiction; it is erudite and informative but also very hard to put down. You can nourish your brainy bits and have a rollicking good read. To be fair to older and more Russian novels, I am sure they were equally thrilling in their day but while they remain interesting, that page-turning quality is often lost. I think the memory of dense tomes, read under duress at school, can dampen the enthusiasm for anything ‘literary’. Legends like Doris Lessing are forgotten and talented young writers like Docx languish unheard of while Dan Brown saunters around his mega-yacht snacking on babies. If we can rediscover more of these doubly enjoyable reads – recommendations in a comment please! – they could replace their halfwit cousins entirely. Unsuprisingly, ‘.docx’ agrees (his article), he quotes a particularly eye-watering excerpt from the late, great Larsson, which alone is worth the read.
I have only read one of Lessing’s books, Martha Quest, the first in her 5 part series, Children of Violence, which tells the story of the eponymous Martha beginning with her childhood in colonial Africa (where Lessing grew up). The quality of the writing jumps out at you straight away. Her deft descriptions of family life and contemporary society are brilliantly observed and the story is true-to-life and very engaging. Orwell, one of just two postwar novelists The Times deemed more influential than Lessing, penned rules for good writing, which urge the author not to ponce it up with long words and fruity syntax. Lessing’s writing is clear and unpretentious and much the better for it because it’s so easy to read.
Of course, Martha Quest cannot possibly please everyone so you might end up on the long-awaited lounger, lathered in lotion and find Lessing a let-down. But before you grab The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous and flee, there is a distinction to be made. Recommending books is an imprecise exercise but even so there are safe bets and stabs-in-the-dark. John Fowles is a favourite of mine who I know is not to everyone’s taste but I am guilty of proselytizing anyway. Even The Calligrapher will leave some ladies cold (it’s like Martin Amis’s Rachel Papers, if you can’t bear reading about narcissistic men then you might hate it). But Martha Quest is no Magus, it is straightforwardly excellent and its themes are relevant to everyone, in short, it is the safest of safe bets.