25 thoughts on “The Good Terrorist – Doris Lessing

  1. Pages 5 – 39

    “They came in and filled the lavatory bowls with cement and ripped out all the cables and blocked up the gas.”

    This flows like silk, with character studies galore, plus squats, communes, on the edge of joining the IRA, on social in 1980s Britain, a whole etiquette of Comrade this, Comrade that, and meetings with motions to be passed, if not for the scorched earth toilets. Alice, younger than she looks and older than she looks, by turns, the gestalt of little girl and the older woman, takes charge, gets council on her side, reading the rules of character and caricature, relationships and make do & mend. The hovel novel. Just needs chiselling out. And calling in friendships as favours. I already begin to love Alice, but not necessarily all the others – yet. The prose and dialogue sparkle with pent up wit – like Corbyn must once have done?

  2. Pages 39 – 77

    “Have you thought, Alice — have you ever thought? — how much shit we all make in our lives?”

    This is incredible flowin’ stuff, not so much as silk, then, but I love it as some love silk – not so much, but more as … well, literally, there is a scene at the end of this section that has affected my guts more than any other book has ever done in my long reading life, and unlike Alice, I have read many books and don’t pretend I’ve read them, books that harbour their own guts for words to slew in their metabowls. Alice is clever, though, she works miracles, is driven, a character who truly lives and gets me moving and to want more knowledge of her. And her relationships with other characters as ‘comrades’ are even more complex than they first seemed, without being off-putting to read about them. Her relationships, too, with her mother and her ‘aunts’, with workmen, with the Old Bill, with all the ‘arbiters’ in her fight for miracles or luck, by her judiciously choosing which arbiter to target, so as to outbid all the other ‘petitioners’ fighting around her. She also manages to get the house (itself an important character in this book) its dignity back, its utilities and its soul… This is mighty stuff. Thanks, Tony Lovell, for recommending it to me. You saw me right by Truman Capote a few years ago. Meanwhile, onward……. But I intend to eke out this book’s flow. It’s too good to rush. Too much part of us all. Corbyn as its latter-day eponymous hero, mulched from among such a 1980s crazy gang of comrades that surround and are surrounded by Alice? No, this is more of a word-rich literary satire on that whole communist scene of squats and communes, I guess, with Alice as a transcending force. We shall see. Nothing is as complex as people. Nothing as simple, too. Alice, meanwhile, might claim blindly that this whole book, like one by Nabokov, is about humanists or written by one!

  3. Pages 77 -107

    “After all, we don’t say that Trotsky never existed.”

    And I don’t say any of these fictional characters never existed, however caricatural. They live and breathe, their lives feeding off the most believable of them all: Alice. The large house also starts to breathe, now Alice’s unscorched earth policy beginning, perhaps, and two of the women perched on the roof replacing dislodged tiles, one of the women cruelly careless of a bird’s nest. A scene that will haunt you, quite beyond the pale, beyond any possible pales. Synchronously, in connection with this bird’s nest, I read ‘The Egg’ today as written by Alison Moore and reviewed it here. Everything otherwise seems to be working miracles, Alice’s day today working like a perfect dream (excluding the cruel bird’s nest scene), a preternatural trail of good luck as all her targets are reached, as we also learn more about the comings and goings in the house, now our house, too, our own literary squat, to be occupied also by some council insiders, and others with all brands of communism and subtleties of political belief, Trotsky or otherwise, IRA or CCU, and there indeed seems to be a network setting itself up autonomously, with its own comings and goings. A network like the utilities of water and electricity. The walls, attics, rooms, the roof system, the colluding sleeping-bags side by side. (And I am particularly intrigued by the inscrutable Jasper.) An accreting literary work as a sort of ‘body politic’ or social-history gestalt? A new Hobbes ‘Leviathan’ (the earliest known work on social contract theory)?

  4. Page 107 – 134

    “‘I know one thing,’ Alice said. ‘Communes. Squats. If you don’t care, that’s what they become — people sitting around discussing their shitty childhoods. Never again. We’re not here for that. Or is that what you want? A sort of permanent encounter group. Everything turns into that, if you let it.’”

    Many home truths imparted.

    “Now they stared at each other with identical appalled expressions as if the floorboards were giving way; for both had been possessed, at the same moment, by a vision of impermanence; houses, buildings, streets, whole areas of streets, blown away, going, gone, an illusion. They sighed together, and on an impulse, embraced gently, comforting each other.”

    …like the owners of the bird’s nest earlier?

  5. 7E3FBAB1-1A09-4F9B-9704-CED5252C8C62Pages 134 – 162

    “Voices and laughs, we make them up . . .”

    A whole unconscious symphony of deadpan motives making more sense than thought-out ones, a role playing and a sincerity in miscegenate synergy, the memories of Alice with Jasper (do reach, if you can, a transcending, as a reader, of their tantalising relationship to its bottom bone of togetherness or not), their demos, their adventures of spray-painting slogans on walls while dodging “pigs”, the objective-correlative of ‘blazing yellow forsythia’, the slowly morphing character of the city as it moves from day to night, the layers of houses and the stories told by lighting changing from downstairs to upstairs, throwing stones through windows, impulses for the most serious form of rebellion against the system bordering on terrorism, what that inscrutable, important seeming, man called Andrew next door is burying in a garden, Jasper bound over again… this is all major stuff that one wonders whether should be made essential reading as a historic document rather than simply an entertaining and neatly handleable paper-bound over state of a worryingly enlightening book of a novel…with really dark-stained print.

  6. Pages 162 – 189

    “Did it matter all that much who did the cleansing, the pulling down. Russia, Cuba, China, old man Cobbley and all, they were welcome as far as she was concerned.”

    “More cups of coffee, and some rather satisfying talk about the state of Britain. Rotten as a bad apple, and ready for the bulldozers of history.”

    And now in hindsight, thirty years later, in 2018, one would have put all one’s revolutionary eggs in the Brexit basket, I guess? Or latterly, Russia, after all!
    Meanwhile, we avidly follow Alice, convinced by her character if not by some of her mixed or inscrutable motives, and the company she may or may not keep. Like Jasper (more a brother than a lover, it turns out, although she is in love with him), and Comrade Andrew next door. The lethal terrorist possibilities, countenanced and nodded through. This situation is tantalisingly both serious and comic, in many ways. The two “cheesy” beams in the loft of this book’s momentous house, this “pigsty” with “the blessed, blissful forsythia”, then the pillars of sexuality, and the lethal (that lethal word again) feminism somehow here connected with lesbianism, the middle-class attitudes that Alice scorns (she – being a supposed extreme left-wing revolutionary – is always willing to do all the necessary chores whether others help or not). The 1930s dresses that Alice find in the loft. The scratching on doors instead of knocking. The groups within groups, and where best to talk… “They did not linger. No one was comfortable in this former nursery, that had the ghosts of privileged children – of loved children? – so strongly in it.”

  7. Pages 189 – 203 (halfway in book)

    “— to the demand of the occasion, which was for a total and uncritical abandon to happiness.”

    “No, she was on a crest of ability and luck, and she could make no mistakes.”

    This book makes me feel like that, too.

    “Roberta and Faye, Mary and Reggie, Philip and Jim, Pat and Alice, sat around all evening, compelled into being a family by the magic of that soup,…”

    Alice’s ‘loaves-and-two-fishes’ soup, the first woman messiaH? The soup she readily, endlessly shares, unlike we grasping readers who never share anything unless with an ulterior motive, we Mary and Reggie people of this world. Not thieving, but scrimping. And sometimes thieving in a much bigger way than Alice does.

    “; an observer could have thought she had been ordered to do this, to sit on that step with her fingers pushing her flesh about over her face.”

    The blue-and-red peacock. The Manet picture. The plush curtains. All from her past.

    “She sat a long time by herself, looking at the forsythia. It was wilting. Brilliant yellow petals lay on the floor.”

    “But to become a thief, a real thief — that was a step away from herself. How could she describe herself as a revolutionary, a serious person, if she were a thief?”

    “…and listened to the sounds of paper sliding on paper.”

  8. Pages 203 – 220

    “Mystery! How did the first builders think a new tank would get itself up there, when the original tank, presumably put in before the roof went on, reached its natural end. They could only have believed that tanks had eternal lives.”

    Like forsythia?
    The deadpan inscrutability, with the oozing sap of various emotions pent up within, of the IRA meeting, of Jasper’s and Bert’s return, of Alice’s perceived reactions deadpan and inscrutable, too, even with our privy information from her narrated POV, her meeting with her Dad, her admission of theft, Jim’s inchoate departure itself and her reaction to it, all,these chance 4321-Auster potential alternate worlds that they all must inhabit by dint of personal change and through unknown and known motives as well as alongside forced audit trails of fate…..
    The tank, too, resting on a platform of slid together paper.

  9. Pages 220 – 246

    “Alice was evolving her soup.”

    Plans for a CCU conference at the house. A crèche only for girl children, though, available, it seems. Alice’s backstory with her parents is meaningful and memorable to us, and to her, perhaps in a different way? Her mother had a soup saucepan as big as a hip-bath. Alice now so rootless from a home she once had. And on party nights, in those days, Alice remembers sleeping in the same room as her parents. Her listening to their broken breathing is a scene you will never forget, so pungently tangential to the CCU party night in the present day of 1985. Jasper’s momentous speech, if forgettable by some. And this section’s closing scene with Alice in intimate conversation with Comrade Andrew. The Russia implications, so ripened for today in 2018. Is Alice ‘pure’? If so, is this tied to her ‘luck’, I ask. And a “hard protrusion”, in a paragraph contiguous with one about Errol Flynn…
    Who are the riff raff, who the dangerous, I muse.

    “No, Alice. If you do things properly and carefully, then only the people get hurt who should get hurt.”

  10. Pages 247 – 260

    “— Bert said that Shakespeare had many lessons for the struggle , and they must learn to use every weapon life offered them if they were not to be primitive Marxists.”

    “The discussions about where, and against whom, they would demonstrate were as agreeable as the expedition itself.”

    Alice’s purity is tested by some Marxist views on “genetic doom”, I guess. But nothing is clear-cut; much is just done for show, unknowns faced stoically. Theatrical stands. Meanwhile, I guess that Milchester is a pseudonym for Colchester where I was born in 1948, long before its ‘new’ university was built, the place where she and Jasper demo against Margaret Thatcher.
    Alice and Pat effectively say goodbye to each other – another moment of deadpan stoicism. Jasper and Bert off to Soviet Russia, too, with their eyes at least telling Alice that there return is not as certain as they make out.

  11. Pages 260 – 275

    “Muriel had her hair in the Princess Diana sheepdog cut.”

    A contemporary observation in 1985 real-time, as it were.
    Also the term “useful idiots”, recently used by Boris about Corbyn, but here: “Isn’t it amazing how the upper classes go fir communism?” Boris, no doubt, with that names, is also another hidden in plain sight? https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2016/12/05/the-featherblade-of-a-toffs-boredom/
    Espionage training for Muriel, ‘mad’ Faye to be abandoned by her lover Roberta, the pits next door reopened by police but what was it Alice once saw in that pit next door? Even Alice is or has also perhaps hidden something in plain sight! Explosives or something even worse from our retrocausal future today, an era today that applies back then, too, in a long wonderful passage starting: “You are imagining amazing fantastic brilliant plots, organized down to the last fantastically efficient detail, but no, when you discover the truth about anything, let alone KGB plots, it is always some STUPID SILLY MESS.” My capital letters at the end of that quote.

  12. Pages 275 – 298

    “Caroline said she was studying handbooks on how to be a good terrorist. She said this laughing, as was her way.”

    The characters are complex, as are the ‘conventions of commune’, making this a most satisfying novel. One wonders how deep Lessing has been to attain such a level of literature. The good novelist, with bad things sown, lurking, peppercorns as well as wholesome vegetable, and, aptly, Alice is ‘evolving her soup’ again in this section. This novel is Lessing’s soup.
    Some moving and traumatic scenes, too, the transcension of Faye and her breasted child-like lover, then there is poor Philip and his sweated labour and his eventual fated ‘helplessness visible’ (I nearly cried), Jasper’s return, spiked blood, police delving sunken pungent pits , commune of squat life and chaos, sounds and “far-off music that beguiled and comforted, soothed and offered infinite, unfailing support.”

  13. Pages 298 – 335

    From the two rotten once mighty roof beams and the frail birdish boned body of Philip who had intended to manhandle them better, as it were, to the visit from the American or Russian man come to face out Alice for not accepting the delivery of matériel, to the jerry- or Jocelin-built bomb planted beneath a pavement bollard as a concrete tooth (a tooth or bollard or beam, among many such teeth, in turn planted on a walking-space perhaps to prevent our future’s car or lorry ramming terrorism?) there are some incredible events, emotions, motives and characters in these pages that will last you a whole generation of your future thinking about literature and its power to explode in your hands as you read it, a bomb for gestalt planting, soup seasoning, future harvesting. Also overnight, in our real-time of 2018, the Americans with Brits bombed Syria, as it happens. Gives more power and irony to Alice’s retort to a supposed American in 1985… “We are English revolutionaries and we shall make our own policies and act according to the English tradition.” The fact that he may be Russian, not American, adds more to that plain sight of Boris himself?

  14. Pages 335 – 364

    It is all a joke. None of it is a joke.

    “But you just wait. Everything is rotten. It’s all undermined.”

    Or underlined? Like those two rotten beams of her existence. This is Alice’s lengthy confrontation with the past, with her mother, with books and literature itself that they once both shared. A “scorched-earth policy” of emotions,

    “Yes, that’s right. People go on demos because they get a kick out of it. Like picnics.”

    The mixed feelings are so utterly mixed, this book can become a cipher for anything, for even an amateur way of evolving soup like bombs….or vice versa…

    “On the long table in front of Jocelin were four nasty little devices, identical, ranged side by side, and looking like outsize and complicated sardine tins. Everywhere on the trestle were parts of bombs, now dismantled, and some white kitchen bowls holding the household chemicals.”

  15. Pages 364 – 397

    “And how about Alice making some of her soup; they would all be dead with hunger by then.”

    From that glib aforementioned Alice-LUCK to now being on the “periphery” of things in the commune conventions or squat politics, we utterly succumb to the most compelling effective ending of any novel …. and if I tell you more, if it is devastating or rhapsodic, or both, then it would be a spoiler of scorched earth or terrorist proportions. The gestalt review to end all gestalt reviews, if I release any of its secrets and pent up blowhards. Or inscrutable English or American or Russian actives or bystanders. So, I’ll let you read for yourself, let you tuck that mudguard neatly back from against the plot’s wheel of destinies, let you travel from Philip’s funeral and the nature of his coffin to the journey left to be travelled in its final pages after the climax-not-to-be-mentioned, perhaps like journey itself of Alice and her mother Dorothy, to Wonderland or Oz? The Samaritan phone call telegraphed much earlier in this mixed trajectory of an enlightening book. Not quite a gestalt… “The house might have been a wounded animal whose many hurts she had one by one cleaned and bandaged, and now it was well and whole, and she was stroking it, pleased with it and herself … not quite whole, however;”


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