Lessing, Doris (Vol. 170)
Doris Lessing 1919-
(Born Doris May Taylor; has also written under the pseudonym Jane Somers) Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, poet, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and travel writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Lessing's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, 40, and 94.
Considered among the most significant writers of the post-World War II generation, Lessing has explored many of the most important ideals, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century in her prolific body of work. Her oeuvre displays a broad spectrum of interests and concerns, ranging from racism, communism, and feminism to psychology and mysticism. Lessing began her career in the 1950s, writing fiction in the realist mode that focused on the theme of racial injustice. As her writing developed, Lessing began focusing on strong-willed, independent heroines who suffer emotional crises in male-dominated societies, anticipating many of the major feminist concerns of the late 1960s and 1970s. The major unifying theme of her work explores the need for the individual to confront his or her most fundamental assumptions about life as a way of avoiding preconceived belief systems and achieving psychic and emotional wholeness.
Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) to English parents who moved their family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was very young. She was educated in a convent school and later a government-run school for girls before her formal education ended at the age of thirteen. A voracious reader, Lessing had excelled in school and continued her education on her own through the wealth of books her mother ordered from London. By age eighteen, Lessing had written two drafts for novels and was selling stories to South African magazines, although she would not publish her first novel, the autobiographical The Grass Is Singing—centering on an unhappy woman living on an impoverished, isolated farm in Rhodesia—until 1950. In 1939 she married Frank Wisdom, a much older man, with whom she had two children. The marriage, which lasted only four years, inspired A Proper Marriage (1954), considered one of her most autobiographical novels. Lessing joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s—she severed her ties to the party during the early 1950s—and subsequently met and married Gottfried Lessing, a Jewish German with whom she had a son, Peter. In 1949 the couple separated when Gottfried moved to East Germany and Lessing and Peter moved to England.
The Grass Is Singing introduces two of Lessing's major recurring themes: the causes and effects of racism (“the colour bar”) and the myriad ways that history and politics can determine the course of a person's life. The novel focuses on a white couple's impoverished life on a Rhodesian farm. The wife vents her hatred of her social and political situation on an African man, whom she eventually provokes into killing her. Lessing's highly acclaimed “Children of Violence” series traces the intellectual development of Martha Quest, a fictional heroine who resembles Lessing in several ways. Like Lessing, Martha is a “child of violence” born at the end of World War I and raised in a bleak post-war era of social struggle, later facing the tragedies of World War II. Over the course of the series, Martha progresses from personal, self-centered concerns to a larger awareness of others and the world around her as she explores various beliefs in pursuit of psychic wholeness. Martha Quest (1952) is a bildungsroman in which Martha attempts to escape her restricted upbringing and her domineering mother. A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm (1958) recount Martha's two unsuccessful marriages to politically ambitious men and her involvement in left-wing, anti-apartheid, communist activities. Landlocked (1966)—a novel considered by many to be an abrupt departure from the realistic concerns of the “Children of Violence” series—reflects Lessing's emerging interest in telepathy, extrasensory perception, and Sufism, an offshoot of Islam that proposes that mystical intuition should replace rationalism as a means of alleviating world problems. The novel follows Martha as she travels to England where she experiences an apocalyptic vision. Britain—and later the entire world—are destroyed in The Four-Gated City (1969), a novel in which Martha comes to realize the limitations of rational thought and seeks to embrace and understand the higher truth of her own intuition.
The Golden Notebook (1962) centers on novelist Anna Freeman Wulf, whose life is variously represented by four “notebooks.” Designated a symbolic color and narrated from different perspectives, each notebook incorporates parts of Wulf's latest novel in narratives that assume multiple levels of significance. The title of the novel refers to Anna's desperate attempt through art to integrate her fragmented experiences in order to achieve wholeness. Similarly, The Summer before the Dark (1973) focuses on a middle-aged woman who has a brief affair with a younger man as means to rediscover a sense of identity. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) two psychiatrists attempt to restore a delirious Cambridge professor to their ideal of sanity. As the professor wanders through a space/time warp of his own psyche, he experiences the unity of creation and envisions a future apocalypse. He is ultimately left to ponder whether his vision is valid or the product of hallucination. The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) proposes that faced with the choice between a radical change of values and behavior or the extinction of the human race, mankind must reject rationalism and develop a more intuitive approach to existence and survival. Lessing's “space fiction” series—“Canopus in Argos: Archives”—concerns three competing galactic empires: the benign Canopeans, the self-centered Sirians, and the evil Shammat. Manipulating events on Earth to retain a gene pool for their own immortality, these empires continue to affect human history through the intervention of immortal beings. The first volume of the series, Shikasta (1979), documents the journals accumulated by Johor, a Canopean agent planning to divert humanity from the destructive course set by the Shammat. The second volume of the series, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980), is a utopian allegory centering on the enforced marriages between rulers of opposing kingdoms as a means of securing peaceful coexistence. Next in the series and written in a style reminiscent of Shikasta, The Sirian Experiments (1981) is narrated by a female member of an insensitive colonial administration. In The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) dystopian themes surface in a story of a slowly freezing planet whose inhabitants die awaiting a promised transport to warmer environs. The last volume in the “Canopus” series, Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983), satirizes rhetorical language as a tool for social enslavement.
Lessing's series of novels written under the pseudonym “Jane Somers”—The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984)—feature the diaries of a woman named Janna, who some critics have speculated acts as an alter-ego for Lessing. In The Good Terrorist (1985) a middle-class woman's extreme liberal idealism leads her to organize a group of would-be revolutionaries who commit an act of terrorism. The rhetoric of contemporary political slogans also plays a key role in the novel. The Fifth Child (1988) concerns a violent, antisocial child named Ben who wreaks havoc on his family and society. Its sequel, Ben, in the World (2000), follows Ben, now eighteen years old, as he enters adulthood. In 2002 Lessing published The Sweetest Dream, a novel that revolves around Frances Lennox, a self-described “earth mother” living in the 1960s who takes care of a group of post-war children in her London home.
Lessing has been generally recognized as one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century. Critics have been attracted to the tension and immediacy in her work, generated by her realistic descriptions, symbolism, and detailed imagery that evoke a wide range of environments and moods. Many commentators have argued that her enlightened portrayal of marriage and motherhood, her anti-apartheid stance, and her experimentation with genre and form make Lessing an exciting—and often controversial—literary figure. Although many critics have contended that her science fiction and mystical works abandon the realism and neglect the social analysis that made her earlier works so valuable, others have countered that even in her most experimental fantasies, Lessing has consistently explored the relationship between the individual psyche and the political, sexual, and religious ideologies that structure it. Anthony Sampson has commented that Lessing's body of work offers “an insight about human relationships and an ability to describe them with a directness and certainty that made other English writers seem effete and self-conscious.”
The Grass Is Singing (novel) 1950
*Martha Quest (novel) 1952
This Was the Old Chief's Country (short stories) 1952
Before the Deluge (play) 1953
*A Proper Marriage (novel) 1954
Five: Short Novels (novellas) 1955
No Witchcraft for Sale (short stories) 1956
Retreat to Innocence (novel) 1956
Going Home (essays) 1957
The Habit of Loving (short stories) 1957
Each His Own Wilderness (play) 1958
Mr. Dollinger (play) 1958
*A Ripple from the Storm (novel) 1958
Fourteen Poems (poetry) 1959
The Truth about Billy Newton (play) 1960
The Golden Notebook (novel) 1962
Play with a Tiger (play) 1962
A Man and Two Women (short stories) 1963
African Stories (short stories) 1964
*Landlocked (novel) 1966
The Storm [adaptor; from the play by Alexander Ostrovsky] (play) 1966
Winter in July (short stories) 1966
Particularly Cats (autobiography) 1967; revised edition Particularly Cats … and Rufus, 1991
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SOURCE: Newson, Adele S. Review of African Laughter, by Doris Lessing. World Literature Today 68, no. 1 (winter 1994): 139-41.
[In the following review, Newson explores the parallels between African Laughter and Lessing's experiences in Africa.]
African Laughter is an alchemy of memoir, travelogue, revisionist history, and political treatise. While Lessing manages some of these elements better than others, the book is worth reading for its personal and global asides, wry wit, and autobiographical impulses. In sum, the work paints a portrait of a woman who desires to come to terms with “the web of sensations, memories, experience that binds” her to Zimbabwe.
Lessing had lived in colonial Rhodesia for some twenty-five years before becoming an exile in 1956 because of her opposition to white rule. African Laughter records her impressions of the young country of Zimbabwe during four visits (1982, 1988, 1989, 1922); the first visit commences two years after independence. Lessing's regard for the new black government decreases significantly with each visit, countered by her desire to find the familiar in both landscape and people.
Lessing is at her best when she describes her remembrances of how the country had been and what it had meant to her in her youth. These recollections take the form of personal myth, and myth, she explains, is “a...
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SOURCE: O'Faolain, Julia. “Objects of Eros.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4853 (5 April 1996): 27-9.
[In the following review, O'Faolain assesses the themes, motifs, and characterization in Love, Again.]
Doris Lessing's fictional range defies comparison—unless with a literary team which might include, say, Bunyan, Balzac and several more. Her new novel [Love, Again], the first for eight years, recalls Racine. Like his, its characters seethe with pent desire; but, unlike his, their decorum scarcely cracks; there is some boiling over, but little scandal or mingling of hot liquids. Their climax is solitary.
The novel opens: “Easy to think this was a junkroom, silent and airless in a warm dusk, but then a shadow moved, someone emerged from it to pull back the curtains and throw open windows. It was a woman, who now stepped quickly to a door and went out, leaving it open.” Allegory? Perhaps. Both “shadow” and “junkroom” sound like emblems. In a sermon, “junk” could stand for terrestrial vanity. But is a sermon under way?
This assumption vacillates, as Lessing's skilled realism creates a plausible world inhabited by one of her typically solitary and valiant female protagonists whose age lags just behind her own. This one is called Sarah Durham. “A good sensible name for a sensible woman”, thinks Sarah, giving us a signal that she will soon...
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SOURCE: Brandon, Ruth. “Venus Observed.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 398 (12 April 1996): 38-9.
[In the following review, Brandon focuses on the theatrical setting, style, and implications of the central theme of Love, Again.]
When [Love, Again] starts, this is still just a concept; by the end, the play is a success, but its creators have lost interest in it. The addictive group life of the theatre, vividly evoked, becomes the backdrop for the novel's own drama.
This theatrical effect is heightened by the rather highly coloured, simplified nature of the background. The weather is always sunny; the small town in Provence where much of the action takes place, and the stately home that is the setting for much of the rest, might be operatic stage: sets. And Julie herself, the play's subject, never convinces as a historical figure. She's too good at everything, her life is too dramatically symmetrical.,
But all this is just a frame for the book's real theme: love, As one might expect, Lessing's love is no sweet story. What she portrays is Racine's Venus route entiere a sa proie attachee. Sarah writes: “I think I am really ill. I am sick—with love … People killing themself for love do it because they can't stand the pain. Physical pain. I have never understood that before.”
The play itself sets the theme. Julie is a beautiful...
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SOURCE: Bick, Suzann. Review of Love, Again, by Doris Lessing. Antioch Review 54, no. 4 (fall 1996): 493-94.
[In the following review, Bick assesses the sexual dimension of Love, Again.]
Lessing's latest novel [Love, Again] deserves applause for its frank depiction of its older, female protagonist's resurgent sexuality, while individual passages must be questioned for prose as turgid as the title.
Sarah Durham has collaborated with Stephen Ellington-Smith to produce an “entertainment” based on the life of Julie Vairons, a 19th-century mulatto who painted and composed music. Living alone, Vairons was regarded by the French villagers as licentious and perhaps a witch. Even her death was shrouded in mystery: was it accident, suicide, or murder?
The novel's huge array of characters are involved in staging this drama; Sarah imagines having sex with many of them. The identity of these putative lovers blurs, while Julie threatens to take over the novel. Lessing appears aware of this problem, but the use of parenthetical names to identify the various “he's” solves nothing. Other problems include such overwritten lines as “anger growing like a fat unstoppable cancer” and “Love is hot and wet, but it does not scald and sting.” References to AIDS seem self-conscious, as does the mention of particular sexual acts.
Lessing attempts to...
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SOURCE: Newson, Adele S. Review of Love, Again, by Doris Lessing. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 959.
[In the following review, Newson describes the plot and narrative elements of Love, Again.]
Doris Lessing's most recent novel, Love, Again, explores familial relationships, romantic love, loss, life in the theater, and human folly against the backdrop of the aging process. It is also a study of love and loving intertwined with reflections on the writer—her craft and detractors. Lessing's narrative is interspersed with dreams, correspondence, waking anguish, and interpretation of “ordinary” existence. In this work Lessing forges below surfaces, traveling to often uncomfortable venues. Still, the tapestry she weaves is intensely satisfying.
Sarah Durham is a sixty-five-year-old widow who has not been in love for twenty years. One of the managers of a small theater in London. Sarah at last becomes affected by the theatrical scene. Music, actors, and the make-believe operate to transform the sensible widow into a creature of emotions. Like a younger heroine, she takes her readers and her suitors on a merry chase. And as in the play that throws her into the society of the men she would covet, she experiences “too much of everything: too many ragged ends, false starts, possibilities rejected—too much life, in short, so it all had to be tidied up.”...
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SOURCE: Grossman, Judith. “Infectious Disease.” Women's Review of Books 14, no. 1 (October 1996): 11-12.
[In the following review, Grossman examines the narrative structure of Love, Again.]
Doris Lessing has pursued her fictional explorations of sexual passion for a remarkable forty years and more, beginning with her “Martha Quest” novel sequence and the stories collected in The Habit of Loving (1957), and continuing into the present with Love, Again. Her theme now is the erotic vitality of a woman in her sixties, as a reality that defies all cultural bias against its acknowledgment To acknowledge is one thing, however, to value the reality is another, and the words used to signal its emergence here—“a sweet insidious deceptiveness,” and “a poison”—sound a clear warning that trouble rather than fulfillment lies ahead.
But was Lessing ever a liberated celebrant of the body's joy? Looking at reviews of her early work up to and including the groundbreaking The Golden Notebook (1962), I'm struck not just by the old-style references to the author as “Mrs. Lessing,” but by the conservative analogies her talent evoked: in England she was compared to Jane Austen, and in America Mary McGrory found her writing on sexual themes equal in its frank precision to that of John O'Hara. From a present perspective, McGrory and her colleagues seem to have been...
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SOURCE: Hobbs, John. “Literature Is News That Stays News.” America 175, no. 18 (7 December 1996): 25-6.
[In the following review, Hobbs evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Love, Again.]
Doris Lessing, the noted British fiction writer best known for The Golden Notebook, has turned her attention to the unfamiliar subject of passion among the late middle-aged [in Love, Again]. Sarah, the central character of Lessing's first novel in seven years, is a 65-year-old widow with grown-up children. Her daily life revolves around her successful career as writer and administrator for an alternative London theater company called the Green Bird, which decides to produce a play based on the imaginary life of Julie Vairon, a recently rediscovered early feminist writer and composer who committed suicide in 1912. Not that she could be easily pigeonholed by contemporary feminists, since “for some she is the archetypal female victim, while others identify with her independence.”
If Vairon's life attracts different people for various reasons, the actors this complicated project brings together form an intense theatrical family; couples fall in and out of love as in the fairy-tale world of Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In this post-modern world, however, they do not end up as young married couples. Instead, they ultimately remain alone, falling back on their...
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SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Possessed by Love.” Partisan Review 64, no. 3 (summer 1997): 486-88.
[In the following review, Bell discerns a thematic departure in Love, Again from Lessing's typical treatment of love.]
The title of Doris Lessing's latest novel [Love, Again] refers, most apparently, to her heroine's reluctant re-experience of emotions she had thought, at sixty-five, to have put well behind her. Sarah Durham finds that she can still burn with desire, writhe with sexual jealousy, grieve at love's frustration—and no less than when she was young. She is not ready for the acquiescence of Colette's Léa who lets herself go gently into loveless age in The Last of Chéri. The title also refers, I think, to Lessing's latest novel itself as novel, that literary form which includes so much besides a love story but often seems to express the whole of human destiny by means of a “romance”—a word with cognates in other languages (German or French Roman) that mean what we do by the word “novel.” Novelists must, it seems, always write about love, however much other subjects, other kinds of human experience, claim their primacy. Yet, after all her own efforts in previous books to show how sexual passion is woven into the web of social experiences, Lessing submits in her latest to the tunnel vision of the love-possessed. She has laid aside her habitual...
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SOURCE: Sampson, Anthony. “Wild, Heady Days.” New Statesman 126, no. 4358 (31 October 1997): 43-5.
[In the following review, Sampson highlights the passion of Lessing's memories in Walking in the Shade.]
Of all the free spirits of London in the late 1950s, Doris Lessing appeared the most free. She seemed to have floated in from Africa with a freshness and passion which radiated both from her writing and her presence. She was separate from other cliques and backgrounds, but in the midst of radical protests, antiapartheid, anti-bomb, anti-censorship. And she wrote about everything with the directness and originality of an outsider.
It was true she was a communist, with a commitment to her causes that was first forged by her intense small group of comrades in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which she vividly described in her first volume of autobiography, Under My Skin.
But her loyalty was linked to the fight against white domination which gave the communist crusade in Southern Africa its special prestige, like anti-Nazi campaigners in the 1930s. And she lost all her faith in the Soviet Union after Khrushchev's speech in 1956, revealing the true crimes of Stalin.
She admits [in Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962] she was part of the “mass social psychopathology” which allowed communist atrocities to happen. And...
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SOURCE: Miller, Jane, and Elaine Showalter. “Doris Lessing and the Millennium.” Raritan 18, no. 1 (summer 1998): 133-51.
[In the following review, Miller and Showalter compare Walking in the Shade to Under My Skin, examining Lessing's literary achievements, particularly her contribution to feminist scholarship.]
Doris Lessing was born in 1919, so she will soon be eighty. It is hard to believe. She is the author of at least forty-five books: novels, stories, plays, poems, and nonfiction, and in just the last three years she has published a novel and two volumes of autobiography and is rumored to be enthusiastically working on an adventure story at this very moment. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, which she brought with her to London from Southern Rhodesia, where she grew up, was published in 1950, so she has been a well-known and active writer for forty-seven years.
You have to start from this productiveness, energy, longevity, not only because these are impressive in themselves, but because they may explain the uneasy relations some readers have with her work. Few of us have stayed the course; and we have often found ourselves admonished as readers for this failure to comprehend the integrity and continuity of her work and for various kinds of partisan misinterpretation which may follow from that failure. Those who admired her wonderfully intelligent...
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SOURCE: Powers, Elizabeth. “The Unexamined Life.” Commentary 106, no. 3 (September 1998): 56-9.
[In the following review, Powers refutes several widespread critical opinions of Walking in the Shade.]
It would be interesting to know how many of those who purchase Doris Lessing's turgid novels actually get all the way through them, but there is no doubting that she herself is a cultural icon. Practically with the appearance in 1962 of The Golden Notebook, whose protagonist, Anna Wulf, was presented as a “completely new type of woman” living “the kind of life [women] never lived before,” a certain confluence was felt to exist between the ideals of the women's movement and the works of this Rhodesian-born writer.
The trouble with icons is that they require reverence. Though The Golden Notebook actually got a mixed reception from reviewers, its author's subsequent status has ensured a kind of critical meltdown with regard to her subsequent work. There are now twenty-plus Lessing novels in print, and each time another rolls off the presses, the obfuscating platitudes take on a life of their own. In 1969, Joyce Carol Oates called one such indigestible effort “an experimental work in the very best sense”; in 1996, Maureen Corrigan lauded another for its “trademark gravity.” Similar pieties have likewise greeted this, the latest volume of her autobiography....
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SOURCE: Kalnins, Mara. Review of Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962, by Doris Lessing. Notes and Queries 46, no. 1 (March 1999): 152-53.
[In the following excerpt, Kalnins outlines the narrative structure of Walking in the Shade, briefly describing Lessing's career.]
‘If you travel from the southern frontier of the Sudan to the Cape of Good Hope, a journey of nearly three thousand miles, you will not spend a single minute in a country which has chosen its own government’, wrote T. R. M. Creighton in his classic The Anatomy of Partnership. It was in this world that Doris Lessing spent her childhood and youth and which she recounts with such brilliant clarity, immediacy, and passion in the first volume of her autobiography Under My Skin. The eagerly awaited second volume [Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962] begins with her arrival in war-damaged London in 1949 at the age of ‘nearly thirty’ with a small child in tow, £150, and the manuscript of her first novel. In dramatic contrast to the haunting beauty of the Rhodesian landscape she had left behind, this was a bleak world of postwar food-rationing, low national vitality, and poverty, and if Mrs Lessing unflinchingly describes the hardships of those difficult first months living in a small flat in Denbigh Road, she also conveys the resilience and humour,...
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SOURCE: Clark, Alex. “Basic Human Instincts.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4940 (2 April 1999): 21-5.
[In the following review, Clark faults Lessing's characterization and prose style in Mara and Dann.]
When Doris Lessing subtitles a book An adventure, you know that the stories that follow will not fit neatly into an existing picaresque tradition, in spite of the author's note and its proclaimed intention to reprise “the oldest story in Europe”—which ends with the words “and they lived happily ever after”. It is far more likely that the adventure will be something of an endurance test for its characters, a backdrop against which Lessing can, with characteristic expansiveness, explore further her abiding interests in the nature of personal freedom, social responsibility, destiny and the relentless march of history into the terrifying abyss of the future.
So it is with Mara and Dann, which takes us thousands of years into that future. As we might expect, it has a post-apocalyptic flavour, although, in this imagined world, catastrophe has been the result of climate change, rather than the human-made Epoch of Destruction that closed The Four-Gated City, the last in Lessing's five-novel “Children of Violence” sequence. Here, the whole of Europe (called Yerrup) and the Northern Hemisphere are buried in ice, their cities and civilizations, their...
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SOURCE: Chettle, Judith E. “Lessons in Survival.” World & I 14, no. 5 (May 1999): 246-55.
[In the following review, Chettle details the plot of Mara and Dann, with particular attention to Lessing's characterization of the protagonist within the context of feminist realism.]
AT 79, DORIS LESSING IS STILL WRITING PROVOCATIVE AND TIMELY NOVELS IN VIVIDLY RENDERED SETTINGS.
In many ways the twentieth century has been exceptionally good to women writers. They dominate the best-seller lists; teach their craft at countless colleges; and unlike their Victorian predecessors no longer need write under men's names to appease public prejudice. But for all their achievement, as the century ends, the quality of what they write is less heartening. It sometimes seems that their intellectual eminence has shrunk as their numbers have expanded; they have become prolix but not profound. Miniaturists, they work on smaller and smaller canvases with equally downsized themes.
The women they write about, and they write almost exclusively about women, live narrowly focused lives despite the extraordinary opportunities available to them. Most are weak vessels, often vulnerable as any endangered species trying to survive in a threatened habitat. Emotionally fragile, intellectually confused, and seemingly incapable of making sensible choices, they resemble more the band of...
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SOURCE: Lessing, Doris, and Jonah Raskin. “An Interview with Doris Lessing.” Progressive 63, no. 6 (June 1999): 36-9.
[In the following interview, Lessing discusses her observations on feminism, the 1960s, fame, and spiritual fads, as well as her thoughts on privacy, death, and the end of the twentieth century.]
Fifty years after migrating from provincial South Africa to London to become a novelist, Doris Lessing is still writing on a manual typewriter—though not, of course, on the same machine she used for her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950). No typewriter could have survived the relentless pounding necessary to produce the forty or so internationally acclaimed books that have appeared over the past fifty years, including The Golden Notebook (1962), a strange and beautiful novel that is often called “a bible for feminists,” though the label distresses Lessing herself. It's an extraordinary literary achievement by anyone's standards, but perhaps especially so since Lessing—who was born in Kermanshah, Persia, on October 22, 1919—is a high school dropout who has never received a degree in higher education, except honorary ones from places like Harvard.
Many of her fans, especially feminists, have wanted Lessing to go on rewriting The Golden Notebook, but she has been loath to repeat herself. “I never do anything twice,” she reminded me...
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SOURCE: Knapp, Mona. Review of Mara and Dann, by Doris Lessing. World Literature Today 74, no. 2 (spring 2000): 366.
[In the following review, Knapp focuses on the heroine's role in the narrative development of Mara and Dann.]
As if to insist on a perspective that makes the year 2000 appear trivial, Doris Lessing's last novel of the twentieth century [Mara and Dann] looks forward by several thousand years and is set in the next ice age. The civilization of Western Europe (known here as “Yerrup”) has long since been obliterated by glaciers, and the Mediterranean Sea is empty. Human life, pushed southward on the continent now known as Ifrik (Africa), has been reduced to a few primitive tribes who are warring for control of the habitable regions, while also struggling for survival against drought and plagues.
Lessing's futuristic Odyssey opens with the kidnapping of two children from their village, during which four-year-old Dann is traumatized for life by a “bad man” named Kulik, while Mara is instilled with her lifelong mission to protect Dann from further harm. They are taken in and raised for five years by a kindly old woman, Daima, a “memory” who passes on her store of vital knowledge to this next generation. When Daima dies, Mara and Dann begin a dangerous journey toward the North, though unsure of their destination or even why they are fugitives. They face...
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SOURCE: France, Miranda. “A Truly Beastly Hero.” Spectator 284, no. 8968 (24 June 2000): 38.
[In the following review, France highlights the fable-like characteristics of the plot of Ben, in the World.]
Twelve years ago, Doris Lessing published a cautionary tale about a kind, liberal couple with a large house, four well-loved children, friends and holidays galore. Into this happy home is born ‘the Fifth Child’, a violent, monstrous boy whose presence threatens the family's stability and raises dreadful philosophical questions. How can his parents love him? How can such a creature ever find his place in the social order?
Miss Lessing, now in her eighties, provides few answers in this sequel [Ben, in the World]. Ben is 18, though he looks much older. He isn't a normal human being, but what is he exactly? The old lady who looks after him for a while and teaches him how to keep clean and brush his unruly hair, thinks he might be a Yeti. Others call him a ‘throwback’ or a ‘beast’. Sometimes he cannot restrain a bark or growl, but, when he speaks, Ben has an educated accent (a posh Yeti, then?).
From the start, we see how Ben's inability to understand the world makes him prey to the abuse of every chancer he meets. After being exploited as a labourer, he becomes an unwitting drugs courier, to France. There he is stranded until a director spots him and...
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SOURCE: Bush, Trudy. “Many Faiths, Many Stories.” Christian Century 117, no. 35 (13 December 2000): 1310.
[In the following excerpt, Bush offers a description of the protagonist in Ben, in the World.]
In her new novel [Ben, in the World], Doris Lessing gives a fresh twist to an old idea: What would our world seem like to an alien who found himself among us, and how would we react to such a being? But Ben Lovat is not a creature from another planet; he is from our own distant past—a throwback to a species near the beginning of human evolution. Lessing's 1988 novel The Fifth Child was told from the point of view of Ben's family, especially his mother. It recounts the havoc the birth of this monstrous child caused in what had been a happy, old-fashioned family. Lessing's sequel continues the story from Ben's point of view.
Now an adult, Ben lives in a frightening world from which he cannot protect himself, despite his great physical strength. He is an observer, always on the watch for the look of puzzlement and horror on people's faces as they become aware of him. His difference makes him a victim, repeatedly abused and cheated. His struggle to understand his environment and to survive takes him from England, then to France, then to Brazil. There he briefly is caged and made a subject of scientific research, and then finally discovers what he is and the people to whom...
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SOURCE: Rowland, Susan. “‘Transformed and Translated’: The Colonized Reader of Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos Space Fiction.” In British Women Writing Fiction, edited by Abby H. P. Werlock, pp. 42-55. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Rowland contrasts Lessing's early political and artistic conceptions of “representation” with the thematic implications of Canopus in Argos.]
Doris Lessing's fiction has always regarded artistic representation as a political act. From the very first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), which sets a Mary who failed to bear a redemptive child on the regressive white colonial road until a black Moses leads her to the promised land of death, she has tested the extent to which any particular society can bear to be represented. The “Children of Violence” series (1952-69) interposed a female bildungsroman to contest a colonial and patriarchal culture (Martha Quest , A Proper Marriage ), and used the resources of the realist novel, lauded in The Small Personal Voice (1957) as “the highest form of prose writing” (8), to fragment the impersonal claims of Communist theory in A Ripple from the Storm (1958). Lessing then turned to reexamine the realist novel's own representational capacities as she moved toward Sufi beliefs concerning the interconnected potentialities of...
(The entire section is 4929 words.)
SOURCE: Sceats, Sarah. “Flesh and Bones: Eating, Not Eating and the Social Vision of Doris Lessing.” In Theme Parks, Rainforests and Sprouting Wastelands: European Essays on Theory and Performance in Contemporary British Fiction, edited by Richard Todd, pp. 139-49. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.
[In the following essay, Sceats examines the representation of eating and food in Lessing's writing, particularly in terms of their role in interpersonal or social relationships.]
[…] there is a terrible gap between the public and the private conscience […]1
‘Dis-moi ce que tu manges,’ wrote Antoine Brillat-Savarin in 1825, ‘[et] je te dirai ce que tu es …’.2 The potent suggestiveness of food is one of a writer's richest resources, and has been drawn upon and exploited ever since Homer. Literary food and eating, often enticingly (or revoltingly) evocative, are of great mimetic power and significance. It is fascinating and intriguing to read about what people eat, who they cook for, how dinner—if it is—is served. Of still greater interest and significance, I think, are the aspects of food and eating which might be considered figurative: what is suggestive, speculative, intangible. Eating practices are in effect a currency, something ‘understood’, broadly accepted, interpretable indeed, as Brillat-Savarin suggests. Encoded...
(The entire section is 4759 words.)
SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “The Alien.” World & I 16, no. 2 (February 2001): 235-40.
[In the following review, Simon contrasts the protagonist and themes of Ben, in the World with those of The Fifth Child.]
“It would be a good thing if man concerned himself more with the history of his nature than with the history of his deeds.” This remark by the nineteenth-century German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel serves as an epigraph for Doris Lessing's Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (1987), a collection of five essays that reflect on the causes—biological or social—of human behavior, essays that consider how often and how much we are dominated by our savage past, as individuals and as groups. What, Lessing asks, is our inherent nature: Are we barbaric, brutal beasts who must be socialized into civility? Or have we, as a species, evolved genetically from our bestial past to transcend our animal nature?
These questions are central to much of Lessing's writing, especially to her latest novel, Ben, in the World. In The Memoirs of a Survivor (1975), she created an apocalyptic future in which gangs of children rage and plunder, “feckless and irresponsible, hopeless, futureless, uneducated and ineducable,” but having no choice because all means of socialization have been destroyed. There are no families, no community, no nurturing. The result is a society of...
(The entire section is 1699 words.)
SOURCE: Davis, Alan. “Not Responsible for Items Forgotten or Lost.” Hudson Review 54, no. 1 (spring 2001): 141-47.
[In the following excerpt, Davis admires the Realist tendencies of Ben, in the World, particularly in the descriptions of the material world.]
Shed Ten Years in Ten Weeks. Garv Null's Ultimate Anti-Aging Program. 8 Weeks to Optimum Health. Before The Hudson Review sent me this latest batch of fiction to read, I found myself one fine Sunday afternoon in the local Barnes & Noble, killing time in the “How To Live Longer” section of the store, in part because I'm a hopeless hypochondriac, but mostly because it was the section from which I could most easily keep an eye on the parking lot as I waited for my ride. It had been many years since I had last read a Doris Lessing book, and so I wondered—it was a British kind of day outside, and Lessing herself has always seemed ageless to me—what she was about in these times.
I shortly thereafter received Ben, in the World, her thirty-seventh book by my count. It's a short, astonishing one, a kind of fable that's written as a sequel to The Fifth Child, where we first meet Ben Lovatt, a Neanderthal throwback who fits in nowhere. In this sequel, he has left behind the family that could never understand him, and he is loose in the world; the book is mostly about the people...
(The entire section is 723 words.)
SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “A Brave Journey in Thought.” Spectator 287, no. 9030 (1 September 2001): 33-4.
[In the following review, Hensher compares The Sweetest Dream to the style and narration of Lessing's previous works.]
Every great novelist makes a characteristic noise: every great novelist is, in the end, a stylist: and there is always something telling about a novelist's most characteristic means of expression. What Doris Lessing's novels have had to say, over the last 50 years, has been so consistently interesting that it is tempting to regard them as contributions to a debate, and neglect what is deepest in her, her ways of saying it. But these novels are not treatises. They are works of art, and the thing which tempts me, writing about this original and alarming mind, is to try to isolate a characteristic Lessing sentence. Themes may be willed, but style, if it is good, is speech, and is as telling as the way a human being walks.
The Lessing sentence is blunt, quickly veering from concrete facts to abstract nouns, tempted briefly by the possibilities of rhapsody, but always turning back to the urgency of the urban demotic. It is swift to add qualifications, it startles with the frankest colloquialisms. Its cadences are punchy, even if the clauses tend to multiply—‘she felt x, but not quite x, but rather y, as if y no longer did for her, or ever really had’ (I...
(The entire section is 1356 words.)
SOURCE: Merritt, Stephanie. Review of The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing. New Statesman 130, no. 4557 (1 October 2001): 83.
[In the following review, Merritt assesses The Sweetest Dream within the context of Lessing's later career.]
By prefacing this vast novel [The Sweetest Dream] with an authorial disclaimer, Doris Lessing creates expectations that she then attempts to wave aside. She has decided not to write the third volume of her autobiography to follow Walking in the Shade, she explains, but her readers should not imagine that this book is a fictional substitute. Though The Sweetest Dream clearly is, to a degree, retracing the terrain of Lessing's life from the 1960s onwards, in London and, later, in Africa, she is somewhat disingenuously asking her readers not to peer too closely at the characters for a likeness of real people, including herself.
The sweetest dream of the title is a phrase to be considered sometimes with irony, sometimes with genuine regret, always as something past. It refers, most obviously, to the death of idealism, the recognition that comes to all of us when our youthful hopes, romantic or political, become sullied. All of us, that is, except Comrade Johnny Lennox, the novel's anti-hero, a dogged communist whose dream for a fairer and more compassionate world is never allowed to intrude into his personal life, as he...
(The entire section is 671 words.)
SOURCE: Zaleski, Jeff. Review of The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 3 (21 January 2002): 63-4.
[In the following review, Zaleski observes parallels between Lessing's life experience and the narrative of The Sweetest Dream.]
In lieu of writing volume three of her autobiography (“because of possible hurt to vulnerable people”), the grand dame of English letters delves into the 1960s and beyond [in The Sweetest Dream], where she left off in her second volume of memoirs, Walking in the Shade. The result is a shimmering, solidly wrought, deeply felt portrait of a divorced “earth” mother and her passel of teenage live-ins. Frances Lennox and her two adolescent sons, Andrew and Colin, and their motley friends have taken over the bottom floors of a rambling house in Hampstead, London. The house is owned by Frances's well-heeled German-born ex-mother-in-law, Julia, who tolerates Frances's slovenly presence out of guilt for past neglect and a shared aversion for Julia's son, Johnny Lennox, deadbeat dad and flamboyant, unregenerate Communist. Frances's first love is the theater, but she must support “the kids,” and so she works as a journalist for a left-wing newspaper. Over the roiling years that begin with news of President Kennedy's assassination, a mutable assortment of young habitués gather around Frances's kitchen table, and Comrade Johnny makes...
(The entire section is 331 words.)
Brightman, Carol. “Doris Lessing: Notes of a Novelist.” Washington Post Book World (16 October 1994): 1, 14.
Brightman assesses the strengths of Under My Skin.
Burroway, Janet. “An Unfashionable Woman.” New York Times Book Review (6 November 1994): 1, 42.
Burroway argues that the two major themes shaping Under My Skin are the twin workings of memory and projection.
Innes, Charlotte. “A Life of Doing It Her Way.” Los Angeles Times (8 December 1994): E1, E8.
Innes discusses Under My Skin based on an interview with Lessing.
Leonard, John. “The African Queen.” Nation 259, no. 15 (7 November 1994): 528-36.
Leonard details the relationships between Under My Skin and Lessing's fiction.
Rose, Ellen Cronan. “Somebody—but Who?” Women's Review of Books 12, no. 6 (March 1995): 11-12.
Rose examines Under My Skin in the context of Lessing's current interpretation of such longstanding issues as her relationship with her mother, her sexuality, and her fear of becoming mired in the past.
———. “Feet of Clay.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 2 (November 1997): 5-6.
Rose examines the role of Lessing's life...
(The entire section is 425 words.)