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
Nine African Stories (short stories) 1968
*The Four-Gated City (novel) 1969
Briefing for a Descent into Hell (novel) 1971
The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories (short stories) 1972; also published as The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, 1972
The Singing Door (play) 1973
The Summer before the Dark (novel) 1973
The Memoirs of a Survivor (novel) 1974
A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews (essays and interviews) 1974
Collected Stories 2 vols. (short stories) 1978; also published as Stories, 1978
†Shikasta (novel) 1979
†The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (novel) 1980
†The Sirian Experiments (novel) 1981
†The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (novel) 1982
‡The Diary of a Good Neighbour [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1983
†Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (novel) 1983
‡If the Old Could … [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1984
The Good Terrorist (novel) 1985
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (essays) 1987
The Wind Blows Away Our Words (nonfiction) 1987
The Fifth Child (novella) 1988
African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (travel writing) 1992
The Real Thing (short stories) 1992
Playing the Game Graphic Novel (novel) 1993
Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (autobiography) 1994
Love, Again (novel) 1996
Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962 (autobiography) 1997
Mara and Dann (novel) 1999
Ben, in the World (novella) 2000
The Sweetest Dream (novel) 2002
*These works comprise the “Children of Violence” series.
†These works comprise the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series, which appeared in a multivolume edition titled Canopus in Argos: Archives Series (1992).
‡These works are collected in The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984) and published under Lessing's name.
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
(The entire section is 687 words.)
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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),...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
(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...
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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...
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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...
(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...
(The entire section is 331 words.)