Doris Lessing 1919–
British novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet.
Lessing was born in Persia and raised in Rhodesia. Her work is informed by an overriding concern for racial justice and autonomy for women in a society dominated by white males. Lessing began her career as a realist, and her early novels exhibit a fervent belief in communism, which she later renounced. Primarily a novelist, she has also written some well-received short stories, many of which revolve around her African experiences. Her Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence, a space fiction narrative, demonstrates her versatility.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
I was worried about Doris Lessing's Martha Quest series, partly because the heroine was treated with so conscientious a harshness, so honorable a lack of self-indulgence that she gave the impression of being a repellent person; and partly because the discipline of an overtly political framework destroyed a great deal of the writer's intuitive flexibility. With these short stories, under the title The Habit of Loving, I am no longer in any doubt whatsoever that Mrs Lessing is one of the best writers in England, male or female.
There are seventeen stories in the books, two pretty long and the rest fairly short. The title story is about an ageing theatrical rake who marries a young actress. His heart is broken when, after an affair with a partner younger than herself (Mrs Lessing, mistress of the intuitive art of knowing-and-not-knowing, merely lets us sense what the trouble is), she decides to grow old ungracefully and with brutality. The gulf between the generations today has never been more remorselessly explored; it is not simply observed, it is felt in the bone. In The Day Stalin Died, Mrs Lessing startles by being funny. It is, at bottom, a sad, even an elegiac story, and nobody ought to laugh at the misery of poor Comrade Jean; but how grimly funny—it's no good, one must laugh—it all is!
Mrs Lessing, who appears to be abandoning the littérature engagée for the littérature engagée dans la vie, has never written better nor shown so fully the range of her literary capacities. She is not one of those political writers who has reneged on her fundamental beliefs. Such modifications as they have undergone have strengthened, not weakened, her humanist outlook, with the result that she no longer has to strain herself to put these beliefs over. They have become part of her nature rather than merely a part of her social conscience; and she is at liberty how to demonstrate that whatever is true whether it is about love or pain or pleasure, is part of the whole truth, and not merely some trivial personal indulgence lying outside it.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, "New Short Stories: 'The Habit of Loving'," in New Statesman (© 1957 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1393, November 23, 1957, p. 700.
In Pursuit of the English is a completely misleading title, suggesting as it does an updated England, Their England (a job that, incidentally, badly needs doing.) Mrs Lessing does bring up to date one or two characters from Ze Mad English rep. company—the comic landlady and the comic colonel—but she is in fact concerned with some rather untypical people in a rather untypical house. Even on these terms, the book is vaguely unsatisfactory. There is nothing wrong with any of the characters as such. They're all colourful. They're all credible, except when they come together in a Mr Muddlecombe court scene. It's just that the house where Mrs Lessing lived seems to have been some sort of depot where characters awaited their turn to be dispersed into contemporary novels. Flo in one novel and Rose in another, and Mr MacNamara alias Ponsonby (a marvellous and original rogue) in a third would be fine. But they stampede one's credibility rather when they all come together in the same crooked house.
There is also something wrong with the tone of the book. The background is by now familiar—middle-class writer living self-consciously at ease and in equality with working-class people, who find it rather odd that she should write real reading-books but 'don't hold it against her'. But the whole thing is too determinedly rollicking. Mrs Skeffington throwing herself Scarlett O'Hara-wise downstairs, and the little child mimicking her parents' lovemaking in front of the mirror, do not belong in the London-belongs-to-me atmosphere which Mrs Lessing has evoked. The author in fact oscillates between realism and sentiment. She is able to observe acutely, for example, that working-class people often drop their aitches humorously ('I've got the 'ump') like Tony Hancock—but this does not prevent her, when the mood takes her, from following the party line laid down by those excruciating radio serials about comic cockney families. As I say, In Pursuit of the English is an invaluable notebook for Mrs Lessing the novelist, but it doesn't really add up to a book by Mrs Lessing the social observer.
Keith Waterhouse, "Little England," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIX, No. 1525, June 4, 1960, p. 832.
The nineteen pieces which go to make up A Man and Two Women are the work of an original and scrupulous artist. Mrs. Lessing's writing is all her own. She owes little to modish theories or to popular experimenters. She sets herself a creative task and worries away at it in an absorbed, painstaking way.
Sometimes her objective seems unrewarding and you wonder why she chose it. Can the stage-designer Barbara Coles, for example, and her novel tactics with seducers really be worth all the trouble Mrs. Lessing goes to? Or is this story ("One Off the Short List") meant to be funny? (She certainly tries the light, derisive touch now and again and in "Between Men", a story about two aging semi-tarts, even goes for a rather lumbering gallop round the Maupassant country, but it isn't a vein which suits her.) Sometimes, too, in these pieces where she seems to be struggling with material not wholly congenial, her prose reflects the strain and goes flat-footed….
And yet sometimes one of these, at first sight unrewarding, expeditions of hers turns out to be full of illumination. The young Freda, not long married, is left in bed by her equally young, and baffled, husband. "I suppose your brother's coming again?" he asks, and as soon as he has gone off to the City sure enough Fred arrives. There then follows a long, ecstatic, incestuous scene between them which prolongs itself until nearly lunchtime. This story which is...
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In the best stories in her new collection, A Man and Two Women, Miss Lessing has developed her feminism and her concern for contemporary issues into a … subtle and profound point of view. "To Room Nineteen," for example, does not simply depict the "failure in intelligence" that the opening line indicates. Rather, it is a meaningful story about a personal failure in marriage that represents a failure of the relationship between man and woman in our society. The woman, Susan Rawlings, having held a job and had her own apartment in contemporary London, marries, assuming that she can control her domestic world in the sane, masculine way that she controlled her job. Feeling increasingly dissatisfied, she hires a housekeeper, then a nurse girl, and retreats to rented hotel rooms—all attempts to remove the center of herself from her circumstances…. Although a man (shadowy in this story) can thrive on peripheral infidelities, on manipulating people and delegating responsibility, Susan is unable to operate in the same way, and her defeat is that of the sophisticated, contemporary woman trying to be man and woman simultaneously.
When the woman is more successful in controlling the circum-stances around her, as in the title story, in which a woman is able to recognize all the emotional changes brought by a baby into the ten-year marriage of some artist friends—with the result that her own desire for the other woman's husband is quenched—the success becomes hollow. In this instance, the husband turns hostile when she rejects...
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Spanning [Doris Lessing's] entire career, [African Stories] includes every story she has written about Africa, from her earliest collection to the most recent…. Even in her first, This Was the Old Chief's Country, the stories are astonishingly mature and consistent, three among them having an enduring, diamond-hard quality.
"The Old Chief Mshlanga" hinges on the awakening of responsibility in a sensitive, adolescent girl when her attention is abruptly focused on the human realities beyond the traditional race attitudes that she'd previously adopted so casually. "Little Tembi" deals with the complex and bewildering relationship between a white farmer's wife and, as he grows to manhood, the African whose life she saved as a baby. In "Old John's Place" Mrs. Lessing brings a quality of freshness to the old tale of the maverick versus the remainder of the herd. The action is seen through the eyes of the teen-age girl who is the central character or narrator of a number of these stories. While she is possessed of a well-formed sense of irony and an understanding terribly beyond her years, the latter is never carried as a burden, and she is thoroughly credible. As with all fine stories, in these three there is far more to them than appears on the surface. "Little Tembi," for example, is perfect testimony to the groping need of black and white for one another, and the misunderstanding by each not merely of the other's intentions but also of his own.
The reader unfamiliar with Mrs. Lessing's work might well wonder if this early standard can be sustained. Of course, it improves. And the growth in the later stories is marked by an exceptional ability to capture the attention...
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On the basis of this book alone, Doris Lessing must be counted as one of the most important fiction writers of our times. African Stories includes every story Miss Lessing has written about Africa, that continent whose "tragedy must play itself slowly out," but they are also about every continent where people are human and helpless.
Miss Lessing's style is a traditional one, unmarked by hysteria or hurry. She has a remarkable gift for good beginnings, and the tension in her stories is the kind given off by people we think of as "real"—men and women who impart a sense of motives and feelings, of a past and future, and a quality of mysterious reserve even though they may be commonplace...
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[Doris Lessing] believes (with many others) that our civilization is slipping ever-faster toward the precipice. Almost from the beginning, her work has explored what in human nature is causing this catastrophe and what, if anything, can be done about it. (p. 9)
Lessing's attention is always turned toward humanity's destructive weaknesses and potential strength, and it is essentially these that I have called the two cities and the veld. For Lessing, the African veld is the unconscious, physical world of nature that nourishes mankind with its unity but also inflicts its own mindless repetition and, in human terms, cruelty and indifference. The city is half-evolved consciousness, the...
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The Summer Before the Dark is Doris Lessing's most misunderstood novel. If taken at face value, the novel lacks depth and substance. This has led some critics to term the book a fable, or an allegory for our time…. Many of the problems disappear when the critic realizes that Lessing is extending the mode she used so successfully in portions of her earlier novels, that of satire. A comparison of the tone, the images, and the terms of Kate's self-discovery with those of Lessing's earlier novels and protagonists makes her satiric intention quite obvious.
The story of Kate Brown and the description of her middleage crisis lacks by comparison with Lessing's earlier narratives on a similar theme,...
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Doris Lessing's immense and unwieldy five-volume series, The Children of Violence, chart a spiritual journey from a woman's perspective. Though Lessing's intention was to write about a generation, in choosing Martha Quest as the heroine of her story she made women's experience central in it. Martha's quest begins in an experience of nothingness. It is uniquely shaped by her experience of motherhood, and her guide on her journey is another woman, Lynda, through whom Martha incorporates the dark side of women's experience. (p. 55)
At the beginning of Martha Quest, the first novel in the series, Martha recognizes that she lacks a role model for a positive self-image…. Through Martha,...
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Doris Lessing's rapidly growing series of novels, "Canopus in Argos: Archives," raises certain compelling questions about the uses of fiction. Through her prolific work from 1950 to the early 1970's, Mrs. Lessing acquired a deserved reputation as one of the most intelligently discriminating of contemporary English novelists, her characteristic mode of fiction being a traditional novelistic one in which individual fates, caught in a tangle of social and political circumstances, were rendered with moral and psychological nuance…. Then, as she approached her 60th year, she conceived the idea of writing a "space fiction," which became "Shikasta" (1979).
Rather unexpectedly, as she explains in the...
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[In The Sirian Experiments, the third novel in her Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence,] Doris Lessing attempts once more, but obliquely, to make us examine our world and its preconceptions. The 'Martian' technique is sometimes heavily obvious … and sometimes bitterly pointed…. When Ambien sounds most human, the voice of her creator rasps through: 'I could not help feeling myself undermined by the familiar dry sorrow at the waste of it, the dreadful squandering waste of it all'.
It may well be that wandering colonists from other planets would wring their hands when they observe this polluted globe—but in this ambivalent Ambien it does not ring true. Her character, that of the...
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Like its predecessor, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, Doris Lessing's latest exercise in science fiction, The Sirian Experiments, is a didactic fable about the need to learn. Both books show leading figures from one culture encountering those from another, and being gradually changed by what this teaches them. In the earlier book—a feminist parable—Al'Ith, Queen of Zone Three, went on an educational visit to the muddy, militaristic male world of Zone Four; later, scaling the rarefied heights of Zone Two, she became a visionary ostracised by her own people.
In The Sirian Experiments—a parable about colonisation—the same pattern applies. Ambien II, one of...
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In The Sirian Experiments we are given the Sirian version, narrated by a woman named Ambien II, of experiments carried out on earth (Shikasta/Rohanda). Ambien is one of five leaders of Sirius, and for all intents and purposes immortal—a circumstance, by the way, that ultimately undermines the dramatic potential of the novel, at least in the few instances that Lessing abandons a rather dreary expository style and shows characters in action. To know that a character is immortal is to be aware that, like the star of a Hollywood movie, she can't die before the last frame, or in this case, chapter. The use of this kind of character as a central figure simply closes off too many narrative possibilities, and it...
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There has always been an element of didacticism, of using the novel as a vehicle for instruction, in [Doris Lessing's] work; and those who admire the elegance and freedom of her short stories—in which this element is absent—may feel that it spoils much of the Children of Violence sequence, especially the later, London-based, books: too much earnest argument, the sound of too many axes being ground, a ponderous solemnity. Perhaps this is not fair comment; Mrs Lessing is a political novelist, a novelist of ideas. Ideas are serious matters, so is politics. But there are ways of writing seriously, and fictional ways of exploring ideas, that avoid overstatement, that retain the strengths of the novel...
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