Lessing, Doris (Vol. 6)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16179
Lessing, Doris 1919–
Ms Lessing, an English novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and playwright, was born in Persia and raised in Southern Rhodesia. John Wain has written that, "for sheer poise, I don't think there has been a writer to touch her since Jane Austen." Doris Lessing's two great themes are the shameful mistreatment of blacks by whites and the equally deplorable role of women in a male-oriented society. Although most frequently praised for her long fiction, this prodigiously talented writer has been called the most masterful short story writer since D. H. Lawrence. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
[Doris Lessing] has tried to see personal and social conflicts removed from dry dogmatism, glib pragmatism, or unimpeachable but generally unworkable philosophies, and to gain an objective but passionate view of man by examining the "individual conscience in its relation with the collective" at those points of rest operating within the eye of the storm.
This has, again and again, been the theme of most of her prolific writing, best developed in two works: the energetic, skillful, somewhat overweight but immensely forceful Golden Notebook, and her extraordinary novel sequence, Children of Violence…. The Golden Notebook is technically less adroit than The Counterfeiters (which Gide pulled off with the minimum of longeurs), or The Death of Virgil (which Broch inflated with the maximum of poetic instinct), and in the long run less satisfying or comprehensive—and perhaps somewhat less relevant—than Children of Violence which works equally well as Bildungsroman, autobiography, political and social history, science fiction and prophecy, and as a tentative statement of a writer committed to (and consequently alienated from) our age. (pp. 1-2)
Though her great theme is violence, Mrs. Lessing writes coolly, dispassionately, logically, using the standard novelistic techniques of repetition, reinforcement, and—until the final plunge into the future in volume five—strict chronology. Seldom is she self-indulgent, save for an occasional sortie into Lawrencean impressionism when filling in the beauty or bleakness of a landscape, or in describing varieties of sexual tension. Her prose, however, is never as obliquely charged or—surprising for a poet—as poetic as Lawrence's, but direct and explicit, even when rhapsodic. Such predictability and dispassion lend a certain aura of disenchantment to long sections of the series, and the virtue of fidelity often points up an irritating flaw: a scrupulous exactitude for telling Martha's every germinating hope or fear in the early volumes and for setting down her emotional and political dialogues in the later ones. [Martha Quest is the heroine of the Children of Violence novels.] And all this free of innuendo, surprise, or comedy. Like Snow's, Mrs. Lessing's work attains a kind of suprarealism, but unlike his, her style is not a matter of inability to flog language into novelistic servitude. Rather we have a bold attempt at showing how an intelligence theoretically primed for every commitment fails before the actuality of the commitment itself. Martha—particularly in her obsession to be free—is cast ironically, though it is evident that the author sides with her heroine more often than against her, the gap between them bridged as much by sympathy as by the preoccupation of rationalizing Martha's every act. (pp. 3-4)
[In] Children of Violence "growth" and "change" are made more synonymous than they ought be, the distinction between them is more blurred than it should be, or they are both written off by the author. Martha is … a freakish vestige of all the idealists of our time who looked for sanity and happiness at "the growing point," a parody of change in a world that now evolves rapidly through mutation, a world of monsters created out of our own monstrosity. (pp. 6-7)
Martha's reactions are distressingly uniform (withdrawal, introspection, petulance, anger, pessimism, optimism at starting anew), and her reasons for rejecting what she does are apparent from the beginning. It is less a matter of committed conscience than absolute normalcy for a sensitive, alert, thinking woman to reject utterly the randy or dull or dowdy lots of people, and the conditions and ideologies (as Mrs. Lessing presents them) of Zambesian middle-class life. In the long run, however, such overthorough spade-work is necessary, not only to enforce Martha's disillusionment, but to further Mrs. Lessing's notion that the catastrophes of life are too often meaninglessly (but humanly) obscured by its banalities. (p. 7)
Change is a continuing phenomenon and the modus vivendi for Martha…. As false start succeeds false start, disillusion mounts upon disillusion, groping yields to groping, and one quest supplants another, Martha, who, however fumblingly, rebels from stasis, plunges repeatedly into error and dejection, sometimes into illumination and happiness at striving to become the ideal woman leading the new, good life.
In this Mrs. Lessing serves her heroine richly, but not unambiguously. An intellectual believing in social and personal progress, equality, fulfillment, and enlightenment as antidotes to virulence, she is also a novelist with an uncomfortable tendency to portray rather ghastly people whom one cannot really care about at all. Much of the sympathy for the idea of change on the social level seems vitiated by the realization that there appears little chance for change on the personal level. Too many of Mrs. Lessing's "good" characters are so flat, humorless, weak, aimless, obtuse, and nasty that only a DNA revolution would seem capable of restructuring them.
There are the women, distinguishable from each other, yet seldom distinctive; quickened by a bit of gossip, a child, an impulse, a good deed, or a male, only to flag, flicker, fade into a stereotyped shadow. (pp. 9-10)
Such women are set, and consequently static. By dint of her ability to grow and change—or to recognize that she can—Martha patently outstrips them. But there is more to it than that. One feels that these women often function merely as foils for Martha rather than as characters in themselves, and that Mrs. Lessing's large and expansive talent is weakened in making way for final revelations—the limitations of the Bildungsroman in any case. She is uneasy when turning ordinary experiences into profound ones. Of the women in the first four volumes, only May Quest, Martha's mother (singled out for a brief, brilliant study in Landlocked), in reviewing her past as a disappointed and frustrated wife and mother, momentarily soars above the flatlands of Zambesian womanhood. The strength and fullness of Mrs. Lessing's characters, it would seem, depend on the darkness of their plight. Thus, she creates her most successful character in The Four-Gated City with Lynda Coldridge, another wife and mother, tortured and shattered but lacking Mrs. Quest's ability to hold on, whose schizophrenia acts as a symbolic barometer for the madness of the world without.
Mrs. Lessing is more successful with her men, and more devastating about them. Most are flagrantly assertive or perennially juvenile, sustained by the wives or mistresses they generally consider inferior, on the whole either sexually incompetent or fiercely brutal and selfish about the sexual act of possession. (pp. 10-11)
Is Martha a dupe of her era? of the author? of change itself, forever a fiction and never a reality? Is it that the fact, rather than the idea of change has become suspect to Mrs. Lessing? Or is it simply recognizing the dead-end in changing when no one else does, realizing that all change is futile if the human race is fated to eventually go up in the big bang? (p. 12)
One must naturally ask how Mrs. Lessing, who has written off the past and is balefully apocalyptic about the future, can sustain interest in the human condition at all, or hold out that feathered ephemera known as hope for the human race. Indeed, if the blow-up is coming—and at dead reckoning Mrs. Lessing gives us about twenty years grace—why bother with such lesser alternatives as expanding the means and meanings of freedom, limiting the hold of necessity, escaping the grinding of the cycle, or charting the changes within and without that will no longer leave us divisive, either as individual or collective beings?
The point is that she both cares and hopes, but has surrendered all pretense of finding the answer for us. She accepts—as her heroine comes to accept—the struggle between the individual conscience and the collective as ontogenic. Both exist and develop in terms of the other: one will always rebel, one will always attempt to absorb. This is historic; it may well be catastrophic. Mrs. Lessing has appended to the sequence future chronicles of catastrophe that seem as rationally prophetic as fictionally accurate. But she has not chosen to write a Brave New World, a 1984, a We, or A Clockwork Orange, all novels of individual rebellion predicated upon ideological certainties. (pp. 17-18)
Mrs. Lessing believes no matter how we play at sloughing off our old skins we are forever dogged by the "hound of repetition." Freedom should not be, but somehow always is, the recognition of necessity…. Change, in other words, perpetuates recurrence: in one way, a cyclical slap-in-the-face for those who optimistically would like to view history not merely as the temporal progress of the species, but as the intellectual and spiritual progress of the individual.
There is an adjunct to this as well. As Mrs. Lessing has it, our personalities and our self-styled attempts at change more often than not seem futile placed beside cosmic continuance. No matter how much we think ourselves changing, we can never rival the immutable, non-intelligence of things that endure above and beyond us. Our life is—or should be—less a matter of yielding to the implacability of necessity than understanding its matter-of-factness. (p. 24)
In the end, one cannot feel that Mrs. Lessing has given up, for to give up is to give up entirely. Belief in the present, hope in the present, salvation in the present, change in the present, continuing and reviving beginnings in the present is the new myth she offers us, the last myth we can cling to, the myth we had better believe if we would escape the doom of the old myths. So long as there are those who sow violence, there will always be, alas, children to reap it, but also children who remain relentless in their quest to tame it. (pp. 26-7)
Robert K. Morris, "Doris Lessing: 'Children of Violence', The Quest for Change," in his Continuance and Change: The Contemporary British Novel Sequence (copyright © 1972, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. 1-27.
Miss Lessing seems to be an inheritor of the Bloomsbury tradition, not merely in fictional technique, but in the prospect of a humane world that lurks just across the grimy horizon of cacophonous city sounds and the flat odors of stale fish and chips. The Four-Gated City commences with an obscured view through the twentieth-century legacy of the Bloomsbury picture windows which frame privileged space….
Was it not Virginia Woolf who, looking at the relationships between women in the English novel, always found them over-simplified?… Mrs. Woolf recalled how women have always sat indoors in many societies for millions of years, and how those chambers have been permeated by woman's creative force. Doris Lessing's interest in rooms, then, is not merely symbolic but structural insofar as they serve as a sort of "key" for cultural patterns: the big living room surrounded by the darkness of the African night in "Winter in July"; the claustrophobic bed-sitter in The Grass is Singing where Mary Turner slowly settles into neurosis; the bombed-out basement which perpetually imprisons Rose in The Other Woman; and, of course, the spacious workroom of history where Anna's four notebooks are spread out upon the long table. In short, the room is the woman's sacred space in Miss Lessing's fiction, and the disappointments of "full-fillment" have transformed these rooms into museum nightmares in this, the fifth and last volume of the series, Children of Violence…. (p. 218)
Unlike those American novels which examined the disillusionment of the expatriates in the Paris of the thirties, Miss Lessing's novel [The Four-Gated City] seeks to relate political and sexual alienation in its traditional Marxist sense—i.e., a splitting which separates men from the fruits of their aesthetic labors. Paraphrasing a line from one of Anna's notecards in The Golden Notebook, the realists of the world are always disillusioned whereas the romantics are merely repressed. Though each has its own horrors, Martha's final peripatetic journey would appear to associate the two within a kind of double double-bind that converts a whole city into a Lessingesque room where we are all prisoners, as the title so astutely suggests…. (p. 219)
With The Four-Gated City, the British "house of fiction" has at last been urbanized to such an extent that it combines the worst parts of the realist and the romantic: it is both public and introverted and hence comes to exhibit all the stylistic configurations of the prison where all are anonymous and where even the guardians of the civilization have a malevolence that qualifies them for perverse election. (p. 222)
Jan B. Gordon, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by the Louisiana State University), Vol. IX, No. 1, Winter, 1973.
[The] split between any self-conscious feminism on Lessing's part and her detailed presentation of woman's alienation is not so startling when we consider her within the continuum of women's fiction; George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë similarly developed a fiction which is implicitly feminist at the same time that, in their public pronouncements, they renounced any association with the suffrage movement. [In The Golden Notebook,] Anna Wulf's lack of perspective upon the sexist norms she has internalized seems less surprising when we compare her character to that of Eliot's Maggie Tulliver, Chopin's Edna Pontellier, and Wharton's Lily Bart, whose female isolation was similarly depicted without any explicitly feminist analysis of the causality of their symptoms….
[We] might take note of the striking way in which Lessing's total work fits into the quest pattern and mythical cycle described by Northrop Frye [in Anatomy of Criticism]. Lessing's heroes are poised upon a dialectic of openness and cynicism, between "the integrity of the innocent world" and "the assault of experience"; like Frye's they pass through two erotic phases in their quest, an initiation early in adulthood and a later renewal of eroticism before "some cosmic disaster," in which "society break[s] up into small units or individuals." The Four-Gated City culminates in an apocalyptic event, after which the world begins anew. Frye's cycle, similarly, "brings us around again to the image of the mysterious newborn infant floating out to sea," while Lessing's Bildungsroman ends with the strangely mature "mutant" black boy leaving her island in order to forge a new and better consciousness for the human race. Finally, exactly as in Frye's cycle, we have the ironic mode, in Lessing's works, returning in a cycle to the world of myth. (p. x)
Whatever direction future Lessing criticism takes, the prophetic dimension of her works precludes too narrowly aesthetic an analysis, since they are written not for our artistic delight but to warn of satanic mills and to suggest a New Jerusalem. (p. xi)
Annis Pratt, "Introduction" to Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, pp. vii-xi.
Without its structural plan The Golden Notebook could not make the comment on life Lessing desires; without the content the structure would be grandiose and bare, complicated rather than complex. (pp. 20-1)
[Anna Wulf's] four notebooks, making up the greater portion of the novel, are all written in the first person, and they cover the years from 1950 to 1957. In addition the novel has a fifth notebook, itself called "the golden notebook," also written by Anna in 1957 and relating only the events taking place that year. Besides the notebooks there are five sections entitled "Free Women," written in the third person in 1957 or early 1958 about events that took place in the summer and fall of 1957, in which Anna Wulf serves as a central intelligence…. Following each ["Free Women"] section are excerpts from the four notebooks, written during the years from 1950 to 1957. After the last of these four repetitions of the pattern comes the section called "the golden notebook," and then a final "Free Women" section ending the novel. Even from this brief outline the intricacy of Lessing's design reveals itself. Clearly her structural plan depends on the relation between the "Free Women" sections and the notebooks. (p. 21)
[The] "Free Women" sections are not what they appear. They are not the omniscient observations of Doris Lessing; they are the novelized account of a "real" situation as described by Anna Wulf. They are "fiction" and thus may take all the liberties of fiction. There is no reason for the "facts" they contain to agree totally (or at all) with the "facts" in the notebooks. Anna Wulf, the novelist, is free to draw on the "truth" in the notebooks and to use it as she wishes in her novel, to fictionalize the "facts" as she sees fit. By thus attributing the "Free Women" sections to Anna, Lessing carefully distances herself. The "Free Women" sections, in addition to the notebooks, become Anna's responsibility alone. Through the "fiction" of assigning these sections to Anna, Lessing filters herself out of the novel entirely and makes it impossible to equate the person of Anna Wulf with that of Doris Lessing no matter what the external similarities.
Yet once all this has been said, we must be careful not to overlook another and perhaps more important function served by attributing the entire Golden Notebook to Anna Wulf. By making Anna her author, Lessing blurs almost totally the distinction between truth and fiction. The Golden Notebook, itself, is a novel, a fictional representation. However, some of the situations and the principal character, a woman novelist with a small child who has lived in Africa and now resides in England, do correspond closely to Lessing's biography. Still, these "facts" have been so integrated into the novel that the reader cannot possibly know where the literal truth of Lessing's life leaves off and fiction begins. So too in the "Free Women" sections, the "facts" found in the notebooks are adapted and changed and even contradicted by Anna in such a way that we cannot be positive which version is "true." Reality thus comes to be understood as a complex interplay of objective experience and the subjective ordering of that experience by the artist. Life and art are seen as a single unit impossible to split. (pp. 23-4)
To follow all the events treated we would have to read each notebook separately and in its entirety. The effect of [the] deliberate confusion of time is similar to the repetition of character and incident between the notebooks and the "Free Women" sections. It serves to blur reality, to prevent the reader from identifying the real "truth" of a situation or of a time. By thus destroying our sense of time Lessing impresses on us the chaos behind the seemingly smooth flow of external events. The Golden Notebook unfolds not like a traditional novel, but like a motion picture in which a series of disparate, though overlapping, images is flashed on a screen in the form of the notebooks. The producer of this movie is Lessing; but the script writer, insofar as we know her, is Anna Wulf. (p. 24)
[Anna finds] that reality does indeed exist, that it is a blend of the "good" and the "bad," of "truth" and "fiction," and, most importantly, she understands that existence is better than nonexistence. It is better to be a "boulder-pusher," to accept the chaos, to fulfill one's "responsibility," than to "give in." Since this is so, then an essential condition for reality's existence is the almost futile attempt of the artist to give it form. He does this, not by artificially imposing words, but by letting the form grow organically from the whole of "reality," from "fact" and "fiction," dream and waking, the subjective and the objective.
These conclusions may not seem satisfactory to someone looking for neat logical solutions, and certainly they are not original. They rest on intuition and instinct rather than reason. But they clearly seem to be those of Anna Wulf, and, despite our previous attempts to distinguish between their points of view, they seem also to be those of Lessing. They agree both with the positive humanism of her nonfiction writing and with her statements on the dust jacket of The Golden Notebook. To exist is better than not to exist, to struggle is better than to give in, to face the truth and live with it is the measure of an individual's maturity. The artist—in this case, the novelist—is one who … "forces this thing to be good as well as bad"; he is one who, by his refusal to "give in," by his recognition of the inescapable unity of life and art, helps to make existence possible. He does not run from the chaos, nor does he surrender to it. He merely acknowledges it and goes about his business of letting the interaction between it and his work of art form its own patterns. He does not try to find these patterns where they do not exist, nor does he artificially impose them from his own a priori conceptions. Through the interaction of "reality" and the work itself, the chaos is truly "contained," not in the "nostalgic" manner of Frontiers of War, nor of Anna's literal account, nor of the notebooks themselves. (p. 37)
By the end of the novel, Anna … has come to understand her role as an artist. The "Free Women" sections of The Golden Notebook, a mingling of "fact" and "fiction," a form based not on nostalgia but on the unity of life and art, are the result. And Lessing herself, who is "responsible" for the whole novel, seems, by her intricate structure, by her involved chronological sequence, by the mutual interrelation between her "fictional" and her "real" characters, to be illustrating this unity. If The Golden Notebook finally is a book about "alienation," as she suggests, it is also a book which in the end shows us how to accept alienation and live with it…. By writing the "Free Women" sections of The Golden Notebook, [Anna] has fulfilled her "responsibility" as a writer and as a human being; she has fought the chaos and resisted the nostalgia. Now she can …, despite the pressures of society and the more profound and universal pressures of her own human nature, change history, even if only infinitesimally. (pp. 38-9)
John L. Carey, "Art and Reality in 'The Golden Notebook'" (originally published in Contemporary Literature, Autumn, 1973), in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, pp. 20-39.
The consciousness of the Western cultural tradition has been shaped by the image of the Great Mother as the good mother; the unconsciousness apparently recognizes another face. But the horror of this situation does not lie in the disjunction of the two aspects but in the denial of the reality of the "other face," a denial which results in perversion and insanity. The horror does not arise from the "negative" reality but from the perversions that result from its denial. It was Anna's single-minded devotion to her role as good mother to Janet that ultimately occasioned her madness by forcing her to suppress the feelings that could not be accommodated to this image. (p. 50)
"Mother Sugar," the name that Anna and Molly [in The Golden Notebook] have devised [for the psychoanalyst] to express their antagonism to the cosmic balm that the psychoanalyst applies to their personal wounds, is in theory a descendant of the post-Freudian Otto Rank and Carl Jung. She is introduced in the opening chapter of The Golden Notebook when in reply to Molly's assertion that she and Anna are "free" women and thus represent "a completely new type of woman," Anna quotes with an attempt at a German accent, "There's nothing new under the sun"…. This motto of Mrs. Marks, the real name of the psychoanalyst, is quite obviously the ancient version of Jung's (pace Solomon and Schopenhauer) theory of archetypes and their origin in the collective unconscious.
According to Jung the self is a composite of the individual and the collective psyche, the particularized consciousness and the primordial unconsciousness; according to Mother Sugar, "All self-knowledge is knowing, on deeper and deeper levels, what one knew before"…. We recognize immediately that this theory provides the rationale for Lessing's technique in The Golden Notebook; Anna can write what is to happen in advance of the happening because everything that happens has happened before and psychological progress is essentially a matter of discovering who one is and consequently what it is that one is going to do. Anna, of course, is antagonistic to this idea, and herein lies her central problem; she is antagonistic because the collective conclusion to her tale—the other face of her motherly love—is one she does not want to admit; she is antagonistic because of the threat which the archetypes pose to her ego and her Western worship of individuality.
A further point of contact between Jung and The Golden Notebook is the emphasis placed by him and by Mrs. Marks on the necessity of dreaming and the nature of projection. Anna takes the tough realist position that dreams are an escape from reality and scorns Mrs. Marks's emphasis upon writing as the cure for her "illness" and upon her insistence that it is her "writer's block" that is at once a symptom and a cause of her psychological problems. What The Golden Notebook illustrates, however, is that Anna's escape has been into her conscious role and that it is in the concealed notebooks that the truth of her situation and character is to be found; that only after she has faced this other half of the world and given it form and projected her subjective in archetypal images is she "free." The "name game" Mrs. Marks plays is a method of connecting the autotypic experience with the prototypic image, in Anna's case a matter of connecting the men she has "lost" with the dead Christ in the Pietà icon, of connecting her role in their destruction with the Virgin who cradles the corpse.
The point toward which Mrs. Marks continually attempts to lead Anna is a recognition of the creative and positive value of destructive forces, personal as well as collective. In this respect she is closely allied with Otto Rank in his insistence upon the positive and life-productive nature of the irrational. The irrational, as he sees it, is the basis of human behavior, and neurosis arises from the attempts to deny its vital existence by way of asserting the rational as the natural and the irrational as the unnatural. The truth, on the contrary, he argues, is that the rational is a necessary but a life-denying force and that the function of the irrational is to prevent the cultural suicide that civilization impels us towards: "We still have to learn, it seems, that life, in order to maintain itself, must revolt every so often against man's ceaseless attempts to master its irrational forces with his mind." As the outcome of The Golden Notebook demonstrates, Anna Wulf's surrender to the irrational has been her salvation; her experience with Saul Green has been a cathartic and therapeutic…. The irrational forces operative in the Saul Green section, then, are creative and conducive to life and psychic health. But the irrational in this instance projected itself in terms of one of the central icons of our culture and took the form of a destruction of the totally positive face we traditionally read in the statue. The issue that The Golden Notebook therefore raises is a cultural as well as an aesthetic one; namely, does the Virgin of our culture have a darker face which only madness is able to recognize, and is this darker face the creative one and the stoic serenity of the good face a life-denying one? Is the shock we experience when we discover Anna's "joy in destruction" projecting itself in terms of the archetype embodied in the Pietà a shock of recognition or a shock of outrage—and if the latter is it because of the recognition? (pp. 51-3)
[During] her period of madness, Anna … descends to the lowest and most primal reaches of the collective unconscious, and this ultimate point in her regression is symbolized by her projection of herself as the Great Mother of the Western and Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Virgin Mother depicted in Michelangelo's Pietà. The icon, the episode thus generally seems to suggest, is the artistic representation which most directly reflects the imagistic content of the unconscious, and the Pietà is the icon which best embodies the most basic archetypes of the Western mentality. The nature of the iconographic scene, however, does not endorse the traditional interpretation of the Great Mother as the good mother, but rather emphasizes the darker face of the resigned Madonna and the destructive nature of maternal love, and thereby evokes the true archetype of the Magna Mater. Hence an examination of the Pietà as icon in The Golden Notebook is not only essential for our understanding of the work itself, but it also leads us to a better appreciation of, first, the role of iconography in literature; second, the importance of iconology in archetypal criticism; and third, the relationship between a culture's icons and its psychic health. (p. 53)
Evelyn J. Hinz and John T. Teunissen, "The Pietà as Icon in 'The Golden Notebook'" (originally published in Contemporary Literature, Autumn, 1973), in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, pp. 40-53.
Lessing, even in [The Grass Is Singing], her first and in many ways slightest, effort, rejects the world view of the modernists, preferring instead to portray the dialectical relationship that Marxism insists always exists between the individual circumstances of one's life and the material nature of the social and economic system within which one lives. To the extent that modernists abandon that dialectic, or what in another context existential psychiatrist R. D. Laing terms "vital contact with the world," their literature is impoverished, just as impoverishment of the self results from the schizophrenic's withdrawal from reality. Mary Turner, the female protagonist of The Grass Is Singing, suffers that schizophrenic impoverishment, but the novel itself keeps before us, in consistent and exacting detail, the nature of the world from which Mary is compelled to withdraw. Her descent into madness and a self-willed death is as complete a documentation of psychological disintegration as might occur in any modern novel of sensibility. But in this case, that regrettable disintegration also serves as a focus for a keen-edged analysis of the state and quality of women's lives in a colonial society. (pp. 64-5)
[Before] engaging us in that final and inexorable destruction of Mary Turner, the narrative pauses to elaborate on a concern with those opposing life principles that will figure so crucially in the struggles of Martha Quest [in the Children of Violence sequence] and Anna Wulf [in The Golden Notebook], and which help, in conjunction with the reference to "arid feminism," to explain the essential lack of sympathy we sense Lessing has for Mary. At work here, as in the later novels, are assumptions about the existence of a "feminine principle" that moves toward a wholeness of vision and of a "masculine principle" that accepts division of intellect and feeling and a rigid limitation of vision. Usually, in the Lessing novels, it is the women who strive after unity, or at least a sense of it, that the masculine world determines they will fail to achieve. But Mary Turner's "divided self" includes no vestige of the feminine principle so defined, while her husband's participation in it contributes to the poignancy of his failure…. (pp. 70-1)
Michele Wender Zak, "The Grass Is Singing: A Little Novel about the Emotions" (originally published in Contemporary Literature, Autumn, 1973), in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, pp. 64-73.
The central ambiguity of [The Golden Notebook] is founded in the reader's inability to decide whether Anna is judged guilty of a fragmented vision by her author, or whether such judgment is rejected as meaningless, because fragmentation is inevitable. Significantly, the sexual basis of the woman's dilemma is dealt with in detail—realistically and very intelligently—in the most distancing form Anna is capable of: her fragmentary novel about Ella and Julia. (pp. 78-9)
Caught between her four notebooks, Anna cannot do without the protection of abstractions and generalizations about the "other." She is both waiting for the "real man" to come down like a deus ex machina, impossibly perfect, closing her wounds without getting himself infected by them, and ready to form such a man herself, forgetting for the time her own limitations as well as those of her materials. (pp. 79-80)
The "small personal voice" which Lessing defended in her 1957 statement in Declaration—the author's as well as the protagonist's—has contributed greatly to the success of her novels and stories. It has been a precise, nuanced, intelligent voice; but in its best performance, in The Golden Notebook, it disclosed most clearly its limitations. (p. 81)
Sexual liberation … as a conscious choice proved to be impossible in The Golden Notebook because the conflicts the women were caught in were kept too static. [In The Four-Gated City], though still only a potential, its very potentiality is recognized as an indispensable reality in the fight against a domineering destructive technology and the mental and physical acts that made this particular form of domination possible.
The Four-Gated City, as Doris Lessing points out with calm defiance, is a Bildungsroman, and as such its structure is informed by Utopia. All the protagonists of Bildungsromane … are moving toward the possibility of a conscious choice. In the nineteenth century the process of consciousness usually ended with the protagonist making a meaningful choice—though Utopia ended right there, if the choice (the author controlling it) was honest. In the twentieth century the protagonist has usually been shown unable to make any such decision. Honesty in this context meant renunciation in the nineteenth century; in the twentieth it has meant a fusion of hope and despair, accepting Utopia as a structural principle informing the barely begun process of the self rather than as a defined goal.
The first four volumes of the Children of Violence are not Bildungsromane in the strict sense of the concept. Matty is neither moving toward a choice, a determining decision she will make at one time or the other, nor is the fact that she is incapable of such a choice integrated into the substance and structure of her development. The first three volumes offer an absorbing examination of the tragicomedy of socio-political manners a young, intelligent woman finds herself caught in, especially illuminating because of the clearly outlined mechanism of the colonial setting. They are, however, already "dated" to a degree, belonging to that majority of novels that Anna describes in her black notebook as "a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness. Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing that they do it, for information about other groups inside their own country, let alone groups in other countries"…. Such "novel-reports" are continuously superseded by new information about, for instance, the political-social consciousness in the colonies, the consciousness of women. Lessing-Anna realizes that very well. The sheer expanse of the Children of Violence, the inexorably detailed account of Martha's political education, is mainly justified as sustaining and making credible—in different ways—the concentration in The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City. (pp. 83-4)
The structure of The Golden Notebook … hinders the process of self-knowledge. Neither the four notebooks, meant to guarantee flexibility, nor the stories, meant to guarantee multiperspectivity …, fulfill their purpose; they yield only prematurely arrested analyses of relationships, closing off precariously for a time what will destroy them anyway in the end. The enemy is intensely feared but not known. In this the novel's ambivalence, really a structural problem, is essentially different from the ambivalent endings of The Four-Gated City or Briefing for a Descent into Hell, where the concept of knowledge of the self as process is consistently supported by narrative means. (pp. 86-7)
The plea for mutuality, potentially dangerous because it can be perverted so easily into liberal rhetoric, gains strength and substance from the detailed accounts in The Four-Gated City of men and women trying to achieve it through politics, through personal relationships, failing mostly, achieving it in rare vulnerable moments. (p. 89)
The greatest strength of Lessing's argument for the possibility of truly mutual relationships lies in the manner in which … Martha, Lynda, and Mark are shown to move along together for some time so that they can part without bitterness. There is none of the brilliant bitterness of The Golden Notebook in The Four-Gated City….
One could say, then, that it is not Martha who is the protagonist of the Bildungsroman, The Four-Gated City, but Martha, Mark, and Lynda together. (p. 90)
Dagmar Barnouw, "Disorderly Company: From 'The Golden Notebook' to 'The Four-Gated City'" (originally published in Contemporary Literature, Autumn, 1973), in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, pp. 74-97.
[If] Children of Violence is really a Bildungsroman (and Doris Lessing defines it as such at the very end), Martha, its heroine, has always differed from the typical focus of that genre—the sensitive youth discovering individuality—in that her search was always associated with larger issues, such as racism, class conflict, and war. It is very clear that Martha was to represent what Doris Lessing defined [in "The Small Personal Voice"] as "a study of the individual conscience in its relations with the collective." (p. 120)
The basic powerlessness of individuals who are determined by their personal and cultural histories makes the kind of search for "freedom" which characterizes the Bildungsroman difficult to achieve indeed. And since Doris Lessing always tried to consider individual consciousness in terms of its connection with the larger system—social, political, or psychological—the picture of human effort which emerges from her novels continually suggests the smallness and weakness of individual human beings. (p. 121)
In The Four-Gated City, Martha Quest completes her search for reality by envisioning a new race of human beings whose minds have been expanded to fit them for life involved with distances: extrasensory perception which enables them to "tune-in" to a shared consciousness. It is at this point that one becomes aware of the difficulties inherent in containing this level of consciousness within the confines of the conventional novel. The "stream of consciousness" was always an awkward metaphor in relation to Doris Lessing's work, and it is especially inadequate in this context, implying as it does an individual stream, made up of personal associations separated from the "streams" of others. Perhaps Doris Lessing has used Anna Wulf's psychoanalysis with a Jungian analyst in The Golden Notebook as a tentative reference point along the way. What Jung called the "collective unconscious" might serve as the connection between Anna's own personal experiences and the universal significance of those experiences. Instead of a personal stream, there might be Jung's "ocean of images," accessible to everyone. Charles Watkins' preliminary mental journey over the world's oceans in Briefing might be a reflection of it. The difficulty, however, is in ordering this vastness, in joining the "individual" to the "collective," without making a work so esoteric (like Joyce's Finnegans Wake) that it cannot communicate to the uninitiated. This is important, since for Doris Lessing the novel must also serve to teach, to be a social instrument (in fact, in these latest novels, to reveal and prophesy as well). The Four-Gated City, with its forecast of the destruction of Western civilization and its suggestion that individuals with the capacity for extrasensory perception are the evolutionary forerunners of a race of humans more fit for survival, points out the direction but is better able to depict the dissolution of individual consciousnesses and the society which is made up of them than to demonstrate the communal consciousness of the future.
Doris Lessing is more successful in The Golden Notebook because its actual structure resembles the condition of its main character's consciousness: fragmented. Anna's consciousness of herself is split up into several notebooks of different colors, and this separation symbolizes her relation to herself, her body, to other people, and to society in general…. But to express [a] new sense of a unity pervading the universe, moving with the forces of light and water and the planets and stars, to express that which is not yet completely understood, since [as she says in Briefing] "the main feature of these human beings as at present constituted being their inability to feel, or understand themselves, in any other way except through their own drives or functions"…, calls for the development of a kind of novel that does not, as yet, exist. Doris Lessing tries. Some of her desires are realized in The Four-Gated City, others in Briefing, as she attempts to awaken humans who "have not yet evolved into an understanding of their individual selves as merely parts of a whole, first of all humanity, their own species, let alone achieving a conscious knowledge of humanity as part of Nature; plants, animals, birds, insects, reptiles, all these making a small chord in the Cosmic Harmony"…. Yet somehow both of these novels leave something unsatisfied, especially in readers bound up with the individualistic tradition—probably because there is as yet no new form. The Four-Gated City resembles the traditional novel in its structure, and the oddly colorless, if shocking study of the mind in Briefing goes very little further in technical innovation. The quest for knowledge of reality which shapes all Doris Lessing's novels is here thwarted by the inadequacies of the novelistic form. This is not to say that these later novels are failures; they provoke, they stimulate, they disturb, even if they do not succeed in unifying form and content.
It may well be that the very medium of fiction is not the right one for the kind of vision Doris Lessing is now trying to communicate. She has often expressed her concern over the limitations of language, especially in regard to its inability to communicate the richness of dreams and other manifestations of deeper levels of consciousness. The final dreams in Anna's golden notebook, for instance, which begin to allow her to envision a merging of people, ideas, and emotions to take the place of the fragmentation implicit in the other notebooks, are connected finally to the suggestion of cinematic form. (pp. 121-23)
The creation of Anna is of a character accessible through words—her own words. She is never described by anyone else; no one peers into her consciousness and interprets it. Since she is supposed to be a writer, she is shown to be concerned with the expression of self in written words. But when words fail, her "self" begins to fall apart. Anna's disintegration is tied up with the whole question of the existence of individual consciousness: what makes up a "self" and what holds it together. Her attempt at self-definition slowly collapses, finally, because it hinges on the power of words and she discovers that words cannot contain a reality too immense for them….
Anna is dissolving, and as she dissolves the boundaries between what she has defined as her own consciousness and the consciousness of others become blurred. (p. 124)
In The Four-Gated City Doris Lessing may use the power of sexuality to provide the dramatic physical manifestations of unity, but it is only one of the steps in her movement towards a recognition of the mental unity that is most fully revealed through the consciousness of Charles Watkins in Briefing. (pp. 131-32)
Charles Watkins is considered insane according to his doctors' definitions, but those definitions result from a scientific mentality which expresses its own limitations through its "inability to see things except as facets and one at a time"…. Charles, on the other hand, sees now all at once, and not only are his concepts of time and space altered, but he begins to understand the interrelationships between all things….
Consequently, that individual consciousness which Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook saw as "a pulse in a great darkness" loses its connotations of alienation. Although Charles's own mind might be felt as "a pulse of individuality," yet "pulses of mind lay beating and absorbing beside my own little pulse, and together we were a whole"…. Moreover, in itself "humanity was a pulse in the life of the Sun"…, thus again extending the dimensions of the metaphor and using it to serve as the connection between the single consciousness and the evolving consciousness of the world. (p. 132)
Sydney Janet Kaplan, "The Limits of Consciousness in the Novels of Doris Lessing" (originally published in Contemporary Literature, Autumn, 1973), in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, pp. 119-32.
The world through Lessing's eyes is not a commonplace sight even though she examines closely the most ordinary of things…. There is to her perceptions a fable-like content, somewhat resembling a Sufi allegory which conveys secrets to the elect and conceals them from others. One is reminded of Idries Shah's comments at the beginning of Reflections: Fables in the Sufi Tradition: "Do you imagine that fables exist only to amuse or to instruct, and are based upon fiction? The best ones are delineations of what happens in real life, in the community and in the individual's mental processes." So it is with Lessing's writings in that her novels and her short stories partake of the two worlds—of real life on the one hand and of mental processes on the other. The secret is that Lessing, as the Sufis, does not see the two as separate. (pp. 153-54)
It is Lessing's gift to stimulate the awareness of other possibilities in the minds of her readers. She, therefore, in a variety of ways, engages in explorations of space and time, journeying on occasion "into a totally uncharted interior". (p. 154)
Lessing illustrates a variety of levels of wakefulness, whereby her protagonists attempt to energize themselves to trust and to maintain their altered experiences. She believes that such energy is much rarer than any other. Indeed, Lessing has suggested that accumulation of any creative energy is frequently done by means of physical ritual which enables one to move from one level of energy to another, as if changing gears. Martha Quest uses "her body as an engine to get her out of the small dim prison of every day"…. This Lessing protagonist chooses to manipulate the energy generated by her anxiety and to use it in an exploration of self, in an attempt to bridge the gap within herself between the restrictions of acceptable knowledge and a deeper experience of knowing: "When people open up a new area in themselves, start doing something new, then it must be clumsy and raw … the new, an opening up, had to be through a region of chaos, of conflict. There was no other way of doing it". (pp. 155-56)
[Another] of Lessing's protagonists in Briefing for a Descent into Hell who plunges outside the pseudo-ego as well as the more commonplace life experiences and voyages into inner space is Charles Watkins, who returns to everyday life, however, unchanged and unscathed. His inner world of experience, his altered world space, is authenticated by tape recorder during his experience, much as Martha Quest records her journey into other landscapes of mind by her notes. Watkins experiences a temporary but radical alteration of character and the subjective nature of his experience is of vastly different quality than his normal daytime ego would present…. Charles Watkins' "illness" does not establish a new kind of psychic energy change, but rather he is simply returned to where he was originally. The altered reality of his inner world is invalidated by his family and his physicians. (pp. 157-58)
Other Lessing characters do not engage with the inner archetypal mediators so completely as Charles Watkins but approach altered states of consciousness through heightened awareness. (p. 158)
Lessing focuses attention on shifting plays of light as that which moves across the fissures of an opal and directs us to fables that provoke the reader's knowledge of other levels of awareness…. (p. 163)
Nancy Shields Hardin, "Doris Lessing and the Sufi Way" (originally published in Contemporary Literature, Autumn, 1973), in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, pp. 148-64.
In Lessing's world women are almost humans manque; they do not achieve self-fulfillment in the traditional roles of wife and mother, nor do they succeed as "free" or professional women. The source of their failure is dual: they do not feel the need to assume responsibility for themselves, and they are deeply, but wrongly, committed to romantic love, the two being causally linked.
Of course, Lessing does not really believe that anyone can succeed, in human terms, in the nightmare world of a society holding the technological values of money, status, and power. These are never adequate goals for Lessing, who shows male manipulators of power as spiritually effete, inauthentic in their personal relationships, emotionally sterile. In a power-oriented society one must experience disease, and Lessing is obsessed with madness. In order to survive, one must drop out of such a society. Lessing is not, therefore, suggesting that women should deliberately emulate men, whose quested goal, affluence, she regards as fatuous.
Against this broader background, then, one should consider the male/female relationship as probed by Lessing, for she clearly sees that it is symptomatic of the nightmare and part of the disease. Within the contours of her fictional world she explores the psychodynamics of this relationship with relentless objectivity and faultless integrity.
While Lessing describes the neuroticism of both sexes in contemporary society, she shows women failing more massively than men, their failure being rooted in a self-limiting need for romantic love. In order to feel loved, the woman must see herself as "feminine" or passive and the male as "masculine" or dominant. This attitude is illustrated in The Grass Is Singing, an early novel, in which Lessing portrays a young wife, Mary Turner, deliberately refusing vital participation, joint work effort, because …
She needed a man stronger than herself, and she was trying to create one out of Dick. If he had genuinely … taken the ascendancy over her, she would have loved him, and no longer hated herself for becoming tied to a failure.
This is a recurrent theme, and a primary source of failure, in Lessing's work—woman's need to lean, her need for the illusion of having a "real" man, a protector acting as buffer between her and reality. (pp. 88-9)
Lessing is nowhere explicit about the significance of work in the world, though certainly she does not believe one should be defined solely in terms of what one does. In any event, her female protagonists do not seek definition through their own work; nor are they willing to expend the energy necessary for even limited success in their chosen careers, usually ones traditionally feminine, because they are waiting for, or already hibernating in, romantic love. For this reason Lessing's females are always defined by an oppressive lassitude, even when committed to some great cause which is going to save the world from capitalism or the Protestant ethic. In A Ripple from the Storm the women of "the group" (a Communist organization) type and lick stamps. They … "think it is enough to smile and put lipstick on," as one male member of the group complains…. The subject of economic responsibility for self is usually an irrelevancy to Lessing's female characters. They simply do not find work important. (p. 90)
Lessing's female protagonists' refusal of economic responsibility for themselves is perhaps the source of other refusals, emotional and moral, even the responsibility for an identity…. Martha continues to wait, right up through the third volume of the Children of Violence series, to be molded into "what she knew she could be" because only a man will "allow her to be herself." Thus Lessing's woman in pursuit of love tries to surrender her will to the man, refusing the responsibility for self-creation…. Lessing's male characters usually refuse [to assume this] responsibility.
The omnipresent theme of the destructiveness of romantic love to the female is illustrated in Lessing's principal work, The Golden Notebook, through the personality disintegration of the protagonist, Anna Wulf, who becomes oppressively possessive, dependent, and passive once she has fallen in love. (p. 91)
Her male characters tend to use "love" as a mask to conceal lust, which is not very authentic either; in fact, the male seems to suffer almost as much as the female from the sickness generated by the inherent fraudulence of the male/female relationship.
Within the marriage relationship Lessing's women in love find that their myopically assumed conviction of superior male strength soon dissipates, but cognition does not lead to renunciation. Instead, the married woman hastens to create an image of her husband according to some ideal standard that will enable her to perpetuate a necessary illusion. (p. 92)
The family, regarded by the uninitiated as a bulwark against isolation, is shown by Lessing to be inimical to parents and children alike: it is "a dreadful tyranny, a doomed institution, a kind of a mechanism for destroying everyone." While parents are destructive of their children, children, especially adolescents, are shown to be even more destructive of their parents. (p. 93)
Lessing's new women—Martha Quest, Anna Wulf, and Molly Jacobs—all have awareness of the constricting effects of the old mythology which specified that a woman's place was in the home, but all prove incapable of accepting responsibility for significant alternative behaviors which would allow them meaningfully to redirect their lives. The psychosocial essence of the problem would seem to reside in the fact that society is in a state of transition; and while demythologizing is everywhere apparent and remythologizing is under way, the latter has not yet solidified—hence the neurotic-psychotic symptoms of Lessing's new women. (p. 97)
Alice Bradley Markow, "The Pathology of Feminine Failure in the Fiction of Doris Lessing," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974, pp. 88-99.
Is there an alternative to love? In [The Habit of Loving], written not long before The Golden Notebook (1962)—Mrs. Lessing's broadest consideration of all the wars between the sexes—her answer appears to be a rueful no. Those who want to live, apparently, are more or less doomed to love. But cheer up—a little. Love, like the blight in A Mild Attack of Locusts, can be endured. The sturdy wind up saying "It could have been worse." Mrs. Lessing has always been a slow, deliberate writer who seems unable to spare herself or her reader the slightest wince of pain. She is strong as perhaps no male writer of love stories is strong. Yet the stark honesty, the masterly bleakness of these stories are not finally depressing. It may even be praise to say that after a Lessing story—as after a painful episode of life—the reader feels a kind of exaltation just to survive…. (p. 90)
Melvin Maddocks, "Amor Vincet Omnia?," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.) May 20, 1974, pp. K11, 90.
Mrs. Lessing is a stalwart of the Old Left, and the pieces in [A Small Personal Voice] (which include speculations and pronouncements on matters literary, political, and sociological) reflect to one degree or another the kind of querulous-ness that overcomes the utopian mentality when it turns its gaze on things as they are. Then, too, Mrs. Lessing's most encompassing concern is with Mrs. Lessing; this lends to her perspectives and assumptions a quirkiness, or privacy, that gives her writing a rather distorted focus, making the terms in which she couches her discussions largely idiosyncratic. (p. 27)
Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), September 21, 1974.
Maybe Lessing is the living writer most likely to deserve the permanence she seems [in A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews] to be angling or letting herself in for, but she is also a special case, as she, and editors and publishers, should recognize. She is a heavy writer, not easily adept with words, and she can be merely ponderous when trying hardest to be profound. She is not a casual person, and has none of the casual virtues. She has no wit, and only a very serious kind of humor. She works terribly hard, at living and at writing, and at her best she reveals the inner logic of human lives with a pain and a joy unmatched among living writers.
In other words, she is precisely the sort of person who should not be asked to speak off the cuff, to give interviews, to write thousand-word reviews; and her occasional efforts of this sort should not be collected as though anything she ever wrote must be made part of a permanent record. She is capable of breathtaking short bursts of prose, but only in a context where she has worked hard at grasping a whole, a before and an after. Though she writes a great deal about herself, her voice is never small, never personal….
There is nothing remarkable about the writing here—there never is in Lessing, but … those firm-treading steps of hers that keep saying: this is how it was, had to be. There's no one like her. She needs protection from all that would make her a monument. (p. 4)
Roger Sale, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 22, 1974.
[Lessing defined realism] as "art which springs so vigorously and naturally from a strongly held, though not necessarily intellectually defined, view of life that it absorbs symbolism." Without departing from the essence of this definition, her novels have moved from traditional modes to fantasy and science fiction. [She] has been able to utilize nonconventional forms and deal with interior experience while maintaining its public value….
Always concerned with the relations of the individual mind and conscience to the collective, her work has consistently been a search for unity underlying the fragmentation and pain of modern life. A 1972 preface to The Golden Notebook, perhaps the most valuable piece in this collection [A Small Personal Voice], notes that Marxism once provided her a unified world view, "a world mind, a world ethic." Though she has abandoned it, she still sees it as the 20th century's major attempt to attain wholeness. Now she maintains a theory of man as microcosm: the individual is representative—"nothing we can say about ourselves is personal." So Lessing is able to tell us that she has "floated away from the personal" while producing what has been highly personal fiction, affirming the relevance of the creative energies of the unconscious as manifested in dreams, or even in madness, as in her Briefing for a Descent into Hell. This has been most important for a writer who had reached the limits of the traditional autobiographical novel and found a major theme in the "blocked" artist [The Golden Notebook].
Henry J. Lindborg, "Search for Unity," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), October 5, 1974, p. 22.
If the future it envisages didn't make the notion of any living writer achieving a 'collected works' seem ludicrous and macabre, I could imagine Doris Lessing's new novel finding the sort of place in her oeuvre that Daniel Deronda holds in George Eliot's. It may not be her best—that will probably be one of her traditional, more or less naturalistic novels which, like Middlemarch, turns a superb, profound intelligence on ordinary reality with a detail and candour educated out of most men's capacity. But if George Eliot hadn't written Deronda, the majority of readers would never meet the woman who wrote the reviews and scholarly essays, see that staggering mind at its full stretch and extraordinariness. Memoirs of a Survivor displays Doris Lessing in the same way. As a novel it is half-achieved, over-theoretic and under-imagined on one side of what it attempts. But it must be her most remarkable book, the one which shows her mind at its most extended, original and astonishing….
[The] strong side of the novel [is] brilliantly persuasive and circumstantial in its imagination, so that each step toward barbarism, whether the barbarism is seen as liberating or dehumanising, seems completely necessary….
Where it falters is in a series of alternative visions in which Mrs Lessing tries to supply an extra dimension to the book by resorting to Jungian imagery of the old order which produced the break-down and the new order which may emerge. The narrator from time to time daydreams herself through the wall of her flat into a surrealistic world. (p. 826)
The writing of these visionary sequences is often powerful, sometimes very fine indeed. But inevitably they are more generalised and less individual than Mrs Lessing's own imagination of the mundane apocalypse on the streets of north London. The Jungian archetypes turn up one after the other, in dream settings whose colours and Daliesque imagery sometimes bring to mind bathetically the more high-flown production numbers of the Hollywood musicals of the Forties and Fifties. The passages function within the novel. The quality of their writing is sufficient that the ending,… seems genuinely visionary, not just a cop-out. But they're of a coarser texture than the rest of the book, and the only parts of it one could imagine written by someone else.
The moral, I suppose, is that, as with George Eliot, Doris Lessing's intelligence is swifter and finer than the prose style she commands. For that reason, her prose works better on plain reality than on the tuppence-coloured uplands of the surreal. But when the full force and range of that mind pushes past the ordinary limits of her talent, the result is something more than even the best of traditional novels. Like George Eliot, she becomes a prophet. (p. 827)
Ronald Bryden, "On the Move," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 6, 1974, pp. 826-27.
Miss Lessing's prose saves [The Memoirs of a Survivor] from floating off. In less enlightened times, it would have been called the feminine style, that thin wash of detail and nuance with a sheen which reflects the shifting surfaces of a new world…. The book is written in a reflective narrative style which is not tied to the conventional laws of plot, and it can include too many disparate elements for its own good; the novel is in constant danger of falling apart into a number of self-contained images and units.
Miss Lessing becomes so involved in the shifts and nuances of a world which is rapidly drifting into the occult that she loses her indispensable sense of realism: perhaps it is not so much realism as credibility, since without it even the most bizarre fantasy will founder upon general disbelief. The looking-glass land is, for example, too contrived to be taken as seriously as Miss Lessing intends…. Her vision of future shock is similarly artificial, and the central weakness of this book is that its locale is far too predictable: the barter, the communal living, the non-verbal communication have been part of the stock-in-trade of academics like Steiner and McLuhan for longer than most of us care to remember.
But to say all this is not to deny the power of her writing when she abandons pop-sociology and returns to her vision of 'time' coming to an end. It is not often that the romanticising of contemporary mystics can be interesting, but Miss Lessing achieves this when she opens her narrative out into a world which is not the world, and into a time which is not our time. Her novel approaches the beautiful at this point, and it is possible to forget the contrivances which have been pressed into its service. (p. 797)
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), December 21, 1974.
In the preface to The Golden Notebook Lessing confesses that the frustration of having been taken up by ideologists, of having the true shape and meaning of her novel willfully distorted to serve political ends, leads her to wonder, "so why write novels?" The novels she has written answer that question. The Golden Notebook, the five novels which comprise Children of Violence, The Temptation of Jack Orkney—these are perdurable testaments to the courage of the individual confronting a society whose disorder and hostility Lessing depicts with wonderfully precise metaphors. In them she has rendered life in the only way the artist can, through the medium of her own sensitive response to the condition of being human. No analysis, not even her own, can even faintly approximate the truths these novels contain. (p. 57)
Ellen Cronan Rose, "'Don't Review, Don't Go on TV'," in The Nation (copyright 1975 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), January 18, 1975, pp. 56-7.
[What] attracts men as well as women to Doris Lessing's fiction these days, we might conclude, is what attracted them to Lawrence's: namely, an autobiographical intensity by which images of the author's self are put on the line and exploited with an honesty so self-searching and unsparing as to anticipate most of our critical objections to those images; a prophetic arrogance, too, a projected self-importance by which such characters are taken as where we are now or where we should be heading—as when Anna and Molly [in The Golden Notebook] see themselves as "the position of women" in the 1950s, even as Birkin [in Women in Love] sees himself as "the man with a new idea" about love in the 1910s. And finally, there is an immersion through such characters in some regional manifestation of the fate of a whole civilization in decline, the death-driven ways of the South African colonies in World War II, or of the industrial midlands in World War I, in which Anna and Birkin steep themselves each with a fatal yearning, yet which each also struggles to transcend. Here indeed are kindred spirits, so much so that what critics say of one novelist might well be said of the other. Who is "one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand"? Which novelist says to us, "Take me at my own level of sincerity, of seriousness, and not at yours, and you will see that this is exactly right"? The first is Lessing, the second Lawrence, as seen by Margaret Drabble (in her Ramparts review of The Summer Before the Dark) and Mark Schorer (in The World We Imagine) respectively. But surely both writers have made the same refusal to be cowed by the modern world's absurdities and incomprehensibilities; and surely both demand of readers the same active faith in their audacity and sincerity as pledges to authenticity—with the surprising result that Lawrence, about forty years after the fact, and Lessing about ten to twenty years after, have found audiences they have themselves helped to create who approach them with just such activated faith.
Their differences as "modern sensibilities" are nonetheless considerable. Both are "modern" in that they have written major experimental fictions and have dealt substantively with unconventional themes; but Lessing is plainly more Joycean than Laurentian in her formal predilections. If she shares her theme—the fragmentation of society and of consciousness—with a great many modern writers, including Lawrence, her expression of it follows the example of Joyce, Faulkner, and Woolf, in their use of multiple perspectives upon common strands of modern experience to convey its many-sidedness, and of stream-of-consciousness techniques to express both alienation and the quest to get beyond it to some kind of wholeness or connectedness.
Lessing's devices are variations on these precedents—the dream sequences which are becoming increasingly frequent in her fiction, by which she indicates the division of conscious from unconscious life and, more interestingly, the unconscious struggle of her protagonists toward some new unity with conscious life; and the notebook device by which she compartmentalizes past and present aspects of her heroine's divided self…. The effect of all these devices is to give us an almost physical delineation of the fragmented consciousness of a woman whose impulses as a writer, a socialist, and a person are to unify her personal, social, and fictive experiences; and of course it is a mark of Lessing's terrible honesty that at this stage of her career she could conceive of nothing less than this multiple approach to the difficulties of such unification; and the mark, too, of her characteristic "arrogance and egotism" that she should conceive of these difficulties as somehow representative of the "position of women" in the 1950s. (pp. 221-23)
Mark Spilka, "Lessing and Lawrence: The Battle of the Sexes," in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 2, Spring, 1975, pp. 218-40.
Most critics have viewed Miss Lessing's latest book [The Memoirs of a Survivor] as a novel with two plots, one a realistic tale of the near-future and the other a fantasy of the past as seen through the wall; we might call them the pavement-plot and the wall-plot. But is it clear that the pavement-plot is the realist tale and the wall-plot the fantasy? It is true that the pavement-plot is introduced in a way that does not require the reader to believe that physical objects can change their nature, as the wall must do when it becomes transparent; surely common sense requires that we regard the story of Emily's present as more fantastic than the story of her perfectly ordinary past, even though the latter is witnessed through the physically unlikely fading-away of a wall. But isn't it unprofitable to view the book as a novel with two plots that fail to fuse? Wall and pavement lead straight into a blind alley. Moreover, such criticism fails to rise to the challenge of the dust-jacket blurb: '"An attempt at autobiography", says Doris Lessing, describing her new book…'.
Of course the book cannot be the autobiography of the narrator, despite her being the 'I' of the book, for she not only lacks a name, but also has no history. The narrator's actions, few though they are, are set entirely in the present; of the past she is only a witness. Clearly, the wall-plot is Emily's present, and the end gives a presentiment, however opaque, of her future. The biography of a living person must, of course, detail the subject's past; it could say something of the subject's present; and it might venture a guess at the subject's future. The same applies perforce to an autobiography, where subject and author are the same person. Does Doris Lessing intend us to identify Emily with herself? Just possibly the scenes through the wall are reminiscences of Miss Lessing's childhood; but if the scenes on the pavement are meant to represent the author's present, it has to be said that their clear allegorical character gets in the way of any literal understanding. But can we ever aspire to a literal understanding of another person's present spiritual condition? Perhaps allegory is the most precise and accurate way for a gifted writer of fiction to bare her soul. In which case Memoirs of a Survivor might be seen as a worthy instance of the tradition that includes St Augustine and Rousseau, and with good grace and no presumption be read as a survivor's confessions. (p. 60)
Paul Levy, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Hansom Books 1975), April, 1975.
The setting of Doris Lessing's latest novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor, is … a time where the enemy is Reality and the meaning of life boils down to survival…. The message is that through maturity we survive.
Lessing has touched on this theme—the changing human condition—in various other works. In Summer Before the Dark, for example, the protagonist, Kate Brown, is on the edge of "realizing" something outside the realm of ordinary existence; a passing through from one stage of life to another. In Memoirs, the woman-narrator, unnamed (and more Lessing herself than ever), is also involved in "realizing" something which has little at all to do with "reality." What it is that she "realizes"—the "Personal"—makes up the core of the narrative.
Isolating the "Personal" from the "real" of ordinary existence is another theme that Lessing threads through most of her novels. She is in complete command of her craft in depicting both worlds. Memoirs goes deeper autobiographically than any previous work, transforming what could have been, in lesser hands, a mere futuristic fable of girl meets boy, into a provocative novel of self-discovery and self-survival.
Linda Ludwig, "More Lessing," in Literary Quarterly, May 15, 1975, p. 13.
["The Memoirs of a Survivor" is a] bleak, fevered dream of the future, matter-of-factly narrated by a middle-class survivor of our own era. In a city where electricity has practically stopped, where government ("the Talkers") has become a dim rumor, where food and water are scarce, and where the streets are menaced by wandering cannibalistic hordes of young people, the narrator, an older woman, watches the world from her apartment window…. From time to time, the woman retreats from the terrors of the present to rich (some painfully so) memories of the past. These passages are vivid and raw, and have a disturbing power; in comparison, the scenes that depict the social horrors of the future are flat and unconvincing. It's not that Mrs. Lessing's vision of a decaying, centerless society is not strong enough; it's that her vision is too pat and, for all the horrors described, a little academic. (pp. 109-10)
The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), June 2, 1975.
The massive accumulation of words that Lessing has usually demanded for her heroines gives them a reality so large that it strains, and is meant to strain, the boundaries of fiction. Their sprawling histories encompass decades, careers, political movements, the crises of women in our time.
Now [in "The Memoirs of a Survivor"], from a later perspective and with self-scrutinizing insight Doris Lessing herself stands back to look not only at the world but at her own earlier imaginations of it: her words have a special precision and eloquence. The distended urgency of her earlier heroines is discarded, and the narrator of this book is a woman who turns a cool, faceless attention to the crumbling society around her. (p. 1)
Lessing's message, recognizable from her previous work, is close to Auden's "We must love one another and die." With dogged persistence, she repeats the idea from novel to novel, qualifies it with a cold reality. We must care. We must take on responsibility, preserve what is left. We will be disillusioned, defeated, but we must.
Emily's story is one half of "The Memoirs of a Survivor," an external record of events which parallel Lessing's recapitulation of another major theme: that our interior lives are rich with possibilities. We must rely on our perceptions to inform us. Like a cinematic dissolve the wall of the guardian's flat fades away: here lie rooms and gardens that change from vision to vision, another world to be set in order, and again the task is difficult. A sort of poltergeist, a marauder of her psyche, can ruin all her efforts, leaving the place in disarray. The ease with which this inner world is projected is markedly different from the elaborate justifications of the visionary in Lessing's other novels, as though she had come to terms with her own belief. The life behind the survivor's wall is more than plausible: it has the authenticity of dreams. With her we come to understand that the interior and exterior worlds are close together, imagination bred of memories….
Bergman must come to mind for this fable is closer to "Persona" than any work of fiction. There is such a fusion of lives and roles here, a shared past…. The past must become our wonderful story if we are to transcend the terrible rules and limitations of our specific lives. The overlay of a grand psychic drama on the little melodrama of Emily's love story is the real theme of "The Memoirs of a Survivor." Doris Lessing speaks of this book as "an attempt at autobiography," and it is self-referential but not in the usual way. It is a synthesis of her earlier work: the scenes are from her past, perhaps her past as Emily, but surely from the past of her own novels.
How can it end—this apocalyptic vision? Lessing resorts to romance without apologies. Everything is probable as the last walls dissolve, like the final orchestrations in late Shakespeare. All the principals walk, literally, into the imagined landscape of Lessing's alternatives …, so that their salvation may be accomplished after all.
In her introduction to the new edition of "The Golden Notebook," Doris Lessing speculates that in the narrowness and impermanence of the exterior world all the old values, all her words will be swept away. "So why write novels," she asks, "Indeed why! I suppose we have to go on living as if…" As the very title, "The Memoirs of a Survivor," is meant to suggest, we endure. (p. 2)
Maureen Howard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 8, 1975.
For those readers who have eagerly awaited Lessing's capping statements about her long, complex life, the experience of reading [The Memoirs of a Survivor] will either be profoundly moving or profoundly disappointing. Few will remain indifferent to this strangely powerful, but difficult, and often infuriating work.
Here is not autobiography as we have come to understand the genre: nowhere is there a specific recounting of lovers, or the growth of ambition, or the realization of professional triumphs, or even of Lessing's well-known political conversions. Rather, the author narrates a series of nightmarish images, some in dreamlike sequences reminiscent of Antonioni's most surrealistic cinematic moments. As a whole, the book is an elaborate mixture of personal and political symbolism….
The process of social disintegration comprises the more obvious political portion of these "memoirs." The other half of the book takes place through one wall of [an] old woman's flat….
What are we to make of this mystifying literary design? Our first clue is that the child in the memory scenes behind the wall is always called Emily. As Emily is also the girl entrusted into the old woman's keeping, we must assume that it is the woman's own past for which she is responsible. Emily—on both sides of the wall—is obviously Lessing in many stages of development. (This concept of split selves will not be new to Lessing fans.)
Her purpose in dividing her experiences into so many categories is to clarify her major theme: as the woman looks out her window into the future she sees the ruinous results of her government, while if she looks beyond her wall into her far past she sees children tyrannized by their elders. The parallel is clear: oppression is built into human nature and starts from the cradle. Since no government can do more than mirror human fallibility, society will never be cured of its ills through organized politics. We're puppets to the system all our lives. This is the lesson of reliving her past. The teenage Emily learns this bitter rule in the commune, while the old woman watching her understands finally the unity of all experience….
One of the problems with the book is that unless one is familiar with Lessing's previous work, especially The Four-Gated City, the meaning of the rooms will probably remain totally baffling. Lessing believes that there is a collective human mind, existing on a psychic plane, to which individuals may "choose to plug in or not." In the present book she provides an elaborate symbol of persons fitting pieces of materials onto a carpet of matching design, to express her belief that there is a psychic space waiting for everyone. Each person must develop his ability to break through the barrier of everyday life and occupy his hidden territory….
There is much one could criticize in The Memoirs of a Survivor—the heaviness of the symbols, the total lack of humor, the murkiness, the repetition, the awkwardness of so much of the prose—yet in the end the book has a peculiar power that works on the reader's mind. It is as if a huge, cumbersome beast came to you and put his paw on your forehead—it might not feel good, but you will probably never forget it.
Leslie Garis, "Through a Wall Darkly," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 15, 1975, p. 3.
My pleasure in "The Memoirs of a Survivor" is limited by the generalized, nearly ectoplasmic femaleness of Emily and her guardian. The deteriorating community in which they move is more solidly imagined. Miniature windmills whir and flash in the upper windows of buildings where power has failed; little businesses spring up; chicken runs and rabbit sheds appear in the center of town: "It was amazing how determined, how stubborn, how self-renewing were the attempts to lead an ordinary life." There is no rescue ship for Lessing's female Robinson Crusoes, however. In the end they march … through the dissolving walls of their apartment into an extrasensory realm where I'm unable to follow them. (p. 76)
Walter Clemons, "Things to Come," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), June 16, 1975, pp. 75-6.
Futurologists tend to be either projectors or mystics. The projectors take the present, put it on the old slide rule, and compute ahead into tomorrow, worrying whether technology's last achievement will be to foresee technology's demise. On the other hand, the mystics think of the future not as the next extension on the graph but rather as an alternative universe, as different from this one as heaven or hell….
Doris Lessing is a mystic. Once, in The Golden Notebook, her frontier was women's liberation. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and now in The Memoirs of a Survivor, she has so abstracted herself from the present and the actual as to deserve another name than novelist. Call [The Memoirs of a Survivor] a ghost story of the future….
The Memoirs of a Survivor is an extraordinary and compelling meditation about the enduring need for loyalty, love and responsibility in an unprecedented time that places unbearable demands upon people. It is also a panicked intuition turned into a tentative myth. To ask it to have a conclusion, or even an ending, is to ask too much. The future is less a theme than an obsession for Mrs. Lessing. With all the force and all the limitations of one possessed, she has written a visionary's history of the future—that nightmare from which she is trying to awaken.
Melvin Maddocks, "Ghosts and Portents," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), June 16, 1975, p. 79.
It is not gracefulness of style that has held Doris Lessing's growing audience, but rather, a steadily high level of intellectual energy and provocative ideas, embodied in and through her characters. These are the strengths and weaknesses of her newest novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor….
Lessing's pessimism, so evident here, seems increasingly to find its only resolution in apocalypse. Her last four novels have proposed as the only alternative to external anarchy or despair a great inward journey, which ultimately dissolves the wall between the two dimensions of reality—but also turns its back on that chaos in the social order. As in the ending to The Four-Gated City, The Memoirs offers a visionary exit from the hopelessness of the very real societal breakdown Lessing envisions: the new dispensation is a transcendent one providing "the way out of this collapsed little world into another order of world altogether."…
By contrast [with her first novel, The Grass Is Singing,] The Memoirs discloses a view which is paradoxically more pessimistic and more visionary. Whereas in The Grass Is Singing, inhumanity is built into the social order (apartheid), in the future imagined in The Memoirs there is no social order left at all. In both novels the community can offer little sustenance; mutual tolerance and the urge to reaffirm "responsibility" as a communal value are the only alternatives to complete dehumanization. At the root of both novels is the awesome potential of the human mind that provides not only the vehicle for breakdown and capitulation to overwhelming circumstances, but also the capacity for transformation, renewal and even escape. Mary Turner's despair begins with isolation and ends in self-hatred; the narrator in The Memoirs confronts despair in the form of outer anarchy by adapting (Emily) and the guilt and claustrophobia of her past by assimilating and finally transforming it into the future.
However despite the intriguing fantasy of the twin strands of past and future in The Memoirs of a Survivor, the narrator is a shadowy, unknowable figure, more of an eyepiece through whom we see chaos or possibility than a sympathetic character. As she says, "I almost felt myself not to exist, in my own right. I was a continuation, for [Emily], of parents, or a parent, a guardian, foster-parents"—illustrating an insubstantiality that somewhat distances the reader. Unlike the clarity of The Grass Is Singing, the vision in this latest novel is ultimately oblique, resolved only in the cryptic realization that the narrator—and Doris Lessing—are survivors. (pp. 21-2)
Roberta Rubenstein, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 21, 1975.
In rereading The Golden Notebook, we find that it is a triumphant book. Not only does it record Anna Wulf's—and Doris Lessing's—victory over self-doubts, but also it is in itself an extraordinary work—complicated, sharp, and comprehensive. It contains tragedies, parodies, dreams—perhaps too many dreams—superbly accurate transcripts, and, above all, the truth: not the names or dates or even the persons, some of whom melt into each other, but the truth that Lessing had tried to set down about herself as a free woman. It has become a landmark in twentieth-century writing. (p. 23)
Malcolm Cowley, "Future Notebook," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 28, 1975, pp. 23-4.
Wit, grace, conciseness have never been [Doris Lessing's] strong points; but she has shown a remarkable alertness to current and about-to-be-current concerns, and incorporated them into her books: a communist and then an ex-communist, a feminist before it was obligatory to be one, a radical Laingian in her view of psychological health and ill-health, and at present in favor with the "counterculture" because of her interest in mystical and extrasensory states of consciousness.
In all these concerns she has been shrewd, compassionate, and essentially consistent; she has explicitly wanted to mirror the times she has lived through and she has done so—though all this, of course, is not identical with art or the writing of good novels. Leaden dialogue, faceless characters, and the grinding of worthy ideological axes have all occasionally marred the slacker novels that followed the first. The short stories have necessarily kept more shape and vitality: she wrote one about a dog in Africa that was cool, beautiful, and (like the dog) free of any ulterior concerns. Skilled, conscientious, her writing can sometimes give illumination, and when that fails she describes that illumination, and tells us what a good thing it is. Perhaps some of our novelists will be seen to be victims of their chosen form, as Victorian artists of the academic painting? One slice of life is enough; a plateful too much.
The phantasmagorical, science-fiction element that has crept into Doris Lessing's recent work is therefore, I think, a gain for her. The very flat-footedness of her style becomes an asset in embodying a strange or exotic theme; she is at her best when her narrative realism is used in the service of an imaginative vision. The themes in [The Memoirs of a Survivor] are not quite so bold or complex as those of Briefing for a Descent into Hell: the idea of breakdown, both of mechanized Western culture and of adult, mechanical personality, is familiar and very close to us.
The Memoirs of a Survivor extends two parallel metaphors for these, drawing them closer and closer as the book accelerates toward its end. On the one hand is the world of outside, of society, the City metaphor: a decaying and threatened city some time in the near future…. Only the young people, impatient of their elders, take the situation for granted and cope with it, some by traveling in predatory gangs like nomad hunters and others more public-spiritedly organizing barter, supplies, and the care of the younger children.
The descriptions in this part of the book have an energy and ingenuity reminiscent of Defoe. The unnamed narrator's foster-daughter, Emily, takes her to a scene where the young ones are happily at home: here all the useless gadgets of civilization are brought to be stripped, recycled, or exchanged…. The author has created a kind of African market place in the ruins. Yet over it hovers a blur, like a close network of tiny, fatal cracks.
This all strikes home: she has tapped a communal nightmare of decay that we instantly understand. The imagination catches a subterranean whiff of the ghetto before the holocaust, of an occupied city, or one waiting for invasion—a distillation of twentieth-century terror. The effect lingers on, and the nonfictional city outside one's own front door seems curiously fragile and sinister.
Parallel to this narrative and this metaphor runs another one: while the outer, consensual world is the City, the inner one is the House, the narrator's beleaguered apartment. Outside, the streets disintegrate; the vitality is all inside, increasing in step with the decay round it. The walls of the apartment, as a symbol of the dream dimension that interpenetrates waking life, sometimes dissolve and reveal another set of rooms and scenes; though as in a fairy tale, the special spot that opens them, the piece of pattern on the wallpaper, is always impossible to find the next day. A sequence of dream images, each evolving from some event in the main narrative, appears in this other half of the house and forms the second thread of the story….
Emily is the third thread, and links the other two. Mrs. Lessing has called the book an autobiography: this foster child, billeted on the narrator without explanation, is then her own younger self whom she must observe and cherish. The theme of two women looking after each other is a recurring one in her books, and there is somewhat tiresomely too much of it here. (p. 38)
It is an ambitious and difficult feat: to dissolve the barriers between literal and imaginative fact in a way that we recognize to be right requires a very delicate touch. The ending, with Emily and a train of other figures stepping through the dissolving walls of the house into another world, is a little shaky, somewhat reminiscent of a Technicolor fade-out into the sunset. The death of one self, the birth of a new, may be the gloss, but it is a little theoretical. The book's method raises a doubt, too, about the literal transcription of dreams into fiction, and the relationship between these two different modes of imagining. The rooms behind the wall have the recognizable feeling of a real dream series, in which an image recurs repeatedly in changing settings: the author even makes the conventional Jungian distinction between the personal and the archetypal dream dimensions. Yet a question remains whether dreams can be lifted wholesale from the night into fiction; should they not be re-dreamed into their fictional form?
The image that most holds the book together is that of the disintegrating city—a powerful image that has attracted other artists before. And attracted Mrs. Lessing before: sometimes, as in The Summer Before the Dark, in the shape of a breakdown of conventional, "civilized" behavior; or, in The Four-Gated City, of the dying city's mirror image, the paradisal, archetypally beautiful lost city. Especially close in theme to The Memoirs of a Survivor is the fragment appended to the end of the latter book, in the guise of a final letter from the Martha Quest whose life is the framework of the "Children of Violence" novel sequence. It too is set in an all-too-probable future, and describes with frightening sharpness the flight of a few survivors of nuclear disaster to a remote Scottish island and their subsequent life: the clothes made from salvaged blankets, the food got and prepared with Stone Age tools, the radiation-deformed fish washed up on the beaches. With her gift for combining prophecy and prosaic detail, she has done well to re-create and expand this landscape.
Closest of all in feeling to this latest novel is Doris Lessing's first and admired one, The Grass Is Singing; perhaps—though it is too early to get a clear perspective—these two may come to be considered her best. An immense amount of intelligent and original response to current events has gone into the work she has done since the first book, but—except in the short stories—without quite the same emotional unity and force. The book stands up excellently to rereading: it spells out the slow disintegration of a white city woman on a poor farm on the Rhodesian veld, and its evocation of heat and encroaching wilderness, menace, and paralyzed despair is very reminiscent of The Memoirs of a Survivor. (pp. 38-9)
It is in … long despairing landscapes that Mrs. Lessing is most at home. With their opposites, scenes of fertility and promise, she falters a little; but hell has always made better copy than heaven. (p. 39)
Rosemary Dinnage, "In the Disintegrating City," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), July 17, 1975, pp. 38-9.
[In Lessing's] recent work she seems to have been trying to turn her large audience into a coterie, with her insistence on madness-as-cure and her increasing devotion to the end of the world. So the first thing to be said about Memoirs of a Survivor is that it is real recovery, her best novel since The Four-Gated City…. Lessing is once again in touch with what has made her a great writer; if she gains no new readers with it, she can draw many old ones back into the fold. Yes, it is about the end of the world, and on that score she has little new to add….
Nor will the great strength of this book—the relation between the woman and a girl of about twelve named Emily who appears in her apartment—seem altogether new. What marks the difference is that, stripped of most other needs and relationships, these two give us some of Lessing's best wisdom about mothers and daughters, older people and younger people….
Thus against a background which says something new is happening to the world is played the drama of ancient and unchanging human relations. (pp. 621-22)
Memoirs of a Survivor is not so much a novel as a novelistic distillation of Doris Lessing's knowing and way of knowing: the older woman sees Emily clearly, sees her as herself, but wisely, as someone else, knowing she has only her own useless and limited maturity to guide her. The end of the world may be important, but at least equally important is this relation, this clarity and bed rock wisdom that says, cataclysm or no: "You are this, and this and this—this is what you have to be, and not that." In that spirit of acknowledging we can only be ourselves, Lessing the novelist defeats the spirit of the simpler visionary she showed signs of becoming. The book is austere, willed, too spare, all wrong in a sense, but essentially true and right. (pp. 622-23)
Roger Sale, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1975 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter, 1975–76.