Doris Lessing Lessing, Doris (Vol. 3)

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Lessing, Doris (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lessing, Doris 1919–

A British novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright, Ms. Lessing was born in Persia and raised in Southern Rhodesia, the setting for many of her earlier novels. Her overriding concern is with the search for self, and, for her sensitive portrayal of women who chart painful courses of self-discovery, she is considered an important feminist writer. For her fiction, Ms. Lessing has drawn upon her own conversion to Communism (since renounced), the racial situation in Africa, the theories of R. D. Laing, and extra sensory perception. She is the author of The Golden Notebook and the five-part Martha Quest series, The Children of Violence. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Doris Lessing is an old-fashioned novelist. Her kind of plot and characterization is anachronistic in a period when Julio Cortázar plays hopscotch with time, place and character, and Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet eliminate conventional elements altogether. She composes her five-volume epic ["Children of Violence"] as if Lawrence Durrell had not rendered his quartet in a time-space continuum. And she uses undistinguished, if not ordinary, language as though extravagant word patterns were not being designed by Anthony Burgess and Raymond Queneau. Which makes it all the more surprising that, despite such archaism, Miss Lessing is still a profoundly contemporary writer, and, though [The Four-Gated City] does not offer any technical innovation, it is nonetheless the most intelligent novel to come out of England since her own Golden Notebook….

Now the year is 1949. Twenty-five-year-old Martha Quest spends several euphoric months wandering at random through London. But aimlessness begins to oppress her, bravado collapses into panic and she heads for a super-imposed existence in Bloomsbury—an ambiguous but demanding post with the intellectual and writer, Mark Cold-ridge. Regardless of periodic resolutions to set out again on her own, there she remains almost until her death in 1997.

So culminates the heroine's chronological development and the Bildungsroman of a representative woman of our time, representative because she embodies the split between passivity and agression: one side placates and serves, the other supports unpopular causes and unconventional morality. In either role, Martha of London feels the same imprisoned creature she did on the farm in Zambesia….

Doris Lessing writes objectively about the male-female relationship. In fact, it becomes apparent halfway through the novel that she is less interested in her heroine's special condition than in the twentieth-century malaise of which Martha is but one symptom. Through a shift of focus, Martha's divided nature comes to underscore the more critical division in the entire social organism, between the myth of rational progress and the reality of emotional regression.

Linda Kuehl, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), June 20, 1969, pp. 394-95.

In the first four novels [of "Children of Violence"] Mrs. Lessing is a conscientiously realistic writer, dealing with many (if not all!) of the political and social issues which have engaged the international intelligentsia since the end of the First World War. Personally I find the writing in these books somewhat undistinguished, artisan rather than artistic …, and the detail of the narration impresses me as quite suffocating at times. Mrs. Lessing has never trusted to the illuminating image or the revealing instance, the part which could evoke the whole more accurately than the whole can ever do: she spells everything out. At the same time, except for that quasi-mystical communion of the flesh, so very, very conscious, which comes early in the present novel [The Four-Gated City ] her spelling is good and careful; she takes pains with her documentation; she adopts attitudes and sides, and they are always decent ones. She knows what is right, what is good, but she doesn't make either the ends or the...

(The entire section is 11,377 words.)