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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 means seem simpler than they are, and like a true liberal she inclines to say more for the bad attitudes and the wrong sides than they would bother to say for themselves. Her roman fleuve moves sluggishly—Martha Quest's prime seems to last for a good fifty years!—but it has a certain grim carrying power about it.
If Mrs. Lessing is more concerned with matter than with style, then at least this is preferable to the contrary state of affairs. Her work is free of gimmicks, a fact which endows it with distinction at a time when so many novels turn out to be gimmicks et praeterea nihil…. No, Mrs. Lessing works for her royalties: she is a stakhanovite of contemporary fiction.
Yet this new and final instalment does decline, I fear, into reliance on a gimmick—the gimmick of the apocalyptic, or the science-fictional, which here takes the form of a not very specific 'Catastrophe' resulting from the escape of nerve-gas from a research station and/or accidents involving nuclear devices….
We cannot deny Mrs. Lessing her vision of disaster, her despair. The world can quite conceivably meet the fate she describes. The trouble, as I have suggested, is that this fate is not in accordance with the rest of 'Children of Violence', and neither is it effectively, with an effect of significant irony, out of accord with it….
Finally, however, it may well be that most readers will object less to the apocalyptic end than to the tedious means whereby it is arrived at, the gratuitous lengthiness of the work. It only took God six days to create the whole world. It really shouldn't require six hundred pages for Mrs. Lessing to destroy a part of it.
D. J. Enright, "Shivery Games: Doris Lessing's 'Children of Violence' (1969)" in his Man Is An Onion: Reviews and Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1972, pp. 26-31.
From John Galsworthy to Anthony Powell and C. P. Snow, modern British writers of fiction have produced notable "series" novels (a sequence of stories about a single major character or group of characters). But rarely has any such effect evoked a response as enthusiastic as that generated by Doris Lessing's five-part "Children of Violence," now brought to a conclusion with The Four-Gated City….
In The Four-Gated City, Martha discovers that post-World War II London is hardly the ideal place she has been searching for. During her first months in the city, she makes the acquaintance of a wide variety of people of many social classes, and presently becomes secretary-mistress to a noted writer. In the next 20 years or so, she seems to lead a relatively calm life. But she knows that mankind is always ready to act impulsively and irrationally, and it is against the backdrop of her awareness that we see world events in those years. Then, in a long and brilliant appendix to the novel proper, we jump to 1997. Martha, now near death, speaks of her apocalypse—a nightmare vision of humanity's self-destruction (both nerve gas and atomic bombs are mentioned). It is this appendix that makes this one novel and the entire series so shatteringly unique.
For as the world twitches in the final throes of existence Martha sees all the earlier manifestations of "violence" culminate in catastrophe. The overall title of the series really makes no sense until this volume, which also brings together many of the thematic emphases in the earlier novels (e.g., Martha's obsession with dreams, her sudden discovery of the powers of E.S.P.). True, she does not "do" much in The Four-Gated City: she only experiences the modern world and, later, tells us about the future world. But always her surname, Quest, is before us as a symbol of mankind's hopes and aims.
Paul Schlueter, "Shattering," in Christian Century, January 28, 1970, pp. 121-22.
[Part] of the disturbing achievement of The Golden Notebook is to make the traditional distinction—once so firmly understood, and so much part of the basic vocabulary of critics, including this one—between literary and sociological ways of looking at the world a good deal less easy to sustain. The Golden Notebook follows Doris Lessing's earlier novels in the Martha Quest sequence; if those books showed the struggles of a young woman for independence, then The Golden Notebook shows the harder though less dramatic struggles of a woman in her thirties who has long since achieved it. Anna Wulf, the heroine of The Golden Notebook, is like an older version of Martha. Though born in London, she too lived in Rhodesia during the war years, where she was involved in left-wing politics and contracted a brief, unhappy marriage. After the war she returns to England, and in 1957, when The Golden Notebook opens, she has made a name as the author of Frontiers of War, a best-selling novel, has been a Communist for a few years, and has undergone psychoanalysis…. On the face of it Anna Wulf has achieved a degree of personal freedom that the New Woman of Ibsen and Shaw could scarcely have dreamed of; she is as free as any man in all the major spheres of life, professional, intellectual and, above all, sexual. Only her deeper emotions remain unliberated; she is conscious of a surviving need for dependence, and the clash between her desire to control her own destiny and her passionate love for a young American writer takes her to the brink of insanity and provides a major theme of the novel…. The Golden Notebook is a work of great, if cold, brilliance. It is dominated by Doris Lessing's hard, analytical intelligence, a quality which at once sets her apart from such lesser frank exponents of the woman problem as Edna O'Brien, and which is always evident, even at the very brink of hysteria; as, for instance, the many intelligent passages of parody and assured mimicry….
It is very much a novel about process, which is something that preoccupies a wide area of contemporary Western culture, ranging from action-painting, or 'happenings', to the literary scholarship that is much less interested in the finished work than in the source material, notebook outlines and early drafts that went into it. The process that most concerns Doris Lessing is the way in which 'experience' is transformed into 'fiction'. In The Golden Notebook we see the source material for Frontiers of War, but not the novel itself; we are, however, able to read the draft of a novel about a girl called Ella that Anna Wulf is composing in the yellow notebook….
Within the confines of The Golden Notebook our attention is directed from source material to its literary rendering and back again. Yet attention is also led outwards, beyond the confines of the book. Inevitably, if we have read Doris Lessing's other novels, such as The Grass is Singing and the Martha Quest volumes, then we will be aware that all these books are rooted in the same area of experience. It is here that questions about the relation of fiction to autobiography, which in more traditional novels can be either ignored or regarded with detached curiosity, become exigent. The Golden Notebook cannot be read with the established canons of impersonality in mind; yet to attempt to follow up the speculations it inevitably triggers off might cause one to fall foul of the laws of libel, not to mention offending common delicacy.
Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Situation of the Novel (reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press; © 1970 by the University of Pittsburgh Press), University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970, pp. 201-04.
To say that Doris Lessing's … novel [Briefing for a Descent into Hell] is about a Cambridge classics professor who loses his memory, spends three months in a psychiatric hospital on drugs which induce hallucinations, and is finally "cured" by ECT is a bit like saying that Hamlet is about a depressive with strong Oedipal guilt for whom the "cure" is death: clinical case-histories, as Mrs. Lessing suggests in her afterword, merely label without understanding or experiencing the feeling or state of mind. So perhaps you could say that this is a novel about "the kinds of thing that are an angle to ordinary life"—the dreams, drug-induced trips, atavistic memories, extra-sensory perceptions of certain individuals who have not lost the ability to recognize a reality which is more significant than everyday group conformity—Mrs. Lessing categorizes her book as "inner-space fiction". But then again, because she is a writer who has always been bravely involved with the ills of society, willing to survey with passionate hope and despair what is happening to her fellow human beings, you could say that this novel is a devastatingly pessimistic satire—not only on the dangerous mind-bending that is used in the name of psychiatric treatment, to reduce sensitivity or "breakdown" to average, obedient conformity; she includes as well some powerfully savage, Swiftian and Huxleyan visions of the "scurrying, hurrying, scrabbling, fighting, restless, hating, wanting little patches of humanity", the "pack's morality" and society's apparent determination to say "I, I, I, I, I", as it heads towards destruction….
There will be readers to whom Mrs. Lessing's more lurid and bizarre dips into what we call "abnormal" states of mind will seem themselves incoherent, even self-indulgent, ramblings—that merely to show us the beauty and power of our subconscious does not necessarily make life more meaningful or tolerable, even for those who recognize such experiences. But Mrs. Lessing has never allowed conventional wisdom to deter her from trying to put into writing her own rare energy for living a caring life; it is salutary to be allowed to share her experiments, not least because she invariably communicates something one might call "comradeship"—the kind of close involvement with fellow men that society is beginning to realize counts more than our conventionally narrow definition of love.
"Extra-sensory Experiments," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), April 16, 1971, p. 437.
One of the great rewards of reading Doris Lessing's novels has always been a sense of sharing with the writer herself the experience of growing older, of discovering new ideas and questioning old values. This is not merely to say that, in her best-known and most substantial books (the Martha Quest series and The Golden Notebook) Mrs. Lessing has given us an unforgettable account of her generation's involvement in world violence and a good deal of insight into her own writing experience; it is her peculiar gift to write with the kind of honesty and generosity that suggest to the reader he is privileged to be a friend, to feel he knows something of the true ideals, the private agonies and delights, that have inspired her writing. And, like any real friendship, this appreciation is more acute where those ideals are shared and the brave spirit of inquiry and challenge that Mrs. Lessing's work always shows seems to the reader in itself a wholly admirable thing.
"Shared Experiences," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), September 22, 1972, p. 1087.
Doris Lessing is one of the most wide-ranging and comprehensive of contemporary novelists. Her strong, straightforward prose has embraced a number of modern social, political, and psychological questions. However, the immense appeal of Lessing's fiction rests largely on her treatment of woman in modern life, the most thorough and accurate of any in literature. Her achievement is all the more significant in that so few writers have presented women with whom one can identify—complex, intelligent, questioning women who are not content with the status quo, who rebel against the established order.
The female protagonists in Lessing's major work are complex human beings, their personalities the embodiment of that fragmentation and chaos which the novelist sees as a fundamental feature of modern life. Profound biological and emotional needs, as well as established conventions and attitudes, mold the woman into patterns of behavior which her intellect and desire for self-determination reject. A sense of an implacable destiny as a woman runs counter to a longing for bold self-assertion as an individual. Her women frequently appear as helpless onlookers, sensitive to conditions around them, longing to act, to take control, yet compelled by their dependent natures and narrowly defined social roles to remain passive observers. Their dilemma may fill them with rage and resentment, stoic resignation, or coldness and apathy. Compromises and adjustments are frequently made, always with a sense of loss. The drive to overcome inner divisions may lead them to madness, to withdrawal, or toward greater involvement with life through intense personal relations, artistic or political activity, or deep self-analysis. The strongest of Lessing's women move toward integration through fully experiencing their psychic divisions, achieving "breakthrough" through "breakdown."
The supreme example of the divided woman—fragmented between her emotional needs and her intellect—is Anna Wulf, the protagonist of Lessing's most psychologically complex novel, The Golden Notebook. Highly intelligent and sensitive, she is deeply involved with the modern world and very responsive to its atmosphere of violence and personal betrayals….
In Lessing's view, men and women do not really confront each other, for they define each other according to vastly different needs, shaping reality to fit the pattern of their desires. Women, depending on men for happiness, deny their men's deficiencies. Men, in contrast, do not spare their women, using them as sexual scapegoats and viewing them as threatening, dominating mother figures, separating them into categories of conventional wife or sexual playmate, playing one off against the other. The "free" woman is an escape from the "dull tied wife," limited by her confinement to domestic routine. The high level of intelligence demonstrated by the men in The Golden Notebook is sharply at odds with their emotional insecurity, their need to enforce submission, their aggressive cruelty in the face of frustration. Frequently, they perceive women not as particular individuals, but as types of generalized woman. Some are capable of great sensitivity toward women, but at times their rationality vanishes under the force of a need to abuse and destroy, a kind of unmotivated spite, the "joy in malice" that Anna senses at the root of life. In short, both men and women share in the violence of the modern world by playing their opposing roles of oppressor and oppressed….
Ultimately, the "woman's emotion"—empathy and concern for another, firmly guided by a strong intelligence—enables Anna to extend the limits of her being. Thus, the man-woman relationship in Doris Lessing's fiction, although destructive in its conventional forms, can serve as a vehicle for self-knowledge, for overcoming one's divisions, and enabling one to live as fully as possible. Paradoxically, Anna, through becoming tightly bound to another, becomes liberated. Her expanded consciousness, however, is achieved only by moving beyond the established values, roles, and institutions, for these are the means by which humanity is fragmented and separated. Considerable courage is required, involving great risk—the chance of total disintegration through experiencing the full extent of one's inner chaos and that of another.
Ellen W. Brooks, "The Image of Woman in Lessing's The Golden Notebook," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XV, No. 1, 1973, pp. 101-09.
In Doris Lessing's work the arduous will and the ardent feeling are peculiarly combined. There is a sort of collision between the two, and the crash makes of her sensibility an interestingly splintered whole. The shape and design of her mind are identified by the seams and cracks. There is an enormously hard, driven will working in her fiction, sorting out the intellectual and the political, the general and the personal. Her dour, hurt love-plots always have the lint of history and ideas clinging to them. She is very good at connecting characters with their work and their work with their feelings….
There is usually a sense not only of large history but of the historical moment. Her beautiful early stories about Africa are like dreams found under the moon of D. H. Lawrence—Lawrence seems to me still, many stories and novels later, the central, enduring light of the ardent side of her nature. But she is political, and the gloom of the races stands along with the inequities of love. Leftism and the political misfortunes of the nineteen-forties and fifties are as important as failed marriages, and somehow each contributes to the other in "The Golden Notebook." Psychoanalysis, breakdown, the lessons of madness are the material of "The Four-Gated City" and "Briefing for a Descent Into Hell."
In the end, infidelity is the central theme of her fiction: the faithlessness of men and women. The infidelity is generalized, of course, and there are a thousand broken promises. The ones that count are sharply sexual….
What always remains to be dealt with in Doris Lessing's novels and stories is the peculiar tone, one of enormous sadness and depression. There is little irony in the love affairs; failure may not be a tragedy, but it is not a comedy either. It is all a rather flat, puzzling, aching anguish. The drama of "The Golden Notebook" is honesty—not even the kind of candor that relieves—merely honesty, and usually of the sort that makes love hurt all the more. The depression that shrouds all of her fiction is original in its mood, unlike anything else being written. Love is an intellectual and emotional effort that ends in fatigue. Experience is a weariness we seek over and over.
Even though sexual infidelity fascinates her, there is nothing erotic in Doris Lessing's imagination. The people in her books are attractive and if the men are a little hard they are also intensely appealing, and so the affair, the marriage, the attractions are believable, oddly accurate. Intelligence is genuine in her women characters, and their talents, such as the gift of writing, do not seem exaggerations or sentimental assertions. This is the root of her radicalism, perhaps of that part of her mind that could be called feminist. She excels in the creation of intelligent, gifted, honest women who are saddened and perplexed by the disasters of love.
Perhaps this is a sort of frontier one crosses in peril. After "The Golden Notebook," after the brilliant Martha Quest novels, Doris Lessing's work added something else: a desire for stillness, harmony, release, withdrawal, solitude, madness. The notion that a woman's life can drive her crazy, and that what would be in men normal aggressions and demands are in women a derangement, has some popularity just now in the woman's movement. Doris Lessing's idea of madness does not seem to connect with that but rather with the idea of purification, the going-under and ressurrection ritual of R. D. Laing and other thinkers. She has also shown an interest in Sufism, an ancient, mystical development in the Moslem religion….
In "The Summer Before the Dark" what had begun as a realistic exploration, a study, if you like, of the betrayal of time and the obsolescence of function sinks into a bleak journey, a drop into a tunnel of depression and crucifying despair. This dungeon, passive, empty, disordered, is the pit of madness. But Mrs. Brown, rather like Clarissa Dalloway in the drifting charm of her married self, is still a woman, with something or much of the universal woman meant to attend her wanderings and sinkings….
The early part of "The Summer Before the Dark" is completely interesting. A piercing sense of dilemma, the enigmas of daylight, give this section gracefulness and truth. Yet there is no lingering there, at the open door. Darkness is the end of the journey. And what is the documentary, spiritual or esthetic consequence in the destination? This is never rendered; it is offered as an act of faith, a leap—particularly a fall.
Elizabeth Hardwick, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, pp. 1-2.
I think "The Summer Before the Dark" is not only Doris Lessing's best novel, but the best novel to have appeared here since García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude."
It is not as though Lessing hasn't dealt with this material before. She has consistently gone underground into a woman's being, into the being of our species, tunneling through memory and myth, through Marxism and madness. She has investigated our role-playing, our racism, our sexual oppression, our radical political activity, our psychoses. Indeed, she has tried every nostrum that arrives in an aluminum can from the vending machine of 20th-century thought: what we buy with coins of hope and schism. Dissatisfied, even angry, she has proceeded to mine Sufi mysticism, to traffic in R. D. Laing (most egregiously in "Briefing for a Descent Into Hell") and to rendezvous with archetypes….
What, technically, distinguishes "The Summer Before the Dark" from Lessing's previous fiction is its artfulness. It is a novel of selection, exclusion and concentration. From the beginning, when we are introduced to 45-year-old Kate Brown at home with her family (there have been electrical power failures all day long: she is preparing tea outside over an open fire) to the end, when she returns to that family (after power failures of her own, after a testing of herself on an open fire of the mind), the book has an almost biological development and the closure of an organic system. Her adventures in between—a summer job with the international civil service, an affair, illness, madness, renewal, too many dreams about bringing a wounded seal to safety—are genuine discoveries. There is little that is unnecessary in this novel, little that is not indispensable. Its power is in its containment.
What, thematically, distinguishes "The Summer Before the Dark" is that it is as much about middle age, the autumn of the body and the mind, the coming of death, as it is about being a woman. Lessing is not reminding us that we are going to die (information); she is persuading us (the beginning of wisdom is the capacity to imagine this first fact). The intersecting arcs of discovery are thrown from the still point of a single memory: the young girl Kate once was, during a year in Portugal by the Indian Ocean, "precious and despised," the sex object. That was spring; now it is autumn; the emotional weather in between has been that of "caring"—caring for her husband, caring for the civil servants, caring for the young man wasted by fever in Spain, caring finally for herself.
John Leonard, "More on Lessing," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, p. 47.
"A woman stood on her back step, arms folded, waiting," Doris Lessing's fine new novel [The Summer Before the Dark] begins, like a gauntlet flung down in challenge to the serious reader who disdains "women's literature" and the light reader wo is uncom, fortable in the presence of universals, and, perhaps, Golden Notebook cultists who look to Lessing in her angrier mood to speak for them. This book is about Everywoman, and Everywoman is neither a parochial sociological unit whose concerns are unrelated to central human experience, nor as limited, pitiable and useless as the most militant liberationists seem to find her. Lessing has chosen a subject beset with difficulties on every side, but her handling is a triumph of candor and art which should command admiration from a wide variety of readers….
This book is … a meticulously observed … reminiscence of a middle-aged married woman who has had an ordinary, even successful life, which in sum is found to have been somewhat wanting; but the pattern or myth has wider significance than this. Kate [the protagonist] is not just an example or warning to women who accede to society's view of marriage and motherhood. Lessing's complex, ambiguous presentation does not reduce dilemmas to dictum and does not invite judgment. Regarding her life, Kate "would certainly not have chosen to have had it differently: yet she did not have the experience to choose, or the imagination." No one does, of course. For the most part, neither men nor women choose, but are chosen for by "pressure from the other, the public sphere, pressing" on each "small life."
What seems to interest Lessing is the ability to choose that comes late in life as a function of maturity, often after some sort of confrontation with death. She brings to this theme a special large and gracious perception, a kind of radiance, even grace and humor, that have not always characterized her writing. One finds these qualities, and this theme, too, in the recent collection of short stories, in the title story "The Temptation of Jack Orkney," for example, where the same experience is worked out in miniature through the eyes of a man, or in the moving story in which an old woman whose lodging is going to be redeveloped hides when the authorities come to take her and the other old folks off to a Home, because they will not let her take her cat. She chooses to live alone in the deserted rubble until she dies from starvation and cold, and this choice, however unconscious, confers dignity.
Diane Johnson, "'Ah Me, Time Flies!'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 20, 1973, p. 3.
Doris Lessing has fallen into the ashes of burned-away need. She has written for twenty years, but never so movingly as in Summer Before the Dark, a novel of the liberations, the blessings of middle age….
Doris Lessing has always been a clinician of one female mind. Her heroines are always changing, yet always the same—those intense, troubled women for whom life is a succession of traps created by their mothers, their lovers, and finally by themselves, by personalities that have the habit of confinement. Her best talent has been for the passions of trapped lives—the desperate loves, intense rationalism, intellectual energies that all go reeling in the most rebellious directions. Intelligent and tough, sensual and eager for life, Mrs. Lessing's heroines have everything but the freedom to be successful in one area of life without paying for it in another. Her most intelligent women are mindless in love, easily controlled by their men, or by anyone else's expectations. They let themselves sink into misery so total that it destroys all ability to feel or respond. They may bolt, dumping their husbands and even their children. But once free, they do it all over again.
Despite the intelligence of her heroines and the reflective style of Mrs. Lessing's work, her characters never gain enough insight into themselves to get them off the treadmill of submission, rage, and guilt. Mrs. Lessing endows them with the logic of the psychically jailed, for whom even thought is a process closed as a knot. They retreat from understanding into abstraction. This is not sexual politics so much as politicized sex. As Martha Quest, heroine of the five-volume series, Children of Violence, grows apathetic in her pregnancy and motherhood, she feels more and more for the plight of the world's oppressed workers and joins the Communist party. But she never really confronts her husband or the causes of her own paralysis. Women Communists like Anna and Molly in The Golden Notebook want to liberate themselves more than the workers. They grow cynical about the possibilities for world revolution while they grow contemptuous of how conventionally Communist men treat them. As Anna bitterly asks Molly: Where are the free men for the free women?
Doris Lessing's work delineates not ideology but ideologues, people who need a climate of abstraction, for whom politics is the soul writ large. No one else has so effectively welded political dreams with sexual fantasies or more successfully made great social facts and private anguish converge in the single, tense charge of probed experience—the anguish of women doomed never to say I want, I need, but to live concealed in the abstractions of dogma. Only Martha Quest ripens, and only in the epilogue to The Four-Gated City, after a third world war has exploded civilization, can Martha thrive, far from her "loved ones." None of Mrs. Lessing's women can flourish in the world as it is, none can resist the engulfing power of others. Is cataclysm the way to peace?…
Doris Lessing has never written more powerfully [than in Summer Before the Dark] of life's corrosive force. Testy, irritable, politely fanatic, she has the air of a nascent crank. But she is a supreme writer, the first and still the best to deal with women like Anna and Martha and Kate. She has gone beyond fury at the mothers, the husbands, the neuroses that keep her women down. If she no longer writes of the rage Martha felt for her mother for dispensing "sleep and death … like a sweet poisonous cloud of forgetfulness," she has now written brilliantly of sleep as the dream of fullness, the paradigm of total escape, absolute freedom in absolute isolation. Kate discovers that weariness is a mighty barricade. And Kate fulfills Mrs. Lessing's old intuition. Some twenty years ago, Doris Lessing prefaced Martha Quest with the terrible words: "I am so tired of it, and also tired of the future before it comes."
Josephine Hendin, in Harper's (copyright © 1973, by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the June, 1973 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), June, 1973, pp. 82-6.
A really good book resists reviewing, and The Summer Before the Dark is a really good book. The ending leaves me somewhat dazed and confused, like life. Despite the allegorical overtones of the narrative (which, at times, I found irritating), the novel finally has the density and dreaminess of reality itself. For all her occasional polemicism, Doris Lessing has no program for womankind nor for civilization. Her characters are not "little engines of cause and effect"; "they wander in the dark woods of their destiny"—to borrow two of my favorite phrases from D. H. Lawrence's "The Novel and the Feelings." Lessing has, in fact, a great deal in common with Lawrence. The same rigorously moral preoccupations, the same understanding that sexual and political revolution are inseparable, the same concern for the masks women wear in a male-dominated culture. She also has certain faults in common with Lawrence, particularly her tendencies toward didacticism and overwriting. Yet it is always clear while reading her that one is in contact with a first-rate mind. I believe she is one of the twentieth-century writers by whom literary critics of the future will know us; and perhaps this is because she is intelligent enough to be unfashionable.
I also have a sneaking suspicion that Doris Lessing is a great writer—whatever that is.
The Summer Before the Dark has been compared to The Golden Notebook because the ostensible subjects of both books are the same: the dilemmas of intelligent women in a world made by and for men. Yet, in the straightforwardness of its narrative, The Summer Before the Dark reminds me much more of Lessing's earlier Martha Quest novels….
Most of the action of the novel is depicted in a detached third person narrative which resembles the telling of a fable or parable. The writing is graceful (especially compared to The Golden Notebook), slightly ironic, and from Kate's point of view. She is a tireless and precise observer of everyone, including herself. Yet during the first part of the book, she seemed such a universal type that she was slightly unreal to me….
"Woman's novel," like "Black novel," is simply one more way of saying, "That doesn't apply to me." And certainly many reviewers (even those who raved about this book) put the limiting adjective "woman's" around it and tried to slink away. But, of course, Lessing is smarter than they are. She is no more talking only about women than Ralph Ellison is talking only about blacks in The Invisible Man. Lessing knows that in women, the conditions of alienation, waste of resources, discontinuity between emotions and "reality," are simply more visible and painful. But the problems themselves are those of all of us. Overpopulation and starvation, the obsolescence of the family and the resurgence of authoritarianism are not "women's problems"—comfortable though it may be to see them that way….
When having and raising babies is no longer honorific and necessary, then both sexes have to change. A book that considers such changes is not "women's fiction" but people's fiction. Kate Brown is not Everywoman; she is everyone.
Erica Jong, "Everywoman Out of Love?," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 3, 1973, pp. 500-03.
Mrs. Lessing's theme [in The Summer Before the Dark], quite simply, is the exploration of the feminine psyche: a woman's assessment of her significance (or insignificance), a coming to terms with her inner drives and tensions. She examines the change in role-playing of a woman in our changing society. Kate, a woman suddenly unsure of how she ought to behave, finds herself thrown willy-nilly into quite different sectors of society. That's the ideological basis of a novel that is on the whole beautifully structured; and more compelling perhaps than some of Mrs. Lessing's recent novels since here she abandons the interior monologue in favour of straightforward yet not simplistic narrative, with only a bow or two in the direction of Jungian dream symbolism. It is a pity that towards the end of the book there are passages that show Kate wallowing in self-pity and negativism for these somehow do not fit our image of Kate's basic personality….
I'm not wholly convinced that a forty-five year old woman can be changed so much in so short a time; but perhaps novelists, like poets, are entitled to a suspension of disbelief. Especially if, like Doris Lessing, they can write economically and vividly, holding up the mirror to some of the more interesting fragments of contemporary reality.
Robert Greacen, in Books and Bookmen, July, 1973, pp. 113-14.
The situation as well as the story [of The Summer Before the Dark] and what denouement it has were clichéd—that is, universally recognizable by a certain class of people in our time—much before the women's liberation movement turned it to ideological purposes….
As Lessing showed in her famous work, The Golden Notebook, she has a keen, tough, passionate mind that slices many ways. She also has a sure mastery of her craft, a knowledge of ideologies and their attractions that is surpassed only by her final skepticism about all systems that categorize experience and lay down the law on how people ought to think or behave. In The Summer Before the Dark her powers are not diminished, and on all but a few occasions, they are equal to the dangers that she runs. If anything, the novel is even more convincing and artistically satisfying than The Golden Notebook, perhaps because of its compression. Mysterious illness, madness, memories, and dreams are swiftly and skillfully interlaid with a concrete visualization of the world as it is and as it manages, somehow, to continue functioning. Lessing knows, and can convey, not only the world of women, with its "cow sessions," but what until recently was known as the man's world—of jets, conferences, water pollution, and strikes, of population and cash transfers that take place across European borders each summer when the tourist season gets under way. This knowledge, and its esthetic completeness, lifts The Summer Before the Dark clear out of the smarmy realm of women's lib literature….
The serious young women who avidly read The Summer Before the Dark will find not a single satisfactory answer to their question, What must I do to have a happier life than my mother's? But they will, if they read with their eyes open, find several things more valuable than answers….
Edward Grossman, "Women, Kindly and Unkindly," in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 31, 1973, p. 34.
Spiritually, Mrs. Lessing belongs to the school of D. H. Lawrence, and in her case all too clearly spirit is style. She agrees with Lawrence in being a great hater, indeed much of her strongest writing is in this vein….
Perhaps a just and faintly damning praise of her work would be that reading it is often like reading medium-bad Lawrence. The work flows, it keeps your attention, but the effects are diffuse. We are not licensed to set these writers in opposition, but, even going by the limited rules of his own later fiction we may note that Lawrence has an unfair advantage over his disciple. For he is an inveterate and unreserved hater, whereas Mrs. Lessing sometimes feels obliged to pull back. Understanding all and forgiving all: yet the kindness of the philosophic heart can grow, on this see-saw, a little insufferable, so that we long for the cruel novelistic head. Maybe what bothers me about an author like Mrs. Lessing is precisely the harried sound of her prose, an air buzzing with the self-important need to utter truths that will be delivered up right away to the life beyond art. We have to remind ourselves that fiction serves fact best when it looks after its own.
David Bromwick, in Commentary (reprinted from Commentary by permission; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), September, 1973, p. 86, 90.
It was perhaps because The Golden Notebook was one of those novels that seemed to speak directly to a whole generation's experience that it has taken ten years and any number of rereadings to sift through our subjective responses and to arrive at an objective criticism that does justice to its structures and complexity. Moreover, the way that Lessing's philosophical quest leads her to break novelistic forms as soon as she has created them has left even the most devoted readers breathless in pursuit. Similarly, her elision of political realism into the worlds of insanity and science fiction has left those unable to make as graceful a leap between realism and fantasy puzzled and confused.
Annis Pratt, "Introduction" (to the special number on Doris Lessing), in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 414-17.
The overriding weakness of The Golden Notebook is alienation from the authentic female perspective, a perspective which repeatedly is clearly sketched in and then smeared by the censor in Lessing. The discrepancy between the perceptions and the alien standards which are imposed upon them seriously flaws the novel. But at the same time, the tension produced by this discrepancy makes the book a superb rendering of that state of alienation from themselves, from authentic selfhood, to which women, like blacks and members of other minority groups, are subjected until they find solidarity and begin to confirm and legitimize their experience. In addition, Lessing's study of the malaise and dislocation between the sexes in Western society does set a very important precedent in literature because it examines the relationship between women and men so humanistically and analytically, in such great detail and variety, and with a good faith which never permits a descent into vituperation or abuse.
Ellen Morgan, "Alienation of the Woman Writer in The Golden Notebook," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 471-80.
Doris Lessing, whose position as one of the major women writers of the twentieth century would now seem assured, stands quite apart from the feminine tradition of sensibility. Her fiction is tough, clumsy, rational, concerned with social roles, collective action and conscious, and unconcerned with niceties of style and subtlety of feeling for its own sake. She is, nevertheless, fully aware of the bifurcation between sense and sensibility and the meaning it presents to women, and it is with an awareness of the terms that she makes her choice. In the preface to African Stories she writes, "The Pig and The Trinket Box are two of my earliest. I see them as two forks of a road. The second—intense, careful, self-conscious, mannered—could have led to a kind of writing usually described as 'feminine.' The style of The Pig is straight, broad, direct; is much less beguiling, but is the highway to the kind of writing that has the freedom to develop as it likes." The latter part of this statement is ambiguous enough; suffice it to mean that Lessing finds her freedom in a realm apart from the traditional feminine resource of sensibility….
Lessing's hostility to the literary attitude of sensibility is based upon her commitment to large issues and to the political. Martha Quest's avoidance of the emotions is in large part a result of her matrophobia. Both Martha and the heroine of The Golden Notebook, Anna Wulf, resist so powerfully the claims of emotion while at the same time deploring the numbness of the society around them that we are forced to regard this not as an inadvertent or supportive theme but as a dominant subject….
It is necessary to be wary, but not too wary, of amalgamating the heroines in a study of Lessing's works. Just as some critics have confused Lessing with her heroines, to the author's just annoyance, so one may accidentally combine the traits of Martha and Anna, similar in many respects, into one prototype. There is, in fact, a good deal of genuine overlapping among Lessing's characters, occurring in part from the fact that she is less interested in producing a fine, shapely, and unforgettable character than in conveying the angles and stresses of responsible consciousness, the roughened confrontations of conscience and culture, the attraction to certain ideas and the changes of mind that occur when an individual thinks, as a way of moving through life and plot. In the case of Martha, moreover, there is a complete transformation by the fifth volume of Lessing's "continuous novel"; as history becomes increasingly the protagonist, Martha loses most of the personality that has earmarked her as Martha and dissolves into the lives of those around her like some sort of intellectual Mary Worth….
Rationality is personality; for Lessing it is intelligence that gives one a sense of self and preserves some approximation of integration in the face of invading irrationalities….
Lessing invokes the intellect as sanity's guardian, and emotion is an inimical and threatening suitor to both Martha and Anna….
For Lessing's heroines, emotions disrupt the self as if they, the emotions, are outside of the self. As a Puritan might be habitually militant against evil, the figures in Lessing's novels scan the landscape for the approach of the irrational…. When emotion has rooted in the self, Lessing's heroines try to expel the organ traditionally responsible for it. Martha, in The Four-Gated City, tells her heart "to be quiet…. Her heart as it were came to heel; and after that, the current of her ordinary thought switched off. Her body was a machine, reliable and safe for walking …"….
The resistance to emotion which appears so frequently in Children of Violence and The Golden Notebook is in part, of course, a resistance to pain. Yet it is not the avoidance of pain and pleasure, of the kind that numbs Tommy in The Golden Notebook; rather, what characterizes the emotional life of Lessing's heroines is a resistance to loss of personal will and consequent loss of freedom. Emotions, for them, are a swiftly flowing stream that can put a woman up the creek in no time at all. In The Four-Gated City, "Martha felt as if she were being swept fast over an edge, and by her own emotions; for the first time since she came to London, she was unfree" (FGC, p. 93). It is not only "sensibility" that incurs helplessness, then, but emotion itself.
Overwhelmed by or even touched by emotion, one is vulnerable, in Lessing's view, not only to the allurements of sentiment (and the attendant punishments by the intellect), or to a dangerous resemblance to the emotional women of the older generation, but to love, the resulting betrayals by men, and the trappings (and traps) of domesticity….
Lessing has little vindictiveness toward men, and her caution about men is no greater, and often far less great, than the traditional cautions of men about women. She is enormously sensitive to the ways men do not value women and to the adjustments women make in order to increase or preserve their portion of praise, love, and comfort. It is, in fact, because her heroines like men so much, and because they make such good Galateas of themselves, that they must be so careful. It is woman's vulnerability rather than man's culpability that is stressed; both sexes are caught in a labyrinth of expectation and motivation which, although it is often of their own making, has ample precedent.
The Golden Notebook is an anatomy of woman's independence and the impediments to it, and it is in this novel that Lessing brilliantly dissects the nature of that freedom which is, paradoxically, incomplete without love, yet almost invariably undermined by it….
For Lessing, intelligence is at the heart of liberation, and a fall from intelligence is, for her heroines, a cause for self-denigration. Intelligence, however, is precarious and beset by an irrational attraction to happiness….
Far better then not to feel rather than not to think, since the first not only keeps one out of a stultifying dependency and consequent humiliation but better matches the capacities of men as Lessing describes them. For if there are only a few thinking women, there are even fewer "feeling" men. Each relationship in The Golden Notebook, whether part of the real novel or the novel within it, demonstrates the thinness of emotion on the man's part and the fuller feeling—and resulting demands—on the woman's…. This disparity creates a sense of loss, disappointment, and loneliness for the women, and antagonism and fearful evasiveness in the men.
The closely watched relationships in The Golden Notebook are not, however, designed to demonstrate a Lawrentian polarity and fundamental opposition of the sexes, but rather to show the difficulties of emotional life for both men and women. The difficulties are enhanced, moreover, when the woman is a "free" woman, that is, an intelligent woman who supports herself, whose ideas are definite, reasoned, and earned, whose activity in the world is accomplished without the assistance or intervention of a man, and who, peripherally perhaps, but not insignificantly, is not too coy to excel at the art of the retort….
For Lessing's heroines the refusal of emotion becomes worth considering and worth opposing when it becomes a general condition, for it is then that emotion becomes attached to meaning; the absence of tears or of the completeness of loving comes to signify a configuration, a situation, higher than itself, more abstract, more susceptible to rationalization, and therefore more likely to be appreciated and understood….
A study of madness in Lessing's work—beginning with colonial eccentricity and ending with her ideological apprenticeship to Laing [Ms. Sukenick sees Briefing for a Descent into Hell as thematically and stylistically parallel to R. D. Laing's Politics of Experience]—deserves a book of its own. It is necessary to treat briefly, however, the question of Lessing's conversion to irrationalism, if only because an emphatic case has been made for her rationality. Although she is hardly the first to regard suffering, melancholy, and derangement as perquisites to enlightenment, she is one of the few anti-Romantics to do so. Rationalists—Dr. Johnson, for example—have been as afflicted with mental infirmity as Romantics but usually lack the condoling belief that it is a step into a higher state. Lessing's handling of irrationality, moreover, is, as is her attitude toward dreams, typically practical, rational, and even mechanical, in spite of her respect for the subconscious. For Lessing, "dreaming," as [Dorothy] Brewster says [in Doris Lessing], "seems to be something of a discipline"…. This deliberateness in dreaming, this encouragement of the unconscious to serve conscious, problematic purpose rather than to remain an alternative to the purposeful, is a model for Lessing's approach to madness, as Martha's pursuit of meaning in insanity testifies….
Martha, down to the last grain of vision, battles received assumptions about reality. She works hard at it. Madness is a task, and she toils through it toward a higher condition of integrity, a deeper version of self. If that version is disastrous, it is because the world is, in Lessing's eyes, a disaster; Martha's new vision gains access, with great clarity and no intervening sentiment, to that terrible knowledge. Most important, madness is moralized into a condition of responsible consciousness—the extremes of emotion it involves are significant because they teach, not for the release they afford; emotions are a means, not an end.
Insanity has Lessing's sympathy and interest for reasons continuous with her past concerns. She engages madness as a subject not because its chaos may allow her to taste the rich peripheries of rationality but because it is "part of the mainstream" at the center of contemporary life. Essentially a realist, she travels parallel to the culture and keeps her eye on its movements. Madness has, moreover, a political dimension and a radical one. Lessing is concerned with the poor treatment afforded the mentally ill, whose dissenting perceptions make them powerless, but her aim is not only liberal reform or social amelioration. She wants, rather, an abolition of the traditional hierarchy of the sane and insane, and a recognition of the revolutionary nature of madness….
In her resistance to writing the feminine novel, [Lessing] sacrifices suppleness and gratuitous beauty; there are few admirers of her work who would defend the careless homeliness of her style, far inferior to the style of George Eliot. Yet Lessing writes novels for grown-up people, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf's remark about Middlemarch, and she offers an elusive quality called maturity which is far rarer than the quality of sensibility she so cheerfully ignores. Wary of being typically feminine, she becomes typically contemporary in her suspicion of emotion, and although this does not nourish our optimism, our sense of the real tells us that she is our most powerful interpreter of difficult times—past, present, and future.
Lynn Sukenick, "Feeling and Reason in Doris Lessing's Fiction," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 515-35.
Of the major fiction writers now on the Anglo-American scene, it is perhaps Doris Lessing who best sustains James's faith in the novel as "the most independent, most elastic, most prodigious of literary forms." We know that James would find much to dispute in Lessing's handling of her narrative materials; but we may be certain that he would applaud her visionary fullness, concern for form, and willingness to be difficult in order to engage the moral urgencies of a complex age. Lessing's stature rose greatly with the publication of The Four-Gated City, and the praise given her earlier for such works as The Grass Is Singing, Martha Quest, and The Golden Notebook seemed by 1969 fully justified. Where the middle volumes of the Children of Violence series sometimes lack textural vigor and heightening (as in A Ripple from the Storm and Landlocked), The Four-Gated City restores the promise of the project's inception through its richly conceived and executed resolution. The novel at once concludes the Bildungsroman motifs and transcends them in a profound exploration and indictment of the age…. I believe that the work reveals an artistry and sense of form which match, and even surpass, the brilliance of The Golden Notebook. The very ambitiousness of The Four-Gated City, its uncompromising quality and its demanding rhythms that separate and yet bring together intensities of meaning and low mimetic surfaces—all these evoke a concentrated response from the dedicated reader….
Briefing is not a work of the caliber of The Four-Gated City, but it is an important work for the reader and doubtless for Doris Lessing's evolution as a writer….
The thematic center of [Briefing for a Descent Into Hell] is found in its exploration of man's psychic depths; the richness, mystery, and vastness of "inner space"; and the suggestion of modern (Western, European, "civilized") man's deadly loss of energizing contact with his own deeper dimensions. Modern man lives not within the vital largeness of his psyche but rather within the constrictions and shallows of his socially conditioned roles and his ego; his is the hollowness and failure of spirit of the alienated and truncated. Profoundly cut off from himself, modern man is the victim rather than the guiding spirit of his own creations; he is the creature of words, norms, and impoverished rituals. Only rarely, in moments of "madness" (schizophrenia, for example) is such a man able to break through the barriers to a hint of his lost being; when this occurs, he is institutionalized and provided medical treatment (electric shock and/or drugs) until "normalcy" returns. So long as the individual sustains "normal" behavior patterns the encapsulating society permits him his "freedom" to go his way—that is, to continue to negate the psychic depths only from which authentic freedom and integration can arise. Unless the circle can be broken, Lessing says in Briefing, there can be little hope for the survival of spirit….
Possibly the most striking feature of Briefing is the manner in which theme and structure are so tightly joined. Lessing wishes us to see—to sense powerfully, rather—that the rich strata of the unconscious are everything and the thin layer of ego-identity very little indeed by comparison….
What we see in Briefing is a novel which plunges deeply into the illogicality of the psyche but which is itself tightly structured and controlled.
Perhaps the best description of the form of Briefing is that of the left-turning or contracting spiral, with its implications of "destructiveness," in contrast to the expanding or "creative" spiral. The action begins, by this analogy, at the outermost circle or spiral of the unconscious and contracts toward its termination, like the whirlpool, in Watkins' recovery of a fatal normalcy. The major movements of the novel take the reader progressively through the psychic levels of the protagonist and at last into his normal consciousness. Both the title and structure of this suggest the pessimism behind the novel's conception. For unlike traditional treatments of the descent into hell (the descent into the unconscious), such as Dante's, Watkins' is shaped so as to lead back to the protagonist's original state of sterility and spiritual dearth. Watkins is not redeemed by his archetypal quest….
Some readers of Briefing may find the weight of psychological and mythic material to be either oppressive in itself or else insufficiently compensated for by other novelistic values; some may find the appropriation of concepts from R. D. Laing and others raising questions as to the writer's originality. Other readers may find the projection of a protagonist such as Charles Watkins to be out of the important currents of modernism, preferring the greater authenticity of the Underground Man, for example…. Despite these and other possible criticisms, I suspect that Briefing for a Descent into Hell will hold its own and will in time assume an especially interesting place in the Lessing canon. Northrop Frye's comment [in Anatomy of Criticism] on the conclusion of Finnegans Wake bears directly on the ending of Briefing: "what happens there is that the dreamer, after spending the night in communion with a vast body of metaphorical identifications, wakens and goes about his business forgetting his dream, like Nebuchadnezzar, failing to use, or even to realize that he can use, the 'keys to dreamland.' What he fails to do is therefore left for the reader to do….
Douglas Bolling, "Structure and Theme in Briefing for a Descent into Hell," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 4, Autumn, 1973, pp. 550-64.
Doris Lessing, of all the postwar English novelists, is the foremost creative descendant of that "great tradition" which includes George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. Her new novel "The Summer Before the Dark" … is her most artful exploration of her major themes: the relation of self and society, intelligence and feeling, madness and health, and, above all, the role of modern woman….
There is little about the outward trappings of the book that is new, nor is Doris Lessing interested in "writing well." Yet, her moral intelligence and strong, unfettered feeling have produced a work on the border between traditional narrative and stream-of-consciousness. It is rare in contemporary fiction to find a work at once unironically sincere and still intelligent: in its subject and scale, "The Summer Before the Dark" confirms the sense that Doris Lessing is a plain-speaking, somewhat awkward, but immensely attractive master of modern fiction.
The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 2, 1973, p. 1.
When it appeared in 1950 The Grass is Singing at once joined the company of Heart of Darkness, Mister Johnson and Cry, the Beloved Country as one of the few profound explorations of the tragedy of the white man's presence in Africa. Mrs. Lessing's characteristic strength was already refined and matured. Though the subject cries out for the liberal's moral indignation, her narrative is controlled throughout. There is commentary, but we are so completely immersed in the inward study of a claustrophobic 'double solitude' ('The world was small, shut in a room of heat and haze and light') that it never obtrudes. It is restricted to the barest details and seldom does Mrs. Lessing even allow herself irony; the story could speak for itself. (p. 9)
Doris Lessing recalls that her first two books 'were described by reviewers as about the colour problem … which is not how I see, or saw, them'. The reviewers' bias was, of course, symptomatic of what was in the early fifties an awakening interest in the problem. Her deeper concern, already evident in the compassionate handling of her first novel, was with the human problem: 'colour prejudice is not our original fault, but only one aspect of the atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun'. This perception is reinforced by her vision of 'Africa which gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape'. This attitude infused her work from the beginning…. (p. 11)
The 'Children of Violence' quintet (1952–69) spans almost the whole of Mrs. Lessing's writing career. It takes us from an African experience as remote and closed as that of Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm through layer upon layer of Anglo-colonial society, out of Africa altogether to London, where her heroine's life closes in again, a life of rooms, flats, decaying claustrophobic houses, in each phase deepening the study of 'the individual conscience in its relation with the collective'. (p. 19)
Several modern novelists, following Proust, have used the novel sequence, centering upon one character's experience but giving a detailed impression of movement through time…. How can we distinguish Doris Lessing's series from these? Most obviously, for its African subject-matter, as a narrative of the never-to-be-repeated experience of growing up in an isolated white settlers' enclave and striving … to move outwards into a world of fuller experience and wider values. Secondly, in centering upon a woman's experience, to a degree unmatched since Virginia Woolf in intensity. Further, while 'feminist' would be a less dubious label to attach to Lessing than Woolf, her fiction has critical relation to the question of the position of women and is no mere instrument of it. The sequence is also … one of those rare works which give politics due place, without reducing the characters to puppets. (pp. 19-20)
Of the first four novels, Martha Quest leaves the most rounded impression: we see Martha's restless development against the permanent reality of her spiritual Africa; African setting and atmosphere are dense, suggesting a true point of departure and potential return. The next three novels trace her erratic movement through flawed relationships in the makeshift colonial capital toward the desired but distant establishment of herself as a 'free spirit'—in which attempt, despite her modern advantages, she is hardly less hampered by convention and conformity than were Eliot's Dorothea or James's Isabel Archer. Disenchantment with the suburban 'borgeois' marriage, which threatens to reduce her to wifely dependence, has become a stock theme now, but it was not so in the fifties. A Proper Marriage (1954) remains distinguished for its calm characterization and objective analysis of a subject too often treated with feminist indignation; we see that Douglas, no less than Martha, is the victim in this dishonest marriage, and both are guilty. (p. 21)
A Ripple from the Storm (1958) mainly explores the ramifications of love for 'the people', which for Martha may also be seen as an outlet for her romantic 'passion for the absolute.'… As such, it is destined for disillusion. Unlike mid-thirties Europe, the Colony offers the tiny Communist group no footing in the 'mass'; it is cut off by ignorance and suspicion from its natural base among the Africans…. Futility is the mood of A Ripple from the Storm and it will repel readers who crave romance with their politics (which would have been a fictional combination indeed for that place and time); but since neo-Marxist revolutionism continues to sacrifice the individual to a 'collective' absolutism it remains a valuable cautionary tale.
While the political theme continues in Landlocked (1965), which covers the late forties, it is felt increasingly as mere background to Martha's revitalized emotional life. This novel is the least satisfying of the series, largely because of its very success in reflecting through a fragmented narrative the tedium and frustration, the truly 'landlocked' condition of the reactionary colonial backwater. (pp. 22-3)
The title of The Four-Gated City (1969), the final volume in the series, harks back to Martha's youthful vision of a Utopian city upon the veld (suggestive in shape of Campanella's City of the Sun), but, though Africa reappears in the prophetic Appendix as a refuge from nuclear holocaust, London is the novel's city. (p. 23)
Until The Four-Gated City appeared The Golden Notebook (1962) had stood for several years as Mrs. Lessing's most ambitious work. It may remain her best known; the interest it has aroused as one of the novels of our time accounts for its reissue in a hardback edition with a lengthy author's preface in 1972.
In this Preface she states that her intention was to follow the great European—not English—novelists of the last century in producing a comprehensive work 'describing the intellectual and moral climate' of her time, not to produce (as weekly critics too eagerly assumed) a feminist broadside. She had already demanded in her Declaration essay, 'Why should the sex war be offered as a serious substitute for social struggle?' She aspired instead to meet the need for the more varied view of the human condition such as a Tolstoy or a Stendhal could provide. The Golden Notebook, with a writer now as protagonist, is about this need and how hard it is in our time for the novelist to meet it. The action is a purgative process which may—or may not—fit Anna to convey 'a vision of a good'.
Being a 'free woman' is certainly a strong twin theme—and the more general one; it is 'the disease of women in our time', especially for those who like Anna attempt to 'live the kind of life women never lived before'. But this is inseparable from the universal theme of the individual's isolation: in a world that supplies no dependable values, Anna, like Martha Quest, must make her life as she goes along, or be torn and fragmented by it. (pp. 25-6)
The Golden Notebook is the modern counterpart to Middlemarch. Like Eliot, Doris Lessing does not shrink from earnestness and unblushing didacticism, and though (especially in her 'English' short stories) she more often lightens her narrative with a teasing humour she frequently employs a similarly authoritative, astringent irony. Like Eliot, too, she insists on keeping absolute values before us. (p. 32)
Mrs. Lessing is worthy to be spoken of in the company of those great novelists before her who used the novel, not to divert with a sensational or aesthetic experience, but to change us—Eliot, Hardy, Conrad, Lawrence. If she shares with them also—as with her nearest comparable contemporary, Patrick White—the unevenness of writers who reach for the utmost inclusiveness, this is redeemed by the unteachable quality of keeping the reader morally alive. No English novelist today is more responsibly concerned with keeping literature in touch with life, as it is and as it should be. (p. 33)
Michael Thorpe, in his Doris Lessing, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1973.