Lessing, Doris 1919–
A British novelist, poet, and playwright, Mrs. Lessing was born in Persia and grew up in Southern Rhodesia. Her works include The Golden Notebook and the five-volume series "Children of Violence." Her latest novel is entitled The Summer Before the Dark. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
Among young contemporary English writers, Doris Lessing is the most intensely committed to active persuasion to reform society…. [Mrs.] Lessing's interest in the battle permeates most of her short stories and novels. Frequently the theme of the work is whether or not, despite a hostile or indifferent society, strong commitment to a particular cause or political doctrine is justifiable….
[Mrs.] Lessing maintains a consistent interest in time and place. Both the use of the social class as a significant part of the identity of the individual, and the fact that conflicts are so frequently depicted as conflicts between generations, between the products of one time and another, indicate [Mrs.] Lessing's addiction to historical categories. Frequent parenthetical historical references fill all the fiction.
Too often [Mrs.] Lessing's fiction is dissolved in a long sociological or journalistic insertion, like the accounts of communistic tactics and wrangles in A Ripple from the Storm or the long, dull, clinical study of discovering that one is pregnant which takes up about seventy pages of A Proper Marriage. Her politics are one-sided, her characters are limited in conception, and her world revolves in a simple pattern….
Doris Lessing's intense feeling of political and social responsibility is carefully worked into specific historical situations. But the positive convictions can become heavy-handed, and the specific situations journalistic, while the strict allegiance to time and place can limit the range of perception about human beings. [Mrs.] Lessing's kind of intensity is simultaneously her greatest distinction and her principal defect. She produces an enormously lucid sociological journalism, honest and committed, but in much of her work she lacks a multiple awareness, a sense of comedy, a perception that parts of human experience cannot be categorized or precisely located, a human and intellectual depth. Intense commitment can cut off a whole dimension of human experience.
James Gindin, "Doris Lessing's Intense Commitment," in his Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1962, pp. 65-86.
It becomes increasingly difficult to describe [Doris] Lessing as the best living English writer of fiction, though she probably is. Even her best novel, The Golden Notebook, is a candid and lavish confession of her inability to write a novel; and her claim is most persuasively made in only a few short stories, chiefly from her volume A Man and Two Women. African Stories is a compilation of all the stories she has published about Africa. They are intelligent, beautifully literate, accurately observed, and—barring one or two modest stories about the ordinariness rather than the tensions or drabness of African farm life—totally unstartling accounts of a subject that she cannot see, or that cannot be seen, except as white and black (local color!), oppressor and oppressed.
Marvin Mudrick, in Hudson Review, Summer, 1966, p. 307.
[The] metaphor for Doris Lessing may be George Eliot, finger on the pulse of Everything…. George Eliot and Doris Lessing write real and whole books, and at least once, in The Four-Gated City , Mrs. Lessing has written a book as good as many of those of her predecessor. Like George Eliot, Doris Lessing is often thought of as ponderous, clumsy, a thinker...
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rather than a real novelist; which is all nonsense. The style of both writers is fully answerable to their vision of our lot; neither "writes stories" and yet both can do what only the great storytellers can do, sustain intelligent interest over hundreds of pages; both manage to convey the most urgent concerns of their eras by the way they write about the domestic lives of a relatively few people….
Briefing for a Descent into Hell is much shorter, more programmatic, more simply satirical [than The Four-Gated City]. The assault on the society's treatment of the "mentally ill" is much more directly mounted…. The idea … behind Briefing for a Descent into Hell is easy, too easy; suffice it to say it resembles the flashy insistence of R. D. Laing that the insane are the only truly sane. But there is a difference between an idea and a vision which embodies that idea, and even in this novel, where Doris Lessing is too close to carping for comfort, there is much that is convincing….
Although Mrs. Lessing has stiffened her ideas and is using her characters in a much more clinical way than in The Four-Gated City, she manages nonetheless to make Watkins's story compelling. He is also an "other," one briefed for his life on earth, so he is a case. But his author's understanding of him is never clinical, he escapes her more mindless satirical moments, he experiences almost nothing offered by ordinary human life, yet his instance is touching and beautiful. We do not feel in reading about him that only the insane are truly sane, but rather that these terrible and wonderful events have happened to him. If he is defeated at the end, Doris Lessing is not, and we need not be….
Doris Lessing seems to say that trying to learn to live with the polluted flowers in our crannied walls works to defeat what is precious in us. We would be better off, perhaps, breaking down and away from the terrifying evidence, psychically shivering, rejecting, because human beings can take only so much. And she takes us there, showing us that those who do this are not simply defeated, indeed, they seem at times to expand their consciousnesses and possibilities by so doing. At the end of The Four-Gated City there is no good or understanding human gesture of which Martha Quest seems incapable, and near the end of Briefing for a Descent into Hell Charles Watkins achieves his finest moment of human contact, just before submitting to recovery and defeat. She is no Laing, no touter of the void, to use Herzog's phrase, as though it were so much real estate. The preciousness, the terror, the rejecting, the achieving I speak of are in her work densely realized and vivid. Personally I do not see her scale or vision as being triumphantly right, yet no other writer in recent years, not Mailer or Bellow, has upset me as she has done.
Roger Sale, "Watchman, What of the Night?," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1971 by NYREV, Inc.), May 6, 1971, pp. 13-17.
A third of the way through Doris Lessing's new novel [Briefing for a Descent Into Hell], a great white bird appears—4 ft. tall with a straight yellow beak. The light shines off its feathers "like sun off a snowfield." Its eyes are round, golden and steadily staring—in invitation, in challenge.
After the five novels in the Children of Violence series, and after The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing has finally confronted her Moby Dick. All the weathered idealism that survived two arduous decades of fiction-writing in South Africa, then England—all the hopefulness of a fundamentally hopeful woman—has gone into the beating wings of her bird. Like the bird, the novel is a brilliant and untamed image of the possibilities that [Mrs.] Lessing dreams, rather than believes, may still constitute man's destiny.
Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962) is a key to the new book, as it is a key to all her work…. In effect, [Mrs.] Lessing has been working through this sequence of disillusion toward a private religion of her own. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell she has arrived….
Doris Lessing is prepared to assume—as others have before her—that in a world gone mad, those whom the world calls mad may be the only sane ones. What she has forfeited—and the loss has to be enormous for any novelist—is the scale of humanity. To the point of abstraction she has willed herself into a universe of absolutes where nihilism and revelation, madness and sanity become the same thing. At that point she stands alone, with no life in sight but the white bird of her obsession.
Melvin Maddocks, "The White Bird of Truth," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1971 by Time Inc.), March 8, 1971, p. 80.
[Doris Lessing's] books regularly wake to life at the moment when one person cares for or heals another, moving beyond personal limits, bending himself wholly to the labor of nursing some relative stranger through physical or mental crisis. (The gripping pages of her recent, massive—and not wholly unwearying—Four-Gated City are those in which one woman spends herself for another, creating by a great effort of control a solid sense of neutral life to serve as a stay against breakdown.) The striking feature of her probings of political commitment, moreover, as of her characterization of Party members, is her refusal to take up the simplicities of a tightfisted, knee-jerk anti-Communism. Mrs. Lessing's acknowledgment of totalitarian atrocities is full and just, but it is complicated by steadfastness in revolutionary aspiration, and by reluctance to do dirt on Party people who, free of power-madness, contribute undeniably to the richness of life….
And always the novelist's powers of assessment are keenest in confrontations with the habitually overprotective and wily, self-lacerators, bound-in ironists—characters gone juiceless because super-wary…. And her impulse as a writer is to show forth faith in givingness as our single practicable therapy, and to establish hopeful sympathy as a natural force which, if ever released in men, couldn't worsen world chaos and might well end it….
Readers of R. D. Laing or Michel Foucault will not discover original genius in Mrs. Lessing's themes. And it's proper to acknowledge that, while a ruthless flashing dynamism marks its visionary sections, Briefing [for A Descent Into Hell] isn't a well-proportioned book, and suffers from under-dramatization as well. Writers who mean to add something to human knowledge in the form of philosophical truth are often more permissive than estheticians about untidy composition, garrulity, repetitiousness, circularity. And when such writers are not only, like Mrs. Lessing, enthusiasts of Thomas Mann, but—again like Mrs. Lessing—copious, casual, unbuttoned, they rarely offer readers the pleasures of a perfect design. (There are more than a few disheveled books in this oeuvre.)
But the absence of intellectual novelty and of crispness of design doesn't much diminish this writer's significance. Mrs. Lessing in her fifties remains one of the few writers alive in the West whose instinct to feel forward toward a more habitable world is allowed to breathe without shame, hysteria, or ironical defensiveness.
Benjamin DeMott, "Toward a More Human World," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 in Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, March 13, 1971; used with permission), March 13, 1971, pp. 25-7, 86-7.
To read a great deal of Doris Lessing over a short span of time is to feel that the original hound of heaven has commandeered the attic. She holds the mind's other guests in ardent contempt. She appears for meals only to dismiss the household's own preoccupations with writing well as decadent. For more than twenty years now she has been registering, in a torrent of fiction that increasingly seems conceived in a stubborn rage against the very idea of fiction, every tremor along her emotional fault system, every slippage in her self-education….
That she is a writer of considerable native power, a "natural" writer in the Dreiserian mold, someone who can close her eyes and "give" a situation by the sheer force of her emotional energy, seems almost a stain on her conscience. She views her real gift for fiction much as she views her own biology, another trick to entrap her. She does not want to "write well." Her leaden disregard for even the simplest rhythms of language, her arrogantly bad ear for dialogue—all of that is beside her own point. More and more Mrs. Lessing writes exclusively in the service of immediate cosmic reform: she wants to write, as the writer Anna in "The Golden Notebook" wanted to write, only to "create a new way of looking at life."
Her … novel, "Briefing for a Descent Into Hell," is entirely a novel of "ideas," not a novel about the play of ideas in the lives of certain characters but a novel in which the characters exist only as markers in the presentation of an idea….
Even given Mrs. Lessing's tendency to confront all ideas tabula rasa, we are dealing here with less than astonishing stuff. The idea that there is sanity in insanity, that truth lies somewhere on the far side of madness, informs not only a considerable spread of Western literature but also, so commonly is it now held, an entire generation's experiment with hallucinogens. Most of Mrs. Lessing's thoughts about the cultural definition of insanity reflect or run parallel to those of Laing, and yet the idea was already so prevalent that Laing cannot even be said to have popularized it….
What we are witnessing here is a writer undergoing a profound and continuing culture shock, a woman of determinedly utopian and distinctly teleological bent assaulted at every turn by fresh evidence that the world is not exactly any closer to a happy ending. And, because such is the particular quality of her mind, she is compelled in the face of this evidence to look even more frantically for the final cause, the unambiguous answer….
The sheer will, the granitic ambitiousness of "The Golden Notebook" overrides everything else about it. Great raw hunks of undigested experience, unedited transcripts of what happened between Molly and her son today, overwhelming memories and rejections of those memories as sentimental, the fracturing of a sensibility beginning for the first time to doubt its perceptions: all of it runs out of the teller's mind and into the reader's with deliberate disregard for the nature of the words in between. The teller creates "characters" and "scenes" only to deny their validity. She berates herself for clinging to the "certainty" of her memories in the face of the general uncertainty. Mrs. Lessing looms through "The Golden Notebook" as a woman driven by doubts not only about what to tell but about the validity of telling it at all.
Yet she continued to write, and to write fiction. Not until towards the end of the five-volume "Children of Violence" series did one sense a weakening of that compulsion to remember, and a metastasis of that cognitive frenzy for answers. She had seen, by then, a great deal go, had seized a great many answers and lost them. Organized politics went early. Freudian determinism seemed incompatible. The Africa of her memory was another country. The voice she felt most deeply, that of women trying to define their relationships to each other and to men, first went shrill and then, appropriated by and reduced to a "Movement," slipped below the range of her attention….
[The] impulse to final solutions has been not only her dilemma but the guiding delusion of her time. It is not an impulse I hold high, but there is something finally very moving about Mrs. Lessing's tenacity.
Joan Didion, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1971, pp. 1, 38-9.
Better a worthy failure than a competent banality. Doris Lessing's novel [Briefing for a Descent into Hell] is, I think, a failure, but it is more interesting in conception and structure than most fiction—a visionary novel stuffed with allegory, metaphor and symbols, a novel that pauses for poetry and threatens to let its prose congeal into poetic diction….
Mrs. Lessing never says, but her sympathies are clear. In this, her quasi-science-fiction novel, she rings changes on themes from her earlier books: her concerns for feminism and Marxism, her distrust of psychiatry, the possibility of visitors from other worlds. Unfortunately, in this story Mrs. Lessing's thinking is fuzzy: her symbols are shopworn and her ideas dull. Visionary novels require brevity, intensity and discipline, but this novel wanders, digresses, and comes up with a theory that Original Sin may not be man's fault but the result of an external cataclysm. There is drama in Watkins's [the protagonist's] story, but the ideas that support it are not only dear to their author, they are also very silly.
Peter S. Prescott, "Disk Jockey," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1971; reprinted by permission), April 12, 1971, p. 118.
Doris Lessing's new novel [Briefing for a Descent Into Hell] explores the fascinating connection between genius and madness, between superhuman creative insight, what Plato calls furor divinus, and that sublime and terrifying state which threatens the truly intuitive being with tragedies unknown to ordinary mortals….
This complex and compassionate novel, about dead men who awaken with a surge of intuitive insight and are drugged and shocked back to sleep, is a Blakean attack on the limitations of pure Reason: "He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star."
Jeffrey Meyers, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), May 7, 1971, pp. 220-21.
The range of Doris Lessing's imagination is nothing short of remarkable. A reader—especially a woman reader—comes to believe herself totally acquainted with Doris Lessing after having read The Golden Notebook and the first four and a half novels in the Children of Violence series; then, concluding the last of the "Martha Quest" novels in that series, The Four-Gated City, she finds herself confronting a new, disturbing, in many ways inexplicable Doris Lessing. For, while the "Martha Quest" novels are autobiographical and naturalistic and crammed with social and political information, The Four-Gated City pushes out of the realm of the ordinary entirely, discards Martha as an intellectual center of interest, and pursues its apocalyptic vision to the very end of the twentieth century. Lessing's most recent novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, is almost entirely a hallucinatory experience, endured by a professor who ultimately lacks the courage to acknowledge his own interior landscape.
This collection of excellent stories [The Temptation of Jack Orkney]—Miss Lessing's nineteenth book—touches upon nearly all of the concerns of the novels. It concludes with the moving novella, "The Temptation of Jack Orkney," which reads like a semi-autobiographical confession. Here Miss Lessing's energy and inventiveness transpose ordinary life into something quite "other"—for while we keep thinking we have come to know Jack Orkney, he finally eludes us as he eludes himself, never quite concentrating into a convenient metaphor for "modern, alienated, confused Man," and yet not surrendering to the temptation of either despair or religious mysticism. Orkney is victimized by a terrible sense of depression after his father's death. He doubts the worth and even the good motives of his years of work (he is an author, an intellectual Leftist), and sees in himself and his altruistic friends a self-defeating complacency and love of power that undercut their commitment to humanity.
But beyond Orkney's personal dissatisfaction is Miss Lessing's great theme: that the world cannot any longer afford the luxury of each individual's and each individual's generation's discovering for the first time all the "truths" about life; that our time is limited, our catastrophe too horribly imminent, to allow this "endless cycle, of young people able to come to maturity only in making themselves into a caste which had to despise and dismiss their parents, insisting pointlessly on making their own discoveries…."
Joyce Carol Oates, "So Much for the Search for Truth," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 22, 1972, pp. 4, 13.
The sort of talent Mrs. Lessing has to dispense is defined in the title story in a way that is not often given to single works. In "The Temptation of Jack Orkney," she appears, for one thing, to have found it possible to write of a political life humanly, or more precisely, to render political beliefs indivisible from the central emotions of men's lives. Orkney, a socialist of a kind, comes to a time they used to call the mid-life crisis. Here it is a crisis of politics, a flaw in a commitment that is deeply a part of him—undoubtedly as deep a part as love, marriage, and fatherhood. All these relations are patterned together after a grain of belief—after certain orthodoxies, including the political—and none of them can bear close scrutiny. That scrutiny nevertheless comes unwilled to Orkney, part of a private vision that besets him in the midst of fund raising for a Cause. The vision is of a kind that Mrs. Lessing has conferred on all her characters in this collection. It is meticulous, complex, and certain enough of its ultimate destination to reflect, at its ease, on the specimen of human at hand. If it is cold-eyed, it is just as moving for the scale of its inquiry, for there is in this vision an extraordinary regard for personality and uniqueness in themselves, no less for their relation to the social strata from which her characters originate. It is a vision that records that men's obsessions are organic to their lives, whatever the forces that have shaped those lives—a range that includes the respectable, the seamy, the sensitive, and the benighted. Not all the stories are so well realized as others. "Report on the Threatened City" is virtually unreadable compared with the rest. But the quality on the whole is of an evenness that comes only to writers who write because they are possessed by a steady vision of men in their complexity.
Dorothy Rabinowitz, in World, October 24, 1972, p. 53.
[In Mrs. Lessing's recent novels "The Four-Gated City" and "Briefing for a Decent into Hell"], people who cannot bear the dreadful weight of contemporary history crack, and are then credited with a special visionary power by virtue of their madness. But despite the currency of R. D. Laing's doctrines, the relationship between modern horrors and the perceptual superiority of schizophrenics is not persuasively established in the novels. In "Jack Orkney" [title novella in her collection "The Temptation of Jack Orkney"], however, the connection between the crippling pressures of the real world and the forceful presence of the unseen is made dramatically and psychologically convincing. Here, Mrs. Lessing shows that there are mysteries undreamt of in rationalist philosophy; but she does not say that they are superior. Only that they are genuine, and must be admitted as evidence in every human life.
Lawrence Graver, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 29, 1972, pp. 4, 12.
Doris Lessing, we know, is all seriousness and a mile wide; even when she is being somewhat offhand or experimental she is never what anyone would call playful. What is remarkable is not that at her middling or her worst she is ponderous, but that at or near her best she is free of this vice, and inventive and clear in her vision. Little in her latest collection of stories and sketches, The Temptation of Jack Orkney, is going to wind up part of her most admired work, but no one can make being dead serious seem so interesting, and she stamps herself in her slightest work as a major writer….
Doris Lessing's genius is to be able to see longer into her materials than one would have thought possible. She starts with characters and situations that seem to have clear outcomes: this woman will die, this marriage cannot survive the next crisis, this world will blow up soon. Then, without denying the expectations created by such an opening, Lessing reaches her putative climax or solution and then moves on to some further action which seems both unexpected and right.
In her best work she keeps on providing these surprises, one after another, seeing further and further into apparently exhausted subjects. For this reason she is best thought of as a prophet or a visionary, and not, in the usual sense, as a thinker; when she is most disturbing she is simply pushing deeper into situations and their consequences. Conversely, when she most closely resembles the ideological creature she is often mistaken for, she is at her weakest; it is no surprise that the worst piece in this book, "Report on the Threatened City," is the most dogmatic and inflexible, or that the best two are wonderfully personal and responsive pursuits of directly grasped characters and circumstances.
Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted by permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), January 25, 1973, p. 43.