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[Lessing] reads like a nineteenth-century novelist with a twentieth-century sensibility, exercising a generously detailed, old-fashioned realism to delineate modern types (professionals, hippies, housewives) and modern dilemmas (women's place in society, third-world diplomacy, class mobility). All this Lessing gives without the strait jacket of ideology, for although she was involved in radical politics for years, she believes above all in fidelity to the human complications of her originals….
At its best, her language has a simplicity and clarity which gives it the illusion of being a common language, without quirks of personality or special education. She wants her words to seem transparent, holding reality as if in a glass bowl, containing but not interfering with the vision of it. She creates neither endearing Dickensian eccentrics nor stock types, but aims to describe people who, however English, have universal souls….
Certainly these stories [collected in Stories], with their cats and flower gardens, have that national flavor…. Her Englishness is there in the quality of socialization: none of her characters loses control without watching with a part of themselves the effect on others…. Although there are some Lawrentian moments, involuntary stirrings of the blood, for the most part Lessing writes about movements of the intellect and reserves her mysticism for unusual psychological or spiritual states….
Sometimes her will to simplify makes her prose clumsy, but she never willfully obscures what she knows for effect…. And occasionally she realizes a situation or a character so perfectly (and surely this is a test of literature) that it lodges in the mind as experience, trusted as knowledge, and one feels, "I know him, or her," rather than, "I know that story."…
Lessing does not try for the pure uplifting strains of Tolstoy, to give epic stature to the emotions of everyday men and women. Nor does she manage the perfectly poised ambivalence of Stendhal, each persistent and compelling feeling painfully incomplete. But like Julien Sorel's excitement reading, or Levin's mute joy wielding a scythe in the wheat fields, there are universal moments in her stories, statements about human life so recognizably true that such distinctions seem beside the point, and one is simply grateful to the quiet, intelligent voice that renders them. (p. 21)
The basis for selection [for inclusion in Stories] was the dubious criterion of not being about African subjects (most of them take place in London). Undoubtedly, this choice was for reasons of business rather than reasons of aesthetics … because some of Lessing's best stories are about Africa…. She seems less schematic with the African stories than with these, which can feel as if they translate too easily into elegant allegories. Inevitably, then, some extraordinary work is missing from this volume; and to anyone who knows the full range of her work, the balance seems lopsided….
Lessing obviously wants to do more than merely construct a social reality. She wants to excavate the layers of consciousness that lie beneath visible experience. Following the example of Sufi wisdom tales—which interest her deeply—she tries to write about dimensions of response which are freest of convention or culture, which may lie closest to the rock bottom of human nature….
Lessing returns to this subject in one way or another, again and again; she calls it "living hand to mouth emotionally" in The Golden Notebook. Undoubtedly, she is drawn to it out of her own life, as one of the new breed of single women, living without benefit of family or community, relying only on their own agility and resourcefulness. A woman living outside the traditional roles has to make up her own life as she goes along.
But she is also drawn to these types as a student of humanity, as if socially marginal people show us human nature simplified, each one an exemplar of some human pattern, proclaiming it like a banner. It is as if stripping away the usual social supports of a life shows the structure of personality in high relief.
Hence her interest in mystics and mad people and outcasts….
For almost thirty years now, Doris Lessing has considered the vagaries of human character—and particularly as they are manifest in women….
Doris Lessing was perhaps the earliest of our generation of woman-identified writers to [tell women's stories]. She never considered that her gender would mislead her about what was universal in the human soul….
But she never uses gender merely rhetorically. She records what she perceives or imagines to be true rather than what ought to be true. Indeed, the "sexual politics" of some of her early stories seem dated. By now, sentimentalities which might once have tugged at the heartstrings seem beyond the pale…. [Some] characters now seem like relics of another era, reminders of attitudes which writers like Lessing, by setting them down in black and white, have helped us to see and think about. (p. 22)
Ruth Perry, "Doris Lessing Out of Africa," in New Boston Review (copyright 1978 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Vol. IV, No. III, December, 1978, pp. 21-2.
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Doris Lessing's new novel ["Shikasta"] has this in common with its predecessors: it forces us to think about first and last things, about what we are, how we got that way and where we are going. It forces us to look into the depths of the apocalyptic tide washing around us. (p. 1)
My complaint … is not that Doris Lessing's new novel (the first of a tetralogy) is a forecast of doom. She has been forecasting doom for a long time now, ever more insistently these last dozen years or so. And she has had her reasons…. My complaint, rather, is that our Grand Mistress of lumpen realism has gone religious on us. Her reasons are no longer historical but astrological. The great diagnostician of what ails us has become a symptom of it….
[This] new novel is saturated with false hopes, and the ultimate truth is a system of theosophical emanations, cosmic influences, occult powers, spiritual visitations and stellar vibrations…. [Madness] is an attunement to the real extrasensory reality, a possession of "the Capacities of contact," a receptivity to messages from outer space….
The sometime humanist, champion of responsibility, dramatist of modern humankind making and unmaking itself, the radical individualist who used to say that "what is dangerous is the inner loyalty to something felt as something greater than oneself," has become a religious totalitarian….
In this new novel the old aching concern for human self-destructiveness is mixed with a distant and glittery-eyed glee. (p. 46)
I disapprove of this novel, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy reading it. This is not the first book of Doris Lessing's to succeed, sometimes brilliantly, in spite of the author's manifest intentions. Once again, the natural storyteller triumphs over the prophet. Besides, there are ways of leaping into transcendence that enable you to see what is transient more clearly, as in the theosophical excursions of D. H. Lawrence and W. B. Yeats.
Doris Lessing's satire has never been sharper, particularly of neo-Marxist jargon and the pretentions of the powerful. Chen Liu, the humane and cultured Governor-General of Europe, who in his letters home to Peking tries hopelessly to justify mercy on the grounds of expediency but still wastes no time in ordering the execution of troublemakers, is one of Doris Lessing's best creations. And her old secular realism would not have allowed for the scenes in Zone 6 (where souls await reincarnation), which have the eerie beauty of ancient Gnostic texts. It would not have allowed her glance to swivel so effortlessly back and forth in time and space.
But the new unearthly perspective reduces the size of her earthlings. Their fates too often seem beneath our concern. And that is sufficient reason in itself to regret that reality has grown soft for Doris Lessing, whose other main characters seldom failed to move us, one way or the other. (p. 47)
George Stade, "Fantastic Lessing," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 4, 1979, pp. 1, 46-7.
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The basic myth articulated [in Shikasta], and underlying all Doris Lessing's work since The Four-Gated City, is a very old one, which can be traced back through Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought for two millennia: the myth of the consuming destruction of a corrupt and fallen world from which a brave new world will be born. As Frank Kermode has ably demonstrated, its most potent source, after the book of Revelation, has been the 12th-century monk Joachim of Flora, whose ideas turn up in the most surprising places, including such major figures of the modern literary imagination as Lawrence and Yeats. Doris Lessing quotes Yeats in Shikasta and her affinity with Lawrence has always been clear. She also draws for imagery and allusion on the Old Testament, on Virgil and Dante, Milton and Blake. But what will dismay many of her admirers is that the basic fable and machinery of Shikasta … seem to derive from much shoddier sources, like Erich Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, the kitsch religion of Ufology, and space operas like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars….
Undoubtedly there are passages in Shikasta where Doris Lessing achieves [the] feat of surprising the reader into viewing his world as if from 'outside', and feeling a real grief and outrage at the evils, atrocities, disasters, and hideous dangers which merely numb us when we encounter them on TV or in the newspapers.
There are powerful critiques embedded in this text …; and moving evocations of a golden age in which man was not as death-haunted as he is with his present pathetic lifespan. That the characters are sticks does not matter too much, since this is essentially a novel of ideas.
What is unsatisfactory—to this reader, anyway—is the basic fable: the benevolent supervision of Earth by Canopus, 'working at its plans of rescue and reform' through its high-minded, selfless agents. Not only is this idea expressed in a mode that is all too 'familiar'; it also seems to raise unresolved ideological and metaphysical questions. If Canopus 'colonised' our Earth, it cannot be immune from Doris Lessing's own critique of Western imperialism; and it must bear some responsibility for our woes since it started our history off. This responsibility is never acknowledged. The Fall or Degenerative Disease which made the Canopian experiment go wrong is caused by a mysterious and unpredictable alteration in the cosmic fields of force, whose effects Canopus cannot control, only alleviate. The fable of Shikasta, therefore, offers only a palliative for, not an answer to the perennial problems of evil, suffering and individual death. It fails not because it isn't 'true' but because it is, in the last analysis, sentimental.
David Lodge, "Beyond the Catastrophe," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2541, November 30, 1979, p. 860.
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This extraordinarily ambitious book [Shikasta] achieves real grandeur despite attacks of silliness. Lessing builds convincingly a standard, but here necessary, indictment of Western civilisation for selfish brutal short-sightedness and then extends it to the whole of humanity…. Lessing concentrates on the West because it is after all we who will read her novel. It is perhaps surprising how comparatively perfunctory is her treatment in this novel of sexual politics; we are told that it was not thus in the beginning but it is only implied in passing that the subjection of women is part of the disorder on which Shammat feeds. The ideas of these books are hardly new ones and certainly not new ones for Lessing but they are expressed impressively and cohcrently with a cold yet apocalyptic anger.
The directly fantastic elements are particularly magnificent, all the more so because of the matter of fact extracts from Canopean history books and memoranda by which Johor's visits to the afterlife and to Earth before the fall are framed. Lessing creates a vivid translucent picture of the wastes in which those waiting for reincarnation wander, of the long happy lives of early humanity and its giant teachers and of the slow degeneration of the disobedient giants to proud mad spectres, that must be called Blakeian out of something more than courtesy or cliché. If there is something rather bizarre and cranky about some of the projections of the paradisical …, the very arbitrariness and cultishness of some of Lessing's views are stated with such conviction and elegance that they become part of a convincing vision of the alien and the unimaginable.
In the middle of the book come some short case studies which demonstrate our disordered state and the ways in which Canopus intervenes…. All these are told in a clinical crystalline way that makes them all the more affecting; Lessing has rarely written as well as in these concise pages.
With all one's reservations—the book is sometimes cranky and boring and over long—it must be stated that Shikasta is an undeniably impressive achievement. It is full of deeply moving scenes and of characters, often sketched in a line or two, who both stay in the mind as individuals and serve the thrust of the arguments…. The form of the novel is sometimes irritating but generally serves as a useful distancing device for the awesome concepts which flicker past. The signs of this first volume are that the whole trilogy 'Canopus in Argos: Archives' will prove one of Lessing's finest achievements. (pp. 17-18)
Roz Kaveney, "Lessing's Fantasia" (© copyright Roz Kaveney 1979; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 3, December, 1979, pp. 17-18.
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Although Doris Lessing has more in common with George Eliot than she has with any contemporary serious-novelist, she is not always above solemnity, as opposed to mere seriousness. Somewhat solemnly, Lessing tells us in the preface to her new novel Shikasta that there may indeed be something wrong with the way that novels are currently being written. She appears not to be drawn to the autonomous word-structure. On the other hand, she is an old-fashioned moralist. This means that she is inclined to take very seriously the quotidian. The deep—as opposed to strip—mining of the truly moral relationship seems to me to be her territory….
At best, Lessing's prose is solid and slow and a bit flatfooted. She is an entirely "traditional" prose writer….
In any case, like the splendid Memoirs of a Survivor, Shikasta is the work of a formidable imagination. Lessing can make up things that appear to be real, which is what storytelling is all about….
If this book has any recent precursor, it is Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.…
Lessing is even more influenced by the Old Testament…. Because the Old Testament's lurid tales of a furious god form a background to Jesus' "good news," to Mohammed's "recitations," to the Jewish ethical sense, those bloody tales still retain an extraordinary mythic power, last demonstrated in full force by Milton.
In a sense, Lessing's Shikasta is a return more to the spirit (not, alas, the language) of Milton than to that of Genesis. But Lessing goes Milton one better, or worse. Milton was a dualist. Lucifer blazes as the son of morning; and the Godhead blazes, too. Their agon is terrific. Although Lessing deals with opposites, she tends to unitarianism…. Lessing believes that it is possible "to 'plug in' to an overmind, or Ur-mind, or unconscious, or what you will, and that this accounts for a great many improbabilities and 'coincidences.'" She does indeed plug in; and Shikasta is certainly rich with improbabilities and "coincidences."…
It is Lessing's conceit that a benign and highly advanced galactic civilization, centered on Canopus, is sending out harmonious waves hither and yon, rather like Milton's god before Lucifer got bored…. Anyway, the evil planet Shammat in the galactic empire of Puttiora turns out to be our old friend Lucifer or Satan or Lord of the Flies, and the planet Shikasta (that's us) is a battleground between the harmonious vibes of Canopus and the wicked vibes of Shammat which are constantly bombarding our planet. In the end, Lucifer is hurled howling into that place where he prefers to reign and all is harmony with God's chilluns. Lessing rather lacks negative capability. Where Milton's Lucifer is a joy to contemplate, Lessing's Shammat is a drag whose planetary agents sound like a cross between Tolkien's monster and Sir Lew Grade.
Lessing's narrative devices are nothing if not elaborate. Apparently, the Canopian harmonious future resembles nothing so much as an English Department that has somehow made an accommodation to share its "facilities" with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (p. 3)
There is a certain amount of fun to be had in Johor's tour of human history. He is busy as a bee trying to contain the evil influence of Shammat, and Lessing not only brings us up to date but beyond: the Chinese will occupy Europe fairly soon. Lessing is a master of the eschatological style and Memoirs of a Survivor is a masterpiece of that genre. But where the earlier book dealt with a very real London in a most credible terminal state, Shikasta is never quite real enough…. Nevertheless, Lessing is plainly enjoying herself and the reader can share in that enjoyment a good deal of the time. But, finally, she lacks the peculiar ability to create alternative worlds….
Lessing's affinity for the Old Testament combined with the woolliness of latter-day Sufism has got her into something of a philosophical muddle. Without the idea of free will, the human race is of no interest at all; certainly, without the idea of free will there can be no literature. To watch Milton's Lucifer serenely overthrow the controlling intelligence of his writerly creator is an awesome thing. But nothing like this happens in Lessing's work. From the moment of creation, Lessing's Shikastans are programmed by outside forces—sometimes benign, sometimes malign. They themselves are entirely passive. There is no Prometheus; there is not even an Eve. The fact that in the course of a very long book Lessing has not managed to create a character of the slightest interest is the result not so much of any failure in her considerable art as it is a sign that she has surrendered her mind to [substance-of-we-feeling, the means by which Canopus had maintained harmony on Shikasta], or to the woollies, or to the Jealous God….
Ultimately, Shikasta is not so much a fable of the human will in opposition to a god who has wronged the fire-seeker as it is a fairy tale about good and bad extraterrestrial forces who take some obscure pleasure in manipulating a passive ant-like human race. (p. 4)
Gore Vidal, "Paradise Regained," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 20, December 20, 1979, pp. 3-4.
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Doris Lessing [in Shikasta] retells the story of the Bible, incorporating along the way elements from other Middle East religious traditions. The specifically modern part, and the nearest in feel to science fiction, is the description of the end of our civilization—which is indeed central. And I think it is more than mere coincidence that it is from British writers these days that we get these fantasies about history and how different it might have been—from Kingsley Amis and William Golding—and something equivalent from British critics. The main fact in modern English consciousness, though it surfaces obliquely and intermittently, is the end of the empire, and it is easy to take the imaginative step which translates that into 'the end of the world.' (p. 22)
I don't mean to suggest that it is intellectually slack or imaginatively dull, for in fact I found it moving, but its dominant mood is 'wisdom,' that mode of consciousness which is born in, though it rises above, non-participatory resignation. The book is not, I mean, intellectually brilliant in the mode of Thomas Pynchon; nor do all the sentences ring artistically true, in the mode of Philip Roth. The form is elaborate, without its elaboration giving any special pleasure (which was of course true of her finest novel, The Golden Notebook). After a twenty-page wind-in, which mainly bewilders, the 'story' may be said not really to begin until p. 210. Even the most potent fictional ideas, like a Mock-Trial of the white races, in which they are indicted by the dark-skinned, are merely introduced, and not fully developed.
Nevertheless, the book does not seem inadequate to its soaring theme. The plot functions well enough to allow the author to develop her brooding images of the human predicament. (pp. 22-3)
The subject is of course Jungian in its stress on synthetic myth and race memory. We are asked to recognize, as the narrative proceeds, transformed fragments of long familiar stories, poems, religious traditions. In this way, her science fiction can be compared with C. S. Lewis's—someone we would never have compared Martha Quest to. But it is a point worth dwelling on, because Lessing seems to be becoming a religious novelist. One of the most successful formal devices of the novel is the way she makes cities (our cities) all seem like the cities of the plain. And in this book, for the first time, she suggests that there is an active principle of evil….
Another source of strength is the way this book echoes and takes up the themes of Lessing's earlier work. There are characters and situations from The 4-Gated City and Briefing for a Descent into Hell. There are echoes of The Summer Before the Dark in the interest in international experts, and in generational conflicts among the elite; and so on. Thus the mass of her previous work is organized to support this new and different venture.
But above all, what gives weight to this book is the 'religious' truth it tells—what it shares with the film, The China Syndrome. As that comparison will show, I am now using 'religious' in a different sense. Works of this kind are so transparent to the truth they tell (a truth about a public crisis we are all involved in) and their art is so dedicated to that truth, that their effect can only be compared with that of "Everyman" during the Middle Ages. They are the kind of thing Tolstoy was asking for in What Is Art?, because they arouse the consciousness proper to us here today, the feelings that unite us. (p. 23)
Martin Green, "Synthetic Myth," in Commonweal (copyright © 1980 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. CVII, No. 1, January 18, 1980, pp. 22-3.
URSULA K. LeGUIN
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The second of the Canopus in Argos series of novels is finer-grained and stronger than Shikasta [the first]…. [The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five] may be read for the pure pleasure of reading it, a tale unencumbered by metaphysical machinery. The Canopans and Sirians, the superhuman powers of good and evil of Shikasta, stay offstage this time…. [The powers of good, the] Providers, command Al · Ith, ruler of Zone Three, and Ben Ata, ruler of Zone Four, to marry. Both obey the order not happily but unquestioningly. Theirs not to reason why (why not?). Once they meet, however, the two human beings begin to behave very humanly indeed, and what might have been a fable enacted by wooden puppets twitching on the strings of allegory becomes a lively and loveable novel—a novel in the folktale mode, bordering on the mythic.
The theme is one of the major themes of both myth and novel: marriage. Lessing's treatment of it is complex and flexible, passionate and compassionate, with a rising vein of humor uncommon in her work, both welcome and appropriate. Marriage in all modes. Marriage sensual, moral, mental, political. Marriage of two people, an archetypally sensitive lady and an archetypally tough soldier. Marriage of female and male; of masculine and feminine; of intuitional and sensational; of duty and pleasure. Marriage of their two countries, which reflect all these opposites and more, including the oppositions wealth-poverty, peace-war. And then suddenly a marriage with Zone Five is ordered, a second marriage, a tertium quid, startling and inevitable.
It may be worth noting that this series of oppositions does not overlap very far with the old Chinese system of opposites, the Yin and Yang…. Her dialectic of marriage takes place almost wholly in terms of Yang. Its process therefore is Hegelian, struggle and resolution, without the option of a maintained balance (the marriage cannot last). This is worth mentioning as illustrative of the extreme Westernness of Lessing's ethic and metaphysic. The Canopus books propose a cosmic viewpoint: but it turns out to be so purely European an explanation of human destiny that anyone even slightly familiar with other religious or philosophical systems must find it inadequate, if not presumptuous…. [Lessing's] parochialism is disturbing.
The landscapes and societies of Zones Three, Four, and Five (and, most tantalizingly, Two) are sketched, not detailed. One cannot live in these lands, as one can in Middle Earth. These are the countries of parable, intellectual nations which one can only travel through in a closed car; but the scenery is vastly interesting, and one may wish one could at least stop and get out. (pp. 34-5)
At first the protagonists also appear at a distance, a bit larger than life, all of a piece, heroic. Perhaps the Ben Hur lurking in the name "Ben Ata" is even deliberate (though I wish the Alice trying to lisp her way out of Al · Ith were not so audible). As the two enter upon their difficult marriage, however, and are driven through all the changes of fear, patience, lust, rage, liking, masochism, ecstasy, jealousy, rebellion, dependence, friendship, and the rest, they become smaller, more distant, more complicated. They get older. Their heroism is no longer easy: it has become painful; it has become real. By having the courage to use these great stock characters, the queen and the king, and to take them seriously as people, Lessing has presented a personal drama of general significance, skillfully and without falsification. Her portrait of a marriage is perfectly clear-sighted and admirably inconclusive. Moralist that she is, she makes no judgment here. Character is destiny: her characters make themselves a human destiny, far more impressive than any conceivable pseudo-divine five-year plan for the good of Zones Three to Five. They might even have risen to tragedy, had the author not opened heaven's trap-door to them to prevent that chance.
Though accurate, that last sentence is probably unfair. After all, The Marriages aspires to myth, not to tragedy…. Perhaps it is only meanmindedness that makes me distrust Zone One, fearing that it will turn out to be not simply better, but perfectly good, and therefore longing to find something wrong with it….
Indeed the Manichaean-Calvinistic hierarchy, the closed system implied by the structure and the more vatic bits of Shikasta, seems here to give way to an open course of relative values—a way, a human way. Or does Lessing not agree with the Chronicler who a way, tells her tale so well? I think she does….
I tell you that goodness—what we in our ordinary daylight selves call goodness: the ordinary, the decent—these are nothing without the hidden powers that pour forth continually from their shadow sides….
However the tale is not a fearful one, but kindly, careful, cheerful; its teller, knowing the darkness, faces the light. (p. 35)
Ursula K. LeGuin, "Books and the Arts: 'The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1980 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 182, No. 13, March 29, 1980, pp. 34-5.
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"The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five" takes place among … "concentric shells"—six of them—which, we are told in "Shikasta," surround the planet in a way reminiscent of the spheres of ancient cosmology. Each shell or Zone represents a different "level of being." Zone Six, the only one really dealt with in "Shikasta," is the innermost (or lowest), a place where disconsolate souls wander about or line up for reincarnation on the planet. Zone Three, where the action of "The Marriages" begins, is at the midpoint of the hierarchically arranged spheres; from there we descend to Zone Four and, briefly, into Zone Five. We also catch glimpses of the higher, more ethereal Zone Two. Zone One remains unmentioned and unimaginable.
Far from being science fiction as we generally think of it, "The Marriages" takes the form of a medieval romance, in which a lovely queen is forced to marry the barbarian king of an adjoining realm…. The story, which might almost be subtitled "The Taming of the Oaf," contains many of the elements of such romances…. Furthermore, like so much of medieval romance, the tale is densely allegorical.
Zone Three, over which the queen, Al ·:Ith, rules, is peaceful, rich, contented…. Relations between the sexes are equal, graceful, sensuous and harmonious. Al · Ith has had male partners (apparently there are no marriages within the Zone, and even "lovers" is perhaps too charged a term for the calm sexuality that prevails) and has borne several children, who enjoy the benevolent care not only of their "Gene-Parents" but of a number of "Mind-Parents" as well.
In contrast, Zone Four is a militaristic patriarchy, where all able-bodied men are in the army, leaving their subservient wives in charge of the children. The king, Ben Ata, is a bearded soldier who squanders the wealth of his Zone in ceaseless military preparations, maneuvers and skirmishes directed against the even more barbarous Zone Five beyond its borders…. In such a society, sexual intercourse tends to be nasty, brutish and short.
The allegorical hints are insistent. What, we are invited to ask, has gone wrong with the utopian Zone Three, where the animals have become sad and refuse to reproduce? What can be the meaning of the marriage … between Ben Ata and the beautiful dark haired queen …? What, much later in the tale, can be the significance of the second enforced marriage, this time between the newly civilized Ben Ata, who has reformed his Zone under the benign influence of Al · Ith, and the queen of Zone Five …, an amazon who has grown rich by looting her own subjects? And why does Al · Ith, who loves her husband and their son, become an exile in her own Zone, withdrawing into contemplation of the azure mists of Zone Two, into which she finally disappears?
Doris Lessing apparently has in mind an ascending order of being, a kind of Neoplatonic ladder pointing toward the light (Zone One?), a ladder up which the soul moves toward its perfected state. Individual souls are seemingly regarded as participating in a Collective Soul…. But the motion of the soul—individual or collective—is not all in one direction; there must be descent as well as ascent, a penetration of the light into darker and denser spheres. (p. 23)
I am too ignorant of the esoterica of Sufi mysticism, in which Mrs. Lessing is said to be greatly interested, to know how much it is reflected in her allegorical scheme—certainly some of the names have a vaguely Saracenic ring. But there is no need to go so far afield: Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" and his other "prophetic" works provide numerous analogies to "The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five." "Without Contraries is no progression"—this proverb of Blake's could well be the epigraph for Doris Lessing's fable.
Appetites for this sort of "wisdom" literature will vary. Though usually I am resistant to allegory in modern fiction, I became interested in the web that Mrs. Lessing has woven from strands of what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy. But still more interesting is her exhaustive exploration of the interplay of dominance and need in the relations between men and women. This concern has, of course, been central to much of her writing, notably in "The Golden Notebook" and the short stories; to identify it with feminism or sexual warfare is to oversimplify. (pp. 23-4)
With love comes the possibility of jealousy, an emotion unknown in complacent Zone Three. Aggression, tenderness, lust, passivity, ambivalence, hostility—the whole spectrum of sexual emotions is explored, always with psychological acuity but sometimes with a humorless over-insistence that reminds me of D. H. Lawrence at his most didactic. Similarly, the whole tribe of womankind is presented in all its aspects….
Much of this is impressive. But the psychological and social verisimilitude of these probings does not always consort well with the demands of the story, the fable. Apart from her visionary side, Doris Lessing's preoccupations are still so much those of our own time—even polemically so—that they remain like an unassimilated lump within a narrative mode deriving from a very different epoch. The prose of these sections can be congested and sometimes barbarous….
Finally, the fable itself is simply not enthralling or compelling enough on its own terms to carry the weight of significance that Mrs. Lessing has assigned to it. In these respects, "The Marriages" is less successful than the much longer but better-written "Shikasta," which, despite passages that read like tracts or case histories, has sufficient narrative drive, variety and suspense to carry the reader with accelerating momentum on a voyage encompassing millions of years and many densely printed pages.
Doris Lessing is one of the most honest, intelligent and fiercely committed novelists now writing in English. She is bold, a taker of risks. Even when her inspiration is not at its strongest, she is always worth reading. Perhaps "The Marriages" is best regarded as a way-station in space, an interlude for rest and contemplation before we soar onward to the promised third volume of the series, already announced as "The Sirian Experiments"—whatever they may turn out to be. (p. 24)
Robert Towers, "A Visionary Romance," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 30, 1980, pp. 1, 23-4.