Doris Lessing

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Adele S. Newson (review date winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Newson, Adele S. Review of African Laughter, by Doris Lessing. World Literature Today 68, no. 1 (winter 1994): 139-41.

[In the following review, Newson explores the parallels between African Laughter and Lessing's experiences in Africa.]

African Laughter is an alchemy of memoir, travelogue, revisionist history, and political treatise. While Lessing manages some of these elements better than others, the book is worth reading for its personal and global asides, wry wit, and autobiographical impulses. In sum, the work paints a portrait of a woman who desires to come to terms with “the web of sensations, memories, experience that binds” her to Zimbabwe.

Lessing had lived in colonial Rhodesia for some twenty-five years before becoming an exile in 1956 because of her opposition to white rule. African Laughter records her impressions of the young country of Zimbabwe during four visits (1982, 1988, 1989, 1922); the first visit commences two years after independence. Lessing's regard for the new black government decreases significantly with each visit, countered by her desire to find the familiar in both landscape and people.

Lessing is at her best when she describes her remembrances of how the country had been and what it had meant to her in her youth. These recollections take the form of personal myth, and myth, she explains, is “a concentration of truth.” She often reconstructs/revises history, adding personal asides to demonstrate the folly of modern society, the absurdity of white Rhodesians, and the limitations or selective nature of human memory. By way of explanation for her revisioning tendencies, she explains: “When I was very young … someone must have said to me, ‘I'm telling you, it's like this. But I knew that ‘it’ was like that. … Someone trying to talk me out of what I knew was true, must have been the important thing that happened to me in my childhood, for I was continually holding fast to moments, when I said to myself … ‘Don't let yourself be talked out of what really happened.’” She manages to create in the work both a personal history of a country and something of an autobiography, the veracity of which may strike some readers as dubious but nonetheless engaging.

African Laughter is at its weakest when Lessing attempts to speak for the multitudes of black Zimbabweans (and often in casual observations of black motivation.) She reveals early in the work that she is “impatient to talk to Africans, any African, to find out what lay behind the rhetoric of war.” Her attempt to counter “The Monologue” on the inequities of black Zimbabweans is admirable yet inept at best. At worst, she romanticizes Africans in a way suggestive of the noble savage. She (or some other source) often scorns the New African generation for its imitation of European manners and traditions while she exposes as superior traditional African ways of being in the world.

Still, apart from the often painful romanticism in Lessing's depictions of the “traditional” Africans and African landscapes, her book offers familiar and vivid images of a developing and struggling Zimbabwe which parallels (to an extent) Jamaica Kincaid's efforts in A Small Place. Whereas Kincaid's extended essay explores the postindependence island nation of Antigua, Lessing's work explores the postindependence nation of Zimbabwe. Though more expansive than A Small Place, African Laughter explores the ignorance of the “colonials” and exposes the corruption of the new government; most notably, Lessing's “chefs” are almost interchangeable with Kincaid's “ministers.”


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Doris Lessing 1919-

(Born Doris May Taylor; has also written under the pseudonym Jane Somers) Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, poet, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and travel writer.

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of Lessing's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, seeCLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, 40, and 94.

Considered among the most significant writers of the post-World War II generation, Lessing has explored many of the most important ideals, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century in her prolific body of work. Her oeuvre displays a broad spectrum of interests and concerns, ranging from racism, communism, and feminism to psychology and mysticism. Lessing began her career in the 1950s, writing fiction in the realist mode that focused on the theme of racial injustice. As her writing developed, Lessing began focusing on strong-willed, independent heroines who suffer emotional crises in male-dominated societies, anticipating many of the major feminist concerns of the late 1960s and 1970s. The major unifying theme of her work explores the need for the individual to confront his or her most fundamental assumptions about life as a way of avoiding preconceived belief systems and achieving psychic and emotional wholeness.

Biographical Information

Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) to English parents who moved their family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was very young. She was educated in a convent school and later a government-run school for girls before her formal education ended at the age of thirteen. A voracious reader, Lessing had excelled in school and continued her education on her own through the wealth of books her mother ordered from London. By age eighteen, Lessing had written two drafts for novels and was selling stories to South African magazines, although she would not publish her first novel, the autobiographical The Grass Is Singing—centering on an unhappy woman living on an impoverished, isolated farm in Rhodesia—until 1950. In 1939 she married Frank Wisdom, a much older man, with whom she had two children. The marriage, which lasted only four years, inspired A Proper Marriage (1954), considered one of her most autobiographical novels. Lessing joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s—she severed her ties to the party during the early 1950s—and subsequently met and married Gottfried Lessing, a Jewish German with whom she had a son, Peter. In 1949 the couple separated when Gottfried moved to East Germany and Lessing and Peter moved to England.

Major Works

The Grass Is Singing introduces two of Lessing's major recurring themes: the causes and effects of racism (“the colour bar”) and the myriad ways that history and politics can determine the course of a person's life. The novel focuses on a white couple's impoverished life on a Rhodesian farm. The wife vents her hatred of her social and political situation on an African man, whom she eventually provokes into killing her. Lessing's highly acclaimed “Children of Violence” series traces the intellectual development of Martha Quest, a fictional heroine who resembles Lessing in several ways. Like Lessing, Martha is a “child of violence” born at the end of World War I and raised in a bleak post-war era of social struggle, later facing the tragedies of World War II. Over the course of the series, Martha progresses from personal, self-centered concerns to a larger awareness of others and the world around her as she explores various beliefs in pursuit of psychic wholeness. Martha Quest (1952) is a bildungsroman in which Martha attempts to escape her restricted upbringing and her domineering mother. A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm (1958) recount Martha's two unsuccessful marriages to politically ambitious men and her involvement in left-wing, anti-apartheid, communist activities. Landlocked (1966)—a novel considered by many to be an abrupt departure from the realistic concerns of the “Children of Violence” series—reflects Lessing's emerging interest in telepathy, extrasensory perception, and Sufism, an offshoot of Islam that proposes that mystical intuition should replace rationalism as a means of alleviating world problems. The novel follows Martha as she travels to England where she experiences an apocalyptic vision. Britain—and later the entire world—are destroyed in The Four-Gated City (1969), a novel in which Martha comes to realize the limitations of rational thought and seeks to embrace and understand the higher truth of her own intuition.

The Golden Notebook (1962) centers on novelist Anna Freeman Wulf, whose life is variously represented by four “notebooks.” Designated a symbolic color and narrated from different perspectives, each notebook incorporates parts of Wulf's latest novel in narratives that assume multiple levels of significance. The title of the novel refers to Anna's desperate attempt through art to integrate her fragmented experiences in order to achieve wholeness. Similarly, The Summer before the Dark (1973) focuses on a middle-aged woman who has a brief affair with a younger man as means to rediscover a sense of identity. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) two psychiatrists attempt to restore a delirious Cambridge professor to their ideal of sanity. As the professor wanders through a space/time warp of his own psyche, he experiences the unity of creation and envisions a future apocalypse. He is ultimately left to ponder whether his vision is valid or the product of hallucination. The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) proposes that faced with the choice between a radical change of values and behavior or the extinction of the human race, mankind must reject rationalism and develop a more intuitive approach to existence and survival. Lessing's “space fiction” series—“Canopus in Argos: Archives”—concerns three competing galactic empires: the benign Canopeans, the self-centered Sirians, and the evil Shammat. Manipulating events on Earth to retain a gene pool for their own immortality, these empires continue to affect human history through the intervention of immortal beings. The first volume of the series, Shikasta (1979), documents the journals accumulated by Johor, a Canopean agent planning to divert humanity from the destructive course set by the Shammat. The second volume of the series, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980), is a utopian allegory centering on the enforced marriages between rulers of opposing kingdoms as a means of securing peaceful coexistence. Next in the series and written in a style reminiscent of Shikasta,The Sirian Experiments (1981) is narrated by a female member of an insensitive colonial administration. In The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) dystopian themes surface in a story of a slowly freezing planet whose inhabitants die awaiting a promised transport to warmer environs. The last volume in the “Canopus” series, Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983), satirizes rhetorical language as a tool for social enslavement.

Lessing's series of novels written under the pseudonym “Jane Somers”—The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984)—feature the diaries of a woman named Janna, who some critics have speculated acts as an alter-ego for Lessing. In The Good Terrorist (1985) a middle-class woman's extreme liberal idealism leads her to organize a group of would-be revolutionaries who commit an act of terrorism. The rhetoric of contemporary political slogans also plays a key role in the novel. The Fifth Child (1988) concerns a violent, antisocial child named Ben who wreaks havoc on his family and society. Its sequel, Ben, in the World (2000), follows Ben, now eighteen years old, as he enters adulthood. In 2002 Lessing published The Sweetest Dream, a novel that revolves around Frances Lennox, a self-described “earth mother” living in the 1960s who takes care of a group of post-war children in her London home.

Critical Reception

Lessing has been generally recognized as one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century. Critics have been attracted to the tension and immediacy in her work, generated by her realistic descriptions, symbolism, and detailed imagery that evoke a wide range of environments and moods. Many commentators have argued that her enlightened portrayal of marriage and motherhood, her anti-apartheid stance, and her experimentation with genre and form make Lessing an exciting—and often controversial—literary figure. Although many critics have contended that her science fiction and mystical works abandon the realism and neglect the social analysis that made her earlier works so valuable, others have countered that even in her most experimental fantasies, Lessing has consistently explored the relationship between the individual psyche and the political, sexual, and religious ideologies that structure it. Anthony Sampson has commented that Lessing's body of work offers “an insight about human relationships and an ability to describe them with a directness and certainty that made other English writers seem effete and self-conscious.”

Julia O'Faolain (review date 5 April 1996)

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SOURCE: O'Faolain, Julia. “Objects of Eros.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4853 (5 April 1996): 27-9.

[In the following review, O'Faolain assesses the themes, motifs, and characterization in Love, Again.]

Doris Lessing's fictional range defies comparison—unless with a literary team which might include, say, Bunyan, Balzac and several more. Her new novel [Love, Again], the first for eight years, recalls Racine. Like his, its characters seethe with pent desire; but, unlike his, their decorum scarcely cracks; there is some boiling over, but little scandal or mingling of hot liquids. Their climax is solitary.

The novel opens: “Easy to think this was a junkroom, silent and airless in a warm dusk, but then a shadow moved, someone emerged from it to pull back the curtains and throw open windows. It was a woman, who now stepped quickly to a door and went out, leaving it open.” Allegory? Perhaps. Both “shadow” and “junkroom” sound like emblems. In a sermon, “junk” could stand for terrestrial vanity. But is a sermon under way?

This assumption vacillates, as Lessing's skilled realism creates a plausible world inhabited by one of her typically solitary and valiant female protagonists whose age lags just behind her own. This one is called Sarah Durham. “A good sensible name for a sensible woman”, thinks Sarah, giving us a signal that she will soon be put to the test. An allegorical test? Portents differ. The “bits of theatrical junk” turn out to be there because she works in the theatre and because her flat holds “thirty years of memories”. But the allegorical nimbus grows brightly when she notes how little of the clutter is due to a “choice from that part of her she thought of as herself”. The italics are Lessing's.

Sarah has written a play which the London theatre company that she helped to found will put on in Provence with the help of French, English and American money. Particulars now crowd in fast. Practical Sarah—aged sixty-five but looking younger—is in her element. The company's English “angel”, Stephen Ellington-Smith, has written an unacceptably sentimental play on the same subject as hers and must be placated. This is done deftly, as the two agree to use her play, to sign it jointly and to incorporate some of his dialogue. After its run in Provence, it will be put on in the grounds of his house in Oxfordshire.

Lessing's novel is about what happens to the people who now gather to rehearse this play, about the spell it casts over them and the sexual passions aroused. Or rather this is the narrative scaffolding on which she will hang a meditation about a number of topics which interest her.

The novel is all layered themes and patterns, several emerging from the play itself. It tells the life story of Julie Vairon, a lovely, talented, illegitimate quadroon who comes from Martinique to France in the 1880s with a young lieutenant. Abandoned by him, she takes another well-born lover, loses him, goes mad with misery, then recovers. Later, when a kindly, older man asks her to marry him, she agrees, starts to prepare for the marriage, but instead throws herself into a mountain torrent.

Sarah's play, Julie Vairon, draws on the “real” Julie's journals and uses her recently discovered musical compositions which have been enjoying critical acclaim. The play will be put on in English in the woods near the small Provençal house where Julie lived and recorded her thoughts. “Freedom! Liberty! she often cried to herself, roaming about her forests.” Her self-portraits aimed to discover “her real, her hidden nature.” Though passionate, she was afflicted with a cold eye which led her to see her own story, “as if Jane Austen were rewriting Jane Eyre”.

The cross-over is a tip-off. Sarah too will suffer through an impossible love. She will fall secretly and foolishly for Bill, the actor playing Julie's lieutenant, who is gorgeous, twenty-six years old and prefers men. Perhaps group euphoria is to blame? The theatre? Provençal nights? These are exquisitely described.

Other contagions rampage through the company. Stephen, the “angel”, claims quite seriously to be mortally stricken by the long-dead Julie. The steamy 1880s wreak emotional havoc. Anguish and jealousy are described with a baroque brio. Sarah, watching Bill with a young actress, feels pain slice through her. “Knives had nothing on this: red-hot skewers were more like it, or waves of fire.” Passion hurts. Both Sarah and Stephen discover this, as their mirroring obsessions rack them and he goes slowly mad. Meanwhile, Sarah, recovering from her yearning for Bill, develops a scarcely more viable one for the American director, Henry, who is thirty-five. Age matters in our day as much as family and property did in Julie's. There is some despairing and rather dogged self-scrutiny by Sarah who, having been celibate for twenty years, has failed to monitor her body's decline. She sleeps with neither Bill, Henry or Andrew, another young actor who offers himself.

A lot of action? Yes, but it is presented as food for thought and is often imaginary—like Sarah's couplings with Henry and Bill. Little actually happens, and the mirroring of Julie's story remains fanciful. Thus, though the thought is lively, the novel is static, since characters fail to engage with each other and so with us. Lessing, a Cupid bent on enlightening rather than delighting, showers us with arrows armed with pedagogic points. Tipped with the vaccine of sadness, most have to do with love.

Love, Again—admire the rueful comma—muses on the grand old passion's theatrical disguises: love as malady, as memento mori, narcissism (one seeks one's own youth) or re-enactment of childhood-need. In the end, something like the old patristic notion that Eros is a lure to distract humanity from its divine love-object seems to be implied when Sarah, retracing her emotional neediness to her babyhood, rejects the notion that what she has been longing for is a substitute for mother's milk or love. Some grander—mystic?—need must, she decides, be mirrored by later ones. “To fall in love is to remember one is an exile. …” An allegory then? In part, yes. Sarah's soul has been passing through calamity to clarity of vision.

En route to this discovery, she makes a more specific one. This is that her vulnerability may go back to blocked memories of a childhood in which her mother preferred her brother. Hal, and denied Sarah affection. Since Hal is one of the novel's nastier and more vivid minor characters, this is both interesting and credible. The subplot, in which he manipulates Sarah into looking after his semi-deranged daughter, achieves an urgency which the main story lacks. Hal's selfishness could indeed be the result of childhood spoiling. His daughter, Joyce, a sweet but irrecuperable street-person, is a present-day twin for Julie, who also lived on the margins of society, while Hal is contrasted with Stephen, in whom Sarah finds the lovable brother she never had. Thus the thematic frame tidies up a narrative sprawl. Lessons are conveyed and incidental pleasures delivered, as characters lark about, exchanging quotations about love. The novel is a florilegium of wise comment and apt illustration. For me, however, it lacks fiction's first, basic requirement: it fails to seduce, tantalize or move. Maybe it was never meant to.

Principal Works

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The Grass Is Singing (novel) 1950

*Martha Quest (novel) 1952

This Was the Old Chief's Country (short stories) 1952

Before the Deluge (play) 1953

*A Proper Marriage (novel) 1954

Five: Short Novels (novellas) 1955

No Witchcraft for Sale (short stories) 1956

Retreat to Innocence (novel) 1956

Going Home (essays) 1957

The Habit of Loving (short stories) 1957

Each His Own Wilderness (play) 1958

Mr. Dollinger (play) 1958

*A Ripple from the Storm (novel) 1958

Fourteen Poems (poetry) 1959

The Truth about Billy Newton (play) 1960

The Golden Notebook (novel) 1962

Play with a Tiger (play) 1962

A Man and Two Women (short stories) 1963

African Stories (short stories) 1964

*Landlocked (novel) 1966

The Storm [adaptor; from the play by Alexander Ostrovsky] (play) 1966

Winter in July (short stories) 1966

Particularly Cats (autobiography) 1967; revised edition Particularly Cats … and Rufus, 1991

Nine African Stories (short stories) 1968

*The Four-Gated City (novel) 1969

Briefing for a Descent into Hell (novel) 1971

The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories (short stories) 1972; also published as The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, 1972

The Singing Door (play) 1973

The Summer before the Dark (novel) 1973

The Memoirs of a Survivor (novel) 1974

A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews (essays and interviews) 1974

Collected Stories 2 vols. (short stories) 1978; also published as Stories, 1978

Shikasta (novel) 1979

The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (novel) 1980

The Sirian Experiments (novel) 1981

The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (novel) 1982

The Diary of a Good Neighbour [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1983

Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (novel) 1983

If the Old Could … [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1984

The Good Terrorist (novel) 1985

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (essays) 1987

The Wind Blows Away Our Words (nonfiction) 1987

The Fifth Child (novella) 1988

African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (travel writing) 1992

The Real Thing (short stories) 1992

Playing the Game Graphic Novel (novel) 1993

Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (autobiography) 1994

Love, Again (novel) 1996

Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962 (autobiography) 1997

Mara and Dann (novel) 1999

Ben, in the World (novella) 2000

The Sweetest Dream (novel) 2002

*These works comprise the “Children of Violence” series.

†These works comprise the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series, which appeared in a multivolume edition titled Canopus in Argos: Archives Series (1992).

‡These works are collected in The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984) and published under Lessing's name.

Ruth Brandon (review date 12 April 1996)

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SOURCE: Brandon, Ruth. “Venus Observed.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 398 (12 April 1996): 38-9.

[In the following review, Brandon focuses on the theatrical setting, style, and implications of the central theme of Love, Again.]

When [Love, Again] starts, this is still just a concept; by the end, the play is a success, but its creators have lost interest in it. The addictive group life of the theatre, vividly evoked, becomes the backdrop for the novel's own drama.

This theatrical effect is heightened by the rather highly coloured, simplified nature of the background. The weather is always sunny; the small town in Provence where much of the action takes place, and the stately home that is the setting for much of the rest, might be operatic stage: sets. And Julie herself, the play's subject, never convinces as a historical figure. She's too good at everything, her life is too dramatically symmetrical.,

But all this is just a frame for the book's real theme: love, As one might expect, Lessing's love is no sweet story. What she portrays is Racine's Venus route entiere a sa proie attachee. Sarah writes: “I think I am really ill. I am sick—with love … People killing themself for love do it because they can't stand the pain. Physical pain. I have never understood that before.”

The play itself sets the theme. Julie is a beautiful quadroon from Martinique, the illegitimate daughter of a plantation-owner, who runs away to France with a lover, is abandoned, falls in love again, loses a child, and finally commits suicide. Eighty years after her death in 1912, it is discovered she was a brilliant composer and artist who kept a journal. Sarah's play is based on this and uses her music.

Sarah is obsessed with Julie; so (more pathologically) is the play's backer, Stephen, who is trapped inside a loveless marriage and has fallen in love with her. In love with someone dead? At first Sarah can't believe it; soon, though, she realises it is literally true, But this is not the only unlikely coupling. As the production unfolds against the magical hot summer of 1989, the novel's entire cast falls victim to the merciless goddess. Sarah herself is doubly afflicted; and Stephen, who seems so imperturbable, is more wounded than anyone.

The love life of the elderly is a popular theme these days, but it is rarely treated with Lessing's merciless eyes. Mary Wesley treats it with a rosy disregard for physical dilapidation; Alan Isler (in The Prince of West End Avenue) with the distancing device of affectionate humour. But neither sentimentality nor gentle irony were ever Doris Lessing's line, and the years have not blunted her scalpel.

Her style is unadorned; she carries the reader forward by sheer force of observation and intellectual vigour. It's hard to credit that a woman of Sarah's age would suddenly become a love-object for three (!) young men. Nevertheless we believe it, because Lessing's style sternly informs us that she is wedded to the bare truth. Indeed, nobody is more surprised (and appalled) by all this than Sarah herself.

Lessing is tapping real depths here, the more affecting for being so unexpected. Though affecting is perhaps the wrong word: the curious thing about her writing is that, although strong emotion is her subject, empathy is not one of her tools. She is perhaps too detached, too chillingly analytical, for that.

Lessing clearly knows just how human beings work. I have never seen love's effects and depredations described in more minute and accurate detail. What is less clear is whether she's a fellow-member of the species. That distinctive tone could belong to no one but Lessing. And Love, Again is a wholly compelling book, as vigorous and thought-provoking as anything she has ever written.

Further Reading

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Brightman, Carol. “Doris Lessing: Notes of a Novelist.” Washington Post Book World (16 October 1994): 1, 14.

Brightman assesses the strengths of Under My Skin.

Burroway, Janet. “An Unfashionable Woman.” New York Times Book Review (6 November 1994): 1, 42.

Burroway argues that the two major themes shaping Under My Skin are the twin workings of memory and projection.

Innes, Charlotte. “A Life of Doing It Her Way.” Los Angeles Times (8 December 1994): E1, E8.

Innes discusses Under My Skin based on an interview with Lessing.

Leonard, John. “The African Queen.” Nation 259, no. 15 (7 November 1994): 528-36.

Leonard details the relationships between Under My Skin and Lessing's fiction.

Rose, Ellen Cronan. “Somebody—but Who?” Women's Review of Books 12, no. 6 (March 1995): 11-12.

Rose examines Under My Skin in the context of Lessing's current interpretation of such longstanding issues as her relationship with her mother, her sexuality, and her fear of becoming mired in the past.

———. “Feet of Clay.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 2 (November 1997): 5-6.

Rose examines the role of Lessing's life experiences in her work as described in Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962.

Rubenstein, Roberta. “Life and Doris Lessing.” Chicago Tribune (23 October 1994): section 14, pp. 1, 12.

Rubenstein discusses the “vivid reconstructions of decisive experiences and significant people” of Lessing's childhood in Under My Skin.

Rubin, Merle. “Author Doris Lessing Turns a Writer's Spotlight on Herself.” Christian Science Monitor 86, no. 248 (17 November 1994): 14.

Rubin notes that Under My Skin is sprinkled with provocative, often contradictory, views on such topics as abortion, sexual attraction, parent-child bonding, race relations, left-wing zealots and the colonial legacy.

Schemo, Diana Jean. “A Portrait Unwinds, as in Life.” New York Times (2 November 1994): C1, C10.

Schemo discusses Under My Skin, modern art, and autobiography based on an interview with Lessing.

Additional coverage of Lessing's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 14; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 54, 76; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, 40, 94; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 139; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1985; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 12; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vols. 2, 4; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Suzann Bick (review date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Bick, Suzann. Review of Love, Again, by Doris Lessing. Antioch Review 54, no. 4 (fall 1996): 493-94.

[In the following review, Bick assesses the sexual dimension of Love, Again.]

Lessing's latest novel [Love, Again] deserves applause for its frank depiction of its older, female protagonist's resurgent sexuality, while individual passages must be questioned for prose as turgid as the title.

Sarah Durham has collaborated with Stephen Ellington-Smith to produce an “entertainment” based on the life of Julie Vairons, a 19th-century mulatto who painted and composed music. Living alone, Vairons was regarded by the French villagers as licentious and perhaps a witch. Even her death was shrouded in mystery: was it accident, suicide, or murder?

The novel's huge array of characters are involved in staging this drama; Sarah imagines having sex with many of them. The identity of these putative lovers blurs, while Julie threatens to take over the novel. Lessing appears aware of this problem, but the use of parenthetical names to identify the various “he's” solves nothing. Other problems include such overwritten lines as “anger growing like a fat unstoppable cancer” and “Love is hot and wet, but it does not scald and sting.” References to AIDS seem self-conscious, as does the mention of particular sexual acts.

Lessing attempts to show the importance of work in a woman's life, certainly a commendable goal even today, when the heroine's work often appears to be an authorial afterthought. Unfortunately, Sarah's work gets lost in Lessing's concentration on her sexuality. Has Lessing undertaken an impossible task? In any case, one returns with pleasure to the subtle depiction of older protagonists in Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Sackville-West's All Passion Spent.

Adele S. Newson (review date autumn 1996)

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SOURCE: Newson, Adele S. Review of Love, Again, by Doris Lessing. World Literature Today 70, no. 4 (autumn 1996): 959.

[In the following review, Newson describes the plot and narrative elements of Love, Again.]

Doris Lessing's most recent novel, Love, Again, explores familial relationships, romantic love, loss, life in the theater, and human folly against the backdrop of the aging process. It is also a study of love and loving intertwined with reflections on the writer—her craft and detractors. Lessing's narrative is interspersed with dreams, correspondence, waking anguish, and interpretation of “ordinary” existence. In this work Lessing forges below surfaces, traveling to often uncomfortable venues. Still, the tapestry she weaves is intensely satisfying.

Sarah Durham is a sixty-five-year-old widow who has not been in love for twenty years. One of the managers of a small theater in London. Sarah at last becomes affected by the theatrical scene. Music, actors, and the make-believe operate to transform the sensible widow into a creature of emotions. Like a younger heroine, she takes her readers and her suitors on a merry chase. And as in the play that throws her into the society of the men she would covet, she experiences “too much of everything: too many ragged ends, false starts, possibilities rejected—too much life, in short, so it all had to be tidied up.”

The play, largely adapted from the journals of Julie Vairon, a nineteenth-century quadroon who lived in Martinique and then in France, is the focal point of development in the novel. Sarah, who undertakes to adapt the journals to the stage, is moved by the heroine's life, visual artistry, and music. Vairon's journals reveal her life to be a series of dispassionate observations on three loves, all of whom are wealthy, white, and unattainable. Sarah has read the journals and has recast them for the stage, accompanied by Vairon's own music. It is during the process of attaining backing for the play that Sarah meets Stephen Ellington-Smith, a wealthy Maecenas who is himself “in love” with Julie Vairon. During the course of production, the director and leading men fall in love with Sarah. Stephen is assigned the safe position of “brother,” and Sarah struggles with her newfound, unwanted emotional state. Of her precarious state, she muses, “Old women by the thousand—probably by the million—are in love and keep quiet about it. They have to.”

Interspersed with Sarah's intrigues are dramatic questions. Was Julie Vairon murdered? Who is in love with whom in this array of theatrical characters? Will Sarah ever be free of the yoke of her brother's emotionally disturbed laughter? Is there a cure for Stephen? As one of Sarah's younger, self-confessed lovers explains, the situation is to be blamed on the theater: “It's all the fault of the theater, of show business, so don't take any notice.” If theater is the culprit, however, what is the remedy? Ultimately, Sarah muses:

To fall in love is to remember one is an exile, and that is why the sufferer does not want to be cured, even while crying, “I can't endure this non-life, I can't endure this desert.”

Another thought, perhaps of a more practical kind: When Cupid aims his arrows (not flowers or kisses) at the elderly and old, and brings them to grief, is this one way of hustling people who are in danger of living too long off the stage, to make way for the new?

Readers will immediately compare Lessing's efforts in Love, Again with those of The Summer before the Dark, her 1973 novel of Kate Brown's awakening at age forty-five into an awareness of her position in the world. Kate, afflicted by a mysterious malaise, has an affair with a sickly younger man and eventually accepts her own aging. Love, Again, however, is richer, more fulfilling with its false starts and turns, much like life itself. Sarah is a vital character alternately young and old, maternal and predatory, reserved and daring. The novel's commentaries on human folly, observations on love and art, use of a tale within a tale to spur action, and melodic language make it a work well worth experiencing.

Judith Grossman (review date October 1996)

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SOURCE: Grossman, Judith. “Infectious Disease.” Women's Review of Books 14, no. 1 (October 1996): 11-12.

[In the following review, Grossman examines the narrative structure of Love, Again.]

Doris Lessing has pursued her fictional explorations of sexual passion for a remarkable forty years and more, beginning with her “Martha Quest” novel sequence and the stories collected in The Habit of Loving (1957), and continuing into the present with Love, Again. Her theme now is the erotic vitality of a woman in her sixties, as a reality that defies all cultural bias against its acknowledgment To acknowledge is one thing, however, to value the reality is another, and the words used to signal its emergence here—“a sweet insidious deceptiveness,” and “a poison”—sound a clear warning that trouble rather than fulfillment lies ahead.

But was Lessing ever a liberated celebrant of the body's joy? Looking at reviews of her early work up to and including the groundbreaking The Golden Notebook (1962), I'm struck not just by the old-style references to the author as “Mrs. Lessing,” but by the conservative analogies her talent evoked: in England she was compared to Jane Austen, and in America Mary McGrory found her writing on sexual themes equal in its frank precision to that of John O'Hara. From a present perspective, McGrory and her colleagues seem to have been at least half right. For Lessing's vision has alternated between a fatalistic social realism, in her accounts of women (mostly) trapped at the dead-ends of sexual convention (as in the famous story “To Room Nineteen,” or The Summer before the Dark), and the conviction that sexuality can enable a spiritual transcendence, in her more speculative fictions (for example, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five).

Love, Again marks a conscious return to realist seventy, and harks back even further to the classical idea of love as an endemic fever in the blood—the latter underlined by running allusions to sources from Sappho to Villon and from Byron to Bob Dylan. Lessing's protagonist/victim in the novel is Sarah Durham, one of the “free women” whom Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook had prefigured: a professional writer-producer and founding member of The Green Bird, a distinguished theatrical collective. Long widowed, and sexually quiescent for the past two decades, Sarah at 65 feels herself reawakening. The trigger is her work on a play about the romantic life and death of Julie Vairon, imagined by Lessing as a historical figure of the French fin-de-siècle, a brilliantly gifted quadroon from Martinique—a composer, painter, diarist of her own doomed loves, and finally a suicide.

What draws Sarah first, and announces the theme of a story within a story, is her attraction to Julie's journals and songs, which she begins translating from the French. Then she acquires a collaborator in the stage adaptation of Julie's life story—Stephen, a fiftyish country squire and patron of the arts whose obsession with Julie as the ideal lover has for some years dominated his life. The emotional temperature rises further as Sarah and Stephen's composite script brings together an international cast of performers, in rehearsal for a premiere to be held at Julie's now ruined Provencal collage.

All prove to be charmers, especially the ambitious jeune premier Bill, who flirts with every woman but most desperately, if fraudulently, with Sarah. And though she's prided herself on a mature, sensible immunity to disturbance, in this hothouse atmosphere Bill arouses a response. For Sarah it is at once a late blossoming and a deep humiliation:

The ichors that flooded her body created behind the face of Sarah, the face she and everyone knew, a younger face, that shone out, smiling. Her body was alive and vibrant, but also painful. Her breasts burned, and the lower part of her abdomen ached. Her mouth threatened to seek kisses—like a baby's mouth turning and turning to find the nipple.

I'm sick, she said to herself. “You're sick.”

(p. 186)

Sexual desire, Lessing indicates, was once Sarah's birthright, not a sickness: she had a fulfilling marriage and two children (successfully raised), and experienced herself always as an attractive, proudly sexual woman. Yet sometime in her forties, around the time she renounced an unfaithful partner—as she says to Stephen, “Do you imagine I'd keep a man who wanted someone else?”—she became celibate. Prematurely, it now seems; and we may legitimately raise a question that Lessing leaves dormant—does sexual desire become a sickness precisely when it is driven out, or driven on, by egotistical pride?

Meanwhile Sarah's male alter ego, Stephen, is in deeper trouble yet. The realization of the play Julie Vairon on stage in rehearsal intensifies his hopeless desire for the woman she was: he propositions the first actress to play her part, and has an unsatisfying affair with the second.

In the course of rehearsals, Sarah herself sings for the cast her version of a song to accompany the scene of Julie's desertion by her last lover, Remy. As she sings, she too takes on the magnetic aura of Julie's resurrected life, and her longing to unite sexual love and friendship: “Giving pain is for the lover, / A friend does not a friend betray.” In the wake of this scene Andrew, the actor playing Remy, and Henry, the director, both fall in love with Sarah herself, and desire spreads like an irresistible contagion throughout the ensemble.

I'm reminded here of the success of A. S. Byatt's Possession in showing the revival of sexual romance in the present via contact with Victorian-era sources. Lessing, though a less gifted period ventriloquist, creates the effect she wants with an adroit economy of means. Her Julie is a light sketch compared to Byatt's Christabel LaMotte—but on the other hand, her evocation of the textual Julie doesn't offend me the way Byatt's pastiche of Emily Dickinson's great letters did.

As Julie Vairon reaches its triumphant opening night in Provence, so the passions it has inspired overflow in curiously non-physical expression, with flowers sent and notes passed under doors, or from the hands of hotel porters. In the end, it is Henry who wins Sarah's affections; but Sarah's interpretation of her transferred attachment is hardly enthusiastic:

People carry round with them this weight of longing, usually, thank heavens, well out of sight and “latent”—like an internal bruise?—and then, for no obvious reason, just like that, there he was (who?), and onto him is projected this longing, with love.

(p. 213)

Such a dour acknowledgment of love as need, which makes nothing of the individual quality of the beloved person, promises badly for the outcome. Sarah gives Henry just one renunciatory kiss; he explains that in any case he couldn't risk losing his marriage and his young son.

Anticlimactic? The situation as Lessing's narrative tells it is worse than that, for as the lovers of the older generation burn out slowly or quickly, the younger characters seem wholly incapable of picking up the torch. They are as a group strangely insensitive, either thinking in terms of a casual “good fuck,” or uninterested in the whole business (Sarah's cheerfully healthy nieces), or on the street offering blowjobs for cash (her miserably delinquent niece).

To be turned off by love seems reasonable, after we've heard Sarah's prolonged and repeated outcries echoed virtually word for word by the diary of Stephen's final days that he bequeaths to her: “‘I understand what it means to be ill with love.’ ‘My heart hurts, it hurts. … ’” Yet, Lessing implies, the decline of romantic misery proves destructive for art: Julie Vairon gets transformed by the younger inheritors of The Green Bird into a sentimental Andrew Lloyd Webber-style musical called The Lucky Piece.

There's more than a touch of geezerish resentment here. Sarah herself ends by resuming the painful stoicism she learned as a child rejected by her mother in favor of her younger brother. When she clears out her flat for a batch of visiting grandchildren, we understand that she is in permanent exile from the circle of fulfilled love. And this reminds us that for Lessing, maternity has always represented sacrifice, a break with the enjoyment of love, rather than yet another transmutation of the return to erotic origins: “a child finding itself lifted into longed-for arms.” To insist on this opposition must surely deepen the sadness of age, excluded from the sense of a redeeming caritas.

John Hobbs (review date 7 December 1996)

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SOURCE: Hobbs, John. “Literature Is News That Stays News.” America 175, no. 18 (7 December 1996): 25-6.

[In the following review, Hobbs evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Love, Again.]

Doris Lessing, the noted British fiction writer best known for The Golden Notebook, has turned her attention to the unfamiliar subject of passion among the late middle-aged [in Love, Again]. Sarah, the central character of Lessing's first novel in seven years, is a 65-year-old widow with grown-up children. Her daily life revolves around her successful career as writer and administrator for an alternative London theater company called the Green Bird, which decides to produce a play based on the imaginary life of Julie Vairon, a recently rediscovered early feminist writer and composer who committed suicide in 1912. Not that she could be easily pigeonholed by contemporary feminists, since “for some she is the archetypal female victim, while others identify with her independence.”

If Vairon's life attracts different people for various reasons, the actors this complicated project brings together form an intense theatrical family; couples fall in and out of love as in the fairy-tale world of Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” In this post-modern world, however, they do not end up as young married couples. Instead, they ultimately remain alone, falling back on their careers and sustaining friendships, Sarah's included.

Sarah finds the younger generation compellingly attractive but difficult to understand. She falls in love with a handsome and seductive 28-year-old actor, who soon rejects her. A competent but pushy young woman gradually takes over her theater company. And for years she has done her best to mother a niece, now a rebellious young dropout and drug addict.

Julie Vairon also baffles and attracts Sarah with her romantically unconventional life, rejecting offers of marriage and living on her own in a forest cottage. In her attempt to recreate her character, Lessing quotes extensively from Julie's journals and reports the raptures her music produces on all who hear it.

This biographical focus allows Lessing to explore the conflicts between life and art, including by implication her own novel. Their play about Julie Vairon necessarily omitted a good deal of material, because “there was too much of everything: too many ragged ends, false starts, possibilities rejected—too much life, in short, so it all had to be tidied up.”

Lessing's novel itself could have used more of this tidying, since the author does not really succeed in making Julie into a presence with more than historical interest. As readers, we are left wondering what their shared obsession is really about. The novel's center does not captivate our attention as it does the actors' and directors'. Hence the reader is doubly skeptical when it comes to Stephen, Sarah's male counterpart and close friend, a wealthy middle-aged country gentleman so completely in love with his fantasy image of the long-dead Julie that he sees no alternative to suicide.

Lessing is more convincing with her closely observed portrait of Sarah as she experiences the unfamiliar elations and depressions of the frustrated love affairs that occur in her imagination rather than in her bed. Sarah, “who had not for years thought of marrying, or even of living with a man, had believed herself to be happily solitary, now watched long submerged fantasies surface.” The author analyzes the surprising pain and anguish as Sarah revisits the passions that governed her youth, when beauty and romance were hers as if by right.

By means of her central character Lessing philosophizes wisely on love, noting, for example, how “there is absolutely nothing like love for showing how many different people can live inside one skin. The woman (the girl, rather) who dreamed of past loves thought adult Sarah a fool for being content with so little.” Yet Sarah ends as she began—reasonably content and living alone—a stance that also defines Lessing's tone throughout this novel.

Lessing's prose is characterized by an old-fashioned formal clarity and intelligence that feels more essayistic than novelistic; she tells her readers as much as she shows us. So we are generally kept at a comfortable distance, even from Sarah and her rediscovered passions, more inclined to analyze them than to experience along with her that “mix of anguish, incredulity, and—at the height of the illness—a sick sweet submersion in pain because it is inconceivable that anything so terribly desired cannot be given, and if you relinquish the pain, then the hope of bliss is abandoned too.”

This narrative distance allows Sarah (and Lessing) a philosophical overview that controls and interprets emotions almost before they occur. If this makes for an intelligent meta-novel of love, it also gives the book an air of unreality that is further intensified by the theatrical world and its historical recreation of Vairon's 19th-century life.

If Doris Lessing had given Sarah's rambling reminiscences the condensed and balanced form that her comedic vision of the world implies, her readers might have had a minor classic of love to place on the same shelf with Goethe's, Stendahl's and Colette's. What we have instead is an interesting and readable psychological novel that rises well above the average level of its romantic genre.

Millicent Bell (review date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Bell, Millicent. “Possessed by Love.” Partisan Review 64, no. 3 (summer 1997): 486-88.

[In the following review, Bell discerns a thematic departure in Love, Again from Lessing's typical treatment of love.]

The title of Doris Lessing's latest novel [Love, Again] refers, most apparently, to her heroine's reluctant re-experience of emotions she had thought, at sixty-five, to have put well behind her. Sarah Durham finds that she can still burn with desire, writhe with sexual jealousy, grieve at love's frustration—and no less than when she was young. She is not ready for the acquiescence of Colette's Léa who lets herself go gently into loveless age in The Last of Chéri. The title also refers, I think, to Lessing's latest novel itself as novel, that literary form which includes so much besides a love story but often seems to express the whole of human destiny by means of a “romance”—a word with cognates in other languages (German or French Roman) that mean what we do by the word “novel.” Novelists must, it seems, always write about love, however much other subjects, other kinds of human experience, claim their primacy. Yet, after all her own efforts in previous books to show how sexual passion is woven into the web of social experiences, Lessing submits in her latest to the tunnel vision of the love-possessed. She has laid aside her habitual concern—in nearly twenty long fictions—to find a total vision of human history through either realist chronicle or prophetic fantasy.

Sarah Durham's very time of life puts her beyond the struggles of youth and early maturity when sex involves the challenges of marriage and parenthood and vocational self-definition. It is not surprising that she is not engaged, as earlier Lessing heroines in The Grass Is Singing,The Golden Notebook, the “Martha Quest” series, and others of her novels were, by issues of race, politics, or the social experience of gender. She has been a widow for thirty years and has not taken a lover for—perhaps—twenty. Her children are grown up and distant on other continents. She visits her mother in the country a few times a year, but there is no real communication there. Her only familial connection close at hand in London is a brother, Hal, whom she has never liked and sees as little as possible. There is also a niece, his dysfunctional daughter, who clings to Sarah for comfort when she returns from her forays into the drug world—but this relation is more annoyance than attachment, and she has pretty nearly cast it off. As for vocation—twenty years ago she had a rough time earning her living in various ways, but for a long time now she has enjoyed her role as a playwright and the manager of a respected small theater company. Sarah's best support comes from the habit of work and the friendship of the theatrical colleagues with whom she has been united for years. Yet the question, “What now, what next?” turns out to concern the survival of a capacity to experience the coup de foudre, the lightning bolt of love—to lose one's head over some desirable other, whatever good sense counsels. After years of placid celibacy she is precipitated not once but twice into the brief madness of erotic obsession.

Like the story of Anna Wulf, the protagonist of The Golden Notebook, Sarah's experience is doubled by that of an imagined woman about whom she is writing. But whereas Ella, the heroine of Anna's novel, is of Anna's own time and condition, Sarah brings to the stage of her theater a romantic episode of the last century. Her subject is a woman whose life had been utterly unlike her own. Julie Vairon was the beautiful and gifted daughter of a French plantation owner and his mulatto mistress on the island of Martinique. She fell in love with an army officer who took her with him back to France; she lost him to a wife chosen by his family, and fell again even more deeply in love with a young aristocrat in the neighborhood. He, too, was unable to marry her—and she stayed on, a hermit in the woods, earning her living by tutoring, writing music, painting, and keeping an extraordinary journal. She was still young and beautiful when an amiable master printer wanted to marry her. On the brink of this conventional closure to a nineteenth-century novel, she drowned herself, leaving no explanatory note behind. Now, three-quarters of a century later, her music is rediscovered and performed, her journals are published, and she has become a cult figure.

When a play about her is proposed, the members of Sarah's theater team chant, dismissively, at first, “She was poor but she was honest, victim of a rich man's whim”—and see only platitude. But Sarah discovers in Julie not a banal female martyr but one who chose, though choosing to die seems hardly a very original gesture. We must take the fascination of the Julie legend as a given—for everyone in the novel soon feels it. To the reader, it must be said, Julie Vairon's character seems insubstantial. One may wonder not merely, as Sarah does, whether she might have met Cézanne in Provence, but also how she felt about many other things besides new ways of painting. As she dreamed in her cabin in the woods had this Hester Prynne never a thought about the social world that punished her for loving too romantically? Lessing provides no ‘suggestion that Julie's journals expressed anything besides love and its pangs. She does not choose to burden her image with the ideological baggage that once weighed down her former heroines or with responses to the realities that had shaped such a heroine's short life—the class society of her day, its view of women, her own mixed racial origins and the society of her colonial birthplace. When, after Sarah's play has had its success, a “Miss Saigon” musical version proves even more generally successful. One is supposed to wince—but the original tale, as far as one can tell, is not so far removed from its sentimental reduction.

The fascination of Julie's story is felt powerfully, nevertheless, not only by Sarah but by Stephen, the show's “angel,” who has literally fallen in love with the dead. To him, Julie is the ideal love object not to be hoped for in his settled life—as a rich country gentleman and philanthropist, a father and husband (his wife a good friend, though a lesbian). His strange devotion may be a sign of the mental breakdown which leads, finally, to his suicide—or else something visionary, even supernatural, a subjection to the powers of the not-so vanished past from which a ghost can emerge to become a succubus. There is, in any case, no question of his offering love to Sarah—or of her finding herself in love with him—though they are drawn close by the subject upon which they collaborate in creating the play of Julie Vairon. Rather, he is a sort of brother, such a brother as Sarah has missed. His impossible dream of love is a bizarre exaggeration of the fatality of love mania—and a caution to Sarah.

As the play shapes itself in rehearsal, the Julie story distills a sweet poison. Sarah cannot resist the flirtatious attentions of Bill, the handsome young actor who plays the part of Julie's first lover; she suspects his sincerity (he turns out to be homosexual) yet she is overcome by his golden youth, his perfect looks, his pleading charm. Recovering, she succumbs to the affectionate dependence of Henry, her young American director who returns her feelings but remains faithful to his wife. Through no restraint of her own, she remains the celibate aging person she was at the start of her ordeal; although a third young man, Andrew, who plays Julie's second lover, offers himself unconditionally, he is simply invisible to her.

Anthony Sampson (review date 31 October 1997)

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SOURCE: Sampson, Anthony. “Wild, Heady Days.” New Statesman 126, no. 4358 (31 October 1997): 43-5.

[In the following review, Sampson highlights the passion of Lessing's memories in Walking in the Shade.]

Of all the free spirits of London in the late 1950s, Doris Lessing appeared the most free. She seemed to have floated in from Africa with a freshness and passion which radiated both from her writing and her presence. She was separate from other cliques and backgrounds, but in the midst of radical protests, antiapartheid, anti-bomb, anti-censorship. And she wrote about everything with the directness and originality of an outsider.

It was true she was a communist, with a commitment to her causes that was first forged by her intense small group of comrades in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which she vividly described in her first volume of autobiography, Under My Skin.

But her loyalty was linked to the fight against white domination which gave the communist crusade in Southern Africa its special prestige, like anti-Nazi campaigners in the 1930s. And she lost all her faith in the Soviet Union after Khrushchev's speech in 1956, revealing the true crimes of Stalin.

She admits [in Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962] she was part of the “mass social psychopathology” which allowed communist atrocities to happen. And she recalls with some shame her naivety in accepting payment from Moscow to enable her to report from Africa, only to find that Soviet papers had reproduced her articles in Tribune, “creatively edited” to exaggerate the horrors.

She eloquently describes her disillusion: “Losing faith in communism is exactly paralleled by people in love who cannot let their dream go.”

That did not, she explains, mean losing faith in revolution, which remained part of the structure of people's minds for 20 years more—longer in southern Africa.

But communism had been only part of her faith: her “psychological eggs were not all in that basket”. What she brought to London was something much rarer and more original, an insight about human relationships and an ability to describe them with a directness and certainty that made other English writers seem effete and self-conscious.

She still writes, as she did then, with a vigour and drive that can bring together intellectual ideas and practical observation. Her style seems so natural that it is surprising to read how painfully she managed it, walking up and down smoking, writing a sentence and crossing it out. But the description of her “wool-gathering” is wonderfully evocative: “This process, this walking and thinking, while you pick up something from a chair and stare at it, hardly knowing what it is, and then let it drop, tidy something into a drawer, find yourself dusting a chair or straightening a pile of books against the wall, or standing at the window looking down while the lorries trundle past—this is the opposite of daydreaming, for it is all concentration, you are deep inside, and the outside world is merely material.”

She takes us through left-wing literary London of the 1950s and 1960s. She knew the Tynans, the Osbornes, the Weskers, dropping in and out of their lives so easily that there is no sense of name-dropping. She always has something new to say, whether about Kissinger defending his “kitten-bomb”, Tynan's collections of whips or Bertrand Russell's manipulation by Ralph Schoenman. Her closest friends, though, were not part of any establishment but oddballs such as the American Clancy Sigal or the Australian Murray Sayle who, like her, came from another world.

Her sex-drive and restlessness seemed to be the engines of her writing, driving her towards dramatic situations and giving her confident insights into lovers or bed-fellows—American tough guys, unromantic Englishmen, frustrated black admirers. She developed her own kind of feminism, with an ability to show women's views of men, which shone through her Golden Notebook. And she remained passionate about ideas.

She began to worry about becoming a “falling-in-love junkie” and her friends thought she should marry again and settle down. The turning-point was her move towards Eastern mysticism, beginning with Buddhism. She was attracted by the idea of the “Search” and the “Path”, and particularly towards the writing of Idries Shah.

She does not try to explain it, but “the Path” became “a main current in my life, deeper than any other, my real preoccupation”. The youthful Lessing of the 1950s seemed deliberately transformed into the middle-aged Lessing of the mid-1960s with a parting in the middle and sensible shoes, writing a succession of mystical books.

For many of her readers it will come as a relief that she can still look back on those wild, heady days with relish and vivid recall.

Jane Miller and Elaine Showalter (review date summer 1998)

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SOURCE: Miller, Jane, and Elaine Showalter. “Doris Lessing and the Millennium.” Raritan 18, no. 1 (summer 1998): 133-51.

[In the following review, Miller and Showalter compare Walking in the Shade to Under My Skin, examining Lessing's literary achievements, particularly her contribution to feminist scholarship.]

Doris Lessing was born in 1919, so she will soon be eighty. It is hard to believe. She is the author of at least forty-five books: novels, stories, plays, poems, and nonfiction, and in just the last three years she has published a novel and two volumes of autobiography and is rumored to be enthusiastically working on an adventure story at this very moment. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, which she brought with her to London from Southern Rhodesia, where she grew up, was published in 1950, so she has been a well-known and active writer for forty-seven years.

You have to start from this productiveness, energy, longevity, not only because these are impressive in themselves, but because they may explain the uneasy relations some readers have with her work. Few of us have stayed the course; and we have often found ourselves admonished as readers for this failure to comprehend the integrity and continuity of her work and for various kinds of partisan misinterpretation which may follow from that failure. Those who admired her wonderfully intelligent first novel and who read and reread the first “Martha Quest” novels and her African short stories have not always managed to stay loyal to her science fiction of the 1980s, for instance. And then The Golden Notebook, which was published in 1962 to massive approval (though Lessing remembers it differently), must have lost some of her original readers through its elaborate and programmatic structure, even as it collected huge numbers of new ones, who inevitably ignored the way in which this novel drew on and developed the material of the earlier work. Some readers must have dropped out just as she and Anna, the heroine of The Golden Notebook, left the Communist Party (for Lessing has been a passionate anti-Communist for a great many more years than she was ever a Party member) rather than following her into her “systematic search for something different,” which issued in her space fiction and then, finally, the more didactic novels of her old age, some of which deal fiercely and openly with the agonies and exasperations of being old, which include the waywardness of the young.

Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography, was published in 1994. It would be surprising if it had not attracted thousands of new young readers for Lessing as well as pleasing a lot of her old ones. And though there are moments in it when we may find ourselves agreeing with its author that “there is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth,” there are also passages and episodes of remembered childhood and youth which are as good as anything in those of her novels and stories which draw most directly on the same times in her life.

It begins with the two Victorian families that “produced” her: one from the well-off London working class, the other small farmers from Essex, each a guarantee of Englishness. Both her parents were permanently though differently damaged by the First World War, marked by a lifelong incredulity at what had been done to their generation. The mostly unacknowledged legacy of that damage for their descendants has been a preoccupation in much of Lessing's work. She even speculates here whether all those unborn children might not have delivered Europe from its (presumably recent) descent into mediocrity. Her mother was a nurse, capable and ambitious, who lost her one true love in the war and then married her soldier patient as he recuperated from an amputated leg and from the finally incurable horror of what he had endured in the trenches. Both of them ended the war and entered matrimony in a state of breakdown. Doris and her younger brother were born in Persia, where her father worked for a time in a bank, and the family enjoyed a degree of comfort which her mother treasured for the rest of her life like an ancient and reassuring dream. The journey across Russia to England, and then, some months later, the family's emigration to Southern Rhodesia, are told through the vivid glimpses supplied by Lessing's actual memories. By 1924, when the family arrived, a small number of white settlers, who had been in this relatively empty land for no more than thirty-five years or so, lived alongside fewer than half a million black people.

Until she was nearly thirty, Lessing inhabited this beautiful and boring British colony, dotted with farms more or less like the one she grew up on: first as a girl “formed by literature” and by her intense feeling for the countryside she grew up in, always desperate for a life that would be as different as possible from her parents'; and then as a young woman in Salisbury searching in what came to seem more and more of a cultural desert for a possible life for herself. This included two brief and somewhat careless marriages, the birth of three children, and the tying up of her fallopian tubes (a fact which explains an apparent reticence on the subject of contraception in The Golden Notebook). It also included a most thorough investigation of the social worlds available to a young woman still in her teens in Salisbury: the lumpen jeunesse doree of the Sports Club giving way in her twenties to members and hangers-on of the local Communist Party. It is a period of her life which is brilliantly revisited in Martha Quest and the next two novels in the “Children of Violence” sequence. The autobiography's first volume ends with her divorce from her second husband, the German Communist Gottfried Lessing, and her departure for London with their small son. Her two older children stayed behind with their father and his new family: an event whose painfulness (she didn't see them again for something like ten years) the reader is likely to infer from how little Lessing says about it—itself perhaps some sort of rebuff to further questions on the subject.

“Women often get dropped from memory, and then history,” Lessing reminds us early in her autobiography as she explains what inspired this new project and what its scope will be for telling the truth and keeping her counsel. An at least rhetorical “honesty” is an essential element of the robust Lessing style, coupled with a perpetual distrust of other people's truths, particularly when they are the truths that might be expected from the five American biographers she has been hoping to beat at their own game. Her own memory is remarkable, especially in the first of these volumes, and it is something she is ready to trust “partly because I spent a good part of my childhood ‘fixing’ moments in my mind. Clearly I had to fight to establish a reality of my own, against an insistence from the adults that I should accept theirs.” Her own life and the stories she comes to tell about it began and continued in this state of resistance to everyone and everything intent on containing her or explaining her to herself. Yet there is also a recurring motif of passivity, of letting herself be dragged along against her will. It is as if flight from her unhappy parents, and particularly from her mother, who “never lost an opportunity for instruction,” supplied the impetus to think, to read, and then to write, while also seeming intermittently to put a brake on all that. Yet it was dearly a fruitful tension. Defying her mother, evading her, these were early and rooted habits, which became the source and model for patterns of escape, creativity, independence, recovery, while simultaneously furnishing the guilt which always—and always recognizably—complicates her female characters' mental lives. There were times, it seems, when these impossible feelings about her mother brought her to depressed inertia and even standstill, though such moments appear to have been rare.

Her childhood was in fact often blissfully happy, and she conveys this too, even as it was shot through with rebellion, disgust, a fiercely self-protective separateness from other people. The child Doris Lessing gives us in these early chapters is alive with contrariness: adventurous, bookish, delighted by her own competence, beside herself with hatred for her mother, but “sick with pity for her” too. Living in her head meant learning to “fix” memory and to ward off nightmares. Most of us remember our childhoods as a staccato sequence of separated moments. This girl changes slowly and invisibly, growing up before our very eyes; yet whole periods—months, years—seem also endlessly drawn out, just as they were when we were young. The writing here is as good as anything Lessing has ever done. The paradoxes that have shaped her work are already there: a fierce self-sufficiency and a romantic longing for comradeship, company, conversation, sex. Skepticism and distrust of other people are already matched by the beginnings of a search for a teacher, a guide, a path. She is wary of ideologues, but also drawn to them. Her delight in her own body goes with a guardedness and even disgust at the manifestations of other people's squalid physicality. She has not been benevolently forgetful of that snot on an old man's moustache.

There are several reasons why the second volume of the autobiography, Walking in the Shade, is disappointing compared to the first, despite its lively portraits of people she knew like Ken Tynan, John Osborne, Edward Thompson, Tom Maschler, Arnold Wesker. Its least satisfactory element is also the one for which the largest claims are likely to be made, have already been made: its public face as an account of left-wing politics in England during the 1950s. This recalls and even mimics the dilemma for many readers of the ambivalence at the heart of The Golden Notebook, which simultaneously argues for its entirely idiosyncratic truthfulness and its general validity for the times. And at the center of that is what Lessing calls, with uncharacteristic modesty, the “strange business” of changing your mind: something she has done on a grandish scale and in full public view. What was experienced by some as the “indescribable blow” of Krushchev's speech is pre-dated by her writer's discomfiture at the totalizing ways of the Party. Yet this record of a life lived as honestly, as seriously, and as independently as seemed possible for this particular woman of the twentieth century is also fractured by the sheer scale and centrifugal thoroughness of its recantation, and there are sometimes difficulties in making sense of it. Several of her recent reviewers have expressed relieved pleasure that this gifted writer is now so critical of her earlier involvement in the Communist Party. For those of us who were ourselves involved in left politics, whether outside the Party or inside it, her wholesale rejection is harder to accept as recognizable or characteristic of the time or even as generally fair to that history; though it is also bound to be read with fascination as Lessing's own sense of it all.

Here is one version of the story she tells, taken from the second volume:

All over Europe, and to a much lesser extent the United States, it was the most sensitive, compassionate, socially concerned people who became communists. (Among these were a very different kind of people, the power-lovers.) These decent, kind people supported the worst, the most brutal tyranny of our time—with the exception of communist China. Hitler's Germany, which lasted thirteen years, was an infant in terror compared to Stalin's regime—and yes, I am taking into account the Holocaust.

Lessing's initial involvement in Communism began in her twenties in Salisbury and is presented as one (though an important one) of a series of youthful “crushes” (the Virgin Mary was briefly another), inspired by a desire to belong to something, perhaps anything, that was not her family.

I knew that I had accepted the Marxist package for no deeper reason than that the communists I met in Southern Rhodesia had actually read the books I had, were in love with literature, and because they were the only people I knew who took it for granted that the white regime was doomed. But if I had been born in another place, at another time, I would with equal ease have accepted whatever “package” was the correct one there and then.

This is typically forthright and disingenuous, and probably, as an account of her political beginnings, no more than the truth. She knows and knew that that small group of Communists she belonged to between 1942 and 1944 in Salisbury were quite unable and not, in fact, especially eager to change the conditions of life for the black majority or even to recruit very many of them. This Communist Party was separate and different from the South African Party and unaffiliated with any European Party. These Communists were, however, the only people she knew who were even embarrassed by the wholesale exploitation of the black population. They were not, though, except in a theoretical sense, much concerned with the lives or the politics of the working class, white or black, though she writes mockingly now that their hearts were “permanently swollen with compassion.”

Belonging to the Communist Party continued to be for Lessing about belonging to a group of like-minded people, and by the time she had reached London, these were mostly writers and artists. She seemed already to be straining at the bit when she embarked on a love affair with Clancy Sigal, the American Trotskyist and writer, whose romantic, swaggering brand of socialism appealed to her and maddened her and certainly served to remind her what it was that she found so unbearable about the Party. In remembering the fifties, Lessing uses “we,” “all,” even “Everyone was a communist” in this context without a trace of irony, and she seems still to believe that there was absolutely no alternative political position for anyone on the left in this country at the time. The Labour Party, for instance, which formed the government between 1945 and 1951 and was the main opposition party through the rest of the 1950s, is scarcely mentioned. Nor does Lessing seem to have worried very much about right-wing politics and a dominantly right-wing press in those days or, indeed, these. The curious fact that emerges from her autobiography is that for all her breast-beating about those anyway rather moveable years of her membership in the Party (somewhere between three and six years in the first half of the 1950s), she seems never to have thought very much about working-class life or politics, despite a bravura evocation of her working-class neighbors in Camden Town at the end of the book.

Socialism as a class politics disappears in favor of what are presented here as the larger debates: most especially, of course, those about the British Communist Party's blindness to what was going on in the Soviet Union, or its willful refusal to admit to it. So that the issue for Lessing and for Anna in The Golden Notebook is whether she and her friends can be said to have courted or avoided by the merest whisker complicity in Staling murders. It may even be that the terrifying implications of that sort of complicity provided a pull or glamour for those who remained in the Party until the bitter end or nearly so. This must have seemed to matter more than the wrangles over local housing policies or schools or wages or social services, substantial and pressing though these questions were in the discussions and political battles of the time.

There can be no question that Lessing's membership in the Party made her unpopular with some people in the fifties, and that there are those and others for whom Lessing's work is still contaminated by these affiliations. Yet it is also possible to feel that her treatment of that period of her life is lopsided and overgeneralized, on the one hand, and unfair to the large numbers of people who worked and wrote from a variety of positions on the left, on the other. Her passionate disavowal of her own Communist past, often vague as to dates and detail—as if it were not shared with other people, whose presence would make such things at least checkable—had more to do with the Party's puritanism, philistinism, and authoritarian notion of the writer's role than with current political needs and priorities. There is some conflation in her book between giving the Party its cards and sending her mother packing back home to Southern Rhodesia. If Communism originally attracted her because Communists read books, her rejection of the Party was also partly because she wrote books and wished—understandably—for some peace in which to do so.

It also seems likely that the character of her revulsion has unsettled her political judgement ever since. It has produced a predictably personal and partisan picture of the 1950s and then of left politics generally, encouraging her to extrapolate from her present contempt for her own relatively youthful enthusiasms to impugning the motives and intelligence of her contemporaries. It has also allowed her to lament the degradation of most aspects of social and cultural life since then on the basis of wholly anecdotal evidence, almost as if the adducing of more substantial kinds of evidence would in itself taint the veracity of her ease. In her readiness to admit to a mistaken political past she casually and, I think, unhelpfully blurs both the divisions within British political life on the left in the 1950s and the coalitions and alliances which were famously crucial to the left: claiming for the British Communist Party a unique national and international role it had really ceased to have by then.

For instance, she now regards her own and other people's involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the early 1960s, in its “Aldermaston” marches and its disputatious Committee of a Hundred, presided over by Bertrand Russell, as irresponsibly meddlesome. Demonstrations and marches were occasions, she now remembers, for picnics and public outings with her fashionable friends, who, she now thinks, believed foolishly that “The Bomb” would produce a single big bang and instant Armageddon. But surely this is fantasy. Those who were seriously intent on nuclear disarmament were as likely as anyone else to be aware of the delicate tightrope they were walking in a world where some people were also threatened daily by the proliferations of conventional war. Few, if any, of those on either side would have been certain what the effects of a single dropped bomb might actually be. Many intelligent and unfashionable people believed that nuclear disarmament was essential to the world's survival. It is surely still impossible to determine whether they were right or wrong in that. They too must often have felt that demonstrations were not effective enough as a means of achieving disarmament. It was the best they could do. And if they felt solidarity with their co-marchers that was partly because for them politics was never a single-issue affair, but a long process of arguing for change on a wide front and on behalf of other groups in the society besides the one to which they in some narrower sense belonged. Doris Lessing has often wanted to belong, but it may be that she has not felt that kind of solidarity with other people, though she has been fond of her friends. Solidarity, indeed, as part of a political agenda, is by now automatically suspect in her eyes. It stinks of the masses, of mindless mobs and crowds, of people who don't think for themselves or read books.

The character of Lessing's involvement in the Communist Party meant that she kept her distance from questions of education, health, the welfare state, though she occasionally applauds its offerings rather as she applauds the new appetite for French food which came about apparently with no help from Elizabeth David (who published her first book in 1951, not a decade later, as Lessing maintains). She felt under pressure as a writer on her own to send her own son to a boarding school, and she appears still to believe that most, if not all, Englishmen are educated in boarding schools from the age of seven.

This second volume of the autobiography takes her to 1962, the year when The Golden Notebook was published. Her conversion from communism and, indeed, from politics, towards ways of valuing individual choice and conscience and the sanctity of the inner life, was already in progress and is signalled at the end of the novel in the “breakdown” experienced by Anna and the unspeakable Saul. Lessing tells us that she read widely and excitedly in Christian mysticism, in Buddhism and in Hinduism at that time and that she embarked on a psychoanalysis. It is easy enough to see that these interests did not chime with the edicts from King Street, the headquarters of the British Communist Party, and that the dislocations apparent in the structuring of the novel and its notebooks originated partly in this conflict. Indeed, the allegedly “experimental” organization of the material into its color-coded versions and alternatives could be understood as a naturalistic expression of the separations enjoined on her by the Party. It has also been read, of course, as more than that: as reflecting the difficulties of constructing a narrative out of her life as a woman and a writer of fiction, who was drawing on her past and present existence and also speculating about alternative choices within the possibilities of the time and the place she inhabited.

She was tempted for a moment, she tells us in volume two of her autobiography, to write a chapter called “Politics,” which could simply be skipped by readers who find the subject boring. She resisted that temptation because she believed that her own particular “lunacy” might provide illustration, illumination even, of the “social psychosis or mass self-hypnosis” characteristic of the political culture of the time. And perhaps it does. What it is more likely to represent, though, is something less general than that: the temporary and even local appeal of Communism for otherwise relatively unpolitical people in the 1940s and 1950s, in a world where religion was coming to be associated with conformity and sexual constraint, and which was also visibly lumbering towards new forms of global homogeneity, which might well prefigure denial of individual experience, difference, voice. Anna of The Golden Notebook joins the Communist Party in 1950, already beset by misgivings. Lessing tells us that she joined in 1951 (“probably the most neurotic act of my life”) and that she left the Party in 1954, though she did not feel totally free of it until 1960. As a member of the British Communist Party she railed against King Street whilst also performing some of the duties they asked of her: she represented the Party on the Committee of the Society of Authors until 1953, and she went on a strange writers' jamboree to the USSR with Naomi Mitchison, Arnold Kettle, and others.

The irony is that it is she who has become bored by politics, not her readers, or not by any means all of them. Those of us who read The Golden Notebook when it came out and again, in my ease, in the early eighties and then in the late nineties, responded especially to the way in which politics figured in these women's lives, as it did in ours. Politics and sex and work and children and memory as separately discussed and categorized, yet merged in our everyday lives: that was what some of us took from the novel, along with the spasmodically marvellous writing, like those startlingly memorable weekends in wartime Mashopi which have made the Black Notebook the one I've always wanted to get back to. Lessing's repudiation of her political youth may, of course, speak less rebarbatively to a younger generation than hers or mine. She is certainly right to remind herself and us that all political commitment and activity must be susceptible to revision, to the admission of mistakes and wrong-headedness, and that it seems right to start from your own mistakes and wrong-headedness. But to gather retrospectively an entire generation's ideological commitment into a single, idiosyncratic mea culpa smacks of another kind of ideologue, even a scourge.

And Lessing can be a bit of a scourge at times. She is not above some pretty indiscriminate ranting against a whole roster of “nowadays” offenders. Women “complain and nag” and assume their children are “without ears.” Teachers “fail” to get husbands just as they fail to prevent bullying because they actually “like the idea.” Bangladeshi children in East London do badly at school, unlike their Jewish predecessors. Young mothers sleep for hours through the cries of their babies as they did not in the past, a calumny she wittily if perilously caps with the words, “Autre temps, very much autre meres.” And feminists. Well, feminists are “cruel sisters” without names or morals or any sense of justice, who talk foully about men and accept alimony from their divorced spouses as no woman of Lessing's generation ever did. One editor in a well-known feminist publishing house repeatedly stamped on the toes of a respectable Muslim husband and father as an expression of her rage at Islam's treatment of women: a story which lacks precisely the kind of bodily credibility we expect from Lessing. And so on. These are huffy, irritable moments, uncharacteristic of Lessing at her best, but they suggest an odd view of history as no more than a backdrop to individual experience rather than the sum of it, and as always and hopelessly downhill all the way. Journalism and publishing may be “worse,” for instance, than they were in the 1950s, but I seem to remember that we didn't think they were all that terrific even then. Indeed, Lessing herself remembers that her first publishers, Michael Joseph and Robert Lusty, did not read books.

Lessing has vociferously deplored the acquired status of The Golden Notebook as “a tract about the sex war.” She had assumed, she wrote in 1971 in her rebuking preface for a later edition, that “that filter which is a woman's way of looking at life has the same validity as the filter which is a man's way.” A bold assumption to make in the late 1950s. Feminism was envisaged by her as no more than a fraction of what she was up to in giving “the ideological ‘feel’ of our mid-century”: the novel had “to be set among socialists and marxists, because it has been inside the various chapters of socialism that the great debates of our time have gone on.” She has rarely taken kindly even to appreciative reviews of her work, and particularly those of The Golden Notebook, whoever they were by; but above all she has resented those by “feminists.” She is probably right when she says that the most appreciative readers of the book in its very early days were men: there were so many more of them writing reviews at that time, anyway. Let's hope that her apparent approval of the reviews given her play Play with a Tiger at about that time was in fact ironic, for they included encomia of the “ought to be seen by anyone interested in the contemporary theatre and indeed in contemporary living” kind.

If feminists have claimed Doris Lessing for themselves it may be because she has written three or four novels which are amongst the best in English of this century. She has also interested both men and women in how a woman experiences herself and the world. As one (male) reviewer of The Golden Notebook put it at the time:

Simply as a record of how it is to be free and responsible, a woman in relation to men and to other women, and to struggle to come to terms with one's self about these things and about writing and politics, it seems to me unique in its truthfulness and range. Its interest will certainly be felt; it is the sort of book that determines the way people think about themselves.

That reviewer went on to prefer the novel to those of Simone de Beauvoir, as well he might. He might also have pointed out how very much better it is than any of those by Jean-Paul Sartre, and I say that as someone who has never thought The Golden Notebook so much better than the novels Lessing had written before it. Neither in her fiction nor in her autobiography has she shown any particular sympathy for other women, and she has never suggested that she wanted to join them either to improve their lot or anyone else's. She has been as honest about this as about most things, and I can't imagine that anyone has objected very strongly to this disposition. No one can ever have turned to Doris Lessing for declarations of warmth towards other women (we are all her mother in some degree) or, indeed, any other group, though like many of us she is readier to trust children than their elders.

It is still too soon to decide on Lessing's final place in the millennium championships. She has not been a great cracker of jokes over the years (though her characters go in for arpeggios of laughter in all sorts of circumstances), and she has spent too long (for my taste) in futures of her own imagining. But she has always wanted to tell the truth about what it's been like for her in a long life as a woman and a woman writer, and she has written some wonderful stories and novels and now some outstanding passages of autobiography.

Elizabeth Powers (review date September 1998)

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SOURCE: Powers, Elizabeth. “The Unexamined Life.” Commentary 106, no. 3 (September 1998): 56-9.

[In the following review, Powers refutes several widespread critical opinions of Walking in the Shade.]

It would be interesting to know how many of those who purchase Doris Lessing's turgid novels actually get all the way through them, but there is no doubting that she herself is a cultural icon. Practically with the appearance in 1962 of The Golden Notebook, whose protagonist, Anna Wulf, was presented as a “completely new type of woman” living “the kind of life [women] never lived before,” a certain confluence was felt to exist between the ideals of the women's movement and the works of this Rhodesian-born writer.

The trouble with icons is that they require reverence. Though The Golden Notebook actually got a mixed reception from reviewers, its author's subsequent status has ensured a kind of critical meltdown with regard to her subsequent work. There are now twenty-plus Lessing novels in print, and each time another rolls off the presses, the obfuscating platitudes take on a life of their own. In 1969, Joyce Carol Oates called one such indigestible effort “an experimental work in the very best sense”; in 1996, Maureen Corrigan lauded another for its “trademark gravity.” Similar pieties have likewise greeted this, the latest volume of her autobiography.

In a previous installment, Under My Skin (1994), Lessing revealed the striking correspondence between her own life and the “life” of Martha Quest, the central figure of three novels she wrote in the 1950's. The essential elements in common include her girlhood on a farm in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia; her poisonous relationship with her mother; her rebellion against the attitudes of her British-born parents; her involvement with the small Communist party in Salisbury before World War II; her requisite intellectual awakening; her loveless early marriage; and her abandonment of her offspring (one under a year old) in order to join her comrades in the struggle to transform the world.

Walking in the Shade takes up the story with Lessing's arrival in London from southern Africa in 1949, and ends in the year 1962. In terms of her literary work, it thus covers the period from the publication of The Grass Is Singing, her first novel, in 1950, to the appearance of The Golden Notebook. On its surface, however, the book lacks the strong nexus between literature and life that characterized Under My Skin. Rather, in the pages of Walking in the Shade the writer's life seems to take a back seat to what is essentially a chronicle of the British Left, accompanied by the breast-beating of one who now regards her involvement in its passions as, at best, neurotic.

Lessing was a friend of many prominent leftists in England, from literary figures like Kenneth Tynan and John Osborne, to African political exiles like Joshua Nkomo, to eccentrics like Naomi Mitchison, the free-loving sister of the eminent geneticist and Marxist, J. B. S. Haldane. Besides being a member of the Communist party's Writers Group, she participated in various events and causes of the moment, and her invariably caustic accounts of a number of these affairs—including a 1954 trip to the Soviet Union with a delegation of dotty British writers and a meeting with Bertrand Russell—suggest that she possesses a neglected satiric gift.

The meeting with Russell, for example, occurred at the philosopher's castle in Wales, where Lessing and another writer had been dispatched to mediate among the various factions of the nuclear-disarmament movement. Russell, by now a willing pawn in a movement hijacked by the far Left, was decidedly unwelcoming:

Russell said he saw no point in continuing the discussion and that he was sure we must be tired. He would not be seeing us in the morning, but he would instruct the housekeeper to give us breakfast. Lady Russell and he escorted us to the bedroom, and the atmosphere was such that we would not have been surprised to find we were locked in. It was nine o'clock.

Unfortunately, the disjointed sequence of memories, events, and personalities that fill these pages, and the remarkably banal analysis to which they are subjected, combine to make Walking in the Shade a failure as a portrait of intellectual life in Britain during the cold war. Nor does it satisfy as a memoir of a writer's gradual abandonment of false youthful ideals. People and events are brought on stage without introduction, as if the reader knows without being reminded what the Aldermaston marches or the Committee of a Hundred were all about. A typical anecdote begins: “Reuben Ship was now married to Elaine Grand.” Even the structure of the book—four chapters, organized according to the four London neighborhoods in which Lessing happened to live from 1949 through 1962—is an evasion, turning the successive stages of her life into mere accidents of geography.

Within this undifferentiated and oddly impersonal narrative, one thing that is unmistakable is Lessing's present loathing for Marxism, which she has come to consider an evil doctrine. Welcome though this recognition is, however, one cannot help noticing that the particular qualities embodied in the Marxist mindset, the same qualities that drew her to the movement in the first place, are with her still. One such quality is the refusal to recognize individuals as individuals, rather than as historical counters. The mental habits this gives rise to are evident on every page of Walking in the Shade. Thus, about joining the Communist party, Lessing writes: “We were playing a role. The play had been written by ‘History.’” And about sex:

I would say that in the 50's, in the way of love, or sex, the most obvious thing … is that people were going to bed because it was expected of them. (The Zeitgeist demanded.)

But not everyone did join the party—a choice was involved—and not everyone went “to bed because it was expected of them.” These are facts Lessing still appears reluctant to acknowledge, taking refuge instead in the bromide that, in love as in politics, “it is impossible to distance oneself from the strong currents of one's time.”

Lessing's portraits of her fellow leftists are tainted by another legacy of Communism: a dark, ungenerous, unforgiving view of human nature. When it comes to herself, moreover, and certain of her own actions—like her abandonment of her first two children, or her treatment of her aged mother—she again displays an attitude not infrequently associated with those who love humanity at large, namely, a callous indifference to humanity in the small. Here is how she records her response to a request by a childhood friend of her mother's for help in securing a place in a “good old people's home”:

I was still so much on the edge of life in London, just clinging on with my fingertips. … How was it that Aunt Daisy, who had been in my life since I was born, could not see that she was asking too much of me? … Now I said to her, or blurted out, my voice not only shocked but incredulous, meaning, How can you put this onto me when I am so burdened already? “I'm sorry, Aunt Daisy. I can't. I don't know how to begin.”

This painful scene is sandwiched between accounts of visits to the Soviet Union, to Naomi Mitchison's castle in Scotland, and to the psychoanalyst who would appear in The Golden Notebook as Mother Sugar.

As all these examples suggest, perhaps the most striking aspect of Walking in the Shade is its sedulous avoidance of exactly the most crucial task of autobiography: self-scrutiny. But here is where the nexus between Lessing's life and her work does manifest itself after all. For in her reluctance to investigate the meaning of her own experience, Lessing resembles no one so much as her fictional creation, Anna Wulf. Like Anna, another disillusioned Communist, Lessing bestowed more favors on men than they had any right to. In addition to her two legal marriages and her four-year affair with an East European Communist she calls Jack, she was involved, she tells us here, with a string of Americans, Englishmen, and Africans, most of whom left much to be desired. But in the autobiography as in the novel, there is no suggestion that recurring patterns like these signify anything whatsoever about the person experiencing them.

In The Golden Notebook, Anna Wulf simply renames reality, calling herself not an emotionally scarred woman but a free one. Lessing, from the evidence of Walking in the Shade, has gone beyond that position. Indeed, she is quite harsh on those who would make The Golden Notebook into a liberationist tract. Yet, aside from endlessly restating her conviction that humankind is a sorry lot, she gives no indication that she has attained any insight into her own life, or wishes to. From Marxism to a fling with Sufism and other Eastern religions to her frequent animadversions of late on the deplorable state of Western pop culture, the one thing Doris Lessing has not done, in life or in art is to get under her own skin.

Mara Kalnins (review date March 1999)

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SOURCE: Kalnins, Mara. Review of Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962, by Doris Lessing. Notes and Queries 46, no. 1 (March 1999): 152-53.

[In the following excerpt, Kalnins outlines the narrative structure of Walking in the Shade, briefly describing Lessing's career.]

‘If you travel from the southern frontier of the Sudan to the Cape of Good Hope, a journey of nearly three thousand miles, you will not spend a single minute in a country which has chosen its own government’, wrote T. R. M. Creighton in his classic The Anatomy of Partnership. It was in this world that Doris Lessing spent her childhood and youth and which she recounts with such brilliant clarity, immediacy, and passion in the first volume of her autobiography Under My Skin. The eagerly awaited second volume [Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962] begins with her arrival in war-damaged London in 1949 at the age of ‘nearly thirty’ with a small child in tow, £150, and the manuscript of her first novel. In dramatic contrast to the haunting beauty of the Rhodesian landscape she had left behind, this was a bleak world of postwar food-rationing, low national vitality, and poverty, and if Mrs Lessing unflinchingly describes the hardships of those difficult first months living in a small flat in Denbigh Road, she also conveys the resilience and humour, the tough self-sufficiency and warmth of the times and the growing sense of optimism and hope for the future: ‘A New Age was dawning, no less. Socialism was the key’ (11). These early months saw the publication of The Grass Is Singing and the genesis of Martha Quest. The brief opening section also functions as a prelude to the three main narrative divisions of this volume, each spanning four years during which the author lived in three different houses. The story of the inner and outer lives, of the woman and the writer, is thus shaped and structured by the motif of Woolf's ‘a room of one's own’.

The years in the second flat at Church Street Kensington saw her vigorous return to and engagement with ‘international politics, communists, the comrades, passionate polemic, and the rebuilding of Britain to some kind of invisible blueprint, which everyone shared’ (19), important themes in the fiction of the period, Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage. The spacious third floor flat in Warwick Street, with the security of its protected tenancy—This was the first place I could call mine (137)—is the setting for Mrs Lessing's meticulously honest recollection of the atmosphere of the Cold War, the emergence of African nationalism (many of whose leaders were visitors and friends), the political, social, and economic struggles in eastern Europe, the lively artistic and intellectual life of London, and the writing of A Ripple in the Storm, while the fourth flat in Langham Street deals with the years which witnessed the Aldermaston Marches, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the writing of The Golden Notebook and Landlocked, and the beginning of much that is now associated in the popular imagination with the sexual revolution. In each period Mrs Lessing conveys the events, people, and concerns of the era with astonishing precision and detail, compelling the reader's belief in and admiration for the artistic intelligence which has re-created that past world.

Keenly aware of ‘the extraordinary slipperiness of memory’ (61)—how events and interpretations can be recollected so differently by different people—Mrs Lessing also speaks of the impossibility of ever fully conveying the richness, complexity, and mysterious ‘truth of the process of writing’ (94). The record of outward happenings can be no more than a ‘scaffolding, a framework, into which fits the interior life … Impossible to describe a writer's life, for the real part of it cannot be written down’ (92). At the same time that narrative cannot fail to illuminate much about the author and the inner story of the writing, for the choice of which images are called up by the selective memory and how these are ordered are themselves revealing, offering an insight into the writer's being. And although no account can convey the full essence of that being, yet through the art of re-creating what Conrad called ‘the moving moment’, the traced pathway of a unique artistic life does begin to emerge. Writing of The Golden Notebook Mrs Lessing observes that its genesis lay in her ‘wanting to write a chronicle of the times. And that is where, if the book lasts at all, its value will be found. For I do think … it is an honest and truthful and reliable account of how we all were at that time’ (315). Her words are even more apt as both a description of and a tribute to the absorbing narrative of those years and of the compassionate vision and powerful moral intelligence which inform the second volume of her autobiography.

Alex Clark (review date 2 April 1999)

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SOURCE: Clark, Alex. “Basic Human Instincts.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4940 (2 April 1999): 21-5.

[In the following review, Clark faults Lessing's characterization and prose style in Mara and Dann.]

When Doris Lessing subtitles a book An adventure, you know that the stories that follow will not fit neatly into an existing picaresque tradition, in spite of the author's note and its proclaimed intention to reprise “the oldest story in Europe”—which ends with the words “and they lived happily ever after”. It is far more likely that the adventure will be something of an endurance test for its characters, a backdrop against which Lessing can, with characteristic expansiveness, explore further her abiding interests in the nature of personal freedom, social responsibility, destiny and the relentless march of history into the terrifying abyss of the future.

So it is with Mara and Dann, which takes us thousands of years into that future. As we might expect, it has a post-apocalyptic flavour, although, in this imagined world, catastrophe has been the result of climate change, rather than the human-made Epoch of Destruction that closed The Four-Gated City, the last in Lessing's five-novel “Children of Violence” sequence. Here, the whole of Europe (called Yerrup) and the Northern Hemisphere are buried in ice, their cities and civilizations, their societies and peoples gone, leaving barely a trace behind. The world's population is now concentrated in Ifrik, where different tribes exist in a state of technological and cultural backwardness, married to linguistic and social advancement.

The novel opens with intrigue, and with the medieval flavour that comes with the transposed atmospheres of futuristic fiction; the child, Mara, and her infant brother, Dann, are being taken with stealth from the palace where they live, on a long and dangerous journey across cracked earth and flooded rivers. Mara and Dann are told over and over again by their adult chaperones that they must forget their previous identities, and that their lives are in danger. They are taken to a house made of rock, in a village made of rock, inhabited by the Rock People, and called, appropriately enough, the Rock Village. They themselves are not Rock People, they are People, and they are delivered into the care of an elderly woman called Daima.

Life is almost impossibly hard, revolving around the twin facts of water and food shortage and the hostility of the Rock People to the exiled People. This is a recurrent theme in Lessing's fiction, whatever its setting; her protagonists endure mental, physical and emotional hardship and, through enduring, come to a new understanding of reality and necessity. For Mara, the world shrinks to the daily imperative of finding water, dodging the scorpions, protecting her small brother, remembering to forget her name and fending off the evil attentions of one of the Rock People, Kulik. To make her existence more bearable, she and Daima play a game called What Did You See?, in which the observation of external reality leads to a kind of incremental piecing together of the world.

Lessing values toughness, both psychological and physical, and a lack of sentimentality which would otherwise hamper one's apprehension of reality. Mara's toughness is contrasted throughout the book with Dann's, which is of a much less intellectually subtle or discerning variety. Part of this is explained by the trauma Dann has suffered as a small child; he has conceived a neurotic fear of people who look the same, which later manifests itself in a kind of schizophrenia, or paranoid splitting of the world into friend or enemy. Part of it, however, is also explained by Lessing's belief in the power of women to face, and thus renew and regenerate, the life around them—and her continuing attempt to provide a corrective to male survivalist fiction. In that respect, Mara is a direct descendant of Martha Quest.

The children stay in the Rock Village for most of their childhood. When fire comes to destroy the Rock Village, they begin the long journey which occupies the rest of the novel, always pushing north, towards the empty Middle Sea and the frozen edges of Yerrup. What impels them northward they do not really know: only endless reports that life is better the further up Ifrik they proceed. Their movement is also guided by a vague sense of destiny, and by the increasing feeling that their progress is being charted by a network of watchers and listeners.

As Mara and Dann pass through Ifrik, we seem to be offered a post-holocaust story played out in a different setting, and with different results. There are feudal societies galore; at one point the pair end up in a community in which the slaves, through a cunning passivity, have bested their masters, who spend the days off their heads on poppy and ganga. That society also has a fertility crisis which requires a reformulation of the relations between men and women. There is the threat of war; Mara and Dann are enlisted in a brutal struggle between two clans, neither of whom know why they are fighting.

Moreover, there is the constant interrogation of history for clues as to the nature of the civilizations lost. Much of this is clumsily achieved, with disbelieving rumours of “machines that could carry a hundred people at a time”, the eco-pious judgment that “They spoiled everything they touched”, and recovered literature which includes Mam Bova, Ankrena and Rom and Jull. The last in that list, with its temple scene, prompts a discussion of God:

“What was a temple?”

“It was a place where they kept their God.”

“What was God?”

“An invisible being who controlled their lives.”

This caused a good deal of merriment.

And there you have it: the human impulse towards the religious explained in five lines, and consigned, along with the rest of Western civilization, to an icy grave. No matter, then, that these human beings are, in other respects, familiar, that their language, thought patterns and emotions are not much different to ours, even though they exist without gods or legends, myths or literature. Nor, that Lessing's Ifrik is populated by a highly Western sensibility.

This kind of contradiction eventually weakens Mara and Dann, and cannot be resolved by a flight into the folkloric. It is full of talismans and portents, mythical journeys up rivers and through divided towns, trials through which the protagonists must come in order to proceed to the next stage of understanding. Bizarrely, one aspect of that understanding appears to be their sexual attraction for one another, acknowledged towards the very end of the book, as if Lessing seeks to presage yet another development in the structure of human relations.

But by far the greatest problem of the book—which is, in the end, a minor work by an extraordinary writer—is the laziness of the writing. Descriptions run for pages, failing to convince the reader of their need to be there; dialogue hands limply between the characters; the narrative, while ostensibly following the course of Mara and Dann's journey, heads ceaselessly towards dead ends and shows no great desire to avoid them. Doris Lessing has always been tempted by the very long narrative, as if to give free rein to her ideas without being hampered by the spurious demands of style or economy: in this novel, she may have over-played her hand.

Judith E. Chettle (review date May 1999)

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SOURCE: Chettle, Judith E. “Lessons in Survival.” World & I 14, no. 5 (May 1999): 246-55.

[In the following review, Chettle details the plot of Mara and Dann, with particular attention to Lessing's characterization of the protagonist within the context of feminist realism.]


In many ways the twentieth century has been exceptionally good to women writers. They dominate the best-seller lists; teach their craft at countless colleges; and unlike their Victorian predecessors no longer need write under men's names to appease public prejudice. But for all their achievement, as the century ends, the quality of what they write is less heartening. It sometimes seems that their intellectual eminence has shrunk as their numbers have expanded; they have become prolix but not profound. Miniaturists, they work on smaller and smaller canvases with equally downsized themes.

The women they write about, and they write almost exclusively about women, live narrowly focused lives despite the extraordinary opportunities available to them. Most are weak vessels, often vulnerable as any endangered species trying to survive in a threatened habitat. Emotionally fragile, intellectually confused, and seemingly incapable of making sensible choices, they resemble more the band of lost boys that lived with Peter Pan.

And like J. M. Barrie's lost boys, these women, usually young, don't want to grow up. They, too, would like to live in a “never-never land” where they would not have to be responsible for others, or compete for jobs and lovers. Relentlessly self-absorbed, they have little interest in or pity for others and typically are as limited in what they want for themselves. Like children still fixated on getting a Barbie doll or roller blades for an upcoming birthday, they don't think large thoughts or dream big. To judge at least from their novels, they don't want to find a cure for cancer, become president, or found a company. They just want to write poetry, raise vegetables, and live with a sensitive someone who shares their feelings.

And reading about these women, it seems as if that long journey to empowerment and autonomy—the virtual and real room of one's own—suggested by such writers as Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, has ended today in a whine—or a twelve-step recovery plan. There is, however, a splendid exception to this dreary parade—the British writer Doris Lessing, who at seventy-nine is still writing provocative and timely novels in vividly rendered settings. Born in 1919 in what was then Persia, she was raised in Southern Rhodesia before moving as a young woman to England. Lessing is one of those rare writers who still illuminate the dark corners of the heart as well as the times in which her characters live. Acutely attuned to the zeitgeist, but not in any trendy, superficial way—she is not the Faith Popcorn of contemporary fiction—she rather probes and dissects it looking for portents and patterns. Her most recent novel, Mara and Dann, is a quintessential example of what distinguishes her from so many of her contemporaries, women as well as men. In it she again addresses some of the ideas and concerns that have preoccupied her in other novels: the value of storytelling, the fragility of civilization, and characters who are strong and ingenious enough to survive disruption and sea changes in their lives.


Survival for Lessing is always as much a question of intelligence as stamina. Her survivors, like Mara in this novel, Martha Quest of the “Children of Violence” series, or the elderly woman narrator of the Memoirs of a Survivor, another story about a future time of disorder, coolly keep their wits about them as they confront danger and disaster. The personal also has its place: Mara falls in love twice in the novel but is also loving and attentively protective, especially of her younger brother, Dann. Yet she is also aware of a wider world more significant and larger than herself.

Like all Lessing books, Mara and Dann is replete with those details of what people eat, drink, or wear that always give her works a recognizable texture as well as contextual authenticity. And again she is writing about the future, as she has done in such novels as the Canopus in Argos: Archives Series and The Four-Gated City, but now the setting is Earth and a continent called Ifrik. It is a realistic future, however, with recognizable features and peoples, not some disembodied sci-fi fantasy.

Ifrik is suffering from a pervasive drought. As Lessing told a questioner when she recently gave an on-line interview sponsored by,

I don't see them [Mara and Dann] as unrealistic. … Today large parts of the world are afflicted by drought. The people living in these areas would not think of this as nonrealistic, believe me. For example, I was in Zimbabwe, and they have suffered many droughts. … I was with women who would get up at 3 or 4 in the morning, and they would walk four or five miles to a well and back again with a bucket of water with which they had to cook.

This realism and familiarity with much of what Lessing describes enhances the story she is telling. Ifrik is a credible place, as is the situation she details. The story itself is another version of the classic adventure tale: two young people set off on a dangerous quest that will test their character and courage but in the end bring them to their desired destination. And, like the most accomplished of the genre, it suggests links to its predecessors—the old Nordic myths, the Odyssey, and Arthurian legend.

As the story begins, Europe has long been covered by an ice sheet that extends from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Western civilization as we know it is long dead, and life for most inhabitants of Ifrik, a recognizable Africa, is Hobbes' vision writ large—nasty, brutish, and short. Literacy and books have almost disappeared, people live as primitively as they did in the first Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, and most have forgotten that something better once existed. The past—in which there were machines, culture, and learning—has all the mythic resonance for them that tales of the Greek gods have for us. Here and there, like the ruined monuments of our ancient past, are scattered remnants of machines that suggest the technically accomplished society that once existed.

Skimmers that resemble airplanes glide from hilltop to hilltop, railway cars must be pushed by teams of young men over the remaining and disintegrating rails, and the last solar panel fuels a barge plying the central waterways. Government has broken down, and power is wielded by force and terror. War is endemic, and as the rainfall becomes scantier and then eventually stops in places to the south, fearful groups seeking new homes and security range destructively across the land. Some catastrophic event, either natural or man-made, is responsible, though Lessing is intentionally vague. As once-fruitful lands turn into desert, food is in short supply and often consists of dried roots or small insects. People will kill for a drink of water.

The changes in the climate have not only affected human lives but also, in a more sinister way, insects and animals. Large, crocodile-like creatures called water dragons and “stingers” stalk and kill anyone sailing on, or even walking near, rivers or lakes; spiders, beetles, and scorpions have mutated into deadly creatures as large as men. It is in many ways a future descent into hell, but Lessing is not preaching here; rather, she is doing what she has always done: suggesting a possible and logical outcome to some ominous present trends. We are, she has often suggested, especially in such novels as The Four-Gated City or Memoirs of a Survivor, surrounded by portents of disaster, and the prudent person of common sense would be foolish to ignore them. Nothing should be taken for granted. Not a love affair, not life.

Lessing is the relative, the good friend we all need, the one who quietly takes us aside and tactfully offers us some good advice. The one who suggests that it may be good to save more this year because the economy will be rocky, stock the pantry with extra canned goods and candles when there's a bad storm brewing, or check out what your spouse is doing on those numerous business trips. Keep your eyes open, or your child's new friend might be trouble. Above all, don't be complacent. She is not a polemicist, though, or an angry female Savonarola anathematizing in the public square. Her concerns are not fiery admonitions to repent before it is too late or helpless hand-wringings that nothing can be done. Rather, she warns quietly, even offhandedly, that attention should be paid. You should be ready, but you must make up your own mind.


So, the plight of Ifrik, while an implicit likely scenario for the future, is primarily the setting for the story, not the story itself. Mara and Dann are members of the aristocratic and learned Mahondi people. As much as Mara, the novel's protagonist, can recall, their early childhood was privileged. She was surrounded by comforts and love, taught to read and count, but the most important lesson taught by her noble parents was how to play the “What Did You See?” game. The game subtly taught her not only to recollect accurately but to effectively deduce and think. These skills would be invaluable when the troubles began and she and Dann, still young children, were taken away by strange men to the remote and impoverished village of the Rock People.

There they live with Daima, an old woman and fellow Mahondi, who raises them until they are adolescents. Daima is especially protective of them, for the villagers, an uncouth and primitive people, are hostile and suspicious of strangers. Life is hard, and Mara learns to draw water from the communal water holes, milk a goatlike animal, and prepare the dry roots and herbs that are their main foods. The only relics of the past in this arid, rocky outpost are some metal containers and garments the villagers made out of an ugly but indestructible fabric. Daima also makes sure that Mara still plays the “What Did You See?” game, telling her that “once, long ago, there was a civilization—a kind of way of living—that invented all kinds of new things. They had science … and they kept making new machines and metals … machines so clever they could do everything … no one knows why all that came to an end.”

That things will, or can, end is another theme of Lessing's: Nothing is permanent but sometimes there are ways of surviving change, sometimes not. The answer is to anticipate and adjust. Kate, the middle-aged protagonist of The Summer before the Dark, learns how, over a summer suddenly freed from family responsibilities, to accept the inevitability of aging and death by choosing independence.

Changes that we believe important may later be overtaken by even greater alterations in our lives. Writing in a foreword to a later edition of The Golden Notebook, Lessing observes,

I don't think Women's Liberation will change much though—not because there is anything wrong with their aims but because it is already clear that the whole world is being shaken into new patterns by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women's Liberation will look very small and quaint.

Now she was writing this in 1971, when fears were rife about nuclear war, exploding populations, and diminished food supplies, but typically she has a point: War and disaster would render the question of how to break through the glass ceiling moot.

She claims in this same preface that the Notebook was never intended to be a feminist handbook. Her intention, though she supports Women's liberation, was rather “to shape a book which would make its own comment a wordless statement; to talk through the way it was shaped” as it described the intellectual and moral climate of its times.

When Daima dies, Mara is free to travel north. Dann, who fears recapture, is particularly insistent that they make this dangerous journey. And Mara agrees, both to please him and because she has observed that the droughts and deserts are spreading north. But this journey has, Mara soon learns, other implications. Already sensing that she and Dann are being preserved for some special, larger purpose, she finds further proof and eventual confirmation of their unsuspected destiny as they travel. They seem to be expected en route and often receive special treatment. Protective strangers ensure their safety when they are in danger.

The novel is also a picaresque tale rich in exciting incidents and encounters with the strange and fearful that, though numerous, seldom slow the narrative. The brother and sister find temporary homes in Chelops, a city to the north. There they are welcomed by Mahondi kin, who are the slaves of the Hadrons, a tribe whose lives are spent in drug-induced lethargy. Dann, always weaker and more susceptible than Mara, falls in with the gang that sells and produces the drugs, while Mara is given a home with a leading Mahondi family. Though slaves, the Mahondi essentially run the city; they work its fields, raise its crops, and guard its boundaries.

In the unmarried women's quarters where Mara first lives, tales are told of a “Madam Bova,” who hated her husband, and another woman, “Ankrena,” who also hated her husband and threw herself under a machine “running on parallel rails.” The older women are guardians of the oral tradition and keep alive the knowledge that was once in books. Descendants of the young people who were trained to be Memories, they preserve, Mara learns, the fragments of stories that perished when the sands buried ancient cities and their libraries.

As in all good adventures, there are brief time-outs for happiness: while in Chelops, Mara falls in love and moves in with Meryx. But Dann is in danger of becoming a drug addict, and Mara has also noticed that the rains each season are less. She warns the Mahondi, a gentle and kindly people, that Chelops is in danger of being overtaken by the rapidly encroaching desert, but they are too comfortable to heed her warnings. No one, not even Meryx, who despite his love for her fears abandoning his familiar world and embarking on a dangerous journey into the unknown, can be persuaded to join her and Dann as they resume their journey north.


Complementing their wanderings over Ifrik, Lessing, like the best kind of travel writer, supplies those vivid details and acute observations that are as necessary to a story as furniture is to a comfortable room. For—and this makes her a fine reporter as well as novelist—Lessing is not only interested in grand, abstract ideas but in the small, ordinary aspects of life: the food people eat, the clothes they wear, the pets they cherish. The things, in short, that shape our days as much as love and marriage, or war and politics. She does not sentimentalize or exaggerate their importance, but they are vital to the integrity of the story she is telling.

In Lessing's acclaimed first novel, The Grass Is Singing, for example, the tin-roofed house with its broken windows and faded curtains signals the tangled mix of passions that leads to the murder of Mary Turner, a poor and hapless white farmer's wife, as clearly as any obvious smoking gun. Set in Africa, it is as much about racism and sexuality as a case study in personality deterioration that eerily echoes Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray. Another example is Hugo, the catlike dog in The Memoirs of a Survivor, whose devoted love of the young girl Emily highlights both the poignancy and danger of her situation as gangs of children roam the city killing people and animals for food.

Minutiae can also express some more abstract concept in a refreshingly ordinary way. Anna, who, along with her lover Saul, experiences a breakdown in The Golden Notebook, discovers one day that perhaps “all sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh.”

Lessing's ability to select those small but telling details that reinforce a story's themes and ideas also separates her from many of her contemporaries. She is not a lyrical writer, nor is her prose especially luminous; rather, it is a work of exact and intelligent craftsmanship—something that can be put to good use as well as admired for its good bones. Her contemporaries lyrically describe sunsets, the wilderness, and walks along the beach and woods, but these are generic evocations. They often fail to provide, as Lessing always does, the exact description—the cheap chintz pinned over a chair's old upholstery, or the way bunches of weeds sway in an underwater town, its roofs of red tiles that Mara sees on the edge of the retreating ice sheet—that will illuminate the essence of the story.

The journey after Chelops is as dangerous as its predecessor. Mara and Dann fly in a skimmer, take a barge that passes the unruly river towns, and are constantly threatened with capture by wandering bands of soldiers or desperate refugees who want their food. They are eventually captured and taken prisoner by the Charad, who seem to have links with the Mahondi.

Though at war with a neighboring people, one of the leading Charad generals, Shabis, a man of many accomplishments and generous with his time, agrees to give Mara writing lessons. Mara especially values these lessons, because like so many of Lessing's protagonists she is not only intelligent, resourceful, and brave but interested in the larger world, in ideas and knowledge. She thinks, asks questions, and shaped by her early childhood game, tries to look beyond her first impressions. She has learned and developed, as the narrator in Memoirs of a Survivor suggests we all do, “by swallowing whole other people, atmospheres, events, places.”

Mara is, in fact, the kind of woman women writers used to celebrate until they embraced victimhood and feelings as the measure of a character's worth. Mara, like so many of Lessing's female characters, prizes rationality above emotion; she is at home more in the cooler emotional latitudes where the watchword is “think rather than feel first.” But it's the same levelheadedness and caution that Jane Austen or George Eliot advocated. Unchecked emotions can lead to folly: Lydia running off with Wickham or the Bennets' own imprudent marriage based more on sexual attraction than intellectual compatibility in Pride and Prejudice, and Lydgate's destructive marriage to the beautiful but foolish Rosamond in Middlemarch.

But paradoxically, Lessing also movingly celebrates the ties of affection that warm and bind. Like few other contemporary writers, she regularly acknowledges and honors, without being maudlin or smug, the difficult and often trying obligations of the loving and kindly. Mara tenderly nurses the dying Daima back in the Rock Village and is always lovingly protective of Dann, often at great cost. For Dann is impulsive, emotionally susceptible, and plagued by rapid personality changes that make him behave in dangerously selfish and reckless ways. He once gambles away most of their money, and, to pay off his debts, lets Mara be taken away to a brothel.

Affections, though, are not substitutes for the truth, and when the time comes Mara chooses truth rather than acceding to a step Dann believes would make him happy. Tough love, for Lessing, always wins out over foolish sentimentality, which inevitably would cause more harm and trouble. For when Mara and Dann do reach the north and the destiny that awaits them as the last of the royal Mahondi line, Mara understands the truth and the price of the situation that has brought her and Dann so far.


Welcomed by an aging noble couple, who are the loyalist caretakers of the Mahondi heritage and artifacts, Mara soon sees why she and Dann have been allowed to survive their hazardous journey to the edge of Ifrik, to the Mahondi Center. These Mahondi keepers of the flame want her and Dann to marry and create a new dynasty—a Ptolemaic-like dynasty that will rule a newly fertile Ifrik and restore the long-dead civilization. But Mara understands it's an impossible as well as corrupting proposition. For one thing, she knows that such marriages, as well as being unnatural, usually produce defective children. But she has also seen the reality of what Ifrik has become: It is a dry and increasingly waterless continent, where people are dying and cities disintegrating. If there are to be further climate changes, they will take millennia to be effective. A fertile and well-watered Ifrik will not be possible for centuries, perhaps never again.

She eventually persuades Dann, who is tempted by the scope of the invitation, to decline it and continue their wanderings, now westward to the Atlantic coast. And here they find a certain equilibrium in a big house on a farm where she and Dann settle down with the loves they met along the way. The big house “spreading over a hill where you could hear the sea booming or sighing all day, all night, was like the end of tales she had seen in ancient books in the Center: ‘And so we all lived happily ever after.’ But Mara's heart told her otherwise.” As old troubles and quests end, new ones are sure to begin: For Lessing, ever the realist, there can be no happy endings, no terminal bliss, only some treasured moments of contented reflection on what has been achieved against the odds.

Lessing writes in that great tradition that once made novels and their protagonists part of our lives, creations we treasured and returned to time and time again. It is hard now to think of contemporary equivalents that have the same enduring powers or resonance. Lessing understands that life, without any help from us, insouciantly delivers both numbing blows as well as the sweetest unimagined surprises, not always in equal measure. She knows that wars, economic downturns, and brutal droughts can shape a life as much as a failed marriage, an unhappy time in high school, or a neurotic mom, subjects on which so many women writers dwell.

Perhaps too many contemporary writers just lack the imagination or the talent to write beyond the narrow narcissism and triteness that nowadays so often define protagonists. Perhaps they are merely unable to show that living as well as dying still is “an awfully big adventure” (J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan). An adventure that Lessing, as she has done from the beginning, describes with verve and insight. Mara and Dann may not be her best, but it is very fine indeed.

Doris Lessing and Jonah Raskin (interview date June 1999)

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SOURCE: Lessing, Doris, and Jonah Raskin. “An Interview with Doris Lessing.” Progressive 63, no. 6 (June 1999): 36-9.

[In the following interview, Lessing discusses her observations on feminism, the 1960s, fame, and spiritual fads, as well as her thoughts on privacy, death, and the end of the twentieth century.]

Fifty years after migrating from provincial South Africa to London to become a novelist, Doris Lessing is still writing on a manual typewriter—though not, of course, on the same machine she used for her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950). No typewriter could have survived the relentless pounding necessary to produce the forty or so internationally acclaimed books that have appeared over the past fifty years, including The Golden Notebook (1962), a strange and beautiful novel that is often called “a bible for feminists,” though the label distresses Lessing herself. It's an extraordinary literary achievement by anyone's standards, but perhaps especially so since Lessing—who was born in Kermanshah, Persia, on October 22, 1919—is a high school dropout who has never received a degree in higher education, except honorary ones from places like Harvard.

Many of her fans, especially feminists, have wanted Lessing to go on rewriting The Golden Notebook, but she has been loath to repeat herself. “I never do anything twice,” she reminded me during our recent interview. The woman who began her writing career as a more or less conventional novelist has turned her talents to space fiction, science fiction, species fiction, and most recently—in Mara and Dann (1999)—to an old-fashioned action-packed adventure story set thousands of years in the future.

The Golden Notebook was my passport to Lessing's intricate and seductive body of work, as it was for so many readers in the 1960s—and still is for readers all over the world. I met Lessing in 1969 on her very first visit to the United States, which for years had refused to grant her a visa on the grounds that she had once belonged to the Communist Party. Over the past thirty years, we have adopted each other. Doris has been a mother figure, nurturing and scolding by turns. I've served as a kind of ambassador to various American subcultures and to the American academic world. Each time we have met, Lessing has made it a point to say what she has been most afraid of saying, lest she run afoul of popular opinion or prevailing values. She's also tried to wake me from some of my own illusions about revolution, about love, about power. In the late 1960s, for example, she suggested that the utopian impulse wouldn't last forever, though I didn't want to believe her. More recently, she seems to have allowed her tender side to emerge. One night in northern California in 1989, we went for a walk in the darkness, gazing at the sky and talking about Africa, when Doris suddenly stopped in her tracks and said she regretted not knowing the names of the constellations.

Doris Lessing's refusal to accept conventional wisdom has made me a sort of Lessingite, though she has never encouraged followers or disciples. She says again and again that if human beings are to survive as a species, we must be very adaptable, that we need to “entertain many ideas, sometimes contradictory ideas” and “resist group thinking and group pressures.”

Recently, at her home in north London, where we met once again to chat, she turned her critical gaze almost everywhere she looked—at feminism, the 1960s, fame, and current fads in spirituality. On the cusp of eighty, she is as fiercely independent as ever.

Thirty years ago, when we had our first conversation, we talked about Vietnam, revolution, the unconscious. This time it was privacy, death, the end of the twentieth century. Lessing has always been obsessed with time—with remembering the past and imagining the future—but her obsession has acquired a new, and powerful intensity.

[Raskin]: In 1969, one of your most revealing comments was, “What interests me more than anything is how our minds are changing, how our ways of reality are changing.”

[Lessing]: I wonder what I meant. You know, I often feel like a dinosaur. I don't get the technology thing at all. I was on the Internet not long ago for Barnes and Noble and people were ringing up from all over the world—Australia, Canada, France. I experienced it as an informal chat, which was pleasant, but I couldn't quite take it in. It had a strong element of unreality. I can't be bothered to switch to a computer at my age, though I might get along with e-mail, which sounds appealing.

How do you envision the future?

Recently, the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke talked about the ways the lives of human beings will be changed in the next century. At least half of them I didn't understand at all, though I'm sure that kids today would know exactly what he meant. I'm somewhere in the past. I do think, however, that our brains have been damaged by technology. I meet kids who don't seem to be capable of reading a long sentence, much less a long book.

There are probably analogies with Gutenberg. When the print revolution occurred 400 years ago, human beings lost a certain mental capacity, including a sense of memory. In Africa today, you meet people who still carry everything in their heads, the way we used to. We rely on telephone books, address books. We have to look up everything. Another thing: Kids today demand greater and greater stimulation. I think that constant demand for stimulation is one reason why so many people are becoming Buddhists. It's a reaction to the noise, the clutter. I'm so lucky here in this house. At night there's no sound at all except a bird turning over in its bed. The silence is wonderful.

In 1969 you also said, “When you've finished a patch of your life, you look back and you see that it has a pattern which you didn't notice when you were living it.” Are you in the midst of a patch right now, or are you out of one and able to look back at it?

I think I am at the end of a certain phase of my life. What I'm on the lookout for now is the unexpected, for things that come from outside and that I never thought might happen. Sometimes you have to watch for them so you don't automatically say no to the new, simply because you're in the habit of saying no to everything that comes along. I'm constantly changing my perspective on my own life. I see the past differently, and that's a wonderful thing.

What about getting on in life? How does that feel?

Before Christmas last year I had a mini-stroke. I had been to Athens and Vienna, and then almost at once to Zimbabwe, which is a long, long way, and I think it was the trip to Zimbabwe that did it. I woke up one morning, and I couldn't move my arm. It was the oddest thing, the paralysis. I called up a friend and said, “I think I've had a stroke,” and, in fact, that's what my doctor told me. It wasn't terrible, but it was enough to scare me. Now I think about death all the time. I have my death arm, my right arm. My speech was slurred, too. I couldn't get the words out.

You think about death all the time now?

Yes, death, memento mori. I wonder how much more time I have. Before I begin a new book now, I wonder is it worth it? Will I have time to finish it?

I visited Anthony Burgess in Europe when he was in his mid-sixties, and he told me that he was counting the years and calculating how many more books he could write before his death.

Yes, that's it exactly!

Are there any pleasures in getting old?

Mostly getting old is boring. I hate the stiffness in the bones. I was physically arrogant for years. I don't like it now that I have difficulty getting around. But a certain equanimity sets in, a certain detachment. Things seem less desperately important than they once did, and that's a pleasure.

What do you do for fun?

I go to the theater and to the opera a lot. I go to art exhibits, and I walk on Hampstead Health three or four times a week, I garden and I read, which has always been a great pleasure.

How many things do you have going on in your head now?

Ideas? I'm not at a loss for ideas. I never have been, and I doubt I ever will be. But now I've got to be careful which ideas I pursue.

Years ago you told me that you had an idea for a novel about two men—one of them a Communist and the other a Nazi—who share the same prison cell. As I recall, the whole novel was their arguments back and forth about politics, ideology.

I wrote that and tore it up. Actually, I'm glad that I tore up that novel, though I also had a whole play (that was pure farce) in the middle of it. I'm quite sad that I destroyed the play.

Have you destroyed other manuscripts?

Yes, two or three books. I hate having masses of unjelled stuff hanging around. If they don't work, I tear them up. For the book about the two political prisoners. I had various sources. During World War II, the British dumped a whole lot of German refugees—some of them Nazi spies, some of them fervent anti-Nazis—on the Isle of Man, which they turned into an experimental university with orchestras and plays and discussion groups. It must have been hell for Nazis and anti-Nazis to live side by side. I know it was. I was told it was by people who were there.

You've already written two volumes of your autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), which goes to 1962 when The Golden Notebook was published. What about writing volume three?

I have great pressure from my agent and from my publishers to write the third vol because vols one and two did so well both in the States and in England. But I can't write it easily. I spent much of the 1960s as a kind of house mother for a lot of deeply troubled teenagers. Now they're all middle-aged, and it wouldn't be fair to expose them. A way around it all would be to write a book that has a lot of public, social stuff but nothing personal.

You once said that you “preserve the old-fashioned idea that a writer's life is his or her property, until we die.” In part, you do seem to be increasingly private.

There are certain things I don't talk about. I have kept diaries, of course, but they can't be read for quite a long time. What will emerge when people read them? I can't imagine that anything will emerge that can't be deduced from reading any of my books now. This is why I'm always curious about people who are fascinated by writers' lives. It seems to me that we're always in our books, quite nakedly. I wonder, too, does the private life really matter? Who cares what is known about you and what isn't? Even when you make public something that's been private, most people don't get it—not unless they're the same generation and have gone through more or less the same experiences. So, in a sense, we're all private, by definition.

You have been a Sufi now for more than thirty years. Could you say something about it?

You know, there's a Sufi bandwagon now, a Sufi craze. Everyone wants a quick fix. I am constantly sent books that purport to be about the Sufi way, and they never are. It's not something you can find in a book. You don't discover the Sufi message from a writer. Sufism is something you experience on your own. It's the same for Buddhism. You can't read a book and receive enlightenment.

You've said that the Sufi ideal is to create individuals who can see themselves as others see them. Here in London, I wonder how people see me, and how they see Americans. You have been observing us for a long time. How do you see us?

Over the past half century there has been a very sharp change. In the 1950s you could tell an American 100 yards away. This would have been your father's generation. They were all so buttoned up. Men were all correct in their flannel suits and crew cuts, and their mouths—they could barely bring themselves to smile, much less bring themselves to get their words out. Talk about the British stiff upper lip! Americans had a stiff lower lip! It was terribly beleaguered body language, and I think that it had to do with the Cold War, the whole repressiveness of that era. Then the 1960s came along and Americans became sloppy and loose and relaxed. I can't begin to tell you what a remarkable transformation it was. Everyone seemed to turn into his or her opposite.

What do you have to say about the 1960s?

I don't share the widely held admiration for the 1960s. I was in London, “Swinging London,” as it was called, and I saw a lot of suicides and a lot of people who ended up in loony bins. There were a great many casualties. The 1960s was a dangerous decade—though, of course, the politics of that time was very attractive. Nothing is more attractive than people playing at being revolutionaries. The people who were involved in Paris, 1968, and all that, I find very attractive. Of course, I was too old to realty enjoy the 1960s. By the time 1968 rolled around, I was almost fifty. I should have been in my twenties.

In your short novel The Fifth Child (1988), you describe the 1960s as “greedy and selfish.” I assume that you meant the idea of immediate gratification.

Yes, of course. The 1960s was probably the first time in history that young people were recognized as a big group of consumers and as a commercial proposition for Madison Avenue. Advertising played a major role in creating the ethos of that era—the idea that, “Here it is, and you can have it now.” I know that many kids thought that the ethos of the 1960s was due to their own peculiar virtues, but, in fact, it had a lot to do with the realities of the marketplace and commerce.

What about the current American political scene?

I was in New York when Clinton was elected the first time, and everyone I knew was in a state of mad euphoria. I wondered what had happened to my hard-headed friends? Almost everyone I knew was drunk on this great white hope. The next time I was in New York, no one had a good word to say about Clinton, but everyone was in love with Hillary. She was the last word. It's all so unreal. Of course, it's no different in England. Here everyone was besotted with Tony Blair. He was a new face. Do people never learn?

Are all politicians the same?

All politicians are not the same. I've never felt that way. What is the same is that voters get very excited about new faces, like Clinton and Blair—and they have unrealistic expectations that the world will change overnight. A cynical old hand like myself knows that it won't.

If you could have an hour-long TV program on the twentieth century, what would you want to communicate?

That we always seem to be surprised by events, especially by catastrophes, but also by wonderful events. Look at 1990, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed and apartheid in South Africa collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down. I don't know anyone who foresaw those events. It seems to me that as a species we are constantly trying to adapt ourselves to the unexpected. In the meantime, we talk as if we are in control, and we're not. This seems to me to be the truth about the twentieth century. Here we sit with the most dangerous thing going in Yugoslavia. I find it terrifying. We're bombing Belgrade to bits, and we've been told the most amazing lies about it all.

What are we not being told?

I wonder why do wars suddenly start and suddenly stop, and why do we Brits and you Americans get involved in some of them and not in others? Right now there are little wars and big brutalities going on all over the place, and we haven't invaded or become militarily involved, as we have in Yugoslavia. Is it possible that the arms manufacturers quietly foment wars without us knowing? Dropping bombs is a very profitable business for them. Gore Vidal was talking about this the other day, and he made a lot of sense. Whenever American policy seems inscrutable, he said, remember the military-industrial complex. He's the one who should have been President.

It's often the case that the bigger the news story, the longer it takes to reach the front page or the TV screen.

As you know, the first casualty in any war is the truth. In World War II, I was part of a group of people who used to meet once a week with the sole purpose of analyzing the news and trying to work out what we weren't being told. We thought that we were clever, but we had absolutely no idea what was really going on. It was only years later that we learned the true story.

Has living in London shaped you, or were you already formed by the time you arrived in 1949?

I was already formed by the time I arrived in London.

In Going Home (1957), you say that you were made by Central Africa, where you lived from age five to age thirty. Does that self-assessment still hold?

Now I would say that I was formed by three main things: Central Africa, the legacy of World War I, and by literature, especially the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

When you arrived in London, you felt it was depressing. Later, it became one of the pleasantest places in the world. How does it seem now?

London has changed enormously and so have the English in the past decade. They're more like Americans and more like Europeans, too. They're always eating out, and when they're at home they don't cook the way they did ten years ago. They're all sitting around in cafés, like the Continentals, drinking coffee and chattering and watching the world go by.

If you go out on a Friday night, central London is packed with young people having a good time. It's marvelous. And the French and Dutch and Belgians come here to have a good time because London is swinging.

I'm amazed at the amount of traveling that you have done in the last decade or so. You're all over London reading to students, and you've been to Afghanistan, Argentina, Austria, Brazil, China, Iceland, Italy, Pakistan, the United States, Zimbabwe.

I have done a lot, haven't I? But I'm not going to do much more traveling from now on. I am, however, going to Catalonia because I am going to be awarded a big literary prize—Premi Interactionál Cataluña. I simply adore Barcelona. You know, of course, that Catalonia would like to be separate from Spain, but instead of rushing into the streets with banners, or blowing up the Spanish king, they have taken a different tack. They've created a great cultural movement at the highest levels. I'm impressed because it's good politics and also very entertaining.

Have you ever written about your experiences in China?

I haven't and I probably won't because I mostly have a lot of impressions based on a short visit. Before I went to China I was told that the Chinese wouldn't talk about politics, but that wasn't true. I was there with Margaret Drabble and Michael Holroyd, and we found that the Chinese were very open and apparently fearless. They spoke critically about the cultural revolution. There was no one looking over his or her shoulder expecting an arrest.

In Shanghai, I saw great contrasts. On one street there would be impressive shops selling copies of the latest word in glamorous European fashion, and around the corner on a back street there were poor families crammed into one room with a naked light bulb. One evening I heard a Chinese family singing “Happy Birthday.” It was weird. You would have thought that they'd have their own happy birthday song. Every dominant society in the world—whether it's French or British or American—imposes its culture on less developed societies.

All my women friends in academia tell me I have to ask you a question about feminism.

I keep sounding off about feminism, don't I? From what I've observed, and from what friends have told me, feminism has been turned into a religion with dogmas and churches. I certainly don't envy men in American universities. But this phase is about to pass. It can't go on much longer. America can be a very hysterical country intellectually and very puritanical, too. You probably have fun in private, but to the rest of the world you seem to hate fun—to be big on agendas and short on spontaneity. The image you present is one of appalling conformity. The thought police is what you are ruled by.

There are many feminists who work in the media, and they think that feminism is very important. It is in their own lives, but mostly feminism has had an impact among privileged women in the advanced Western countries. For the most part, it hasn't begun to touch the lives of poor and working women in the Third World, and that distresses me.

At the end of your most recent novel, Mara and Dann, there's a remark that your heroine, Mara, makes that sounds quintessentially Lessing: “Yes, it's true, but. …” You seem very transparent in this book.

The thing that is naked is that I adored my baby brother Harry.

You don't have to be a genius to see that Mara might be you and Dann is Harry. Like many of your other books. Mara and Dann is about a journey.

I hate to sound clichéd, but I do see life as a journey. How else can you see it?

Might you write a continuation of Mara and Dann?

I would love to, because I'm fascinated by Dann, but everyone in America hates the book so I don't know. I'll have to wait and see. My time is running out.

Mona Knapp (review date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Knapp, Mona. Review of Mara and Dann, by Doris Lessing. World Literature Today 74, no. 2 (spring 2000): 366.

[In the following review, Knapp focuses on the heroine's role in the narrative development of Mara and Dann.]

As if to insist on a perspective that makes the year 2000 appear trivial, Doris Lessing's last novel of the twentieth century [Mara and Dann] looks forward by several thousand years and is set in the next ice age. The civilization of Western Europe (known here as “Yerrup”) has long since been obliterated by glaciers, and the Mediterranean Sea is empty. Human life, pushed southward on the continent now known as Ifrik (Africa), has been reduced to a few primitive tribes who are warring for control of the habitable regions, while also struggling for survival against drought and plagues.

Lessing's futuristic Odyssey opens with the kidnapping of two children from their village, during which four-year-old Dann is traumatized for life by a “bad man” named Kulik, while Mara is instilled with her lifelong mission to protect Dann from further harm. They are taken in and raised for five years by a kindly old woman, Daima, a “memory” who passes on her store of vital knowledge to this next generation. When Daima dies, Mara and Dann begin a dangerous journey toward the North, though unsure of their destination or even why they are fugitives. They face giant lizards and spiders, are attacked and kidnapped, and avert starvation by eating grubs and scorpions. Finally, they are captured and sold as slaves for breeding (being of the Mahondi tribe, considered to be genetically superior). During their seemingly endless chain of perils, they are separated many times but always manage to reunite and continue their trek northward. Only at one point do they settle down for a few months with tribal kin, and Mara has a sweet but brief taste of the normal domestic life for which she yearns throughout the book.

When Mara and Dann finally arrive at their goal near the Mediterranean Sea (which is now refilling as the glaciers recede), it is revealed that they are the last prince and princess of a ruling tribe. They are asked to bear children together to reestablish the Mahondi empire, an idea Mara wisely rejects. The book's final scene, strangely reminiscent of The Golden Notebook, shows them gathered with their close friends on a sunny veranda, musing idly and nostalgic for their nomadic days.

The adventures themselves, while of a certain grotesque interest, lead our heroes in circles and are frustratingly repetitive. Any real development is propelled by the brother-sister relationship and by Mara's vulnerable emotions. It is significant that Lessing's only sibling was a younger brother: Mara's deep, yearning protectiveness toward Dann is at the vortex of her inner world and drives the external action as well. Time and again she sets out into mortal danger to rescue Dann, who, for his part, remains flat and does not mature much beyond the terrified little boy of the first chapter. Opportunistic and self-serving, he abandons Mara repeatedly and at one point even gambles her into slavery. But Mara's loyalty, with incestuous undertones reminiscent of the earlier Lessing story “Each Other,” is unshakable.

Mara herself is a reluctant heroine, an ice-age Martha Quest who rarely has the luxury to pursue a higher understanding of herself as a woman and the world in which she lives, since her energy is consumed with sheer survival. The reader familiar with Lessing's many characters in survival situations will seek signs of probing intellect (The Golden Notebook), spiritual transcendence (Marriages), or defiance (If the Old Could). Mara, however, not wanting to change the world if she can just watch it go by from a safe place, is as unable to challenge her environment as was Mary Turner in the 1950 novel The Grass Is Singing. With her very small personal voice, Mara brings fifty years of Lessing heroines full circle.

Miranda France (review date 24 June 2000)

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SOURCE: France, Miranda. “A Truly Beastly Hero.” Spectator 284, no. 8968 (24 June 2000): 38.

[In the following review, France highlights the fable-like characteristics of the plot of Ben, in the World.]

Twelve years ago, Doris Lessing published a cautionary tale about a kind, liberal couple with a large house, four well-loved children, friends and holidays galore. Into this happy home is born ‘the Fifth Child’, a violent, monstrous boy whose presence threatens the family's stability and raises dreadful philosophical questions. How can his parents love him? How can such a creature ever find his place in the social order?

Miss Lessing, now in her eighties, provides few answers in this sequel [Ben, in the World]. Ben is 18, though he looks much older. He isn't a normal human being, but what is he exactly? The old lady who looks after him for a while and teaches him how to keep clean and brush his unruly hair, thinks he might be a Yeti. Others call him a ‘throwback’ or a ‘beast’. Sometimes he cannot restrain a bark or growl, but, when he speaks, Ben has an educated accent (a posh Yeti, then?).

From the start, we see how Ben's inability to understand the world makes him prey to the abuse of every chancer he meets. After being exploited as a labourer, he becomes an unwitting drugs courier, to France. There he is stranded until a director spots him and takes him to Brazil to star in a film about a primitive race.

In this novel, the men are bad, the women good. In other ways too, it reads like a fable. The style is simplistic; Miss Lessing dispatches more than one storyline with the observation that it had a ‘happy ending’. There are leaps of narrative, moreover, that would do Evil Knievel proud.

As a strange moral tale, Ben, in the World is certainly intriguing—the writing is good and there is no part of it that drags. At the start of the book we learn a bit about Ben's hopelessness, his conviction that he will be cheated, his need for love, especially maternal love, the sense of freedom he can occasionally get, for instance on the back of a motorbike. As the plot advances, however, Ben becomes increasingly distanced. In Brazil, where the would-be film-makers meet over long, cheerful suppers, he can be heard in the next-door room, banging his head against the wall.

Having put Ben's loneliness and alienation at the heart of the novel, Miss Lessing does not give much insight into them. Characters who meet this semi-human creature make little effort to examine the feelings of discomfort or fear he provokes. The philosophical dimension of Ben's condition is barely explored. Finally, the author herself seems to lose interest in him as she turns her attention to the more appealing story of a Brazilian girl—the Beauty to his Beast—who tries to befriend him. In a strange way this desertion by his own creator compounds Ben's isolation.

This is a book about him, and yet he doesn't occupy centre stage. The reader never really gets beneath his hirsute skin.

Trudy Bush (review date 13 December 2000)

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SOURCE: Bush, Trudy. “Many Faiths, Many Stories.” Christian Century 117, no. 35 (13 December 2000): 1310.

[In the following excerpt, Bush offers a description of the protagonist in Ben, in the World.]

In her new novel [Ben, in the World], Doris Lessing gives a fresh twist to an old idea: What would our world seem like to an alien who found himself among us, and how would we react to such a being? But Ben Lovat is not a creature from another planet; he is from our own distant past—a throwback to a species near the beginning of human evolution. Lessing's 1988 novel The Fifth Child was told from the point of view of Ben's family, especially his mother. It recounts the havoc the birth of this monstrous child caused in what had been a happy, old-fashioned family. Lessing's sequel continues the story from Ben's point of view.

Now an adult, Ben lives in a frightening world from which he cannot protect himself, despite his great physical strength. He is an observer, always on the watch for the look of puzzlement and horror on people's faces as they become aware of him. His difference makes him a victim, repeatedly abused and cheated. His struggle to understand his environment and to survive takes him from England, then to France, then to Brazil. There he briefly is caged and made a subject of scientific research, and then finally discovers what he is and the people to whom he belongs.

Ben receives kindness—even affection—from a number of people themselves marginalized by age, poverty or social position, people who recognize his good intentions and pity his loneliness. His happiest time is when he cares for a sick old woman who tells him he is good, something no one else has ever recognized. But his last friend pronounces the world's final judgment on him—a being so different that he would always need the care and protection of the few who sympathize with him: “I know we are pleased that he is dead and we don't have to think about him.”

Lessing makes us feel both the unease this strange creature causes in others and his terrible loneliness. Her book will make it impossible for readers ever again to see those who are radically different from themselves in quite the same way.

Susan Rowland (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Rowland, Susan. “‘Transformed and Translated’: The Colonized Reader of Doris Lessing's Canopus in Argos Space Fiction.” In British Women Writing Fiction, edited by Abby H. P. Werlock, pp. 42-55. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Rowland contrasts Lessing's early political and artistic conceptions of “representation” with the thematic implications of Canopus in Argos.]

Doris Lessing's fiction has always regarded artistic representation as a political act. From the very first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), which sets a Mary who failed to bear a redemptive child on the regressive white colonial road until a black Moses leads her to the promised land of death, she has tested the extent to which any particular society can bear to be represented. The “Children of Violence” series (1952-69) interposed a female bildungsroman to contest a colonial and patriarchal culture (Martha Quest [1952], A Proper Marriage [1954]), and used the resources of the realist novel, lauded in The Small Personal Voice (1957) as “the highest form of prose writing” (8), to fragment the impersonal claims of Communist theory in A Ripple from the Storm (1958). Lessing then turned to reexamine the realist novel's own representational capacities as she moved toward Sufi beliefs concerning the interconnected potentialities of higher consciousness in The Four-Gated City (1969). Her most acclaimed novel, The Golden Notebook (1962), challenged the representability of experience under pressure of breakdown, both mental and political, by fracturing the traditional form and thus providing a devastating analysis of Western women's social, economic, and psychic frictions. This novel, above all of Lessing's others, has generated profound feminist readings.

Thereafter Lessing mediated between the appeal of realism and metafictional or metaphysical needs until the writing of the Canopus in Argos space fiction (1979-83), which seemed to produce a deterministic and alienated universe. Canopus in Argos has provoked diverse critical reactions,1 and it is worth considering the distance it has strayed from Lessing's political and artistic conceptions of “representation” described in “A Small Personal Voice.” The most urgent political message of this essay (first published in 1957) is the universal threat of nuclear war, “the kinship of possible destruction” (13) that might be sparked by a “Chairman [who] will say: ‘I represent the people.’ And the people is the brown man sitting under the tree … the people is me” (14). Interestingly, the collective threat appears to be figured in a metaphor of white colonization, culminating in Lessing's necessary identification with the colonized (since nuclear war is not local). I say “appears” because we are not given the race of the “Chairman,” though the implication in 1957 is surely white and male. At the end of the same essay, Lessing makes a claim for the artist to “represent” the people, arguing that literary form has a political extension: “one is a writer at all because one represents, makes articulate, is continuously and invisibly fed by, numbers of people who are inarticulate, to whom one belongs, to whom one is responsible” (24). One could argue that Lessing uses nuclear terror to submerge her position as a white colonizer (as a British subject but also one who grew up in the then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, however opposed to the regime) and allow her identification with “the people” in a politicized artistic role. I contend that the galactic empires of Canopus in Argos constitute precise examinations of political, psychic, and artistic colonization literally going “beyond” but expressing Lessing's persistent theme of Empire.

The Small Personal Voice lacks the territories of the psyche first explored in The Golden Notebook, particularly in the role of the Jungian analyst, Mrs. Marks, and the mental record of the Blue Notebook. Lessing, an interested but not uncritical reader of Jung, considers him “limited. But useful as far as he went,”2 and Jungian studies have been the route of much successful critical analysis of Lessing's work3 in tracing archetypes and individuation patterns (whereby consciousness is deconstructed by the active unconscious into a continuing “marriage” or relationship). Such criticism tends to be apolitical, since Jung's theory of archetypes as inherited psychic potentials appears to discount cultural differences. So far, few critics have paid attention to Jungian ideas in Canopus in Argos.

However, even a cursory reading of the first volume, Shikasta, can reveal resemblances between Lessing's Canopeans, who have been “crystallized, into forms as different as snowflakes” (17), and Jung's archetypes, which “are not determined as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree. … Its form … might perhaps be compared to the axial system of a crystal, which, as it were, preforms the crystalline structure in the mother liquid, although it has no material existence of its own.”4 Canopeans are, like archetypes, “androgynous” (142), and they use “crystalline” (43) spacecraft. Shikasta's chief Canopean representative is Johor, which means “pearl” in Arabic (Caracciolo 15), a frequent Jungian sign for the archetype of the “self,”5 an unconscious structure to which the ego becomes a subject in individuation. Yet the Canopeans cannot be “represented” as archetypes because, as Jung's definition suggests, archetypes themselves are irrepresentable and can be posited only from their derivatives, archetypal images. The crystalline archetype or Canopean can be represented only as incarnated or imaged: such images will be colored or animated by local cultural conditions. Thus Canopeans visit as members of local species as Johor manifests himself as a native on Shikasta, or are born into a particular culture stripped of other identity and memory except for the crystalline imprint of the Signature from Canopus that they must discover within. Therefore Taufiq becomes John Brent-Oxford and Johor becomes George Sherban. Canopeans enter Shikasta and realist fiction as “characters” bearing traces of a psychic colonization that they can choose to ignore as Taufiq/John does and Johor/George does not. Johor's selected documents tell us that the main cause of fruitful Rohanda's change to broken Shikasta was a “disaster” (35), a fault in the stars recalling the frequent depiction of archetypes as a star-filled heaven.6

This deterministic universe displeases many critics. Lorna Sage, in her powerful essay “The Available Space,” calls the Canopeans “remarkably pure figures of power” and states that she, as a reader, feels “‘colonized’ by a benevolent … authority” (31). To a certain extent, this is an inevitable reaction to novels based on ideological premises not shared by the critic. Lessing's Jungian, alchemical, Sufi, and mystical ideas of the essential oneness of created reality are explored in terms of physics in The Making of the Representative for Planet 8. All is “a unity … patterns of matter, matter of a kind, since everything is—webs of matter … intermingling” (158). A reader unwilling to transfer ideas current in physics, such as chaos theory, to psychic and social structures, as Lessing does in Canopus in Argos, will likely view Canopus as yet another imperial trope aiming solely at literal domination or, as Johor puts it, ensuring “the creation of ever-evolving Sons and Daughters of the Purpose” (52). Canopus, in this sense, is an exaggerated version of the Jungian principle that privileges unconscious meaningful potential over a selfish, limited ego, a structure now dangerously hardened into literal domination by an alien Other. This harsh stance is not softened by the Canopean method of activating unconscious paradigms within, thereby apparently offering choice. Johor tries to recall John Brent-Oxford to his superior but unconscious knowledge, through messages from his unconscious, including dreams (106-7), but real choice is circumscribed in a dis-asterous universe.

The colonized reader is a dispirited one, but Canopus in Argos colonizes the reader in two senses: first, as Sage observes, by the Canopean ideology itself, and second, by the way Lessing positions the reader within the texts. The reader of Shikasta is a translator. Opening with a partial and nonchronological selection of documents, mainly authored by Johor, and followed by the diary of Rachel Sherban (sister to George/Johor) and other documents, the novel through its structure and Shikastan perspective defamiliarizes Earth history and its “alien” reality. The name “Earth” is never used, and virtually no terrestrial terms appear in the “Canopean” part of Shikasta, but because Lessing saturates readers with tropes and structures from Earth history and sacred literature, she forces us into a continual translation of this outrageously fragmented text (e.g., “SEE History of Shikasta, VOLS. 2955-3015” [100]). Part two does employ Earth names while eschewing the word “Earth” itself, yet the unfamiliar future setting and the charismatic presence of George, whom we know to be Johor, forces a continual retranslation into the imperial Canopean ideology of part one, especially as, through the sympathetic Rachel, the reader feels constantly challenged to read beyond the realist novel to the extra-terrestrial, extra-representational elements of Shikasta. In this novel, reading as translation is completely inescapable and highly problematic. Through the difficulties Lessing introduces—such as the paucity of clues in part one, the requirement to remember the geographical schemes of “North West Fringes” (Europe) and “Isolated Northern Continent” (United States)—the reader must constantly translate between two separate ideological perceptions of reality, the science fictional Canopean empire of psyche and matter, versus the reader's own supported by Rachel, who prefers personal relationships and writes from the domain of traditional realism. Thus Lessing builds into the reading experience of Shikasta the difficulty and impossibility of “pure” translation between different cultural perceptions. The novel encodes competing discourses, so by translating Shikasta into Earth, the reader endorses a power relationship within the text, appropriating Earth history in Shikastan terms: the reader is colonizing the novel.

This manipulation into the Canopean position is further compromised by the implications of reading Shikasta as Earth. Such a reading transports the reader from simply seeing with the crystalline clarity of the Canopean perspective to actually becoming a citizen of Shikasta, a polluted degraded planet: Shikastan citizens are utterly incapable of clear thinking, for their world has been hopelessly colonized by aliens, both biologically and psychically. We learn that pure natives, themselves reshaped by Canopus, die out in favor of the extra-terrestrial Giant-native “cross” (127), and that genes from the space empires of Shammat, Sirius, and Canopus have contributed to the heterogeneous stock.

Consequently, because readers cannot find secure positions either as colonizers/translators of the text or as colonized citizens, we therefore view ourselves as mentally inadequate captives. We read that Canopean colonization “raises” natives, whereas the evil empire, Shammat, causes minds to degrade, but we have yet to explore whether Lessing can convincingly distinguish between the imperial discourses of the two empires. What is apparent so far is Lessing's depiction of the inescapability of the imperial trope for her readers (expected to be mainly white Western?) represented here in the reading experience. Shikasta reproduces this dynamic of the colonizing/colonized reader in the description of the Trial of the White Races (374-419) conveyed in the reports of the Chinese, the latest colonial rulers of a future “Europe.”

At a time of mass starvation and overpopulation, anger at the historic cruelty of the white races reaches genocidal proportions and focuses on the drama of the Mock Trial. Typically, George Sherban acquires a key role as chief prosecutor for the dark races, but because he has only an Indian grandmother and in fact looks entirely white, his position becomes a joke during the trial (379). In fact, we realize that someone, presumably George, has avoided the appearance of black/white polarization by mixing the races on both sides of the room and by complicating the lighting at this trial, which, notably, takes place at night. Throughout Shikasta, Lessing's techniques, characters, and incidents invite the reader to develop other perspectives of events. In addition to the broad invitation to guess George's Canopean agency, Lessing here provides the problematic situation of the narrator, a Chinese colonial official whose summaries of reports gradually force him to read unmentionable analysis of the new Chinese empire with its unstated policy of population reduction through starvation and through its encouragement of racial hostility. The trial describes the reality behind the British policy of “benevolence” (403) in Africa, but ironically, the Chinese use the term “Benevolent Rule” to justify their empire. When Chen Lui tries to direct the dangerous word (and the reader) to other meanings, his superiors decide that he has translated enough to secure “beneficent correction” (419) until his death. Although Chen Lui ostensibly writes for a reader within the novel, Ku Yuang, he essentially encourages the external reader to question the term “benevolent rule,” for it is that concept, though differently expressed, that the Canopeans claim. If Chen Lui can translate his empire into an-other culture, then the reader can translate the difference in the Canopean way. But the difference, the untranslatable residue between British and Chinese cruelty and Canopean nurture, in fact proves unstable. We also see a similarity in language, in roles, while unavoidably remembering that we perceive the Canopean imperial trope from the positions of degraded, muddled, colonized, and colonizing Shikastans. The novel allows the reading of the Canopeans as the literal, dominant empire while insisting that the reader recognize this as an act of translation made not from a neutral position, a crystalline clear vision, but from a culturally contaminated perspective. The reader must recognize such a reading as a translation into the literal or the “proper,” the term preceding the literal which, as Eric Cheyfitz argues in The Poetics of Imperialism, is related to seizing property, and is a trope of aggressive colonization: “The notion of the proper, I argue, must be understood in relation to European notions of property and identity. As for the literal … its figurative use for the notion of the proper has historically taken on a metaphysical force that naturalises writing, concealing it as technology—that is, as a form of politics” (xviii). Colonizing the text in the terms of our own fictions of cultural identity, the reader translates Canopeans into a literal empire. Lessing does not argue that this is an incorrect reading, but she makes us realize that it is a political reading.

Yet just as Lessing invites and problematizes translation, she spreads it into modes other than the literal. This methodology suggests itself particularly in the use of fictions in imperial discourses with the Canopeans who have Sufi, a superior system of teaching stories to develop the desired cosmic consciousness. In fact, fictions and metaphors provide most of our information about Canopus: we learn about the androgynous archetypal Canopeans only through their incarnations as culturally specific archetypal images, and through the use of stories and metaphors in developing civilizations. Once Shikasta has fallen into individualistic Shammat, Johor tries to maintain some ghost of Canopus with his metaphor of SOWF, “Substance Of We Feeling” (96), which, we are told, he has devised because damaged Shikastan brains can hope to retain nothing else. The sheer difficulty of literal translation into Earth concepts, its politicization, and the persistence of Canopean fictions rather than Canopean facts encourage the reader to maintain also a sense of the fictionality of the Canopean empire within the experience of reading in this explicitly science fiction novel. The structure of the text, and the constant demands that characters within the narrative strive for other readings, fosters and encourages external readers to perceive the Canopeans as also fictions (residing in incompleteness of translation, for if Shikasta is also not Earth, then we are aware of Shikasta as fiction), to perceive them as Other voices as well as imperial agents.

If the Canopeans are also read metaphorically, then Shikasta adopts an air of postmodernity, interrogating its own fictional ideology. Reinforcing this postmodern role is the perception of Shikasta as a fictional macrocosm of Lessing's entire oeuvre, a metatext, that not only reexamines old themes of racial oppression, female subordination, and class conflict but also discerns future fictions, as in Johor's “case histories,” which function as seeds for novels. The enumeration of terrorist types anticipates The Good Terrorist (1985), problem children, The Fifth Child (1988). In addition, early Lessing characters reappear, redefined in science fiction, most notably Lynda Coldridge from The Four-Gated City as a Canopean agent (226, 230-39, 431). The entire Canopus in Argos series develops this role as not only a fictional space of ideological empires, to form a canopy over Lessing's work, but also as textual space, reprising and extending her thematical concerns.

The encoded sense of the fictionality of the Canopeans receives still further support through continued readings of envoys such as Johor as archetypal images of unrepresentable crystalline archetypes. Shikasta operates two poles of an unstable reading process: first, a reading that translates the reader into a Shikastan so under the literal authority of the Canopeans/archetypal images, and second, a reading aware of the resistance to translation with the Canopeans as fictional metaphors of Otherness. These readings together reproduce the Jungian structure of individuation whereby the ego makes meaning or “reads reality” by a continual dialogue with archetypal images. The Jungian ego is conceived as imperious: it desires to translate unconscious material into its own terms, the literal, or in Cheyfitz's words, to make “proper” the unassimilable realm of the unconscious, to translate it into the ego's property.7 Therefore the reader of Shikasta as a colonizer, appropriating Earth's political and sacred history and situating him- or herself as a Shikastan who confronts a literal Canopean empire, experiences one Jungian mode of understanding—but one always in tension with, and inseparable from, the unconscious reshaping of the ego by revealing the literal translation as inadequate, as an inauthentic fantasy of dominance. In Jungian individuation, deconstruction of the ego occurs by also reading archetypal images as fictional, metaphorical, provisional, culturally colored manifestations of a plural psyche not open to conquest. Shikasta's situating of the reader reproduces Jungian individuation as a way of politicizing reading experience, thus revealing the inescapability of the imperial trope for readers within Western culture. It also engenders a re-cognition using the Jungian structure of encounter with the Other that aims to develop the reader's consciousness in the manner of a Sufi teaching story.

Jung's typical narrative of individuation is one of “sacred marriage,” union with an-other that remains untranslatable into the same.8 The second volume of Canopus in Argos,The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980), seizes upon this structure and attempts to move beyond the duality of the marriage plot and to explore issues of psychic and physical colonizing of Other realms. The zones start in mutual hostility, declining in fertility. The order from the “Providers” (12), presumed to be Canopeans, decrees that Al.Ith, the queen of agrarian, utopian Zone Three, must marry Ben Ata, the king of patriarchal, militaristic Zone Four. This union initiates beneficial movements between zones, renewing cultures and stimulating personal individuation. However this positive cultural exchange eludes “pure” translation, again revealed as a myth. Although Al.Ith asks for a dictionary to define the Zone Four use of the word “love” (117), she can never completely express her Zone Three self in her husband's land. Equally, she realizes that she perceives Zone Two through the filter of her Zone Three culture: what she sees as blue may in fact be “an iridescence of flames” (236). Encountering the Other in this Jungian “marriage” structure results in process, but resists a hierarchical discourse of colonial dominance. It is Zone Five, apparently the “lowest” culture, that produces the key to the movement into the highest, Zone Two (280).

Like Al.Ith, exposing the impossibility of pure translation, the narrator Lusik claims the impossibility of pure representation because artists of Zones Three and Four produce different images for different cultural resonances. Lusik and Al.Ith are almost split Canopeans from Shikasta, with Al.Ith taking the incarnated role and Lusik the role of one who makes meanings for a specific culture. Like the Canopeans, Lusik draws fictionality, here the constructed quality of this fable, into the reading experience. He also forces the reader to address the darker side of authorship, the use of fiction in oppressive power structures, just as Jungian individuation contains the concept of the shadow, the destructive side. To represent violent impulses is not to control them: “Describing, we become. We even—and I've seen it and have shuddered—summon” (243).

Although The Marriages contains comparatively little to shudder at, issues of representation, first articulated in The Small Personal Voice (the male dictator claiming to represent the people in the political sphere and the author representing the silent in the artistic), do cast a long shadow. As embodiments of their realms, Al.Ith and Ben Ata are extensions of Lusik—the artist as shaper—into the text, thereby dispersing the autocratic functions of rule to the Providers whose very non-appearance contributes to the fictive feel of the text. As female head of a cooperative society, Al.Ith appears the antithesis of the male dictator, but, interestingly, these ideal “representative” rulers have been contaminated by the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Zone Four's “death ray fortresses,” suggested by “strangers” (122), promote antagonism between zones. The very language of “death ray fortresses” plunges us into “science fiction,” and Lessing simultaneously reveals them as fictions, designed to intimidate, thus demonstrating that even ideal ruler-authors cannot entirely divest themselves of the shadow side of their authority.

Similarly, in Shikasta, the archetypal Canopeans attempt to disperse Lessing's own authorship, her authority, but they find themselves in continual battle with Shammat, clearly the hideous progeny of the white male dictator in The Small Personal Voice. Shammat is different from Canopus: the two types of representatives are different but, in their imperial discourse, not entirely separate, just as the representative author never remains wholly free of the colonizing, imperial shadow. Lessing's two types of representation in the early essay become two imperial discourses, the metaphorical authorial Canopeans and the literal dictatorship of Shammat: different but not separable, as demonstrated by the persistence of the literal mode of understanding the Canopean empire, which draws it close to Shammat in its appearance of power. The empires exist in a Jungian trope of deconstruction between ego translation (colonizing the novel into literal empires that simultaneously and ideologically colonize the reader) and archetypal representation (metaphorical, recognizing the inauthenticity of translation). It is not possible to have one way of representing without a shadow of the Other. In addition to the Canopeans' roles as authors of teaching stories, as fictional archetypal images, a literal reading of the Canopeans inescapably establishes their role as an empire of control and authority. The Shammat empire, functioning both to resemble and to differ enormously from Canopus, simultaneously offers and problematizes analogy.

The reproduction of Jungian individuation in the reading process politicizes this literal dictator/fictional author dialectic by making the reader conscious of the shadow of colonial history structuring her perceptions. Eric Cheyfitz argues that metaphor, being inseparable from the literal, also constitutes a colonial mode of reading: “I do not agree that metaphor is a privileged place, located ‘outside’ of or ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ the colonial and imperial politics of language” (108).

Lessing's use of Jung here apparently endorses such a conclusion while asserting the difference encoded within metaphor. If we remember that Sufi teachers, like archetypal images, work with cultural material rather than outside it, then Lessing's Sufi ideology clearly desires the difference of metaphor to provide an alternative reading of empire, while not pretending to be outside or to escape colonial culture and structures of thinking.

Significantly, Lessing depicts Al.Ith's final destination, Zone Two, as a place of “crystalline yet liquid” (237) earth, where her thoughts are “the creatures of this unfamiliar place” (238). It is a place of image where she can almost see people “as if flames trembled into being,” and where she feels most strongly “at home” (238). Zone Two appears to be the realm of the archetypal imagination that recalls the crystalline Canopeans. Another designation of it, however, could be death. From the perspective of Zone Three it is blue, the color of mourning in that zone,9 and Al.Ith hopes to find her dead horse Yori “there, but a transformed and translated version of him … so dreamed Al.Ith” (242). Virtually the only use of the word “translated” in Canopus in Argos, it here returns to an earlier sense of “translated to heaven.” Only in the realm of the plural archetypal psyche can translation occur differently to the political appropriation reproduced elsewhere. Nevertheless, this difference does not take it outside the topos of colonization explored in the whole novel series. Al.Ith's move to Zone Two is part of the cultural exchanges contained within the individuation narratives figured elsewhere in this text as “marriage.”

Lessing has dispersed her authority behind the archetypal Canopeans in order to colonize Earth history for Canopus in Argos. As with any imperial discourse, she gives back to the colonized (the readers) a mistranslated, ideologically biased history. Her envoys, or archetypal images, are culturally colored by her mode of debunking religious and political myths. For example, Johor/George's early encounter with a Miriam (278) reminds us that, by the end of Shikasta, he is a Moses leading survivors to a promised land of new sacred cities; moreover, in his incarnation he suggests Jesus. At the same time, established religions receive criticism as perversions of Canopean truths. In The Sirian Experiments we learn that Canopeans employ “subtle technology” (62), and as Lessing's subtle empire they embody their author's technology in individuating the readers, reshaping interpretations. Lessing uses such Jungian ideas as archetypes, individuation, and sacred marriage to illuminate the tropes of empire and colonization that dominate not only our history but also our structures of understanding. We cannot escape reading the crystalline Canopeans as a literal empire, not securely distant from the dictator of The Small Personal Voice, but we remain conscious that this reading is filtered by our translating ourselves into Shikastans, so entering the colonizing process by occupying the text. By becoming Shikastan, we are told that we pollute our vision. Thus Lessing's technique, inviting readers to Other readings, endeavors to raise our consciousness as we view Canopeans as also fictive, and listen to storytelling Sufi teachers who warn that Shikasta can use their words against them, hardening them “into dogma” (145). Lessing thus enables our recognition of Shikasta as the author's fictional macrocosm and of the possibility of reading empire differently, but not separately, from the political.

In Jung's view, an unsophisticated mind perceives the psyche as “removed from and alien to the ego” (p. 13); and Lessing's subtle empire explores the political potential of Jungian ideas just as it uses Jung to demonstrate the psychic persistence of politics. If Shammat is the shadow of Canopus as literal/political empire, it is part of a continual displacement of authority (from Lessing to Canopeans, Canopeans to Shammat) that aims to offer a textual space to empire as metaphor, using Jungian paradigms that allow the reader to be colonized also by Otherness, to participate through the author's fictional use of the teaching story.

Stars signify the deterministic universe, sign of the Canopean empire as literal or “proper.” Ultimately all becomes the stars' property as Al.Ith muses: “stars are what we are made of, what we are subject to” (Canopus in Argos 14); so, fittingly, “Canopus” and “Sirius” are terrestrial names for stars, and as such an obvious projection, another trace of science fiction in the texts. Not for nothing did Jung, quoting an alchemical text,10 call the imagination the star in man. The Canopeans are messengers from the stars and images from the archetypal imagination. By powerfully demonstrating the way we make fictions within political and colonial tropes, Lessing's Canopus in Argos bids us beware how we trespass in our imaginative space (Canopus in Argos 14).


  1. Diverse critical reactions to Canopus in Argos include Kaplan and Rose, Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival, especially Carey Kaplan's “Britain's Imperialist Past in Doris Lessing's Futuristic Fiction”; Ward Jouve, “Of Mud and Other Matter,” in White Woman Speaks with Forked Tongue; and Fishburn, The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing.

  2. Lessing in a letter to Roberta Rubenstein, quoted in Rubenstein 230-31.

  3. Notable studies of Lessing using Jungian ideas include Rubenstein, The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing; Singleton, The City and the Veld; and Cederstrom, Fine-Tuning the Feminine Psyche.

  4. C. G. Jung, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 9, pt. 1, trans. R. F. C. Hull (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959), 79. In The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, ed. Sir Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, M.D., M.R.C.P., and Gerhard Adler, Ph.D., trans. R. F. C. Hull, 19 vols. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953-77).

  5. Jung, Collected Works 9 i, p. 160.

  6. Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, trans. R. F. C. Hull (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949), 437-38.

  7. Lessing, “If You Knew Sufi …” 12.

  8. Jung, Collected Works 14: 469.

  9. Jung, Collected Works 14: 300.

  10. Jung, Collected Works 12: 277.

Selected Works about Doris Lessing

Caracciolo, Peter. “What's in a Canopean Name?” Doris Lessing Newsletter 8.1 (1984): 15.

Cederstrom, Lorelei. Fine-Tuning the Feminine Psyche: Jungian Patterns in the Novels of Doris Lessing. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Poetics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from “The Tempest” to “Tarzan.” New York: Oxford UP, 1991.

Fishburn, Katherine. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Galin, Muge. Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Albany: State U of New York P, 1997.

Kaplan, Carey, and Ellen Cronan Rose, eds. Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival. Athens: Ohio UP, 1988.

Rubenstein, Roberta. The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing: Breaking the Forms of Consciousness. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1979.

Sage, Lorna. “The Available Space.” Women's Writing: A Challenge to Theory. Ed. Moira Monteith. London: Harvester Press, 1986. 15-33.

Singleton, Mary Ann. The City and the Veld: The Fictions of Doris Lessing. London: Associated University Presses, 1977.

Ward Jouve, Nicole. White Woman Speaks with Forked Tongue: Criticism as Autobiography. London: Routledge, 1991.

Sarah Sceats (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Sceats, Sarah. “Flesh and Bones: Eating, Not Eating and the Social Vision of Doris Lessing.” In Theme Parks, Rainforests and Sprouting Wastelands: European Essays on Theory and Performance in Contemporary British Fiction, edited by Richard Todd, pp. 139-49. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

[In the following essay, Sceats examines the representation of eating and food in Lessing's writing, particularly in terms of their role in interpersonal or social relationships.]

[…] there is a terrible gap between the public and the private conscience […]1

‘Dis-moi ce que tu manges,’ wrote Antoine Brillat-Savarin in 1825, ‘[et] je te dirai ce que tu es …’.2 The potent suggestiveness of food is one of a writer's richest resources, and has been drawn upon and exploited ever since Homer. Literary food and eating, often enticingly (or revoltingly) evocative, are of great mimetic power and significance. It is fascinating and intriguing to read about what people eat, who they cook for, how dinner—if it is—is served. Of still greater interest and significance, I think, are the aspects of food and eating which might be considered figurative: what is suggestive, speculative, intangible. Eating practices are in effect a currency, something ‘understood’, broadly accepted, interpretable indeed, as Brillat-Savarin suggests. Encoded in appetite, taste, rituals and eating behaviours are all manner of apparent givens by which people are categorized and judged, and which disclose much about—to take a fairly random selection—class, generosity, rigidity, deprivation, power.

The revelatory use of eating in fiction is not simply a question of the elegance of metaphor, for eating and nourishment are at our core, essential in terms of survival, psychic development and primary social activities. (Hence the comparative rarity of novels without any mention of food or eating.) Their essential quality imbues food and eating with value, and this is one reason, in view of what I take to be her profound seriousness, for my focusing the discussion in this essay on the novels of Doris Lessing. Food and eating in Lessing's writing lie at the heart of a purposeful realism in which questions of psychological and political consequence are central. Here representation is rooted in the material and yet invades and embraces the metaphysical, the psychic, the mythical and the fantastic. And in all these spheres people hunger, provide, consume.

I want to look, briefly, at three aspects of food and eating in Lessing's writing, particularly as they relate to interpersonal or social connection. I will consider her representation of eating as a means of celebration and communication; focus on ways in which social eating might be problematic; and finally examine a pervasive trope in her work, that of not eating, of physical and mental breakdown and of some kind of ensuing enlightenment.


At its most basic level, eating is, of course, a necessity, a simple manifestation of the survival instinct, an expression of our essential physicality. This fundamental stoking is abundantly evident in Lessing's writing, from the hedonistic dinners and sundowner parties of the young whites in the African stories to the ‘I want cake’, ‘I want milk’ of Ben, the uncompromising Fifth Child.3 Lessing's apprehension of the significance of feeding and nurturing to psychic development is (equally) widely evident, for example in the restless ‘unappeasable mouth’ of maternally-deprived Paul, again in The Fifth Child, or the compensatory cooking and caring behaviour of Alice Mellings in The Good Terrorist. In The Marriages of Zones Three, Four and Five much is made of the infant's need for ‘feeding’ in all senses by both physical and spiritual parents. The fact that Lessing repeatedly portrays maternal deprivation and abuse detracts not a bit from the perceived need; it is precisely because Martha Quest, for example, is half starved by her mother (albeit accidentally) that she in turn deprives her own child.

Lessing is, without doubt, a deeply committed writer, with a strong sense of political, ethical and aesthetic responsibility. She writes:

The act of getting a story or a novel published is an act of communication, an attempt to impose one's personality and beliefs on other people. If a writer accepts this responsibility, he must see himself, to use the socialist phrase, as an architect of the soul, and it is a phrase which none of the old nineteenth-century novelists would have shied away from.

(A Small Personal Voice, pp. 10-11.)

The responsibility Lessing assumes is weighty. But she neither sees this as a restriction nor allows it to cramp her style. Like her esteemed nineteenth-century novelists (think, for example, of the jam-making scene in Anna Karenina), Lessing includes food and eating as part of her social and meta-physical vision. She has a relish, even a reverence, for the pleasures and sensuous materiality of food. Here is a sumptuous scene from The Golden Notebook:

‘With strawberries, wine, obviously,’ said Anna greedily; and moved the spoon about among the fruit, feeling its soft sliding resistance, and the slipperiness of the cream under a gritty crust of sugar. Molly swiftly filled glasses with wine and set them on the white sill. The sunlight crystallized beside each glass on the white paint in quivering lozenges of crimson and yellow light, and the two women sat in the sunlight, sighing with pleasure and stretching their legs in the thin warmth, looking at the colours of the fruit in the bright bowls and at the red wine.4

There is a lively appreciation of mutuality in the shared enjoyment of eating here and elsewhere in the novel, in instances such as when, in the Blue Notebook, Anna shares her fellow Communist worker Jack's sandwich lunch or when, in the almost palpably evocative anticipation of shape, colour, touch and smell, she shops and cooks for a lover:

It is a great pleasure, buying food I will cook for Michael; a sensuous pleasure, like the act of cooking itself. I imagine the meat in its coat of crumbs and egg; the mushrooms, simmering in sour cream and onions, the clear strong, amber-coloured soup […] I unroll the veal that I remembered to batter out flat this morning; and I roll the pieces in the yellow egg, and the crumbs. I baked crumbs yesterday, and they still smell fresh and dry, in spite of the dampness in the air […] All the kitchen is full of good cooking smells; and all at once I am happy, so happy I can feel the warmth of it through my whole body.

(The Golden Notebook, pp. 303, 323f.)

There is even an elegiac reprise, later on, when Anna shops for Saul Green.5 The potentially communicative importance of food is reinforced by inversion in the Yellow Notebook (Anna's draft fiction) by the healthy but limiting simplicity of her heroine Ella's dining and sexual relations with the boyish American she meets on the aeroplane. He eagerly orders ‘the biggest steak they ha[ve] in the place’, swiftly drinks only Coca Cola or fruit juice, and happily completes sexual intercourse within seconds of getting into bed (The Golden Notebook, p. 288).

The sharing of eating, food provision or cooking, like sex to a small extent and talk to a greater, is itself a connection, and may indeed be regarded as more intimate than either. The extraordinary intimacy of eating together is nowhere more clearly illustrated than in The Marriages of Zones Three, Four and Five, when the so-to-speak queen of Zone Three is brought to marry the ruler of Zone Four. Much suspicious and hostile circling, verbal sparring, discussion, rape, sleep, mountain-gazing and wary comradeship precede the betrothed couple's sitting to eat their—as yet—separate foods. It is only much later, when they have already reached a degree of intimacy figured in almost perpetual mutual nakedness, that they find they can no longer conjure separate foods, and are supplied with stewed beans and bread from the officers' mess, which they eat together with hungry relish.


Communicative or social eating can, however, be problematic in a number of ways. Power relations of all kinds operate in and around the kitchen, and, as Foucault might suggest, acts (or discourses) of apparent communion mask the exercise of power. Dominance and subservience—whatever the ostensible positions of authority—are tenuous and slippery and interactions are subtle and frequently complex.6 That this is so much in evidence in Lessing's fiction is a measure of what Kate Fullbrook identifies as her being ‘attuned to the position of the individual’ as well as ‘convinced of the power of collective decisions and potentialities …’.7 To take a couple of obvious examples: racist oppression and persecution are manifest in the world of the African novels and stories, yet the persecutors—Mary Turner in Lessing's first novel, The Grass Is Singing, Mrs Quest and the colonial matrons of Zambesia in the Martha Quest novels, Mrs Boothby in the Mashopi story of The Golden Notebook may be mentioned as examples—perpetually feel themselves to be not quite in total control of the kitchen. In The Good Terrorist Alice Mellings strives to convert the group's anarchy to familial collectivity, battling to supplant their extravagant (though egalitarian) ‘take-aways’ with economical nourishing soups and stews. Functioning, according to Elizabeth Maslen, as ‘both threat and victim’, Alice surrenders her will to her psychotic companion and devotes her considerable skills and energies to the physical good of the squat.8 Yet she attains a status and authority by means of this very submission, generating her acclaimed soups with maternal—and thus ambiguously powerful—bounty.

As these examples suggest, power relations in Lessing's writing always nudge from the simply private towards the public and the representative, and wider historical, political and social implications are invariably part of the picture, especially since her characters are frequently framed as ‘representative’. But social eating can be problematic, too, in other ways. What happens, for example, when a group is invaded by the unsocialized? The arrival of Ben, in The Fifth Child, shatters Harriet and David's romantic idyll of family, setting child against adult, father against mother. Variously described as ‘neanderthal’, a ‘throwback’, an ‘alien’, the infant Ben empties his mother's breast in seconds, always roars for more, and bites (literally) the hand that feeds him. As he grows he learns by imitation not to talk with his mouth full or eat with his mouth open, but this is mere semblance—‘the energetic animal movements of his jaws confined behind closed lips’ (The Fifth Child, p. 115)—and his eating is never less than a subdued version of what is revealed when his mother finds him squatting on the kitchen table, grunting over an uncooked chicken he has torn apart. His response to her scolding on this occasion, in an echo from King Lear, is merely ‘Poor Ben hungry’ (The Fifth Child, p. 117).

Ben is incapable of eating socially, communicatively. His devouring, single-minded satisfaction of appetite relates to a more primitive, empathy-free, non-communicative order of being. While his siblings patiently instruct him in what is expected, in reality they progressively withdraw, at first in looks and conversation and finally by physical removal, until the family unit simply disintegrates. The great smooth table, with its palpable history of feasts and family, is scarred and darkened by the atavistic shadow of the unassimilable predatory individual. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Ben is especially associated with the ‘barbarous eighties’.

I want now to recall my point about eating as positive intimate communication, and to suggest that the uniting effects of sharing food might themselves be expressly experienced as problematic, especially by men. On the two occasions quoted above, when Anna Wulf cooks so expectantly for her lover, he is about to leave her. What the men in both instances find threatening is precisely the intensity of mutuality, the shared body experience that dissolves some of the rigid boundaries of the individual. For Lessing's ‘free women’ food is part of the idyll, a means of conversation; by the men it is perceived as a trap.

On one level—that of the straightforward realist text—we could take such incidents as illustrating a male reluctance to take a subservient or passive role in female territory. Power relations and questions of dominance or subservience are crucial even to situations of ‘shared’ food, for the provider is almost inevitably in a dominant position, whether this is a man taking a woman to a restaurant or a woman cooking for her lover.9 In other words, Lessing's men's withdrawal from eating intimacy says as much about (gendered) power relations as about individual psyches.

This said, however, if men manifest fear of entrapment or commitment then the psyche clearly is relevant. On a less than conscious level a man may withdraw from a sensation of infantilization, of being mothered, as though convinced he must struggle to make the separation all over again. Maggie Kilgour suggests that the question of boundaries is inextricable from psychic gendering:

While male sexual identity is achieved through the discovery of sexual difference and the need to turn from the mother to the absent father who represents separation, female development and discovery of sexual identity involves a continuing identification with the first love object because both are female. As a result of this, women tend to develop a less rigid sense of ego boundaries than men, and a more fluid sense of the relation between the self and the world outside.10

This more fluid self, accessible to the contingent, has a natural inclination towards communication which endorses women's food sharing and offers an explanation, at least in part, for the almost exclusively female gender of the fasting communicants I am about to examine. Here, beyond the individual connection which may occur through shared eating or sexual congress, a wider communication, a more significant breaching of the immured body of individualism, is what Lessing suggests is possible and indeed desirable. For this to happen, however, all kinds of fear and resistance have to be breached.


I want to suggest a pattern of not-eating, breakdown, fragmentation and enlightenment. In Lessing's first novel, The Grass Is Singing, the protagonist Mary Turner is fascinated and repelled by the natives. Her obsession becomes focused on the servant Moses, her horror of his status and his physicality being slowly transformed, as an intimate and compelling personal relationship develops. Mary's fear, yearning, desire and inability to understand enact the release of her repressed unconscious as she discovers herself, albeit without wishing it, to be sensuous, physically aware and communicative. At the same time, however, her body becomes thinner, more stringy, more yellow, more bony, as her personality breaks down and she forgets about food, forgets to eat, cannot eat.

The outlines of a pattern are here, even at this early stage in Lessing's writing. I should stress, however, that what I am suggesting is not something schematic, for self-starvation arises most plausibly within the realist content of the novels. In the early volumes of her ‘Children of Violence’ series (the Martha Quest novels), for example, Lessing creates a dense fictional world filled with narrative detail in which a preoccupation with body image and slimming are embedded, almost incidentally, as part of a woman's life, and it is not until later that the extra-ordinary benefits of not eating become apparent. Thus a commonplace if excessive teenage dieting pattern is established as realist ‘fact’, and the young and isolated Martha Quest sets out to starve herself ‘into a fashionable thinness’ even before she leaves her parents' farm.11

Her conforming to a socially endorsed slim body ideal (every bit as potent in 1930s Rhodesia as 1990s Britain) is only part of the story, however. Martha is ardent, idealistic and politically alert, and while she initially participates in the banal and hedonistic activities of the white ruling classes of the colony, she deplores what she perceived to be a conformist ‘nightmare of repetition’.12 She is also particularly, if embryonically, receptive to external stimulus: during an emancipating walk home through the bush she has an ecstatic visionary episode which foreshadows the telepathic communication finally achieved in The Four-Gated City. Overwhelmed by a ‘confused and painful delirium’ inseparable from the veld, Martha resists her usual tendency to conceptualize and analyze, and surrenders to the experience, opening herself to some kind of understanding. Significantly—though this is as yet a tenuous link—she rejects the possibility of a ‘wonderful Scotch tea’ with neighbours. ‘Difficult knowledge’, it seems, is opposed to pleasurable eating.

There is a clear indication that the reverse is also true, that eating may be an escape from knowledge, as the young white population indulges in a frenzied excess of eating, drinking and dancing on the brink of the Second World War. The ‘most expensive meal the colony could offer’, in both its hollow ritualistic quality and its unappetizing content, suggests a frantic displacement activity:

[…] it did not matter what food was actually brought, for they would not notice. They did not care about food, or even about wine. If they ordered wine, they might spend five minutes debating about a title on the wine list, and forget what they had ordered when the bottle arrived […]. They ate a thick white soup, which tasted of flour and pepper; round cheese puffs, the size of cricket balls and tasting of nothing in particular; boiled fish with gluey white sauce; roast chicken, hard white shreds of meat, with boiled stringbeans and boiled potatoes; stewed plums and fresh cream; and sardines on toast. They were all drinking brandy mixed with ginger beer.

(Martha Quest, p. 208)

Similarly, when Martha's husband returns from his military service, he rejects her omelette and stewed fruit in favour of another such anodyne meal.

Much of the following three novels in the series is given over to the development of Martha's ‘ideological’ self. Though she has bouts of not eating, while seeking in communism an orthodox political direction she inhabits a wholly rational sphere and her lack of food produces simply a pleasurable sense of self-deprivation and a rather irritable lightheadedness. It is not until The Four-Gated City that self-starvation and the isolated visionary and fragmentary episodes of the earlier novels come together and are worked into an unmistakable pattern.

By the time we reach this, the fifth and final novel of the series, not eating, breakdown and psychic communication are all overt, and explicitly linked. The novel traces Martha's progress from her arrival in England to her death in the years after a chemical/nuclear catastrophe. From an initial perception of the rigid stratification of English society and of political, social and personal fragmentation, Martha begins to focus on physical integrity and supra-individual communication as a good; the process, difficult and not achievable by simple act of will, requires a calling up of the non-rational self, figured in Martha's friend Lynda, a sort of madwoman in the basement.

Food, as always, is indicative. The highly sensitive Jack, whose body can somehow catch and sense what Martha says even though he cannot accept her words, ultimately reveals an inner corruption through his crazy hunger. The dubious scientific ethics of Jimmy Woods are similarly reflected in his round pinkness and his over-concentration on food, as, for example, when he sits imperturbably uncommunicative, avidly drinking tea, eating lots of cake and ‘energetically dott[ing] up loose currants on the end of a wetted forefinger’.13 Physical indulgence and sluggishness are repeatedly suggested as the enemy of insight.

If food dulls, then Martha learns that lack of food sharpens the senses and quickens the emotions. The lightness and clarity she experiences walking through London she regards as a ‘reward of not-eating, not-sleeping, using her body as an engine to get her out of the small dim prison of every day’ (Four-Gated City, p. 519). The step from such heightened awareness to madness is both a small and a large one; it is through her foodless, sleepless experience that Martha's non-rational and communicating self is confirmed. Indeed, following Lynda's example, she carefully prepares for her ‘breakdown’, a solitary psychic exploration for which she knows she must not eat or sleep, so as to make herself acute and on edge. She is aware that this is dangerous, but takes the risk in order to examine her unknown states of mind. Reinforcing the food/body/‘breakdown’/communication nexus, an intervening visit to a restaurant is shown to set her back; she calculates that it will take her twenty four hours to return to a ‘sensitive’ state, after all she has eaten and drunk.

Productive not-eating along the same lines also features in The Golden Notebook, with its exploration of integrity and communication, as Anna Wulf struggles with the breakdown of language, the uncertainty of knowledge and the fragmentation of her personality.14 During the period of her breakdown, though Anna uses the artificial stimulation of whisky and coffee, she eats very little, and sometimes loses her food through (unintentional) vomiting. At a further stage of enlightenment, in The Marriages of Zones Three, Four and Five, Al.Ith and the Zone Three people live on a light vegetarian diet, and communicate extensively, among themselves and with the natural world, by thought and feeling. Here, however, we are given a sense of the limitations of this way of being, and a hint that there may be something to be said for the gross flesh and passions of the masculine Zone Four, since union between the Zones (later expanded to include the extremes of the immoderate Zone Five and incorporeal Zone Two) is deemed to be necessary and healing.

In neglecting the flesh Lessing is pursuing an ideal of enlightenment, which reaches its apotheosis in the ultimate transcendence of both the physical and the individual when the surviving characters of The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 finally merge into a composite spiritual being, leaving their bodies behind on a frozen hillside. I do not want to end on this conveniently tidy note, however, for it suggests something reductive, a simplistic spirituality. Though there is clearly a recurring pattern in Lessing's work, it is not as schematic as it seems here in the absence of everything else (and there is much) that Lessing packs into the novels. We should not either, I think, lose sight of the fact that her writing is grounded in a solid materialism which embraces the realities of embodiment with all its fears and insecurities.

I want therefore to finish by suggesting that in two books at least Lessing offers an alternative enlightenment to the incorporeal, an enlightenment which is deeply rooted in physical awareness, and achieved through ministering to the body's needs and hungers. The novels I have in mind are The Diaries of Jane Somers, which confront the unavoidable future underlying all our fears about embodiment, that of deterioration and debility; indeed, few novelists dwell so directly or so movingly on the physical details of old age.

The Diaries are concerned with the breakdown of Jane Somers' distaste, fear and separation from the realities of other people's physicality. Jane, or Janna as she is called, unwillingly becomes involved with a poverty-stricken sick old woman, Maudie Fowler. Janna is gradually drawn in to care for her, developing a sense of responsibility and achieving a real friendship. The breakthrough comes with Maudie's asking to be washed, when Janna is confronted by the inescapable facts of physical decline and must cope with the smell, the mess, the pitiful sight of Maudie's incontinent body, and Maudie's suffering at the invasion of her privacy. Maudie's body is disturbing because it holds an explicit promise of the future. In an extraordinarily evocative passage, Lessing gives a detailed account of the old woman's day, dominated by her own weight, stiffness, effort, panic, weariness, numbness, emptiness and the small pleasures of cake, bread and butter and cups of tea.

Janna looks after, visits and buys food for first Maudie, and then other old ladies. She shares their tea and cake. Unintentionally but inevitably she is drawn into dealing with the Social Services on their behalf. The arrival of ‘Meals on Wheels’ is an event for all the old women, often eagerly awaited, partly because it offers a moment of minimal social contact, but also because eating is almost their only physical pleasure. There is frequent disappointment when the food arrives, but there is pleasure too, both in present indulgence and sporadic nostalgia. Indeed, the old women's almost obsessive interest in what they have to eat is a means of keeping mortality at bay. The hunger, the pleasure, the nostalgia are manifestations of an appetite for life itself.

Janna's enlightenment, growing alongside her intimacy with Maudie, comes from her gradual apprehension of the importance not only of caring, but of the passion revealed in an old woman's appetite. Familiar elements of Lessing's food writing are in evidence. Janna's eating with Maudie is communicative, even celebratory on occasion, though there are complicating inequalities in their relationship. Opposed to the pleasures of their conversations over tea or a nice piece of fish or a glass of Scotch is the most difficult knowledge: that of death. Far from sailing serenely into a spiritual existence like the Representatives of Planet 8, Maudie clings fiercely to life in its most physical form, a tenacity which, given that she is 92, is ultimately baffling to Janna. Like Lessing's fasting communicants, however, Janna achieves her most valuable perceptions not intellectually but through what she senses and feels, through physical connection with Maudie and in relation to food and eating. The vivid scene in which she takes Maudie out to tea at a café in the park captures the sensuous quality of Janna's perception, and offers a reading of eating as the most powerful and moving assertion of being alive:

I find her a table out of the way of people, with rose bushes beside her, and I pile a tray with cream cakes, and we sit there all afternoon. She ate and ate, in her slow, consuming way, which says, I'm going to get this inside me while it is here!—and then she sat, she simply sat and looked […]. I could see she was beside herself with a fierce, almost angry delight, this hot brightly coloured sunlit world was like a gorgeous present.15


  1. Doris Lessing, The Small Personal Voice (1957; London: Flamingo, 1994), p. 14. After initial footnoted references, all subsequent page references to this and other works by Doris Lessing will be given parenthetically in the text.

  2. ‘Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are’, in Jean Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, with an Introduction by Arthur Machen (New York: Dover, 1960), p. 3 (Physiologie du Goût, 1825).

  3. [Doris Lessing,] The Fifth Child (1988; London, Paladin, 1989), pp. 83, 86.

  4. [Doris Lessing,] The Golden Notebook (1962; London, Flamingo, 1993), pp. 33-4.

  5. Interestingly, in both cases, the pleasure is soured and the cooking spoiled by Anna's intuitive knowledge that her man is on the way out.

  6. See Foucault's discussion of power relations in: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1979).

  7. Kate Fullbrook, Free Women: Ethics and Aesthetics in Twentieth-Century Women's Fiction (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), p. 142.

  8. See Elizabeth Maslen, Doris Lessing, Writers and their Work (Plymouth: Northcote House for the British Council, 1994), p. 47.

  9. The first is so common as almost to have become a cliché. Lessing often demonstrates more complicated exertions of power than simple seductions however, from the convoluted discomforts of the club social life in Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage to the sexual put-downs of Robert Brun, Ella's potential French editor in The Golden Notebook.

  10. Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Incorporation (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990), p. 244.

  11. Doris Lessing, Martha Quest (1952; London: Paladin 1990), p. 51.

  12. Several critics note the existence of a ‘divided self’ in Martha, encompassing both the conformist and the visionary. See, for example, Jeanette King, Doris Lessing (London: Arnold 1989); Lorna Sage, Doris Lessing, Contemporary Writers series (London: Methuen, 1983); the ‘Critical Studies’ collection edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo, Doris Lessing (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1974) and in that volume particularly Dagmar Barnouw, ‘Disorderly Company: From The Golden Notebook to The Four-Gated City’, pp. 74-97. The ‘division’ is not a simple polar opposition, however, since both conforming and visionary selves are powered by a desire for community and belonging, reflecting Lessing's interest in the individual and the collective and her reference to politics and psychology.

  13. Doris Lessing, The Four-Gated City (1969; London: Paladin, 1990), p. 183.

  14. Anna's experience in this might well be taken as a dry run for Martha's, since The Golden Notebook (1962) was published some time before The Four-Gated City (1969).

  15. [Doris Lessing,] The Diaries of Jane Somers (1983 & 1984; London: Michael Joseph, 1984), p. 120.

Linda Simon (review date February 2001)

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SOURCE: Simon, Linda. “The Alien.” World & I 16, no. 2 (February 2001): 235-40.

[In the following review, Simon contrasts the protagonist and themes of Ben, in the World with those of The Fifth Child.]

“It would be a good thing if man concerned himself more with the history of his nature than with the history of his deeds.” This remark by the nineteenth-century German dramatist Friedrich Hebbel serves as an epigraph for Doris Lessing's Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (1987), a collection of five essays that reflect on the causes—biological or social—of human behavior, essays that consider how often and how much we are dominated by our savage past, as individuals and as groups. What, Lessing asks, is our inherent nature: Are we barbaric, brutal beasts who must be socialized into civility? Or have we, as a species, evolved genetically from our bestial past to transcend our animal nature?

These questions are central to much of Lessing's writing, especially to her latest novel, Ben, in the World. In The Memoirs of a Survivor (1975), she created an apocalyptic future in which gangs of children rage and plunder, “feckless and irresponsible, hopeless, futureless, uneducated and ineducable,” but having no choice because all means of socialization have been destroyed. There are no families, no community, no nurturing. The result is a society of ruthless monsters.


Yet for all her apparent faith in the power of nurture over nature, in 1988 Lessing published The Fifth Child, a grim tale offering a harrowing possibility: the birth of a savage, primitive human being, a throwback, a Neanderthal. Unlike the children in Memoirs of a Survivor, Ben Lovatt seems to have been born bad; he is aggressive, violent, unloving. Some members of his stunned middle-class family believe he is evil and should be destroyed. Only his mother is compelled by a sense of moral responsibility; only she rescues him from certain death, even at the cost of her other children's well-being, even at the cost of her marriage.

The Lovatts, Harriet and David, fiercely defend what has become known as “family values”: both refuse to engage in premarital sex, both condemn what they believe is the hedonism and self-indulgence of their contemporaries. Seeing the breakdown of families all around them (David's parents have divorced and remarried), they want to create a stable homelife, to buy a large, rambling house and fill it with many children. But when the children come too often—first Luke, then Helen, then Jane, then Paul, within a few years—the Lovatts feel the disapproval of their parents, relatives, and even of Harriet's physician. Yet Harriet and David are adamant in defending their choice, hard though it is to maintain “their belief in themselves when the spirit of the times, the greedy and selfish sixties, had been so ready to condemn them, to isolate, to diminish their best selves.”

As much as the Lovatts cherish their children, they do feel the strain of raising a large family—economic, emotional, and physical. David is forced to take money from his wealthy father; Harriet must depend on her mother to help care for her young brood. And she is physically exhausted from a succession of pregnancies and nursing. When Harriet realizes that she is pregnant for the fifth time, both she and David are deeply distressed. They did not want this child—not yet, perhaps not ever. As Lessing follows Harriet through her difficult fifth pregnancy, we wonder if her depression and physical symptoms result from overall exhaustion or if this fetus is, indeed, different from the others. Harriet feels assaulted from within by a violent, aggressive, huge child battering her uterus: “Sometimes she believed hooves were cutting her tender inside flesh, sometimes claws.” She resorts to tranquilizers to quiet what she thinks of as “the enemy,” her own unborn child.

Perhaps it is no surprise that when her son is born, she hates him. It does not help that he is ugly, even repulsive. “He's a funny little chap,” David comments. To Harriet, he is something more sinister: “He did not look like a baby at all. He had a heavy-shouldered hunched look, as if he were crouching there as he lay. His forehead sloped from his eyebrows to his crown. … His hands were thick and heavy, with pads of muscle in the palms.” When she tries to nurse him, he bites her mercilessly. When he drinks from a bottle, he is insatiable. As he grows, it is clear that he is not like other children. He is unresponsive to petting and cuddling. He is strong and quick to anger: The family's dog is found dead; he nearly pulls his brother's arm out of its socket.

Harriet's family colludes to send Ben to an institution where he will surely die. But Harriet is overcome with guilt and compassion. Despite her family's entreaties, she saves him and somehow manages to raise him so that he learns to repress his violent urges. As the book ends, Ben is fifteen, the center of a gang of young drifters, living on the streets or squatting in vacant buildings. What, we wonder, is his future?


In an interview after publishing The Fifth Child, Lessing explained that she never intended Ben to be evil, only misplaced. “If he is in fact the result of a gene which has come down through many centuries, all he is, is a different race of being that's landed up in our somewhat complicated society. But what I got fascinated by in writing that book was, how would we cope with it if it happened?” That question also informs Ben, in the World.

As in The Fifth Child, Lessing insists that Ben is different, surely, but not psychopathic; his aggression is caused by atavism, not malice. He manages, in any case, usually to keep his behavior in check—and when he becomes violent, it is always because he has been provoked by inhumane behavior in so-called civilized humans. Although he has grown up rejected by strangers merely on the basis of his menacing appearance, apparently his mother's love and the reliable home she provided kept him from becoming antisocial or even pathological.

Ben, who remembers his mother with nostalgia and gratitude, is capable of tenderness. As the book opens, he is eighteen and has been on his own for three years. He has been hired to do odd jobs requiring brute strength but often is cheated out of his earnings. At times he has found a home, but no one has truly cared for him until now, when Ellen Biggs, an aged pensioner, discovers him homeless, welcomes him into her small flat, feeds him, bathes him, and offers him emotional support. At Biggs' urging, Ben is trying to negotiate British bureaucracy and apply for financial benefits, but he is frustrated in this quest. Then, when Biggs becomes ill, Ben is cast out once again.

This time, he takes up with a prostitute who enjoys his brutal, unfettered sexuality and doles out money to him. Her pimp, though, sees other possibilities and manipulates Ben into serving as a courier to smuggle drugs into France. Ben is provided with a false passport, indicating his age as thirty-five and his profession as actor.

Unlike The Fifth Child, which focused on Harriet's response to her strange and difficult son, Ben, in the World elucidates Ben's psychological and emotional state. Lessing sensitively creates a being who is at once less than and more than human: He craves raw meat and competes with Mrs. Biggs' cat for an occasional bird; he is overwhelmed by encounters with strangers. Strong light bothers his eyes; car rides make him nauseated. He can, literally, smell danger; and his sense of intuition never fails him, even when he cannot intellectualize his feelings.

Lessing's supporting cast though, with the exception of Mrs. Biggs, seems to come from a cache of stock characters: not one but two prostitutes with hearts of gold; the conniving pimp; the greedy American filmmaker and his entourage of hangers-on; the evil scientist. And since Ben is not a character who can develop insight into his own behavior, his misadventures do not allow Lessing to create a bildungsroman. It's hard to know what Lessing did intend in this novel. At times, the book seems closer to Jerzy Kosinski's Being There than to The Fifth Child. In Kosinski's novel, the protagonist's identity and personality—class, profession, intellectual capacities, even ability to empathize—are invented by the people he meets, a reflection of their expectations and desires.

By giving Ben the identity of a film star, one might guess that Lessing meant to satirize Hollywood's cult of personality, or our salacious interest in some entertainers' outrageous appearance and behavior, or our tendency to conflate an actor's identity with the parts he plays. But she fails to explore the implications of Ben's absurd professional label. Although a slimy director sees financial gain in contriving a film around Ben, the idea fizzles out, and the director, once Lessing sends him scouting for locations, never appears again. Since Lessing makes a point of Ben's ability to feel affection and loyalty, it seems surprising that she does not allow any of his relationships to deepen. The first prostitute is left behind in London when Ben goes to France; Ben never will return to her. Teresa, the second prostitute, will live happily ever after, we are told, with another minor character.

Besides the desultory handling of characters, the novel's pacing seems odd, with some sections (such as Teresa's social background) vividly detailed, and others abruptly attenuated, as if Lessing herself lost interest in her subplots. And the climax of the book—which she means to be shocking—is both contrived and unsatisfying. Lessing seems on surer ground in The Fifth Child, where her acerbic critique of class prejudices and expectations, of the limits of psychological and sociological explanations of behavior, of the ways we make and rationalize moral decisions, occurs in a world she knows intimately and renders with conviction. She seems to lack that conviction in this new work of fiction, however deeply she cares about the profound philosophical questions at the novel's heart.

Alan Davis (review date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Davis, Alan. “Not Responsible for Items Forgotten or Lost.” Hudson Review 54, no. 1 (spring 2001): 141-47.

[In the following excerpt, Davis admires the Realist tendencies of Ben, in the World, particularly in the descriptions of the material world.]

Shed Ten Years in Ten Weeks.Garv Null's Ultimate Anti-Aging Program.8 Weeks to Optimum Health. Before The Hudson Review sent me this latest batch of fiction to read, I found myself one fine Sunday afternoon in the local Barnes & Noble, killing time in the “How To Live Longer” section of the store, in part because I'm a hopeless hypochondriac, but mostly because it was the section from which I could most easily keep an eye on the parking lot as I waited for my ride. It had been many years since I had last read a Doris Lessing book, and so I wondered—it was a British kind of day outside, and Lessing herself has always seemed ageless to me—what she was about in these times.

I shortly thereafter received Ben, in the World, her thirty-seventh book by my count. It's a short, astonishing one, a kind of fable that's written as a sequel to The Fifth Child, where we first meet Ben Lovatt, a Neanderthal throwback who fits in nowhere. In this sequel, he has left behind the family that could never understand him, and he is loose in the world; the book is mostly about the people who look after him, and what they do to him. For Lessing, Ben is certainly not incidental but is the perfect mirror of a cynical society that uses whatever it can grasp; he is also emblematic to her of the human condition. More importantly, he is a fully-realized and sympathetic character whose hunger is sometimes quite literal. “It was not an easy hunger: the thin taste of bread or a bun could not satisfy it. It was a need for meat, and he smelled the rawness of blood, the reek of it: yet this hunger was dangerous to him.” His primordial nature thus drives him; his literary bloodline could be traced back to Frankenstein except that he is no experiment. When a kindly woman who has taken him in dies, he finds a prostitute, Rita, and her pimp, Johnston. Rita enjoys him and then comes to befriend him, but Johnston dresses him up and sends him as a bagman to the south of France with a false identity as an actor—Ben has rugged good looks. (Throwbacks in the right circumstances have a certain commercial value.) Once Ben has served his purpose and is abandoned in France—though, it should be said, in a swanky hotel with a limited but decent bankroll—a dilettante filmmaker discovers him and takes him to South America, where he becomes a part of a group of expatriates who perhaps are making a movie, though, like certain writing students, they seem more enamored with the idea of moviemaking, discussed over flasks of booze and bowls of dope, than with the task itself. Teresa, a native member of this group who has survived an adolescence in the school of hard knocks, befriends Ben, but soon enough a doctor from a scientific institute discovers him and locks him away like an ape for study. Teresa and some others rescue him and trek into the Andes, the authorities close on their heels, to a gallery of rock pictures depicting an extinct race of people who are clearly kin to Ben. Ben understands somehow that he will never find a place in the modern world, and the next fine morning he throws himself over the precipice. Teresa, poignantly, understands that “… we are pleased that he is dead and we don't have to think about him.”

It seems to me that Lessing, never one for humor, has managed to avoid the pitfalls of this kind of book—overbroad Huxleyan satire or shrill Lawrentian polemic. A throwback herself to the pre-Jamesian days when visionary storytelling could be everything and craft was often an afterthought, she can still get inside my head in the way that her better earlier novels once managed to do. She also never forgets that as readers we are as interested in the multifarious world as we are in the permutations of consciousness that too exclusively sometimes take the attention of contemporary writers.

Philip Hensher (review date 1 September 2001)

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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “A Brave Journey in Thought.” Spectator 287, no. 9030 (1 September 2001): 33-4.

[In the following review, Hensher compares The Sweetest Dream to the style and narration of Lessing's previous works.]

Every great novelist makes a characteristic noise: every great novelist is, in the end, a stylist: and there is always something telling about a novelist's most characteristic means of expression. What Doris Lessing's novels have had to say, over the last 50 years, has been so consistently interesting that it is tempting to regard them as contributions to a debate, and neglect what is deepest in her, her ways of saying it. But these novels are not treatises. They are works of art, and the thing which tempts me, writing about this original and alarming mind, is to try to isolate a characteristic Lessing sentence. Themes may be willed, but style, if it is good, is speech, and is as telling as the way a human being walks.

The Lessing sentence is blunt, quickly veering from concrete facts to abstract nouns, tempted briefly by the possibilities of rhapsody, but always turning back to the urgency of the urban demotic. It is swift to add qualifications, it startles with the frankest colloquialisms. Its cadences are punchy, even if the clauses tend to multiply—‘she felt x, but not quite x, but rather y, as if y no longer did for her, or ever really had’ (I pastiche). These delicate, certain distinctions between abstract states are contained within the simplest references to physical facts—she loves the grand, dramatic force of words like wisdom, and the vivid simplicity of the names of colours. She yields ecstatically to what Auden identifies somewhere as a ‘headache’ for writers in English, the tendency of speech towards the definite article, and her sentences are chains of this, that, those, the. She uses a phrasal verb wherever she can, thumping heroically on the preposition—the place she objected to, the man she saw through, the house she lived in. The rhythms are deeply based on ordinary speech; the tone is pragmatic, gnomic, her sleeves rolled up like a firm, confident teacher, ready for business.

It is, of course, exquisitely calculated. When the rhapsodies come, as in the beautiful last pages of Shikasta, with its geometrical cities, they break like ecstatic waves of poetry. But it is tempting to fall for the cunning illusion, and draw the conclusion that her cadences are so simple that what matters is the argument, and not a trembling refinement of style. But it is the style which tells you everything about her. The quick qualifications of thought—not x, but y—are the movements of a liberal mind, alive to possibilities. The sparseness of metaphor displays a mind more at ease with the real than the insubstantial, or, rather (in the light of the magnificent Shikasta series and that superb Memoirs of a Survivor), one which prefers to keep the insubstantial tightly confined and closely discussed and not all-pervasive. The return to the definite article is, I think, an evocation of resistance, the substance of the world and its properties. The willingness to resort to abstractions, something most novelists rather fear, is evidence of a pedagogic and judgmental imagination. A conclusion has been reached when a character is described as full of ‘suspicion’ or ‘hatred’, where most novelists would prefer to dramatise these qualities in a scene. After a contemplation of her style, one feels that Lessing knows that she is right. There is no obliteration of the self and its particular opinions. She passes judgment, explicitly so. Her whole oeuvre is pitched at the level of those thrilling moments in Jane Austen when the drama is slashed through, and, in a sentence, the novelist tells us precisely what she thinks of the conduct of Lydia Bennett or Julia Bertram. It should not work. The reader should turn from an imagination so full of direction and certitude. But he does not, because she sees truly and because she is, in general, right.

I don't mean that one always agrees with her—that probably needs saying in the week after she so drastically overstated the degree of triumphalism in the attitudes of women towards men these days. All the same, the skill of the novelist is in constructing an edifice of rightness. In her presence, at full stretch, there are no alternatives. The wildest proposals of The Good Terrorist or The Four-Gated City command the helpless assent of the reader. Every reader puts down The Fifth Child, that astonishingly poisonous expression of a mother's hatred for her own baby, with a sense that there is something wrong here. Every reader finishes it, nodding in agreement. When the reader dissents, it is always as the result of a minor implausibility—I rebelled against The Good Terrorist only at the moment when its squat-dwelling heroine can't make tea because she has no teapot. But on the whole she is right. She tells you she is right. And you are persuaded by the demonstrative, the incontrovertible sentences. Her novels are triumphs of wisdom: they are also triumphs of rhetoric. We are lucky that her beliefs are what they are—generous, solicitous and humane. It is a terrible thing to say, but she would have made a great polemicist in the worst of causes.

This [The Sweetest Dream] is not quite vintage Lessing but a startling, burningly committed book which, like all Lessing, contains a marvellous sense of possibilities opening as the fiction progresses, an enriching and absorbing conviction of change and growth. By her standards it falls short, but there are not many novels which so unarguably constitute a journey in thought. She says pointedly in a preface that she is not going to write a third volume of autobiography, thereby ensuring that we all know that this is autobiographical in basis. The structure is loose, absorbing, urgent. An actress turned agony aunt lives in a large, untidy house in Hampstead, some time in the 1960s. Vaguely attached to the menage are her ex-husband, a drawing-room revolutionary christened Jolyon, now Johnny, her poker-faced ex-mother-in-law, her aimless children and an ever-increasing circle of drop-outs, druggies and spongers, eating gigantic meals in the basement and arguing about which of them is most bourgeois.

Casually episodic as the first section is, and almost entirely based in general discussions about the future of society and personal responsibility, it is so engaging that one almost regrets it when Lessing shifts he scene back to the arena of some of her most impressive achievements, the maelstrom of Africa. The Good Terrorist, which in some ways this rather resembles, gained much of its power from its confinement to a single house, and the vague, gloomy threat of geopolitical movements converging on it. This, similarly, is at its most energetic and suggestive in discussions on shoplifting, as the word ‘fascist’ spreads and spreads among the delighted, foolish children. When it becomes more concrete, it loses a lot of that power, and one finishes the book with a feeling of vague dissatisfaction.

I find her faintly alarming: the speed and forcefulness of the argument are apt to leave one breathless. What I don't quite understand is the power she has to make one surrender to the argument. From the first page, there is the sense of someone saying ‘You see? You see?’ in a state of high righteousness. In general, yes, one does see, but it is strange that one doesn't quickly start to resent the tone—particularly since, in this case, I'm fairly certain that I don't really agree with the point being made. Basically, one is reduced to a shrug, and an honest acknowledgment. Her books are great novels, and, as it happens, she tends to command agreement—it is not quite like Naipaul, who is a great novelist whose public utterances are invariably waterfalls of the most abject nonsense. Her art is rooted in polemic, and it seems to base any claims for itself on how thoroughly it convinces the reader. But that is an illusion. In reality, she is one of the great imaginative fantasists of our time.

Stephanie Merritt (review date 1 October 2001)

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SOURCE: Merritt, Stephanie. Review of The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing. New Statesman 130, no. 4557 (1 October 2001): 83.

[In the following review, Merritt assesses The Sweetest Dream within the context of Lessing's later career.]

By prefacing this vast novel [The Sweetest Dream] with an authorial disclaimer, Doris Lessing creates expectations that she then attempts to wave aside. She has decided not to write the third volume of her autobiography to follow Walking in the Shade, she explains, but her readers should not imagine that this book is a fictional substitute. Though The Sweetest Dream clearly is, to a degree, retracing the terrain of Lessing's life from the 1960s onwards, in London and, later, in Africa, she is somewhat disingenuously asking her readers not to peer too closely at the characters for a likeness of real people, including herself.

The sweetest dream of the title is a phrase to be considered sometimes with irony, sometimes with genuine regret, always as something past. It refers, most obviously, to the death of idealism, the recognition that comes to all of us when our youthful hopes, romantic or political, become sullied. All of us, that is, except Comrade Johnny Lennox, the novel's anti-hero, a dogged communist whose dream for a fairer and more compassionate world is never allowed to intrude into his personal life, as he discards unloved wives and children in pursuit of the revolution. Johnny is almost cartoonish, with the ironic chasm between his professed selfless politics and his utter selfishness, while his first wife, Frances, whom he berates for her lack of interest in the wider picture, embodies generosity and tolerance as she provides physical and emotional sustenance for a house full of difficult youngsters.

Two-thirds of the way through, the novel becomes almost a separate story, as the attention shifts from Frances and London of the 1960s and 1970s to Africa in the 1980s and the newly independent republic of Zimlia. There, Johnny's stepdaughter, Sylvia, works as a doctor and is confronted with the epidemic onslaught of Aids. It would be as reductive to equate Zimlia with Lessing's former homeland of Zimbabwe, and its President Mungozi with Robert Mugabe, as it would be to read the whole novel as a roman-à-clef, but the fierce feeling here has more to do with the country and its troubles than with the characters. In the earlier part of the book, Lessing's characters are so vivid that they carry the story effortlessly. Sylvia, by contrast, is a blander figure; Africa is the dominant character now, and Sylvia's story becomes a vehicle for the author's passion over the political corruption hindering the continent's progress at the cost of thousands of lives.

This book is closer in tone to The Golden Notebook, once considered a seminal feminist novel, than to Lessing's more recent fiction, though she recently made headlines criticising the feminist movement for being too hard on men. The Sweetest Dream is built around her women characters, who are themselves defined in relation to their sons and husbands. They are put-upon and stoical, like Frances, or else hysterical and depressive: The strong women are, to all intents and purposes, celibate, and they end up supporting their essentially weak men by providing a stable domestic base. The men appear to have greater freedom, but they are no happier. Lessing has not so much created an anti-feminist novel, but rather she has portrayed the concrete detail of women's lives over the past half-century—the complexity of emotions and duties that prove, ultimately, more real than any ideological stance.

The Sweetest Dream is not without its inconsistencies and unnecessary digressions; condensing so many years of history even into this many pages means that characters are sometimes discarded unsatisfactorily, and the book can often feel repetitive. Lessing's understanding of relationships—both personal and political—has always been keen; now that she is 81, it is unparalleled. This novel is warm and heartfelt, old-fashioned and ambitious in its historical sweep. But you can't help suspecting that the autobiography would have had a sharper focus.

Jeff Zaleski (review date 21 January 2002)

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SOURCE: Zaleski, Jeff. Review of The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 3 (21 January 2002): 63-4.

[In the following review, Zaleski observes parallels between Lessing's life experience and the narrative of The Sweetest Dream.]

In lieu of writing volume three of her autobiography (“because of possible hurt to vulnerable people”), the grand dame of English letters delves into the 1960s and beyond [in The Sweetest Dream], where she left off in her second volume of memoirs, Walking in the Shade. The result is a shimmering, solidly wrought, deeply felt portrait of a divorced “earth” mother and her passel of teenage live-ins. Frances Lennox and her two adolescent sons, Andrew and Colin, and their motley friends have taken over the bottom floors of a rambling house in Hampstead, London. The house is owned by Frances's well-heeled German-born ex-mother-in-law, Julia, who tolerates Frances's slovenly presence out of guilt for past neglect and a shared aversion for Julia's son, Johnny Lennox, deadbeat dad and flamboyant, unregenerate Communist. Frances's first love is the theater, but she must support “the kids,” and so she works as a journalist for a left-wing newspaper. Over the roiling years that begin with news of President Kennedy's assassination, a mutable assortment of young habitués gather around Frances's kitchen table, and Comrade Johnny makes cameo appearances, ever espousing Marxist propaganda to the rapt young dropouts. Johnny is a brilliantly galling character, who pushes both Julia and Frances to the brink of despair (and true affection for each other). Lessing clearly relishes the recalcitrant '60s, yet she follows her characters through the women's movement of the '70s and a lengthy final digression in '90s Africa. Lessing's sage, level gaze is everywhere brought to bear, though she occasionally falls into clucking, I-told-you-so hindsight, especially on the subject of the failed Communist dream. While the last section lacks the intimate presence of long-suffering Frances, the novel is weightily molded by Lessing's rich life experience and comes to a momentous conclusion.


Lessing, Doris (Vol. 15)


Lessing, Doris (Vol. 2)