Doris Lessing 1919–
British novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, and poet.
Lessing was born in Persia and raised in Rhodesia. Her work is informed by an overriding concern for racial justice and autonomy for women in a society dominated by white males. Lessing began her career as a realist, and her early novels exhibit a fervent belief in communism, which she later renounced. Primarily a novelist, she has also written some well-received short stories, many of which revolve around her African experiences. Her Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence, a space fiction narrative, demonstrates her versatility.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)
I was worried about Doris Lessing's Martha Quest series, partly because the heroine was treated with so conscientious a harshness, so honorable a lack of self-indulgence that she gave the impression of being a repellent person; and partly because the discipline of an overtly political framework destroyed a great deal of the writer's intuitive flexibility. With these short stories, under the title The Habit of Loving, I am no longer in any doubt whatsoever that Mrs Lessing is one of the best writers in England, male or female.
There are seventeen stories in the books, two pretty long and the rest fairly short. The title story is about an ageing theatrical rake who marries a young actress. His heart is broken when, after an affair with a partner younger than herself (Mrs Lessing, mistress of the intuitive art of knowing-and-not-knowing, merely lets us sense what the trouble is), she decides to grow old ungracefully and with brutality. The gulf between the generations today has never been more remorselessly explored; it is not simply observed, it is felt in the bone. In The Day Stalin Died, Mrs Lessing startles by being funny. It is, at bottom, a sad, even an elegiac story, and nobody ought to laugh at the misery of poor Comrade Jean; but how grimly funny—it's no good, one must laugh—it all is!
Mrs Lessing, who appears to be abandoning the littérature engagée for the littérature engagée dans la vie, has never written better nor shown so fully the range of her literary capacities. She is not one of those political writers who has reneged on her fundamental beliefs. Such modifications as they have undergone have strengthened, not weakened, her humanist outlook, with the result that she no longer has to strain herself to put these beliefs over. They have become part of her nature rather than merely a part of her social conscience; and she is at liberty how to demonstrate that whatever is true whether it is about love or pain or pleasure, is part of the whole truth, and not merely some trivial personal indulgence lying outside it.
Pamela Hansford Johnson, "New Short Stories: 'The Habit of Loving'," in New Statesman (© 1957 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1393, November 23, 1957, p. 700.
In Pursuit of the English is a completely misleading title, suggesting as it does an updated England, Their England (a job that, incidentally, badly needs doing.) Mrs Lessing does bring up to date one or two characters from Ze Mad English rep. company—the comic landlady and the comic colonel—but she is in fact concerned with some rather untypical people in a rather untypical house. Even on these terms, the book is vaguely unsatisfactory. There is nothing wrong with any of the characters as such. They're all colourful. They're all credible, except when they come together in a Mr Muddlecombe court scene. It's just that the house where Mrs Lessing lived seems...
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to have been some sort of depot where characters awaited their turn to be dispersed into contemporary novels. Flo in one novel and Rose in another, and Mr MacNamara alias Ponsonby (a marvellous and original rogue) in a third would be fine. But they stampede one's credibility rather when they all come together in the same crooked house.
There is also something wrong with the tone of the book. The background is by now familiar—middle-class writer living self-consciously at ease and in equality with working-class people, who find it rather odd that she should write real reading-books but 'don't hold it against her'. But the whole thing is too determinedly rollicking. Mrs Skeffington throwing herself Scarlett O'Hara-wise downstairs, and the little child mimicking her parents' lovemaking in front of the mirror, do not belong in the London-belongs-to-me atmosphere which Mrs Lessing has evoked. The author in fact oscillates between realism and sentiment. She is able to observe acutely, for example, that working-class people often drop their aitches humorously ('I've got the 'ump') like Tony Hancock—but this does not prevent her, when the mood takes her, from following the party line laid down by those excruciating radio serials about comic cockney families. As I say, In Pursuit of the English is an invaluable notebook for Mrs Lessing the novelist, but it doesn't really add up to a book by Mrs Lessing the social observer.
Keith Waterhouse, "Little England," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIX, No. 1525, June 4, 1960, p. 832.
The nineteen pieces which go to make up A Man and Two Women are the work of an original and scrupulous artist. Mrs. Lessing's writing is all her own. She owes little to modish theories or to popular experimenters. She sets herself a creative task and worries away at it in an absorbed, painstaking way.
Sometimes her objective seems unrewarding and you wonder why she chose it. Can the stage-designer Barbara Coles, for example, and her novel tactics with seducers really be worth all the trouble Mrs. Lessing goes to? Or is this story ("One Off the Short List") meant to be funny? (She certainly tries the light, derisive touch now and again and in "Between Men", a story about two aging semi-tarts, even goes for a rather lumbering gallop round the Maupassant country, but it isn't a vein which suits her.) Sometimes, too, in these pieces where she seems to be struggling with material not wholly congenial, her prose reflects the strain and goes flat-footed….
And yet sometimes one of these, at first sight unrewarding, expeditions of hers turns out to be full of illumination. The young Freda, not long married, is left in bed by her equally young, and baffled, husband. "I suppose your brother's coming again?" he asks, and as soon as he has gone off to the City sure enough Fred arrives. There then follows a long, ecstatic, incestuous scene between them which prolongs itself until nearly lunchtime. This story which is called "Each Other", ought to be grotesque and revolting. But it isn't. Instead, because it has been intensely imagined, it becomes strangely moving.
Intensely imagined—this must be the key phrase in any assessment of the strength of Mrs. Lessing's work. She concentrates wonderfully well. A strong single beam shoots out of her imaginative projection-box and lights up some chosen central target pitilessly. "To Room 19", for example—a horrifying study of insanity creeping on—concentrates on Susan Rawlings to the exclusion of all else….
Mrs. Lessing's world is harsh, an ill-made place full of horrors and injustice. The people who inhabit it are lonely and bewildered, unbuttressed by faith or purpose. Her men have appetites and little besides; her women are bedevilled by the ebb and flow of their physical natures. The outlook on all sides is gloomy and human purposes are mostly futile.
"Short but Strong," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1963; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission No. 3216, October 18, 1963, p. 821.
In the best stories in her new collection, A Man and Two Women, Miss Lessing has developed her feminism and her concern for contemporary issues into a … subtle and profound point of view. "To Room Nineteen," for example, does not simply depict the "failure in intelligence" that the opening line indicates. Rather, it is a meaningful story about a personal failure in marriage that represents a failure of the relationship between man and woman in our society. The woman, Susan Rawlings, having held a job and had her own apartment in contemporary London, marries, assuming that she can control her domestic world in the sane, masculine way that she controlled her job. Feeling increasingly dissatisfied, she hires a housekeeper, then a nurse girl, and retreats to rented hotel rooms—all attempts to remove the center of herself from her circumstances…. Although a man (shadowy in this story) can thrive on peripheral infidelities, on manipulating people and delegating responsibility, Susan is unable to operate in the same way, and her defeat is that of the sophisticated, contemporary woman trying to be man and woman simultaneously.
When the woman is more successful in controlling the circum-stances around her, as in the title story, in which a woman is able to recognize all the emotional changes brought by a baby into the ten-year marriage of some artist friends—with the result that her own desire for the other woman's husband is quenched—the success becomes hollow. In this instance, the husband turns hostile when she rejects him, and the wife's uneasiness with her new role must be tranquilized into insensibility. Similarly, in "One Off the Short List," the control and composure of the young woman, a successful set designer, only infuriates her petulant male antagonist into forcing her to spend a meaningless night in bed with him. The battle between the sexes, a battle in which the woman attempts to retain and ignore her sex simultaneously, forms the central perspective in Doris Lessing's best stories and provides her with a relevant focus for dealing with contemporary experience. When Miss Lessing's stories deal with social issues directly, without the focus, either implicit or explicit, of a central sexual relationship, they seem less successful.
Several stories that center on the problems of color or class ("England Versus England," "Outside the Ministry," "Notes for a Case History") attempt to avoid possible stereotypes by unexpected twists or bizarre comedy. But, unlike a number of her English contemporaries, Iris Murdoch for example, Miss Lessing is not at her best with either the comic or the bizarre. These stories tend to remain essentially flat portraits. The author as sociological journalist is, in this collection, less interesting than the author as articulate and sensitive feminist.
Seldom a neat writer or master of the perfectly precise phrase, Miss Lessing, at her best, manages to avoid the easy formulas with which so many of us seem to explain our experience. Compulsive rationality, the need to arrange every element of experience in logical terms, may be a contemporary disease, but, as Miss Lessing demonstrates in the fantasy "How I Finally Lost My Heart," as well as in other stories, the attempt at rationality originates in the center of the human spirit, and, besides, we suffer from irrational diseases as well. Similarly, we often complain about our failure to communicate with others. Doris Lessing's characters frequently communicate quite easily; in many of the stories people form relationships, go to bed together, have children; they care and they live. But their problem is that, within a complex world, the communication they've already developed either demands a responsibility they're unable to accept or changes its meaning as experience continues. (pp. 42-3)
James Gindin, "Weary Wives and Lovers," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1963 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol XLVI, No. 47, November 23, 1963, pp. 42-3.
Spanning [Doris Lessing's] entire career, [African Stories] includes every story she has written about Africa, from her earliest collection to the most recent…. Even in her first, This Was the Old Chief's Country, the stories are astonishingly mature and consistent, three among them having an enduring, diamond-hard quality.
"The Old Chief Mshlanga" hinges on the awakening of responsibility in a sensitive, adolescent girl when her attention is abruptly focused on the human realities beyond the traditional race attitudes that she'd previously adopted so casually. "Little Tembi" deals with the complex and bewildering relationship between a white farmer's wife and, as he grows to manhood, the African whose life she saved as a baby. In "Old John's Place" Mrs. Lessing brings a quality of freshness to the old tale of the maverick versus the remainder of the herd. The action is seen through the eyes of the teen-age girl who is the central character or narrator of a number of these stories. While she is possessed of a well-formed sense of irony and an understanding terribly beyond her years, the latter is never carried as a burden, and she is thoroughly credible. As with all fine stories, in these three there is far more to them than appears on the surface. "Little Tembi," for example, is perfect testimony to the groping need of black and white for one another, and the misunderstanding by each not merely of the other's intentions but also of his own.
The reader unfamiliar with Mrs. Lessing's work might well wonder if this early standard can be sustained. Of course, it improves. And the growth in the later stories is marked by an exceptional ability to capture the attention and set the mood instantly, to say so much more in fewer words. Happily, she does it in the same limpid and unmannered prose, maintaining the while an easy control. In the stories that are concerned with the Rhodesian farming country and bushveld the author's love of that land and yearning for it are manifest; her description brings it to life with rare brilliance.
Yes, this is the Africa she knew, all right; it's the Africa we all know. But one need have no knowledge of the locale to be struck by the intrinsic truth of these tales. And this is what I believe to be the mark of her artistry: this ability repeatedly to strike—suddenly, deeply, and unerringly—into the tenuous vein that is verity. Mrs. Lessing's precision can be disconcerting. One stops reading, and thinks, "But I've known these people" or "I've witnessed just such a scene." And, indeed, one has. In "The Words He Said" the interrelationships between the various members of the family seem to be more implied than described, yet they are startlingly real. And greater effect is obtained from the five words of dialogue "Gregory Jackson, you're a fool" than many authors could wring from several pages. I liked best of all this story and the more profound "Story of Two Dogs"—another farming tale, one that says far more about humans than dogs.
Of the four stories never before in a collection, "The Black Madonna" is the only one that misses the mark really badly. While this is oddly reassuring, its position at the very beginning of the book seems unfortunate. The other resounding failure is the short novel, "Hunger." In it a brilliant beginning is wasted when, upon his arrival in the city, a raw African from the kraal is given a ridiculously absolute set of alternatives, clearly marked good and evil. Still, the story is worth reading for its picture of life in an African village as contrasted with that of the black slums which fester about the white cities. And there is room in a book of this size for a failure or two.
This volume contains a wide variety of beautifully-wrought stories by a sensitive and thoughtful but fiercely honest writer whose humanity soon becomes as patent as her love of the sun-washed land where she spent her formative years. These are stories to be savored. (pp. 67-8)
Edward Hickman Brown, "The Eternal Moment," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLVIII, No. 43, October 23, 1965, pp. 67-8.
On the basis of this book alone, Doris Lessing must be counted as one of the most important fiction writers of our times. African Stories includes every story Miss Lessing has written about Africa, that continent whose "tragedy must play itself slowly out," but they are also about every continent where people are human and helpless.
Miss Lessing's style is a traditional one, unmarked by hysteria or hurry. She has a remarkable gift for good beginnings, and the tension in her stories is the kind given off by people we think of as "real"—men and women who impart a sense of motives and feelings, of a past and future, and a quality of mysterious reserve even though they may be commonplace characters…. Miss Lessing, as a writer, has many advantages. And she uses them, certainly, to produce some intensely imagined prose. But that these advantages can also be limiting is something Miss Lessing is aware of; as she says: "There are other things in living besides injustice, even for the victims of it." It is her knowledge of these larger and "other things" and her ability to make us see them even while she sustains constantly, like distant drumming, the harsh and bitter realities of life in Africa, which give this book its power, its accuracy and its controlled passion. (pp. 514-15)
"A Sunrise on the Veld" is the best of Miss Lessing's earlier group of stories. The story is a swift and simple one and is about the birth of conscience in a young boy. Its style is straight and direct, and it is superb in its concentration. A boy, wild and happy, "yelling mad with joy of living and a superfluity of youth" stumbles over a wounded buck being eaten alive by a swarm of ants….
The whole thing takes just a few minutes, and there is only a skeleton, clean-picked, shining in the sun. The boy kicks at it sulkily like a child. The ants disappear into the grass. The boy picks up his gun and goes home, with the knowledge of death in him.
"Winter in July" is, possibly, the best story in the collection. Julia, 28, restless and wandering, whose life and relations with people, whether men or women, had been colored by the "brilliance of impermanence," finds herself in Africa, meets Tom and Kenneth, inseparable half-brothers who are farmers in Rhodesia. She marries the one and, eventually, becomes the mistress of the other. Julia is a symbol of many of Miss Lessing's women, "floating rootlessly, without support," belonging no-where. And all three of them taken together in their acceptance of their inevitable fates, are symbol not only of the tragic Africa of recent history but also of a whole world drifting between destroyed values and an oppressive destiny. (p. 515)
J. M. Edelstein, "'African Stories'," in Commonweal (copyright © 1966 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXXIII, No. 15, January 28, 1966, pp. 514-15.
[Doris Lessing] believes (with many others) that our civilization is slipping ever-faster toward the precipice. Almost from the beginning, her work has explored what in human nature is causing this catastrophe and what, if anything, can be done about it. (p. 9)
Lessing's attention is always turned toward humanity's destructive weaknesses and potential strength, and it is essentially these that I have called the two cities and the veld. For Lessing, the African veld is the unconscious, physical world of nature that nourishes mankind with its unity but also inflicts its own mindless repetition and, in human terms, cruelty and indifference. The city is half-evolved consciousness, the destructive fragmentation of partial awareness. The ideal City is a hope for the future: the unified individual in a harmonious society. To impose such an intellectual scheme upon Lessing's work goes against its spirit; however, if it leads to increased understanding of her writing, perhaps to do so is forgivable. (p. 10)
The ideal of the City stands behind everything Lessing has written, an expression of her firm sense of purpose, put most explicitly in an important essay, "The Small Personal Voice." There she affirms a belief in "committed" literature, in which the writer considers himself/herself "an instrument of change." For if the ideal of the City stands in the background of Lessing's work, the Armageddon of technological disaster looms there as well. (p. 18)
Lessing believes that mankind is at a crucial point in history and that artists must paint the possible evil as well as strengthen "a vision of good which may defeat the evil"; that is, art for society's sake. Lessing's criteria for art fit her own work. Not simply an artist, she is also critic and prophet, dissecting in minute detail the faults of a society "hypnotized by the idea of Armageddon" and prophesying the calamitous results of those faults. At the same time, she attempts to delineate possible solutions to the world's problems.
There are three main motifs in Lessing's work, which I have called the two cities and the veld, and they are apparent in her themes, imagery, and structures. The veld represents the unity of nature, whole and complete, but in which the individual counts for nothing. Before the birth of self-consciousness, as it is known today, mankind readily participated in this natural world and at times was scarcely differentiated from it; but the price of unity was to be caught in the ceaseless round of natural repetition, all instinct with no reason.
The city represents modern consciousness, expressed in a strifetorn society. Its origins are the loss of mythic consciousness that prevailed in early, simpler cultures; its power, the ability to use the tools of reason; its culmination, the achievements and excesses of the last two hundred years, when logic and reason have come to be valued by society as a whole almost to the exclusion of other modes of perception. Reason has the power to raise mankind above the brute, instinctual level, but in its present form it is partial, fragmented…. According to Lessing, such fragmented perception is presently leading mankind to certain disaster—much like fire in the hands of a child—causing unbalanced, private lives and conflict in society. As citizens of the contemporary city, mankind is a victim of a second type of repetition, not of natural cycles this time, but the constant replaying of destructive patterns of behavior. Both here and in the veld he has no hope of change except from natural evolution, in which he is simply acted upon: Jude rather than Prometheus.
The third motif is the ideal City, a new and more unified form of consciousness,… expressed as a harmonious society of unified citizens. The human imagination holds the key: "[we must] force ourselves into the effort of imagination necessary to become what we are capable of being." Nature's harsh unity is no longer compatible with human self-consciousness and values. Partial truths have proved disastrous. The next step is to create new, whole forms that will somehow contain intuition along with reason, both myth and logic, with all the complexities the terms suggest. When—and if—this new unity is accomplished, the ideal City will be possible, the Golden Age finally at hand. The City in the veld is a man-made harmony—part of nature, yet at the same time separate from it, as consciousness is of and yet above nature.
Most of Lessing's fiction may be seen within this overall pattern. For the most part, Lessing depicts the psychically warped citizens of the city, all inexorably headed for disaster. The early The Grass Is Singing concerns Mary Turner's complete destruction by social and psychic forces of which she is not even aware, and many of the short stories dramatize the fragmented lives of people who have varying degrees of awareness. Retreat to Innocence shows Julia Barr's refusal to leave the superficial life of the city.
After The Grass Is Singing, Lessing's major protagonists and more visionary characters search for ways to integrate the city and the veld, even while they are inextricably caught in the tangles of the mass psyche and society. The Golden Notebook is an odyssey of the individual is search of wholeness, and while Anna Wulf's story is central, the reader sees beyond it to the society that conditons her and limits what she can be. Children of Violence is Lessing's most complete portrait of the fragmented city. Here, half a century passes before one's eyes, as Martha and her closest friends search in vain for inner and outer versions of the City, as society races with increasing speed toward its destruction. In Children of Violence Lessing comes closest to the first half of her criterion for the committed writer—to paint a vision of evil; her view of the good that may defeat it has evolved slowly and is therefore more clearly presented in the later works. (pp. 18-21)
There is a substantial difference between Lessing's view of humanity's possibilities and the predominant attitude of most twentieth-century novels, in which the hero is perforce an antihero, stumbling gallantly through the world. Certainly Lessing's view of man in his present condition is bleak: in these lost generations, too, everyone is sick. Nevertheless, she extends a glimmer of hope that somewhere latent in man is, after all, the possibility of psychic health. (p. 21)
Lessing is a writer of great variety. Her short stories are usually economical and carefully crafted, while Children of Violence sprawls over five long novels, finally moving away almost entirely from customary narrative techniques…. But if her forms vary, her metaphysic, which I have summed up in the images of the two cities in the veld, remains essentially the same. (pp. 21-2)
Most of Lessing's fiction deals with the need to join the mythic and discursive, the veld and the city—to be in touch with the mythic state, unified and close to experience, yet without losing the uniquely human values of ego-consciousness and logic. It is to be a hard-won wholeness based on a joining of reason and myth: something new. This is the unity suggested by the image of the City in the veld. The ideal City represents a manmade achievement, a triumph of consciousness and mental and physical harmony, standing apart from and yet integral to the cruel, unconscious, yet harmonious veld.
Lessing has said that people must force themselves, through effort of imagination, to become what they are capable of being; her image of the City, superimposed upon her picture of fragmented and violent society is such an attempt, as are all descriptions of Utopia. (pp. 33-4)
If Lessing shares in this Utopian dream, she usually describes the world of here and now, trying to analyze what is going wrong. As a result, she seems to combine two extreme views of man. On the one hand,… mankind seems always to be a victim of "grim fatality." From this point of view, if a finer consciousness should arise, willed human creativity will have no hand in it: at the end of The Four-Gated City Martha writes of the new children who are mutations, affected by the radiation of the catastrophe. Their consciousness is a product of natural evolution, comparable to the first sea creatures who crept up to land. On the other hand, Lessing's work never quite relinquishes the possibility that a "willed mutation" will be possible, that through new modes of perception men and women have the power to catapult themselves back to the top of the great chain of being; this time even higher than the angels and perhaps on a godly level themselves, as their own creators. (p. 38)
Mary Ann Singleton, in her The City and the Veld: The Fiction of Doris Lessing (© 1977 by Associated University Presses, Inc.) Bucknell University Press, 1977, 243 p.
The Summer Before the Dark is Doris Lessing's most misunderstood novel. If taken at face value, the novel lacks depth and substance. This has led some critics to term the book a fable, or an allegory for our time…. Many of the problems disappear when the critic realizes that Lessing is extending the mode she used so successfully in portions of her earlier novels, that of satire. A comparison of the tone, the images, and the terms of Kate's self-discovery with those of Lessing's earlier novels and protagonists makes her satiric intention quite obvious.
The story of Kate Brown and the description of her middleage crisis lacks by comparison with Lessing's earlier narratives on a similar theme, the introspective depth, the archetypal power, or thematic impact of her previous works. Instead of describing the process of individuation, a journey within and resultant growth, as she had in the previous works. Lessing is writing instead about an average woman's confrontation with stereotypes, both societal and psychological. For unlike Martha Quest of the Children of Violence series, or Anna Wulf of The Golden Notebook, Kate Brown is a completely predictable creature incapable of developing beyond the limits of the world which has formed her. (pp. 131-32)
If there is any doubt about Lessing's satric intentions, a careful examination of Kate Brown will indicate that she is a very frail vessel for a message of importance. Lessing's earlier protagonists were, by virtue of intelligence or sensitivity, more substantial carriers of Lessing's message and provided more material for an intensive psychological self-confrontation…. The limitations of Kate Brown, however, are as implicit in her name as the hungry drives of Anna Wulf are reflected in hers, for Kate Brown is an average, middle-class, middle-aged, British wife and mother with a limited imaginative range. Kate's problem, moreover, is not a deeply psychological one; she is simply confronted with that most typical of all problems of such women—what to do when the children leave home. (pp. 132-33)
The banality of Kate's situation and the averageness of Kate, however, is exactly the point. In the same way that Swift chose an obtuse Gulliver, Lessing has chosen a limited woman as her protagonist in order that the reader will not identify with her…. What Lessing has done here is to write a "conventional novel" about a commonplace psychological situation from a keenly ironic perspective, for the author does not wish us to fall into the mistake of accepting Kate's easy answers to difficult questions. Kate's quest for psychic integration is riddled with irony, for Kate ultimately has no real self. She remains to the end the victim of authorities; she merely rejects social stereotypes in order to succumb to psychological ones. (p. 133)
At the beginning of the novel, Lessing wants us to see Kate as a woman who has been caught up in the collectives of her community. Everything has been sublimated to her social role, and, as a result, she has neglected her inner life….
In order to maintain our serious interest in Kate as protagonist, however, in order that the confrontation with her inner life be meaningful and interesting, we need a sense of some part of Kate capable of reaching beyond these stereotypes. Lessing, instead, maintains an ironic perspective on Kate using the omniscient narration to tell us those things which Kate is too unimaginative to perceive….
One of the main satiric targets in Lessing's handling of Kate is the way in which she has so totally and willingly given herself up to the collective; she has sublimated so much to her social position because she lacked the imagination to see any alternatives. (p. 135)
Kate Brown gives the reader little to care about; her life, home, and family are cardboard cut-outs, like illustrations from an advertisement—stereotypes so banal they are satiric. Even Kate's new job, which could have been a meaningful move out of the collective for her, involves an organization which is sketched in bold, farcical outlines. At work for "Global Foods," Kate is as easily manipulated as she was at home. She falls into whatever role the bureaucracy demands of her with little problem. (pp. 135-36)
Lessing presents a contrast between Kate as she exists before and after the confrontation with her real self, her inner being. And to be fair, Kate does move into a somewhat more convincing individuality at the end of the novel. However, the depth of her awareness has increased so slightly that Lessing forces the reader to ask whether it was worth all the effort. (p. 136)
While Lessing has stated that an individuating personality must learn to look beyond the surface of things in order to discover "who and what one was before the external and internal authorities got ahold of him," Kate Brown sees both the inner and outer world, the ego and the self, with the same lack of depth….
Lessing is, of course, asserting that one must have the time and opportunity to explore the sense of self behind the social facades even if that sense of self is not socially acceptable and requires an excursion into madness or involves hostile and antisocial attitudes. Like Virginia Woolf, Lessing believes that a woman, particularly at middle-age, must find a room of her own and spend some time discovering who she really is. Kate Brown anticipates and fears this kind of introspection…. [She] is readily diverted from the pain of genuine introspection when the opportunity for a sexual liaison arises. Jeffrey offers Kate a diversion, a trip in which she will function as half of a couple; she readily, and humorously, accepts this comfortable role because it offers no challenges.
Kate's journey with Jeffrey is an escape from self-analysis; consequently, Lessing has turned it into a parody of the archetypal journey to the center…. (p. 137)
[Kate] drifts into this role and this kind of relationship for the same reason that she has drifted into every other one, because it is easier than asserting a sense of self that must be met.
In spite of the absurd elements, the relationship is indicative of one element in Kate's growing selfhood. Since she is approaching her climacteric, one of her most important realizations will be that life is no longer expanding through sexual connection with others but now must contract as the time has come for introspection. The failure of Kate and Jeffrey to establish any real connection indicates that this affair is a regressive pattern…. The holiday makes Kate painfully aware of the differences between the conventional attitudes toward them as a not altogether "correct" couple and the sterile reality of the situation.
Kate plays two main roles with Jeffrey; she is the smiling, sexually knowledgeable woman of the world, and she is the healing mother…. Kate begins to see that motherhood becomes an obsessive fussing rather than a loving concern when it is carried on beyond the needs or desires of those who are mothered. Jeffrey is too ill to appreciate her care, so Kate, involved in a pattern in which she receives no support, begins to evaluate, objectively, those "virtues" she developed to meet the needs of a growing family.
These qualities were necessary when her children were young but have become outdated and poor substitutes for the real virtues she requires for self-development…. Kate's growing sense of self enables her to question whether characteristics acquired by necessity can be termed virtues at all. "… [It] seemed to her that she had acquired not virtues but a form of dementia."… This minor insight is Kate's most significant discovery and forces her to attempt to assess what will remain of her when the need for these maternal "virtues" has ceased to exist.
At this point, Kate might have been capable of genuine self-awareness, and she might have been receptive to messages from her deeper self. Kate's sensitivity to her inner life is illustrated, however, by a recurring dream. Parallel to Kate's growing awareness of the obsessive social pattern of motherhood which had absorbed her, Kate begins to recognize an inner need dramatized in her dream. (pp. 138-40)
The seal dream has a didactic purpose for Kate and, moreover, is made an explicit allegory for her life. Simply, and the simplicity is a reflection of Kate's shallowness, the dying seal which she carries to the water in her arms signifies Kate's need to nurture her inner self in spite of the demands of the collective roles she plays.
Kate explicates the dream herself when she realizes that there is a part of herself that she had wanted to nurture but which had been neglected in favor of the social self…. The dream comes into focus for Kate while sitting alone beside Jeffrey; she begins to see that the real business of her life is now not to mother him but to give herself time to assess who and what she is beyond the role she is playing. (pp. 140-41)
Once again, Lessing forces us to be aware of the limitations, the matter-of-fact description of this process as Kate perceives it, in comparison to the complex and painful explorations of the self in the dreams of Anna Wulf and Martha Quest. Like these earlier protagonists, Kate moves into a room of her own where she can assess the messages of her unconscious; but unlike them, her self-analysis is much too straightforward and simple. (p. 141)
If Lessing wished us to believe that someone exists behind the masks, Kate would show some evidence of a heightened and broadened ability to reflect, of a newly-created and more inclusive sense of self based on the integration of her unconscious, through assimilation of the seal dream…. Lessing's handling of the "new" Kate, however, is riddled with irony. Kate begins to assert a sense of self in her relationship with Maureen, but there remain serious limitations in Kate's ability to perceive other people. While Kate's interaction with Maureen has more reality than her lifelong friendship with Mary Finchley, Kate is no more able to see beyond Maureen's surface than she was able to understand Mary. Kate never realizes anything about the mechanism of projection or about confronting oneself through one's moral opposite. Even if she is unable to articulate these concepts, she might at least indicate some attempts to come to terms with them. (p. 142)
While Lessing makes it obvious to the reader, Kate is incapable of seeing Maureen as a polarization of her own opposite qualities. Kate mechanically suppresses herself for convention's sake, Maureen as mechanically rejects all convention—neither one is free of convention or has any sense of self, for both are only reacting to forces outside, albeit in an opposite manner.
The relationship with Maureen has about the same function as the trip with Jeffrey in that it provides important opportunities for Kate to develop, which she neglects. First, Kate finds herself, in both cases, on the verge of playing outworn maternal roles; and secondly, both relationships provide her with the time and opportunity for self-reflection…. The only new insight Kate has is that these social roles were mutually supportive. Just as she had provided maternal warmth and comforting smiles on demand, so she, too, had been held together by other people's concern. When Maureen and her friends respond to Kate merely as a person, without the warmth and attentive politeness of her own children, Kate feels hurt and lost; she realizes that "all her life she had been held upright by an invisible fluid, the notice of other people."… This awareness might have been an impetus to Kate to explore the parts of herself that are not given collective approval, but Kate is content merely to be aware of the mechanism without considering its alternatives. (p. 143)
The limitations of Kate's ability to achieve self-knowledge are glaringly apparent in the "final" Kate we view. She feels that she has made important discoveries about herself. In her dreams, she has carried the seal to the sea; she has, allegorically, achieved a peace with that seeking part of herself, but her relationship to the world has changed only in terms of externals. If it all really does not matter, if masks are only a part of the games people play, and if Kate genuinely has an awareness of these things, then her new sense of self should not continue to focus on exteriors. Kate has selected one of the most trivial aspects of her social mask to serve as a symbol of her new awareness: "her experiences of the last months, her discoveries, her self-definition; what she hoped were strengths, were concentrated here—that she would walk into her home with her hair undressed, with her hair tied straight back for utility; rough and streaky, and the widening grey band showing like a statement of intent."…
Kate's hair and clothing were chosen carefully by her at the beginning of the novel to suit a social stereotype—her selections involved an "exquisite tact." Now Kate has chosen her hair as the means of making an opposing statement which is to symbolize her inner rebellion. But, who is Kate? Does it really matter which way she wears her hair? She has complained that inside there was a person, a continuity, that "she was the same despite the masks"…, which makes her selection of her hair as statement even more useless. All that has happened is that Kate has moved from the social stereotype she was at the beginning of the novel to a different kind of social stereotype at the end. Lessing has ended Kate's self-exploration at the point it might have begun were she not a satiric target. (pp. 143-44)
If there is any message here, it is an ironic one. Kate has rejected throughout the novel, not only the masks people wear but the words with which they cover genuine feelings. In the first section of the novel, Kate notes that her marriage was held together by words; discussing everything was the "root and prop" of her relationship with her husband. Her relationship to her children, too, has been characterized by playing word games, using "love words" to cover their resentment of each other. Kate knows that words and phrases for certain situations help to form the stereotype—the mold into which even hostile and negative impulses can be safely poured. She assesses also the possibility that "perhaps all the banter and psychologizing and criticism was not the healthy and therapeutic frankness she had imagined, but a form of self deception."… Kate makes this analysis early in the novel. She learns more slowly to reject the roles that correspond to these words; but neither of these discoveries has any validity in terms of the life to which she will return. Her hair style, now chosen to please her, is going to be a "statement."… But Kate's statement will undoubtedly be "placed" by her family as a part of a "phase," a predictable menopausal rebellion, and one is left wondering how long the new Kate will endure. As Kate closes the door to Maureen's flat and moves back into the world of Mrs. Brown, one still has no grasp on the real Kate and one is left with the terrible feeling that Kate's statement is as trivial as the terms of that statement.
In conclusion, it is clear that Lessing is undertaking a new mode in this novel. She is satirizing her complacent audience who read about self-exploration but are too much like Kate Brown to move out of the collective except in predictable patterns. In her presentation of the cardboard figures—the smiling Mrs. Brown; the Kafkaesque Global Foods; the mechanical shadow, Mary Finchley; the husband and four children out of a woman's magazine; the faceless lover, Jeffrey; and the rebel-without-a-cause, Maureen—Lessing has created a complete set of satiric characters. (pp. 144-45)
Kate becomes, ultimately, only a puppet voicing Lessing's satiric view, presenting Lessing's own vision of the collective mania that passes for life. That it is Lessing who has the perception and not Kate is apparent in the last scene of the novel. Kate's symbolic closing of the door to Maureen's flat forces a final ironic comparison. Unlike Nora, in Ibsen's play, closing the door on the social games of the doll's house, Kate becomes an absurd Nora, closing the door of introspection in order to re-enter the drawing room wearing a new hair style. (p. 145)
Lorelei Cederstrom, "Doris Lessing's Use of Satire in 'The Summer before the Dark'," in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1980 by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring, 1980, pp. 131-45.
Doris Lessing's immense and unwieldy five-volume series, The Children of Violence, chart a spiritual journey from a woman's perspective. Though Lessing's intention was to write about a generation, in choosing Martha Quest as the heroine of her story she made women's experience central in it. Martha's quest begins in an experience of nothingness. It is uniquely shaped by her experience of motherhood, and her guide on her journey is another woman, Lynda, through whom Martha incorporates the dark side of women's experience. (p. 55)
At the beginning of Martha Quest, the first novel in the series, Martha recognizes that she lacks a role model for a positive self-image…. Through Martha, Lessing accurately states the problem of women in the modern world: they do not have images and models of self with which to shape their identities, chart their experiences. Vaguely aware that the old patterns will not work for her, Martha nonetheless drifts through a conventional marriage and a half-planned pregnancy. As she thinks of leaving her husband and children, Martha again searches for an image…. (pp. 55-6)
One of the ironic features of Martha's quest is that from the beginning she has capacities to gain transcendence, but she fails to use them to shape her life because she does not "remember" them. Lessing is fascinated by the process of knowing. What interests her is that a person can know something and yet not know it in a meaningful way. The long detours in Martha's process of self-knowledge reflect this mysterious alternation of forgetting and remembering. Not remembering transcendent experiences is a common human problem, but it is intensified for women who have no stories, models, or guides to remind them of what they know.
From the earliest stage of her journey, Martha is in touch with experiences of transcendence, but she fails to recognize them. One of these experiences is Martha's mystical integration with the veld as she walks home alone from town…. The experience begins as Martha becomes conscious of complete freedom while walking in the veld and at the same time aware that she is losing the feeling of freedom…. The experience comes over Martha in a flash. It is not there, then it is there, then it slips away. Through the experience on the veld Martha has an intimation of a different order of reality. Later she has a similar experience when she and her friend, both pregnant, take off their clothes and luxuriate in the rich red mud created by a summer rainstorm. If she had been able to listen to these experiences, the course of her life might have been different.
Unlike her two marriages, which were detours into the common emotions and mythologies of her time, Martha's love affair with Thomas, a Polish Jew, brings spiritual insight. (pp. 56-7)
With Thomas … Martha becomes conscious of how violence had affected her throughout her life. Later she deepens her knowledge of the region of power and force that their relationship opened to her and deepens her knowledge of the violent undercurrent of the times.
In the first four novels of The Children of Violence, Martha's inability to find a self-image causes her to drift through life, motivated by the forces of the time, more than by her deepest self. She has moments of transcendence and insight, but she is unable to integrate them. In The Four-Gated City, Martha stops drifting and gradually learns to understand, integrate, and deepen her knowledge of herself and the times in which she lives.
The Four-Gated City—the most complicated novel in the series—stretches from the early fifties to the late sixties, longer than the time span of the other four novels together, and has a prophetic afterword reaching into the nineteen nineties. At the beginning of the novel Martha has just arrived in London to start a new life. (p. 59)
Promising herself she would remember the clear-lit space she had just rediscovered, Martha decides against a reasonably well-paying secretarial position, and takes a job, temporarily, as assistant and secretary to Mark Coldridge, an author trying to finish a book. Not having a place to stay, she moves into an empty room in the Coldridge house on Radlett Street and stays there almost twenty years. As if by providence, the house on Radlett Street provides her with the perfect opportunity to reexperience, assimilate, and understand her experience.
Martha's development in the house on Radlett Street follows definite stages. Martha begins to remember the times alone with herself when she has gained insight. She learns to protect her right to those times. She experiences motherhood, and through children broadens and deepens her understanding of herself and the times in which she lives. She pays debts and relives past experiences that she had not integrated or understood. She confronts her mother and understands how she had struggled to create an identity different from her mother's. She experiences depression and confronts a mythology of liberation offered by the culture—psychology—and finds it lacking. She decides to pursue her own inner growth of a relationship and thus frees herself from the mythology of sexual love. Finally, she explores the region of "madness" with her friend and guide, Lynda, and gains visionary powers. (pp. 60-1)
Each character who lives or spends time in the house at Radlett Street is marked by the chaos and violence of the times—from Paul, whose Jewish refugee mother committed suicide after her husband, a spy, defected to the Soviet Union to left-wing Patty Samuels, who has a nervous breakdown when Stalin's death revealed the repressiveness of his regime, to Lynda, whose powers are labeled madness by the psychiatrists, to John Patten, whose arrest for homosexuality becomes a cause célèbre. In her position as mother, matron, and counselor, the one who holds everything together, Martha absorbs the experiences of the other characters…. Through the others she finishes the unfinished struggles of her childhood and young adulthood, heals the old wounds, and, as she puts it, pays her debts. She emerges stronger, able to cope with almost anything. For Martha, motherhood is a time for gaining insight, for living in that clear-lit space that is the watcher's. In her role as mothercounselor, Martha experiences not only the currents of the various personal lives that she holds together, but, through them, the currents of their times. This is the basis from which she later develops prophetic powers.
Another result of Martha's intense concentration on holding things together in the house is that she begins to "see" and "hear."… The powers Martha begins to develop are a direct result of her intense concentration on the dynamics of the relationships in the house. The powers Martha develops come from experiencing events more deeply than the others. Because she experiences on a deeper level, she knows what will happen. Martha learns that there are currents of energy she can "plug in" to. Her whole life as mother and counselor is a process of tuning in to currents of energy or what some might call the psychological dynamics in the house. That Martha takes the process a step further than most mothers (or than most mothers recognize they have taken it) is a result of two special circumstances—her concentration on the processes of her own inner life and Lynda's presence, which enables her to talk about and recognize the processes of her inner life. (p. 62)
At the conclusion of the novel, the house on Radlett Street has been sold and Martha prepares to leave. Once again she has no definite plans. Martha's thoughts about her future sum up the insights she has gained on her journey. "She had learned that one thing, that most important thing, which was that one simply had to go on, take one step after another: this process itself held the keys."… Martha has learned to trust her capacity to grow and learn from any situation. There is no other person, no place outside herself, necessary for the process of insight that she has learned to value above all else. (pp. 68-9)
Though Martha's journey strikes a responsive chord in many women, Lessing's view of the relation between the spiritual and social quest is disturbing. Like Martha, Lessing seems to believe that nuclear catastrophe is inevitable. And this apocalyptic vision leaves her pessimistic about social change and somewhat detached from women's social quest for equality in relationships, work, and politics. There are many days when I find Lessing's pessimism compelling and can easily envision the nuclear accident she describes. I always find her depiction of Martha's observing, connected, deep powers of insight and prophecy powerful…. However, I want women to be more than witnesses and prophets of disaster or hope, more than mothers or nurturers of "new children." I believe it is possible that women's new naming of self and world can stem the tide of violence and disintegration Lessing so convincingly depicts. I find more to hope for in the new naming that emerges from the sisterhood of women than in Lessing's vision of the miraculous "new children." (p. 73)
Carol P. Christ, "From Motherhood to Prophesy: Doris Lessing," in her Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (copyright © 1980 by Carol P. Christ; reprinted by permission of Beacon Press), Beacon Press, 1980, pp. 55-74.
Doris Lessing's rapidly growing series of novels, "Canopus in Argos: Archives," raises certain compelling questions about the uses of fiction. Through her prolific work from 1950 to the early 1970's, Mrs. Lessing acquired a deserved reputation as one of the most intelligently discriminating of contemporary English novelists, her characteristic mode of fiction being a traditional novelistic one in which individual fates, caught in a tangle of social and political circumstances, were rendered with moral and psychological nuance…. Then, as she approached her 60th year, she conceived the idea of writing a "space fiction," which became "Shikasta" (1979).
Rather unexpectedly, as she explains in the preface to that novel, she found this particular mode of fantasy so exhilarating that she was drawn on to write two more volumes, "The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five" (1980) and "The Sirian Experiments."…
The two previously published "Canopus" books—the first of which is intermittently intriguing, the second, continually enchanting—have elicited a good deal of admiration but also some perplexity and disgruntlement, especially from readers with fond memories of Doris Lessing the realistic novelist. Nettled by the expressions of dissatisfaction, she feels impelled to explain her purpose once again in a preface to the new novel. Here she reasserts an affinity proposed in her earlier preface between what she is doing and sacred literature, myth, legend, while she puts greater stress on a seriously entertained notion that reality may be more mysterious than we imagine. (p. 1)
["The Sirian Experiments"] runs through the stages of human history, this time from the viewpoint of a female Sirian colonial administrator….
The story Ambien II tells is a panorama of the possibilities of civilization and barbarism, ranging from a matriarchal version of Atlantis just before its engulfment, to the Aztec cult of human sacrifice, where Shammat reigns supreme, to the Mongol hordes sweeping over the Moslem East and the Conquistadores ravishing South America.
Is all this, strictly speaking, science fiction? And what has the writer gained by turning away from the riches of individual experience that are the great, fascinating subject of the realistic novel? Doris Lessing calls her "Canopus" series "space fiction" rather than science fiction, and I would infer that she associates the latter with what others have pejoratively termed "technology fiction."…
Let me suggest that the genre to which this kind of writing most directly belongs is what Northrop Frye has called the "anatomy"—a kind of fiction, as Frye notes, that is "a combination of fantasy and morality" and that "presents us with a vision of the world in terms of a single intellectual pattern." The most familiar instance of the anatomy for English readers, and one particularly apposite to Doris Lessing's project, is "Gulliver's Travels." The fantastic assumptions of Swift's narrative are an elaborate game of perspectives, exploited, quite obviously but also quite brilliantly, to magnify and expose the pettiness, the savagery, the silliness, the brutality of our supposedly civilized lives. (p. 24)
There is, I think, a delicate interplay between the fantasy and the morality that comprise any anatomy, and in the first of the "Canopus" novels, moralistic purpose often threatens to overwhelm the fantasy or, rather, the fantasy often is too transparently calculated for moralistic ends. (This is a tendency reinforced by the author's decision in that novel to represent the world as a simple Manichean division between the forces of good, Canopus, and the forces of evil, Shammat.) In "The Marriage Between Zones Three, Four, and Five," fantasy is given much freer play, and what looks at first like a schematic feminist allegory of the relation between the sexes proves to be full of the constant charm of the unexpected, the discoveries of an imagination surrendering itself to the momentum of its own narrative and visual inventions.
"The Sirian Experiments" again reveals patches of didactic insistence: Its author, one senses, is still too intent on shaping her fiction to convey the Canopean message to humankind that they must practice "moderation, abstention from luxury, plain living, care for others whom they must never exploit or oppress, the care for animals, and for the earth." In the new novel, however, fantasy is deployed in the service of morality with a zestful inventiveness often lacking in "Shikasta"—perhaps in part because the new book concentrates on a fabled past and not on the contemporary world. "The Sirian Experiments" also makes the juggling of perspectives that is inherent in the anatomy an explicit and sometimes suggestive theme. (pp. 24, 26)
"The Sirian Experiments" abounds with images of observation: high towers, mountain outlooks, spacecraft windows, and certain specialized instruments of perception. One of these is particularly noteworthy. Klorathy, Ambien II's mentor, invites her to stare at a wall on which he projects, apparently through some mental process rather than by a mechanical apparatus, an arresting panoramic display of Shikastan history unfolding:
I … saw on the wall, quite as clearly as one does with ordinary vision—but as it were distanced and speeded up, so that what I was seeing was both exactly accurate, a true representation of actual events, and yet encapsulated, and simplified—a series of pictures, or visions, that drew me forward into them so that it was almost as if I was more a part of the events I watched than a spectator of them.
Klorathy's curious visual display is essentially an ideal image of the anatomy form as Doris Lessing uses it in "The Sirian Experiments," the book's accelerated and distanced scenes of humanity having been devised to put us as readers into the same relation to them as that in which Ambien II stands to the encapsulated pictures on the wall.
Admittedly, it is in some ways an awkward and risky maneuver for a writer to turn in this manner from the intimate and subtle home-truths of the novel to the intellectually defined global truths of the anatomy. Doris Lessing's fictional projection device does not always operate with the perfect authority attributed to Klorathy's. Nevertheless, in this latest volume of the "Canopus" series—because in many scenes she remains, for all her didactic urgency, so splendidly a writer, reveling in the complex movement of evocation—she does often draw us directly into her rendering of history as a true if simplified version of the actual events, achieving at moments a largeness of vision beyond the horizon of the conventional novel. (p. 26)
Robert Alter, "Doris Lessing in the Visionary Mode," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 11, 1981, pp. 1, 24, 26.
[In The Sirian Experiments, the third novel in her Canopus in Argos: Archives sequence,] Doris Lessing attempts once more, but obliquely, to make us examine our world and its preconceptions. The 'Martian' technique is sometimes heavily obvious … and sometimes bitterly pointed…. When Ambien sounds most human, the voice of her creator rasps through: 'I could not help feeling myself undermined by the familiar dry sorrow at the waste of it, the dreadful squandering waste of it all'.
It may well be that wandering colonists from other planets would wring their hands when they observe this polluted globe—but in this ambivalent Ambien it does not ring true. Her character, that of the bureaucrat whose 'document' we read, is the novel's serious flaw. In the preface Doris Lessing describes her protagonist as 'dry, just, efficient, deluded about her own nature', and adds that she 'could like her more'. It does not matter that Ambien is not likable; it does matter that she is not convincing as a representative of an alternative world.
That said, 'the conflict of ideas' is there—and The Sirian Experiments takes its place in a tradition of didactic literature, succeeding brilliantly as an allegory—a most unfashionable fiction. Ideas matter, not events; almost as a game the reader is led to look for meanings beneath the narrative surface. With controlled indirectness and ambiguity Doris Lessing questions all appearances, and returns to the themes that made her early 'realistic' work so popular.
In her teasing preface Mrs Lessing says that she wishes readers to see the 'Canopus in Argos: Archives' 'as a framework that enables me (I hope) to tell a beguiling tale or two; to put questions both to myself and to others; to explore ideas and sociological possibilities'. Leaving aside that disappointing word 'sociological', it is relevant to remember that the mediaeval allegorists believed that their texts should be interpreted in four ways: (1) the literal sense—the story (2) the generalised allegorical interpretation (3) the moral duty arising from the latter (4) a meditation on cosmic destiny. It is exactly what Mrs Lessing requires.
The nice prospect of all the dusty Sirian bureaucrats being exiled one by one to boring planets saves this allegory from portentousness, but does not save us from Doris Lessing's apocalyptic vision. Canopus always harps upon 'necessity', baffling Ambien with the paradox that evil is 'allowed' by good. If the fable tells us that human beings have no choice, that we are manipulated along our path to self-destruction—then whose fault are we? If no God determines our actions, then could it be that oddball sociologists in UFOs are playing experimental consequences with our lives? Or might it be the devil; or group madness? Doris Lessing's enigmatic symbolism poses these questions, only (it seems) to tease us into rejecting them.
After all, Ambien is unbelievable. With all excuses gone and chaos around the corner, all that is left is to ask why we, as individuals and a race, are not capable of seeing the consequences of our own actions. It is a good question.
Bel Mooney, "Spaced-Out," in The Spectator (© 1981 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 246, No. 7971, April 18, 1981, p. 23.
Like its predecessor, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, Doris Lessing's latest exercise in science fiction, The Sirian Experiments, is a didactic fable about the need to learn. Both books show leading figures from one culture encountering those from another, and being gradually changed by what this teaches them. In the earlier book—a feminist parable—Al'Ith, Queen of Zone Three, went on an educational visit to the muddy, militaristic male world of Zone Four; later, scaling the rarefied heights of Zone Two, she became a visionary ostracised by her own people.
In The Sirian Experiments—a parable about colonisation—the same pattern applies. Ambien II, one of The Five who rule the Sirian Empire, is initially a desiccated bureaucrat. Transformed by contact with a more enlightened way of life, she has become, when her story ends, a disturbing reformer, held 'under planet arrest'….
Rather smugly non-directive, Lessing's galactic gurus, the Canopeans, hover provokingly around until the less evolved start asking themselves the right questions. Eventually, Ambien gets round to this, though with some effect of anticlimax. Millennia seem an excessive amount of time for the absorbing of such notions as the need to respect the ecological balance, to avoid unnecessary interference with other species, and to deplore power-urges, nuclear arms and private property. Canopus in Argos, it is becoming increasingly apparent, is a strange mix of the imaginative and the naive. Projecting her views on feminism and colonisation into Outer Space, Doris Lessing can be powerfully inventive. But she can also be bathetic and even melodramatic—as when frail, blonde Ambien pluckily braves the swarthy bully-boys of Shammat, the pirate planet. And, though the exposures of negative behaviour are sharply defined, the novel's positives—for all their endorsement by the Canopean lords of the nebulae—are often nebulous.
Peter Kemp, "The Damaged Planet" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1981; reprinted by permission of Peter Kemp), in The Listener, Vol. 105, No. 2709, April 23, 1981, p. 549.∗
In The Sirian Experiments we are given the Sirian version, narrated by a woman named Ambien II, of experiments carried out on earth (Shikasta/Rohanda). Ambien is one of five leaders of Sirius, and for all intents and purposes immortal—a circumstance, by the way, that ultimately undermines the dramatic potential of the novel, at least in the few instances that Lessing abandons a rather dreary expository style and shows characters in action. To know that a character is immortal is to be aware that, like the star of a Hollywood movie, she can't die before the last frame, or in this case, chapter. The use of this kind of character as a central figure simply closes off too many narrative possibilities, and it restricts Lessing to a solemn, ponderous and finally undramatic mode of narration somewhere between a sermon and a tract on cosmology. (p. 34)
Ambien … realizes that in the end the omniscient and omnipotent Canopus is somehow going to ensure that the universe and life in it will survive. The earth may be on the verge of apocalypse and the evil Shammatt empire may be everywhere but ultimately—so goes the reassuring myth—life will triumph. It seems that we're in the universe of Star Wars, and all that's needed is to believe that the force is with us.
Had this attitude or ideology come from any other writer I would be simply tempted to dismiss it and to point out that it's part of the western world's collective wish to have the burden of history removed from its shoulders by someone from outer space. We're desperate to believe in something extrahuman even as traditional belief wanes in our world. Instead of going to church people go to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and read loonies and hoaxers like Erich Von Daniken. But seeing this coming from Lessing, an on-again off-again Marxist who has always recognized that man makes himself and his history, or if you like her self and herstory—well, hearing this from Lessing, leaves me confused. All I can say is that so far it's made for bad fiction and even worse mythology. (pp. 34-5)
Sam Solecki, "Close Encounters of Some Kind," in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXI, No. 710, June-July, 1981, pp. 34-5.
There has always been an element of didacticism, of using the novel as a vehicle for instruction, in [Doris Lessing's] work; and those who admire the elegance and freedom of her short stories—in which this element is absent—may feel that it spoils much of the Children of Violence sequence, especially the later, London-based, books: too much earnest argument, the sound of too many axes being ground, a ponderous solemnity. Perhaps this is not fair comment; Mrs Lessing is a political novelist, a novelist of ideas. Ideas are serious matters, so is politics. But there are ways of writing seriously, and fictional ways of exploring ideas, that avoid overstatement, that retain the strengths of the novel form—extend them, even—without making the reader feel lectured at. And the difficulty with The Sirian Experiments is that, interesting as it in many respects is, it again leaves one feeling that fiction has been used as a polemic device. (pp. 56-7)
Doris Lessing has always been a fine story-teller and she demonstrates her skills in this book as much as in any other. The obstacle is Ambien's soul-searchings and her earnest and overlong conversations with her colleagues. Eavesdropping in the corridors of power is never as gripping as you think it is going to be.
And of course no resolution is possible, given the nature of the scheme and the subject of the author's satire—if satire is the right word….
The Sirian Experiments is a speculation—about behaviour, about politics, about the universe. And as such, it is ambitious; the imaginary ambiences are furnished both with the stuff of science fiction and the familiar cruelties and mental aberrations of our own world…. And as a speculation it cannot, of course, provide an ending. All novels have their ambiguities, and very properly so; fiction asks questions but does not necessarily provide answers. The Sirian Experiments is peculiarly loaded with such problems; those who find this intriguing will want to see what Mrs Lessing is going to offer in the next volume. (p. 57)
Penelope Lively, "Books & Writers: 'The Sirian Experiments'," in Encounter (© 1981 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LVIII, No. 2, August, 1981, pp. 56-7.