As ideias, a obra e o último livro
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on the book "Grandmothers"
on the book "Grandmothers"
on the books "Time Bites" and "The story of General Dann..."
LE MONDE | 10.09.01 | 11h56
Lady Lessing, poseuse de bombes
A 81 ans, Doris Lessing juge ridicules les étiquettes qu'on a pu lui coller : féministe, anti-Blanche ou, pis, romancière engagée. Si l'auteur du "Carnet d'or" a souvent dynamité la littérature en abordant les inégalités de la société anglaise, elle se veut "écrivain, c'est tout"
C'est une vieille dame anglaise qui ressemble à une vieille dame anglaise. Avec un chat ventripotent pelotonné sur un tapis, des livres éparpillés un peu partout, une table accueillant les morceaux d'un puzzle en cours, et les bow windows de sa petite maison londonienne ouvrant sur une rue calme et chic du quartier de West Hampstead. Doris Lessing est réfugiée à l'étage, elle vous toise du haut de l'escalier, la mine sévère. Pas franchement du genre à vous mettre à l'aise. "C'est par ici."Avec ses quatre-vingt-un ans et ses cheveux gris strictement tirés en bandeau, de part et d'autre d'une raie au milieu, on croirait son visage sorti d'un tableau du XIXe siècle. Son anglais aussi semble venir d'un autre temps, pour ainsi dire intact, avec cet accent d'exactitude qui rappelle que cet immense écrivain est une exilée à l'envers, née et élevée dans des contrées lointaines et rigides de l'ancien Empire britannique avant d'avoir émigré chez elle, à Londres, à l'âge de trente ans.
Si on lui demande, avec le maigre espoir de réchauffer un peu l'atmosphère, où se trouve son abri antiatomique, elle consent à abandonner fugitivement son regard de Jugement dernier. "J'y pense sérieusement", admet-elle, étonnamment rieuse, rappelant à brûle-pourpoint la "conversation ridicule" qu'elle eut, à la fin des années 1950, avec un spécialiste américain de relations internationales, Henry Kissinger. Elle s'activait alors dans la lutte contre les armes nucléaires, et Kissinger avait demandé à rencontrer des personnalités de gauche pour évoquer la question. "Cette rencontre fut une plaisanterie. Il définissait comme "humanitaire" l'usage de certaines bombes ; je répondais que son argument était ridicule. C'était un jeune Allemand tout dodu, voilà ce qu'il était, avant de devenir très pompeux. Nous avions si peu de choses en commun qu'on ne pouvait même pas parler."
Son entrain passager retombe d'un coup. Doris Lessing ne s'encombre pas de civilités pour le faire comprendre, elle attend la question suivante. A observer cette petite femme sèche aux yeux qui vous traversent sans ménagement, on ne s'étonne pas que, faute d'abri antiatomique, ce soient des explosions d'un autre ordre qu'elle ait coutume de déclencher. Son fameux Carnet d'or n'y est pas pour rien. Paru en pleine période d'échauffement intellectuel - 1962 en Grande- Bretagne, 1976 en France (Albin Michel) -, ce roman magistral fut perçu grossièrement comme "un grand roman féministe". Rien que d'y penser, la vieille dame s'énerve encore, s'aidant d'un de ces soupirs impatients dont elle a le secret. "Je déteste cette étiquette d'écrivain engagé qu'on continue à me coller. Aucun de mes romans n'est politique. Je décris des situations, je suis écrivain, c'est tout." Peine perdue. Qu'elle le veuille ou non, après une bonne trentaine de livres, Doris Lessing est toujours attendue ici et là comme une conscience de gauche, la porte-parole d'une cause, pour ne pas dire la voix d'un prophète. "Ridicule", dit-elle encore (elle a l'air de bien aimer ce mot, "ridicule"). Et, inévitablement, elle dérange. Parce qu'elle est rarement où on l'attend, jamais délibérément provocatrice mais soucieuse de tenir la distance exacte d'où elle pourra observer le monde, précise jusqu'à l'obsession, toujours située à côté.
La dernière explosion eut lieu à la mi-août, à l'occasion du Festival du livre d'Edimbourg. Invitée comme d'autres écrivains à lire des extraits de son œuvre, Doris fut amenée à répondre aux questions du public. L'une porta sur le féminisme. Elle répondit. Le "prophète", une fois de plus, n'eut pas les mots qu'on attendait. Au point que le quotidien anglais The Guardian, premier et seul à donner des extraits de l'intervention, jugea bon d'en faire sa "une". Le public venu l'écouter - quelques centaines de personnes majoritairement féminines - dut avaler sa salive en entendant l'écrivain gourou des féministes voler sans crier gare au secours des hommes, nouvelles victimes de la guerre des sexes, continuellement humiliés et insultés par les femmes.
"Je suis de plus en plus choquée par la manière automatique et inconsidérée de rabaisser les hommes. C'est devenu à ce point une part de notre culture qu'on n'y fait même plus attention", lui laisse dire le Guardian avant qu'elle évoque sa visite dans une classe. L'institutrice y expliquait que les guerres avaient pour cause la violence innée des hommes. "On pouvait voir les petites filles gonflées d'autosatisfaction et de suffisance alors que les petits garçons étaient assis là tout recroquevillés, s'excusant d'exister", s'indigne-t-elle. Et encore : "Le féminisme a accompli de grandes choses. Nous avons obtenu pas mal d'égalité, du moins en matière de salaires et de carrières (...), mais qu'est-il arrivé aux hommes ? (...) Des femmes stupides, ignorantes et méchantes peuvent déprécier les hommes les plus doux, les plus gentils et les plus intelligents qui soient, et personne ne proteste. Les hommes semblent si avachis qu'ils ne répliquent même pas. Il est temps qu'ils s'y mettent."
C'en était trop. Pendant une semaine, "l'affaire Doris Lessing" a occupé une bonne partie de la presse anglaise, avant de faire le tour de la planète, de l'Europe à l'Australie. Pour ou contre, le courrier des lecteurs des grands quotidiens a débordé de toutes parts, comme les forums de discussion sur Internet. L'essayiste Jeannette Winterson, féministe anglaise notoire, y est allée de son ironie piquante dans une tribune du Guardian. "Lessing vit-elle sur la planète Mars, ou est-ce parce qu'elle a quatre-vingt-un ans ?" La rabrouant sur la question de l'égalité ("C'est sans doute la raison pour laquelle seulement 3 % des professeurs d'université sont des femmes..."), elle en rajoute une louche sur ces hommes "si gentils et si intelligents", qui liront désormais le Guardian munis de caleçons "I love Doris".
Immobile dans son canapé, Doris Lessing écoute sagement le rappel de l'acte d'accusation. "Oui, tout cela est amusant", ponctue-t-elle, gommant son air d'institutrice par un sourire très coquin. Ajoutant, l'air de rien, et plus britannique que jamais : "Vous savez, je suppose, que je n'ai pas tenu la moitié des propos que le Guardian me prête ?" Sur ce, elle marque une pause, pas mécontente de son petit effet. "En Angleterre, poursuit-elle, nous avons une expression pour le mois d'août : "la saison bête". C'est quand les journaux n'ont rien à dire et que la moindre banalité les rend hystériques. Voilà comment on en est arrivé à faire tout ce tapage." Récapitulons : oui, elle désapprouve cette dévalorisation systématique des hommes ("Je ne crois pas que vous connaissiez ça en France, mais, ici, c'est entré dans le langage courant, et c'est encore pire en Amérique") ; oui, elle pense qu'il vaut mieux se battre pour un salaire égal à travail égal, au lieu de perdre son temps à se plaindre des hommes ("C'est mon féminisme à moi, je n'ai pas de raison d'en changer"). Mais jamais, ça jamais, elle n'a dit que l'égalité des sexes était acquise ou des choses de ce genre "comme l'a écrit ce foutu journaliste du Guardian". A-t-elle réagi auprès du Guardian ? Elle hausse les épaules : "Je n'ai pas l'habitude de répondre à des bêtises pareilles."
Le foutu journaliste en question, Fiachra Gibbons, n'est pas du même avis. "Vous trouvez, vous, que c'est le genre de la "Lady" de ne pas réagir ? Croyez-moi, elle attend rarement pour dégainer. Nous sommes si habitués à sa mauvaise humeur, au Guardian, que je prends toujours soin d'enregistrer ses propos..." Fiachra Gibbons reconnaît qu'il a dû réduire largement un discours long d'un bon quart d'heure, où Doris Lessing, d'ordinaire si rigoureuse, se montrait "un peu confuse, avançant une chose et son contraire, parce qu'on l'avait agacée. Les festivals du livre ont ça de bon que les écrivains parlent très spontanément, pensant ne s'adresser qu'à leurs lecteurs. Ils oublient qu'il y a aussi des journalistes".
Tout a commencé, raconte-t-il, par la question d'une auditrice qui avait passablement énervé Doris Lessing. Une question so french : "Percevez-vous dans votre œuvre des éléments de postmodernité et de féminisme ?" Franchement, l'auditrice l'avait cherché. Toute la salle en eut donc pour son grade. "Elle a baissé la tête, croisé les jambes, on la sentait retenir sa colère, poursuit Fiachra Gibbons, visiblement très amusé. En fait, sa réponse n'était pas si audacieuse que ça, mais c'est à une forme d'institution qu'elle s'attaquait. Doris excelle dans l'art de toucher les points sensibles. Dans la salle, certains approuvaient de la tête, d'autres ont un peu sursauté, mais personne n'osait trop broncher. Doris n'est pas le genre de personne qu'on s'aventure à contredire. Elle est farouche. Avec elle, c'est "Si tu tiens à ta peau, obéis"."
C'est qu'elle vient de loin, Doris Lessing. Et ce n'est pas pour rien dans la rigueur quasi obsessionnelle qu'elle met à observer les choses. D'une famille meurtrie par la première guerre mondiale où son père avait laissé une jambe, elle est née dans l'ancienne Perse britannique (actuel Iran), avant d'émigrer à l'âge de huit ans en Rhodésie (Zimbabwe). Son père, après avoir essayé une carrière dans la Banque impériale de Perse, avait espéré faire fortune en Afrique dans la culture du maïs, du tabac et des céréales. Ils n'y trouvèrent que la misère. Et Doris ouvrit les yeux. Sur le malheur de ses parents, sur la vie de la brousse qu'elle décrit admirablement (Nouvelles africaines), sur l'oppression des Noirs par une minorité de Blancs, sur une société d'un conservatisme étouffant. "Les enfants qui ont ce genre d'expérience, dit-elle, sont obligés d'être attentifs, sous peine de ne pas survivre. J'ai appris à regarder parce que j'ai connu toutes sortes de sociétés, sans les accepter." Elevée comme Blanche dans un monde de colons, et révoltée par lui ; exilée volontaire en Angleterre en 1949 où elle a connu, depuis un demi-siècle, "tant d'atmosphères différentes. Plusieurs pays, pourrait-on dire". Celui d'aujourd'hui n'a pas fini de la fasciner. "C'est une chose très bizarre. Nous avons un gouvernement incompétent - éducation, santé publique, chemins de fer, tout va mal -, et pourtant les gens l'ont réélu. Idem en Amérique. Comme si l'on n'attendait plus des politiques qu'ils soient simplement efficaces. C'est un changement très intéressant. Je me demande si ce n'est pas l'aisance économique de l'Occident qui crée la passivité. Et je trouve ça grave."
TOUJOURS à distance. Assez loin pour tout voir, assez près pour s'indigner, aussi peu indulgente avec les conformismes qu'avec les révoltes quand celles-ci deviennent une mode, et au risque de déranger son propre confort. C'est sa manière à elle d'être libre. Sa manière aussi d'être incomprise. Est-ce pour cette raison que le jury du Nobel, qui susurre son nom depuis vingt-cinq ans, ne se décide pas à la désigner ? Militante au Parti communiste anglais au début des années 1950 ("Parce que les communistes étaient les seuls, à l'époque, à affronter la question de la domination des Blancs en Afrique ou les inégalités de la société anglaise"), elle décrit sans complaisance, dans Le Carnet d'or, les dangers de la compromission idéologique. Un autre roman, La Terroriste (1986), avait aussi dérangé une partie de son "camp". L'héroïne était une bourgeoise en mal de révolution devenue terroriste amateur pour le compte de l'IRA, ce qui avait pu être perçu comme un fâcheux discrédit jeté sur le gauchisme et sur le terrorisme des "bonnes causes".
Ce souvenir-là aussi fait rire la vieille dame. Elle plisse son visage comme une fillette qui serait fière d'avoir piégé tout son monde. Comme elle a piégé délibérément ceux qui manifestaient la mauvaise idée de vouloir écrire sur sa vie - des choses "ridicules", probablement. En guise de pied de nez, l'écrivain les a pris de vitesse en publiant les deux premiers tomes de son autobiographie. De la Perse à Londres, de Londres à la publication du Carnet d'or. Quant au troisième tome, tant attendu, elle a décidé que finalement, non, elle ne l'écrirait pas. "La vérité sur la période des années 1960 blesserait trop de monde." A la place vient de paraître en français Mara et Dann (Flammarion), une manière détournée de parler d'elle-même, entre le roman d'apprentissage et le conte écologique. Et cela ne lui déplaît pas vraiment de noter que le genre est "assez démodé, n'est-ce pas ?"
Dernier indice, histoire de brouiller encore un peu ses cartes. Evadée du marxisme, Doris Lessing s'adonne depuis 1964 au soufisme. Elle y a trouvé une mystique sans dogme, sans religion. Mais, ça, elle refuse d'en parler. "Je vois d'ici les slogans publicitaires. Et puis on m'a collé tant d'étiquettes : féministe, anti-Blanche, pacifiste... il ne manquerait plus que je sois soufiste. Tout cela est ridicule."
Marion Van Renterghem
ARTICLE PARU DANS L'EDITION DU 11.09.01
Lay off men, says Lessing
By Fiachra Gibbons
Thursday August 16, 2001
The novelist Doris Lessing claimed this week that men were the new silent victims in the sex war, "continually demeaned and insulted" by women without a whimper of protest.
Lessing, who became a feminist icon with the books The Grass Is Singing and The Golden Notebook, said a "lazy and insidious" culture had taken hold within feminism that revelled in flailing men.
Young boys were being weighed down with guilt about the crimes of their sex, she told the Edinburgh book festival, while energy that could be used to get proper child care was being dissipated in the pointless humiliation of men.
"I find myself increasingly shocked at the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men that is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed," the 81-year-old Zimbabwean-born writer said.
"Great things have been achieved through feminism. We now have pretty much equality at least on the pay and opportunities front, though almost nothing has been done on child care, the real liberation. Why did this have to be at the cost of men?
"I was in a class of nine- and 10-year-olds, girls and boys, and this young woman was telling these kids that the reason for wars was the innately violent nature of men.
"This kind of thing is happening in schools all over the place and no one says a thing. It is time we began to ask who are these women who rubbish men. The most stupid, ill-educated and nasty woman can rubbish the nicest, kindest and most intelligent man, and no one protests."
What planet is Doris on?
Feminist icon Doris Lessing says men are the new 'silent victims' in the sex war. Yeah right, says Jeanette Winterson
Wednesday August 15, 2001
Men have found a new champion. Feminist icon and world-class novelist Doris Lessing has told the girls to lay off. She used her Edinburgh festival appearance to lament the cultural divide between men and women, blaming women for their "pointless humiliation" of the hairier sex.
Is Lessing living on planet Zog, or is it just that she is 81? There is an elder-statesman syndrome that seems to affect literary types such as Lessing and Naipaul and even David Mamet, who is a bit too young to join the End of Everything club. Just as Naipaul and Mamet drone on about the End of Culture, now Lessing is lamenting the End of Feminism ("lazy and insidious"), or maybe it's just the End of Men.
The truth is that nothing is ending - the 21st century is a fabulous time to be alive. It is also a time of change and transition. New forms, new ideas, new technologies - and above all new social relationships - are reshaping the western world. The dance between men and women may seem out of tune and out of step, but that is because both partners are having to learn some fancy footwork. Inevitably, women are treading on men's toes and some of us are taking the lead. Never doubt, though, that the whole damn ballroom still belongs to the boys.
And what a ball the boys are having. Lessing says we've got equal pay and equal opportunity: is that why only 3% of university professors are women? Is that why the highest-paid journalists and TV presenters are men? Why are there still so few women in government and at the top table in the boardroom? Women are catching up, but we don't run the world. As far as the power struggle goes, men are still on top - which everybody knows, except those "kind and most intelligent men", who will now be reading the Guardian wearing their "I Love Doris" boxer shorts.
I decided to conduct a modest vox pop. I asked my hairdresser, who is female, intelligent and sexy, whether she reckoned that men were running scared. Interestingly, she thought they were not suffering at all in terms of work and status, but absolutely when it came to sex - and, as she pointed out, with men, it always does come down to sex, doesn't it?
She told me that all the men she knows are terrified of their wives and girlfriends having an affair. To me, women having affairs means that women are sexually and socially confident. For untold centuries, women have endured bad marriages and male infidelity - never forget that the suffragist slogan was Votes for Women and Chastity for Men. Women seeking sexual pleasure or emotional fulfilment is an inevitable consequence of a shift in the dynamics of male/female relationships. Women may not have the power yet, but maybe we are losing our fear.
My taxi driver told me that he thinks of himself as boss in his marriage, but he understands why his wife won't do his ironing. He doesn't care - he was one of the first to buy a Power Iron. Him and his mates do it together trying to get the fastest time while they watch the football. I bet Doris Lessing knows nothing about competitive ironing.
I meet a lot of young people who read my books. What excites me about these kids is their easiness with one another. Sure, feminism can claim some incredible legal and social victories, but for me its great achievement is in creating a new generation equipped to recognise each other as equals. Women are not automatically inferior any more. Boys do not expect a woman to take care of them and give up work. Best of all, there is a playfulness on the streets that gender politics misses. Even builders are allowed to whistle at you these days - and you know what? It's fun.
So come on, Doris, lighten up. It was your generation of feminists, the 70s, the golden age of the women's movement, that gave us the really damaging, batty stuff; all men are rapists, all sex is power, pornography is abuse, marriage is a crime. And what about separatism and political lesbians? Thank God those days are gone.
Men will have to cope with a bit of criticism. That said, men and women are good for each other and we need each other. I am optimistic about the new shapes we are making. If it is hard for some men, well, that is their share of the work to be done. Sorry if it's tough. Meanwhile, as my rampantly heterosexual assistant from Yorkshire explains to her husband every day: "You can't help it, love, you're just a bloke."
'I have nothing in common with feminists. They never seem to think that one might enjoy men'
From feminist icon to
male champion... Doris Lessing is no stranger to controversy. On the eve of the
publication of her 25th book, the octogenarian puts Barbara Ellen right about
men and motherhood
Sunday September 9, 2001
The interesting thing about Doris Lessing is not that she's not a feminist, but how insistent she is that she's not a feminist. Moreover, unlike fellow novelist Fay Weldon, who seems to have effected something of a turnabout in recent years, Lessing claims never to have embraced feminism in the first place. A lapsed communist, yes ('The fools we were!'), but a feminist - never. This, despite a vague feeling, courtesy of those, like me, who read and enjoy her work, that, writing like she does (progressive, indomitable; a true female chronicler), she must be. But no, Lessing is adamant about this, still stoutly refusing to be claimed as a feminist icon whole decades after her most famous work, The Golden Notebook, was widely hailed as one of the great inflammatory emancipating texts of the 70s.
In March this year, collecting the prestigious David Cohen prize, honouring a lifetime of excellence, Lessing even went so far as to renounce today's women as 'smug, self-righteous' and far too quick to 'denigrate' men. More recently, she was at it again, causing a major media stir at the Edinburgh book festival, claiming that modern men were both 'rubbished' and 'cowed' by women. 'They can't fight back,' said Lessing. 'And it's time they did.' Well, right on, sister. 'The thing is, I haven't changed at all,' Lessing informs me unapologetically, as we share a Diet Coke in her living room. 'I'm not any kind of traitor to the cause. I've always thought the same way. It's just that, like all obsessively political people, feminists tend to fasten on to someone who they think is one of them. I am always being described as having views that I've never had in my life.'
We talk on a humid afternoon, in the first-floor living room of Lessing's London home. It is situated near West Hampstead, in what Lessing says was one of the very first commuter suburbs: 'They converted them into flats and then back into houses. They wasted space scandalously. I'm very pleased.' Her manner is brisk, autocratic, occasionally rather tart, but, when I ask Lessing if she is aware of her reputation for being intimidating, she replies: 'So I hear, but I think I'm a pussy cat!' At 81, Lessing is also as sharp as a dentist's needle. Which makes you wonder a little about her recent outbursts. She managed to get up Jeanette Winterson's nose and fuel several days of newspaper editorials. Which doesn't exactly hurt when one happens to have a new novel hitting the stands. As Lessing must know, after more than 50 years in the business, there's nothing like a bit of controversy to sell books.
Right this minute, though, she has to have her photograph taken. 'You sit there for now,' she says, indicating a low, saggy sofa next to some bookshelves. The room is a homage to bohemian counterculture chic - a wall hanging here, a wooden carving there, cat hairs everywhere (Lessing is a huge lover of felines, and owns one called Yum Yum). When the photographer is done, Lessing calls her a cab, then checks for its arrival, leaning against the window frame for support. When it's my turn to leave, we go through the same routine. 'I want to see if it's there,' she says, slightly querulously, clutching at the neckline of her dress. 'Sometimes they just sit in the street.' I only mention this because, during the long, hot afternoon, these are the only two occasions I witness Lessing acting anything like her years. She assesses her own mental age as 'about five'.
The new book, The Sweetest Dream, could best be described as an aga saga for the hippie generation. It spans decades and continents, bringing in the African Aids epidemic. It is Lessing's 25th novel. Or is it her 26th? It's hard to keep up with this most prolific of authors. As well as the novels, there's been a paper avalanche of non-fiction, poetry, opera and drama (she's a huge theatre buff). 'I don't know why I have to write,' says Lessing. 'It's just something I have to do. If I don't write for any length of time, I get very irritable. If I had to stop, I would probably start wandering the streets, telling myself stories out loud.' When I comment that she seems very driven, Lessing gives me a wry smile. 'I've worked hard all my life,' she says. 'You have to if you want to get things done. These days, there's a lot of writing talent around, but very few people seem prepared to stick at it.'
Of course, considering its size, the quality of Lessing's oeuvre was bound to vary. While, with her debut The Grass Is Singing, it's as if holy literary water is splashing into the Southern African dust and giving the characters life, you could take or leave the eco-fable Mara and Dann, or any of the titles from the gorily futuristic Canopus in Argos series. Along with The Grass Is Singing, and The Good Terrorist, my personal favourite is The Fifth Child, which tenderly tells the tale of Ben, a throwback cast adrift in the modern world. When Lessing is on this kind of form, every line feels like she is dipping her pen nib into some universal open wound. For me, The Sweetest Dream doesn't quite spark at this level, although it is hugely enjoyable and interesting in its own right.
Arguably one of the most interesting things about the new book is the author's note at the beginning, where Lessing reveals she won't be producing a third volume of autobiography, covering the 60s period, because of 'possible hurt to vulnerable people'. However, she says, this does not mean that The Sweetest Dream is 'novelised autobiography'. All of which refers to the fact that one of the book's central characters, Frances, plays 'earth mother' to a houseful of adolescent strays, just like Lessing did in the 60s, and she doesn't want the two to be confused. She is especially keen for the identities of the real-life 'strays' to be kept a secret. Is this out of courtesy? 'Not out of courtesy,' says Lessing, ever brisk. 'But these people are middle-aged, and some of them are very well known.' She considers for a moment. 'I just wouldn't want to embarrass them. I couldn't do it to them. I certainly wouldn't like it done to me.'
The big question is: why would Lessing want to spend the 60s 'mothering' a bunch of adolescents, only one of whom (her teenage son Peter) was her true responsibility? Lessing demurs when I describe Frances (and by association herself) as 'put upon'. 'You say "put upon", that's how you see it, but maybe she was enjoying it.' However, by anyone's reckoning, tending to the needs of neurotic teen hippies doesn't look like the best fun a successful 40-plus female novelist could have. 'Why not?' says Lessing, crisply. 'I don't see why one should exclude the other. Do you know who also had a house like it - Penelope Mortimer. I met her just before she died and she said that, looking back, it was the happiest time of her life, because of all this enormous family that was always changing. And, you know, it was extraordinary, a phenomenon of the time. The tail end of communism really, but then, I happen to think that the whole hippie ethos was a spin-off from communism.'
It isn't Lessing's mission to glorify the 60s. 'Swinging London?' she scoffs. 'I never saw it myself. It's swinging much more now than it ever did then. Everyone was always in bed by 10 o'clock!' Is she disheartened by the fact that young people seem so much more politically apathetic these days? 'Oh no!' she cries. 'It's better than these great passionate crusading movements. It's better than everyone running around being communists and such.' She continues more seriously: 'People always glamourise the 60s, but there were lots of victims around, people in and out of mental hospitals and so on. My personal diagnosis was that it was the influence of the wars - 60s young people were war children, that's why it was such a fraught time. Then drugs arrived, not necessarily the best thing that ever happened to this country.'
Did she indulge? 'I took pot like everyone else,' she says. 'And I inhaled, certainly. But it didn't suit me, it doesn't suit some people. I also took mescaline once. Interesting, but I wouldn't do it again. I'm too much of a coward. A friend of mine took it, and she spent a whole year seeing heads roll off shoulders, and blood everywhere. A whole year!' Lessing shudders theatrically. 'Just the thought scares me. If you take these drugs, you're not in control. And I've always needed to be in control.'
Lessing grew up on a failing farm in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called). Her father was a war amputee and 'a dreamer'. Her mother was an efficient woman with whom Lessing could never get on. 'I think of her a lot now,' she says. 'The trouble is, pity is such a patronising emotion, but I'm so sorry for her. She should never have left England - her idea of bliss was to have been a banker's wife in Richmond. As it was, she had the most terrible life. I often think what a good job she made of a very poor hand.'
Lessing hated Rhodesia, too. Nonconformist, and an avid reader, she grew up at odds with accepted race protocol, what was known in local terms as being a 'kaffir lover'. Marrying Frank Wisdom at 19 was her attempt to buckle down and 'behave conventionally'. 'I did conventional things rather well, actually,' she says, smiling grimly. 'This is what women did. But then I walked out. I couldn't bear it.'
The man she walked out to was Gottfried Lessing, a hard-line communist whom she'd met among Rhodesian intellectuals. Despite having a son, Peter, together, the couple were incompatible, which didn't matter, because it was a 'political marriage' to save Gottfried from being sent to an internment camp. (Lessing went on to have real love affairs, though never married again.) A buffoonish version of Gottfried appears in The Sweetest Dream, in the guise of Johnny, Frances's ex. 'Men like Johnny are historical figures now, but they were very much around back then,' says Lessing. 'When reproached for not paying alimony, or not seeing the kids, it would be: "Only the revolution counts, private matters are not important."' She laughs heartily. 'As excuses go, this was probably the most wonderful one.' Gottfried's enduring legacy was to put Lessing off communism for good: 'I was married to a 100 per cent communist and, believe me, that cured you fast!'
When she left Wisdom, Lessing also walked out on her two small children, John and Jean, a chapter of her life she loathes discussing. It certainly receives short shrift in the two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade. Lessing sighs. 'The truth is,' she says, 'people are angry because I didn't go on at length about how terrible I was to walk out on my children. What I should have done is written 10 pages, saying: "Oh, how could I have done such a thing, I'm so awful and wicked?" and then they would have loved it. On the contrary, I'm very proud of myself that I had the guts to do it. I've always said that if I hadn't left that life, if I hadn't escaped from the intolerable boredom of colonial circles, I'd have cracked up, become an alcoholic. And I'm glad that I had the bloody common sense to see that.' And now Lessing shakes her head wearily. 'I don't really see the point of all this breast beating, but I know it's part of what we admire in this culture. It's the equivalent of Roman circuses.'
Lessing was reconciled with all her children eventually. Peter (a farmer) no longer lives with Lessing, but is still around. John, also a farmer, died a few years ago of a heart attack. Daughter Joan spent her career teaching poor African children. 'She's a remarkable woman, I very much admire her,' says Lessing, then clams up, clearly keen to leave the thorny subject of her children behind. Nevertheless, there are undeniable ironies here: the woman who walks out on two of her own children, then ends up earth-mothering a houseful of other people's children. And, of course, there's the fact that the very section of society who could be relied upon to support Lessing in her decision to leave her young family, the very group most likely to point out that men do the same thing all the time without censure, are the same people she has so publicly professed to deplore and despise. In a word - feminists.
You've got to hand it to the octogenarian: Lessing's opinions about the 'rubbishing of males' appear to have snagged the zeitgeist in a way that Zadie Smith could only dream of. Does she really believe that modern men get such a raw deal? 'Yes, it's become absolutely automatic,' she cries. 'If it was some polemical crusade, it might be something, but it's like young women have got 10 minutes to spare, so they may as well spend it rubbishing men. It's part of the culture now. There's an unconscious bias in our society: girls are wonderful; boys are terrible. And to be a boy, or young man, growing up, having to listen to all this, it must be painful.' Granted, nothing is assured for men anymore, but is anything assured for anybody? 'Well, no,' concedes Lessing. 'It isn't assured for women either. But I think that children respond to what is expected of them, and all boys are hearing now is that everything about them is terrible. And men, boys, whatever, are just expected to take it.'
Of course, Lessing is entitled to her opinion, just as the likes of Fay Weldon and Joan Bakewell are entitled to the same opinion whenever the topic pops up. ('Maybe we agree because we all have sons,' points out Lessing.) However, are we really to believe that Lessing has achieved all she has, lived all that life, more often than not trampling on the very bunions of convention, without a shred of feminist feeling in her being? 'Yes,' says Lessing. 'They would have liked to have me as a feminist icon, after The Golden Notebook, but I wouldn't. I always disliked it all so much.' Which is true enough - Lessing has always viewed 1962's female odyssey, The Golden Notebook, as a partial 'failure' because it was widely perceived to be a feminist tract, when that was not the intention. Indeed, it's a minor mystery as to why Lessing's remarks at Edinburgh caused such a furore, given that she has been making side-swipes at the 'sisterhood' for years.
'I have nothing in common with feminists because of their inflexibility,' she commented in 1994. 'They never seem to think that one might like men, or enjoy them.' To me, she adds: 'The problem is that certain women, polemical, highly verbalised women, only notice men when they are not behaving well. They don't notice men if they behave well, because of course, only women behave well.' All generalised tosh, of course, and I wonder why Lessing bothers to say such things, whether in fact her whole stance might be a huge joke. It isn't of course, and we just end up bickering amiably back and forth - Lessing making silly, dated references to fishes and bicycle, me bearing an increasing resemblance to Viz comic's Millie Tant.
'You're in a fortress, you know that,' Lessing rebukes me at one point, her eyes twinkling. 'Everything you say describes something that's defensive, repelling men, these wicked creatures.' They're not wicked, I grumble, they just like to think they are. And Lessing gives me one of her grim little smirks, and growls softly: 'Don't change, don't ever change.'
The interview is over. It is time for Lessing to order me a cab, and stand at the window, looking her age for only the second time that day. Before that happens, Lessing tells me excitedly about the prestigious Spanish prize she is to receive in October. 'I'm delighted,' she says. 'I love Spain. This is Spain for you - I got a letter from the king and queen, the crown prince and the mayor, congratulating me. Can you imagine Elizabeth R even noticing if somebody got a prize for literature? No, only the racehorses.' She laughs. 'I'm going to be given the prize by the crown prince, curtsy, make a speech, and have a lovely time.' I tell her I can't imagine her curtsying to anyone, even if he is a crown prince. 'We will curtsy to each other,' she replies mock-solemnly.
Lessing also kindly finds me a copy of the sequel to The Fifth Child, entitled Ben in the World. 'Poor Ben, poor, poor Ben, I do feel so sorry for him,' she says, scribbling an inscription on the inside cover. When her back is turned, I look at it eagerly. It says: 'Best wishes, Doris Lessing.' Which is a shame. I would have preferred something slightly more personal, possibly along the lines of: 'You're a screwed-up feminist bore, leave my home at once, and never return, love Doris.' When finally the cab arrives, I race down to the street, so that Doris Lessing doesn't have to tire herself out waiting for me to leave. When I look back up at the window, she has already gone.
An appreciation of the work of Doris Lessing, by Kathryn Hughes
Sunday September 9, 2001
Doris Lessing's first novel, The Grass Is Singing, appeared in 1950 and set out many of the concerns that would mark her subsequent huge body of work. Set in post-war South Africa, the book explores the claustrophobic world of both the small provincial town and the isolated veldt farm, and the oppressive snobberies, racial tensions and wilful ignorance that make life there unbearable for the heroine, Mary Turner.
Lessing was living in London by the time she started her Children of Violence sequence of novels. However, once again she drew deeply on her experience of growing up in southern Africa. Published between 1952 and 1969, the quintet explores the moral, social and political education of Martha Quest, the restless, young white African girl whose trajectory is so similar to Lessing's own (both end up in late 60s London as middle-aged activists committed to a whole raft of left-ish issues).
But it was The Golden Notebook, her giant novel of 1962, that propelled Lessing on to the international stage and has kept her there ever since. The book attempts to deal both with the cracks in the consciousness of the heroine Anna Wulf, as well as exploring the fissures in narrative structure which were to become such a feature of the 'post-modern' novel. Women readers hailed the book as a brilliantly authentic account of their own experience, and adopted Anna, with her disappointing men, uncertain politics and blocked creativity, as one of their own. They also tried to turn Lessing into a feminist icon, something she has claimed she never wanted.
During the 60s, Lessing devoted much of her time to mothering a household of adolescent waifs and strays, but by the 70s she was writing once again. It was now that she embarked upon what she called her 'inner-space fiction', using metaphysical speculation and fantasy to throw contemporary issues - big business, government, sexual politics - into sharp focus. Books such as Briefing For a Descent into Hell (1971), The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979 to1983) are strongly influenced by the writings of Idries Shah, whose writings on Sufi mysticism stress the way in which the destiny of individuals and communities are intimately interlinked. These ethical concerns echo those of the 19th-century writers, such as Dickens, Eliot and Hardy, on whom Lessing had educated herself as a teenager, having stormed out of convent school when she was only 13. In addition to her novels, Lessing has produced two volumes of autobiography as well as a stream of critical writing. She has also produced plays, libretti for operas and a book about her favourite subject, cats. In 1999, Lessing was made a companion of honour, having turned down the chance to become a Dame of the British Empire, on the grounds that there is no such thing as the British Empire. Her latest book, The Sweetest Dream, is published this month.
The dream is over
Hywel Williams sees Doris Lessing savage the sixties in The Sweetest Dream
Saturday September 22, 2001
The Sweetest Dream
The ambition is characteristic of the novelist. Doris Lessing's fable of two continents and three generations takes us to Aids-struck Africa, Wilhelmine Germany and a dolefully delineated north London milieu of good intent and mental illness, whose casualties limp through the narrative. The Sweetest Dream is also surely the saddest story- the savage cartography of a once fondly imagined land by one who was there. This is emotion recollected in hate.
There's ideology by the bucket-load - some of it is the characters' rather than the author's. Chief culprit is "Comrade" Johnny Lennox, a diseased mind compounded of Marxist delusion and bourgeois self-hatred. Johnny loves humanity so much in the abstract that he gives himself licence to behave abominably to individuals, all the while self-justified by history's march. Even with the waning of the old faith, the psychology that sustained it is undiminished in its capacity to delude.
We have been here before with The History Man, yet Malcolm Bradbury's malevolent was also a believable charmer possessed of a dangerous energy. And energy is a beguilingly moral quality which can seduce both good and bad; Jeffrey Archer has it. Lessing's Johnny is a machiavel of the Jacobean stage, a person whose wickedness is so obvious one wonders why anyone is taken in.
This, however, is really a novel about women - heroic, striving, suffering, getting on with life and on in years, put upon, self-realising, getting there. There's noble German Julia, mother to ingrate Johnny, reading verses of scant consolation by Hopkins on the top floor of her Hampstead house. Downstairs in the kitchen is Frances, Johnny's abandoned wife, an earth-mother with a collection of waifs and strays attracted by self-abnegating benevolence and Elizabeth David recipes. There's practical Sylvia, who has the heart of the matter as well as Catholic faith. Being a bit of a lost cause at sex, she works in an African mission and then dies on the sitting room sofa. And then there's Rose, graduate of that kitchen-table school of bleeding hearts, who turns out to be a nasty combination of lefty rancour and tabloid values. This, then, is a woman thing - but emphatically not a feminist thing.
"The spirit of the Sixties, with passionate eyes, a trembling voice, and outstretched pleading hands, was confronting the whole past of the human race." And now here comes the flight from the enchantment, a summary and also an explanation of what went wrong. The best of the writing is reserved for Africa, where the Lessing genius for invocation of mood and place bounces off the page. But even here the anti-ideological ideology is well to the fore. Where international development is concerned, good intent's sweetest dream breeds a corruption of heart and mind that is recorded with a soi-disant Daily Mail abandon.
Frances hears the rants of her understandably disturbed son, fresh from the psychiatrist's chair, subjecting her to "what no human being should ever have to hear - another person's uncensored thoughts". And the characters go in for a lot of such expression. There are echoes here of Iris Murdoch's later novels - an unhappy epoch when a vast array of indistinguishable characters filled the Dame's unedited pages with their hellishly inconsequential philosophising.
This is a truly reactionary work in the limited sense that the author still stands at too close a remove to the object of abomination. In the full force of her reaction, she parodies and stereotypes. And there's an odd conflation of decades at work: though many in the 1960s and 1970s were soft on communism, the grand narrative had long since lost its interwar power to console.
Dream is offered as a substitute for the third volume of the autobiography Doris
Lessing will not write (lest she offend "vulnerable people"). But what emerges
is an awkward melange lacking both the realism of great fiction and the
truthfulness of history. The nuance that is needed for both is lost in rancour.
dinner parties and a quest for truth
Instead of a third volume of autobiography, Doris Lessing chose to move into fiction for the bittersweet sixties with The Sweetest Dream
Sunday September 23, 2001
The Sweetest Dream
Flamingo £16.99, 479pp
The sixties, Hampstead. A drop-leaf table set for 16 takes up most of the ground-floor reception in a grand, if shabby, terraced house. In the adjoining kitchen Frances, single mother and neurotic nurturer, stands stirring a large pot of winter stew of beef with chestnuts. A dozen or so youths are waiting to be fed - among them, Colin and Andrew, her two teenage sons, and a whole host of drop-ins, hangers-on and family survivors - but Frances is lost in a dream.
She's fantasising that her no-good ex-husband, Johnny, communist cult figure and absentee father, has finally come through with the alimony he owes for the past however many years, thereby freeing her from the drudgery of her journalistic work into the delight of theatre. It's a sweet dream, although it's a long way from the truth, and terrible things are done in the name of dreams, as Frances is about to discover.
The ills committed in the name of dreams - and, of course, their consequences - is the central theme explored in The Sweetest Dream, a novel intended to take the place of the third volume of Lessing's autobiography. Whether the dream is about communism, or independence, the characters here do harm to themselves and to others when they use dreams to hide from what they know to be the truth.
The first two volumes, Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade, are written as conventional memoir. Why this decision to change genre for the most recent part, one might ask.
No doubt Lessing's move into fiction grew out of complex motives: part need to create some breathing space, presumably to allow the colourful and at times eccentric characters who peopled her later life take on a life of their own; but also, surely, part desire to protect the living from public scrutiny. Ultimately though, Lessing has always been a generous writer, and one who is determined to get to the bottom of things, and while the story may veer from the facts, a kind of truth emerges nevertheless, as Lessing effortlessly captures what is quintessential in each of her charming characters.
Thus in spite of the breadth of its setting - London and the African country of Zimlia - and its concern with significant political movements and historical events, The Sweetest Dream is really about its characters' personal lives.
The dining table and its assembled guests make a recurring and appropriate tableau. Indeed, the novel gives the impression of a long string of drunken dinner parties, even one long discontinuous dinner party, with characters ambling in and out, disappearing for a few years only to reappear at a later stage, with new stories to tell.
At the table's head sits Frances, a lonely earth mother who doesn't believe she's worthy of love herself and hence devotes her vast reserves of love to the needs of others. As a result, Frances lives a lot of her life in resentment, and, significantly, can't be emotionally available to her two sons.
Somewhere standing in front of the assembled crowd is Johnny, the mask of his fanatical communism hiding a hurt, lost boy who desperately wants to be loved. He's ranting and raving and waving his hands around about the latest crimes committed by fascistic capitalists, and he has the adoring attention of everyone in the room - everyone except Frances, that is, and his two sons, both of whom have been deeply wounded by Johnny's inability to be a father.
In Lessing's case, The Dream was bittersweet indeed. Other than for Frances, who does finally learn how to receive and believe in the love she deserves, there is no redemption for its wounded characters. Andrew and Colin, while enlightened in some ways, nevertheless repeat the sins of the father in their own lives, and Johnny never wakes up to what he has done.
has claimed that her quest for the truth not only set her apart from both her
parents, it also propelled her into becoming a writer. No doubt it is the same
impetus that has produced a volume that speaks so loudly to the present. In its
critique of mass-produced thinking and the long-term personal cost of war, The
Sweetest Dream approaches a universal truth: both damage people's capacity to
give and receive love. Something to mull over in these troubled times.
WEDNESDAY SEPTEMBER 05 2001
Between them Lessing and Gordimer illuminate the passing of the 20th century's anti-capitalist dream
The lost grandeur of Marxists
THE SWEETEST DREAM
By Doris Lessing
Flamingo, £16.99; 478 pp
ISBN 0 00226 161 8
By Nadine Gordimer
Bloomsbury, £16.99; 288 pp
ISBN 0 7475 5427 7
Doris Lessing has strong opinions. She has spoken out stridently against “dumbing down”, unreflective political correctness, mindless conformity to any kind of party line and, most recently, raised a grandmotherly finger to the chick-lit brigade. Having lived through the 1960s, she will have been expecting a raspberry in response, if not something considerably worse. Her new novel, The Sweetest Dream, does not explain her moral, cultural or political views, and it isn’t meant to — (Lessing has chosen not to write the volume of her autobiography covering her life in London after the publication of The Golden Notebook in 1962). Instead she evokes the era that shaped our own through an extended family of fictional characters.
Johnny Lennox is a prominent member of the British Communist Party, to the dismay of his refined German mother who is haunted by the pain and horror of both World Wars. He regularly arrives at her large house in Hampstead, making speeches, giving the salute and wearing a Mao-style leather jacket. His abandoned first wife, and their two sons, live here too, with an entourage of rebellious or damaged teenagers who think their parents are fascists. This mob shoplift on principle, so as to "liberate” commodities like Biba dresses from the capitalist system. Johnny encourages them, bolstering their ideology by writing A Revolution Handbook.
Lessing clearly distinguishes intellectual from emotional commitment to the revolutionary ideas that galvanised a whole generation. There were always clear-thinking dissenters who raised questions that the Comrades pushed aside; people who believed the disturbing reports leaked from the Soviet Union; and those who insisted that any government’s first responsibility was the protection of its own people — but even these retained a residual belief in progress: a fairer, united world almost within reach. This means that while having sharp-witted fun with the absurdities of dogma, Lessing captures the humane grandeur of her Marxist dreamers. Then she shows that grandeur dissipate in the bitter Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the struggles of the Third World. In impoverished African settings hazardous political ideas become deadly, and admirable philanthropic impulses are engulfed in a tide of almost unimaginable need.
In assessing this historical tragedy (and farce) Lessing vigorously asserts the value of individual lives and the love that holds them together. She has an extraordinary feeling for the peculiar vulnerabilities of the young, elderly and mentally unstable. And her portraits of sympathetic human relationships are of quite staggering beauty. The Sweetest Dream rests on a hard won optimism: personality and ideology are the great forces that shape our lives and we must make ourselves responsible for each. It would be hard to exaggerate the splendour of this book.
Nadine Gordimer’s The Pickup is less robust because it looks forwards rather than backwards, trying to map social and political trends in the new South Africa and beyond. It centres on a love affair between a young white South African woman, intent on rejecting her privileged background, and an illegal Arab immigrant, hoping to acquire the very same privileges of wealth and security. She takes him to the L.A. Café in the old Hippie and Leftist quarter of an unnamed city where her open-minded Retro-Sixties friends welcome him. On their own ground even her family are distantly polite, but the authorities cannot be persuaded and deportation is imminent. Together they return to his unspecified Arab village. And here she is alien, left at home while her lover discusses politics in the local coffee bar: “. . . revolutionary but not like other revolutions, they must understand this is a moral religious revolution — but it can only be achieved by the seizure of state power, like any other revolution.” Yet this is finally empty talk, and the real energies of these young men are directed instead towards acquiring visas to countries where capitalism is already firmly entrenched.
Between them Lessing and Gordimer illuminate the passing of the 20th century’s anti-capitalist dream: looking back, it seems extraordinary that the dream went on for so long; and looking forward, it is far too early to tell what its failure really means.
SATURDAY OCTOBER 06 2001
Doris Lessing explores the tender parts of the modern psyche in her novel about a family at the turn of the 20th-century
The Sweetest Dream
By Doris Lessing
ISBN 0 002 26161 8
DORIS LESSING recently got into trouble for saying that the struggle for women’s rights seemed to have degenerated into a anti-male cocktail of contempt and triumphalism. The irritation with which her remarks were greeted showed that she had probed a painful nerve.
In her new novel, she explores these tender parts of the modern psyche. The Sweetest Dream is a book with a kitchen table at its heart. The table, the kitchen and the large Hampstead house that contains them belong to Julia Lennox, née von Arne, who was born in Germany at the turn of the 20th century. Julia now exists as an anachronism of correctness and propriety, at the top of the house, the rest of which is given over to Frances, her daughter-in- law, and Frances’s extended family of waifs and strays.
Among its least welcome members is Frances’s husband, who was christened Jolyon but is known as Comrade Johnny. His work on behalf of the Party — necessary, these days, remarks Lessing, to gloss this as the Communist Party — means that sacrifices have to be made, particularly by his wife and two sons, whom he has abandoned in order to concentrate on a dialogue with attractive female Comrades. On his visits to the family home he usually brings something — more often than not a discarded member of his entourage whom he feels it is Frances’s duty to accommodate.
In time, the foundlings become politicians and activists; one of them trains as a doctor, converts to Catholicism and goes to work in Africa, where she encounters old friends who have become formidably influential. The nastiest of the children, unloved and unloveable Rose Trimble, becomes a particularly venomous journalist.
The Sweetest Dream is a remarkable novel; notable not for its finesse or polish but for its vigour and attack, and for its passionate interest in justice and goodness. We never really grow to love the characters as individuals — there are too many of them, and some are too sketchy for close involvement — but there rises from these pages an infectious love for the myriad human souls that swirl like atoms across the impeturbable face of the Earth.
This moral engagement with her material, like her pungent characterisation and flaying of hypocrisy, together with the confidence with which she sets a scene and her unexpected moments of sentimentality, mark out Lessing as a 21st-century virtuoso in the great 19th- century fictional manner.
The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing, Flamingo, ISBN 0002261618
Life, love and left-wing politics
Doris Lessing has reconsidered and rejected many of the ideas which have conditioned her life
17 September 2001
AS DORIS LESSING must realise, by proclaiming at the start of her new novel that it is not "novelised autobiography" she has ensured that it is read with her life story in mind. In her long career - she is now over 80, and this is her 32nd book (not counting short stories, plays and poetry) - she has always moved between the realistic contemporary novel and the futuristic fable. Her recent autobiography was justly praised.
Now, as if to prove that she has not finished mining her own experience, she has produced a massive 478 page novel scrutinising life, love and left-wing politics in Britain over the last 50 years.
Her setting is familiar Lessing territory, both in fiction and life; a large house in Hampstead, where Julia, Frances and Sylvia represent three generations of women struggling to cope with the emotional consequences of war, revolution and social change. Julia's son and Frances's first husband is Comrade Johnny, the novel's anti-hero, who joined the Communist Party out of youthful idealism in the 1930s and never changed his mind; he neglects his children, exploits his women and refers to his mother, who supports them all, as a fascist bitch.
Meanwhile Frances, Doris Lessing's contemporary and a generous, resilient character who clearly has all the author's sympathy, finds herself by the 1960s running a communal household where her teenage sons and their friends drift in and out, no one is refused a meal or a bed and shoplifting is tolerated because property is theft. Frances (like Doris Lessing) was a Communist once, but has long seen through Comrade Johnny and his sort; she becomes a successful journalist on The Defender, a newspaper clearly modelled on The Guardian, where despite difficulties with hard-line Lefties and grim feminists she eventually finds true love.
Doris Lessing's wry, disillusioned account of the manners, morals and lost causes of the 1960s and 1970s is almost too successful in conveying the more tedious aspects of the time. Her theme is that the Communist Party, with its rigid ideology, and the Swinging Sixties, with their libertarian communalism, were both peddling the same old dream of a perfect society; both ended up doing great harm, especially to the vulnerable young. All dogmas, she now concedes, are applied at the expense of real people and their needs. Men, by and large, do the damage; women pick up the pieces.
The last third of the book is the freshest. Sylvia, who survives anorexia and becomes a doctor, moves in the 1980s to Zimlia, an African country clearly based on Zimbabwe, which Lessing knows of old. Both the writing and the action speed up at this point. Sylvia's experiences in a village afflicted by Aids and her desperate attempts to obtain help from international organisations and local leaders bring her back in touch with some of the characters - black and white - whom she first met around Frances's kitchen table.
Doris Lessing has never lacked moral courage or been afraid to change her mind. Here, she reconsiders and even rejects many of the ideas which have conditioned her life and writing. The book is not easy to read; Lessing's conversational prose contains all too many verbless, inverted sentences. Even so, anyone who regards The Golden Notebook as one of the key books of the mid-20th century will find this disconcerting novel worth attention.
Good news for writers frightened by the ticking of their biological clocks: Doris Lessing at 81 has just given birth to her third novel in three years. Unlike its two dreamy, non- naturalistic predecessors, The Sweetest Dream is a good fat read in the 19th-century tradition, following a crowded cast of characters through 50 years of recent history, from the honeyed hopes of post-war communism to the bitter taste of Comrade Mugonzi's (alias Mugabe's) corrupt Zimlian regime.
Lessing has been brave enough to change her mind publicly about many things. In her time she has been influenced by feminism, communism, mysticism and psychoanalysis, all of which she lampoons effectively here. (A prefatory note suggests a disproportionate dislike for the CND: "There has never been a more hysterical, noisy or irrational campaign" - really? Was the CND noisier than the suffragettes, the animal rightists, the anti-globalists?) It seems odder because in the book itself the CND makes only a brief, caricatural appearance. Communism is the central illusion, the sweetest dream.
Comrade Johnny is a sexually attractive, charismatic young party member, the son of well-off parents with a big house in Hampstead, when he marries Frances. They have two children before he leaves her for a succession of other, more correct female comrades. Frances ends up living in the house with his patrician, German-born mother, Julia; their initial mutual dislike crumbles over the decades into an awkward alliance against the prodigal son.
Lessing, who hit the news recently with her defence of men, wittily skewers the more predictable gender loyalties of feminists: a "Defender" (Guardian?) journalist, Julie Hackett, weeps when she learns that it is the female mosquito that spreads malaria. Yet Comrade Johnny, the male pivot of this book, is beyond redemption, selfish, dishonest, greedy, vain and relentlessly stupid. Frances is the "earth mother": Johnny is the freeloader.
"'I'll pay maintenance, of course,' said Johnny, but never did." Johnny's sons are weak, unhappy, and drink too much. Lessing hasn't done a lot to improve men's image here.
The Hampstead house, with its many floors and many rooms inhabited by a floating population of hangers-on, falling in and out of love, breaking down and recovering, is itself an actor in this drama, the embodiment of money. In the enormous kitchen, Frances, suppressing her acting ambitions, conjures up the endless succession of succulent meals required to nourish her children, their friends, past and present girlfriends, Johnny's discarded wives and children, and occasionally comrade Johnny himself, a "roving eminence rouge" who travels the world (without working) as the honoured guest of foreign communist parties, and turns up here unannounced to eat greedily, blame the ills of the world on the CIA, and upset his sons. Meal follows meal, days turn into years, Christmases come and go. Suddenly we realise that these children are middle-aged, yet most of them have never managed to leave home, and they are still crying a lot.
The second half of the book forces further sharp reassessments. Sylvia, Johnny's neglected daughter, qualifies as a doctor and goes out to Zimlia to build a field hospital. Through her eyes we see the desperate poverty that is normal there. Suddenly, the Hampstead-dwellers seem infantile and self-obsessed, their relative glut of food, books and opportunities shameful. The political points are tellingly if didactically made, with sharp caricatures of greedy, westernised Zimlian leaders, and even more scornful ones of the fat cats who work for the international agencies such as Global Money and Caring International.
Formally and imaginatively, this book is not as dazzlingly original as Lessing's last big novel, Mara and Dann (1999), which people either loved or hated. Probably more readers will enjoy this one. It stands in place of the third volume of Lessing's autobiography, which she has decided not to write, to avoid hurting the living; instead she has got uncomfortable truths off her chest in fictional form. Her pleasure in that process crackles through the political satire and the writing itself. The Hampstead house's delicious, cross little dog, Vicious, has "paws . . . like puffs of cotton wool . . . eyes like little pawpaw seeds . . . tail a twist of silvery silk". Lessing seems to love the world she has lived in, even if, like many of us, she got most of it wrong first time around.
Doris Lessing disillusioned
THE SWEETEST DREAM
479pp. Flamingo. £16.99.
0 00 226 161 8
Doris Lessing made controversial news recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival with her outspoken defence of decent men “demeaned and insulted” by “fat and complacent” feminists. None the less, The Sweetest Dream is Lessing’s most merciless dissection of masculine egoism since The Golden Notebook (1962). Her male revolutionaries, in London and in Africa, are incompetents or monsters, while her central women characters, who span three generations, are nurturing mothers and martyrs. Fortunately, Lessing’s twenty-fourth novel (including her science fiction), while reflecting her disillusion with all her former political movements – Communism, feminism, the CND campaign, and African nationalism – is philosophical and funny rather than bitter. Packed with memorable, drily etched characters, and ambitious in the range and accuracy of its satire, The Sweetest Dream does for the fantasies of the British Left what David Lodge’s Small World did for the pretensions of literary theory.
Lessing begins her story in the 1960s with the household of Frances Lennox, earth mother to a huge extended family, other people’s children as well as her own two sons, Andrew and Colin. Unending hordes of adolescent drop-outs, political refugees and moochers come to feast at her large polished kitchen table, a symbol of the communal spirit of the times. Working as Agony Aunt Vera for the left-wing newspaper The Defender , Frances wryly reflects on her inability to understand or control her own wayward teenagers and their shop-lifting, freeloading, free-loving friends, let alone comprehend her withdrawn ex-mother-in-law, or get to grips with her dwindling personal life. Above all, she muses on how much of her energy she has wasted on the sweet dream of socialist Progress: “that present ills would slowly dissolve away, and everyone in the world would find themselves in a happy healthy time”.
Frances’s dreams have been kept on artificial life-support by her ex-husband, Jolyon Meredith Wilhelm Lennox, the scion of a wealthy family who is known around the world as Comrade Johnny. This “roving Eminence Rouge”, a figure of near-Dickensian hypocrisy, pomposity and selfishness, is the comic masterpiece of the novel, a flawless caricature of the career revolutionary, who speaks in formulas and clichés, lives parasitically and well on others, and blithely abandons his wives and children with the motto that “the struggle must come before family obligations”.
Johnny’s reputation stems from his claim to have run away from Eton to fight in the Spanish Civil War; actually, he had been holed up with hepatitis in an East London flat. One of nature’s spongers, he lives on handouts from his mother, Julia, on Frances’s inability to withdraw his house-key, and on gifts, including a black leather Mao jacket, from adoring Party members in the rag trade.When he is confronted with unpleasant realities – from his family’s needs to evidence of Soviet tyranny – Johnny simply refuses to listen. “I shall disassociate myself from all anti-Soviet propaganda” is his catch-phrase, and he speaks in a pompous rhetoric derived from Party handouts. “A good type”, he says approvingly of one Israeli comrade. “He has maintained a consistently progressive position as a non-aligned Marxist, advocating peaceful relations with the Soviet Union.” At one point, his language is so strangled and quaint that his son demands a translation: “You sound like an old Russian novel.”
In 1968, Johnny briefly fears that he is becoming too old to cut a figure among the revolutionary youth of Paris, and that his Stalinism puts him at a disadvantage; but he never really goes out of style and gets through the following decades as a revered elder statesman of the Left, jetting from one revolutionary opportunity to another, preaching his stern Marxist-Leninism and living large in “comradely luxury hotels in the Soviet Union, Poland, China, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia; in Chile and Angola and Cuba. Wherever there had been a comradely conference, Johnny had been there.”
In his old age, still proposing toasts to Stalin among the remnants of Party faithful, Johnny becomes the follower of a “senior Indian holy man, and was now often heard to remark, ‘Yes, I was a bit of a Red once.’ He would sit cross-legged on his pillows on his bed, and his old gesture, palms extended outwards as if offering himself to an audience, fitted in nicely with this new persona. He had disciples, and taught meditation and the Fourfold Sacred Way. In return they kept his rooms clean for him and cooked dishes in which lentils played a leading role.”
Feminism and the Women’s Movement get short shrift from
Lessing as well. Frances has scant sympathy for the feminist journalists at
The Defender :
when Frances was with The Defender women, she felt herself to be part of an all-female jury that has just passed a unanimous verdict of Guilty. They sat about, in leisure moments, solidly in the right, telling little anecdotes of this man’s crassness or that man’s delinquency, they exchanged glances of satirical comment, they compressed their lips and arched their brows, and when men were present, they watched for evidence of incorrect thought and then they pounced like cats on sparrows. Never have there been smugger, more self-righteous, unselfcritical people.
Feminists in the novel are comic figures, like the
journalist Julie Hackett, who succumbs to a “a fit of tearful rage when hearing
on the radio that it was the female mosquito that is responsible for malaria.
‘The shits. The blood fascist shits.’ When at last persuaded by Frances that
this was a fact and not a slander invented by male scientists to put down the
female sex – ’Sorry, gender’ – she quieted into hysterical tears and said, ‘It’s
all so bloody unfair.’” Ambitious women are predators, like Rose Trimble, one of
Frances’s many strays of the 1960s, an aggrieved and envious girl who grows up
to be a sensational journalist:
She had found her niche in World Scandals , where her task was to hunt out weaknesses, or rumours, and then hound some victim day and night until she could triumphantly come up with an exposé. The higher this unfortunate was in public life the better. She camped on people’s doorsteps, rummaged in rubbish bins, bribed relatives and friends to reveal or invent damaging facts: she was good at this scavenger’s work, and she was feared. She was particularly famous for her “portraits”, bringing journalism to new heights of vindictiveness.
But housewives, too, are pathetic specimens, given to depression and sporadic efforts to better themselves by setting up as counsellors; Counselling, Lessing writes tartly, has become the occupational “resource of the unqualified female”.
The only women who win her approval are those who briskly set about doing a worthy and hopeless task, as teachers, managers, earth mothers, or, in the case of the novel’s heroine (and Johnny’s stepdaughter) Sylvia, running a makeshift hospital in an impoverished African village. In the second half of the novel, Lessing scathingly dramatizes the outcome of the brave sweet dreams of freedom for Zimlia, a liberated African nation much like Zimbabwe; and the corruption of its ex-Marxist leader, President Matthew Mungozi, a revolutionary hero who strongly resembles Robert Mugabe. Post-revolutionary Zimlia is also plagued by the charitable, the “spiritual heirs of the comrades”, who descend with vast sums of money, worthy intentions, and total incompetence. At one banquet, the grandees of Global Money, who “deal with that Oliver Twist, Africa”, meet the nabobs of Caring International, whose “enterprise had caused hundreds of the latest most elaborate tractors donated to an ex-colony up north to lie rotting and rusting around the edges of as many fields: spare parts, know-how and fuel had been lacking, quite apart from the agreement of the local people who would have liked something less grandiose”.
In the chaos of Africa, career revolutionaries mingle with capitalist philanthropists, as Sylvia and her friends observe: “Why not? All their idols have turned out to have feet of clay, but cheer up! There’s an unlimited supply of great leaders in Africa, thugs and bullies and thieves, so all the poor souls that have to love a leader can love the black ones.” “And when there’s a massacre or a tribal war or a few missing millions, all they have to do is to murmur, It’s a different culture”, says Sylvia succumbing to spite. As for Johnny, he is always the guest of some dictator or other “Or at a conference discussing the nature of Freedom . . . Or at a symposium on Poverty . . . Or a seminar called by the World Bank.”
Now eighty-one, Doris Lessing has often discussed the illusions of Communism, and her fascination with the capacity of intelligent people, including her own young self, to believe in its dreams. In The Sweetest Dream , she asks, through Frances Lennox, “How could people unable to organize their own lives, who lived in permanent disarray, build anything worthwhile?” In an author’s note, Lessing explains that she has decided not to write the third volume of her autobiography, “because of possible hurt to vulnerable people”. It is hard to imagine that her old comrades will take much comfort in The Sweetest Dream; but this book, part roman à clef , part Brechtian fable, and Lessing’s most engrossing novel in many years, should be appreciated and enjoyed by many readers, feminists included.
The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing
This book brings with it a rare literary pleasure the kind you might have in suddenly coming upon a long lost novel by George Eliot or Balzac. Six pages in, and you know that you have entered a fictional world which is already indelibly imprinted on your imagination, and which has in some measure shaped you. The characters are your familiars. You recognise their terrors and desires, the houses, landscape and politics they inhabit. Simultaneously, everything has shifted and is new.
The Sweetest Dream belongs with The Golden Notebook and the "Children of Violence" sequence: the great novels of Doris Lessing's period of social and psychological realism. It's not only a matter of style or authorial voice, but of history. We begin in the Sixties, that pivotal epoch which thought itself altogether new and looked forward to change or apocalypse without realising, in Lessing's analysis, that it bore the scars of past wars, both hot and cold.
As she tells us in a prefatory note, Lessing decided against writing the third volume of her autobiography, which would have taken her through this time. Too many people might have been hurt. Instead, the project was recast as The Sweetest Dream. In the event, the novel succeeds in not being a roman à clef; it bears no more (and no fewer) traces of Lessing's life than earlier novels.
Though Lessing has recently caused a ruckus by criticising women for always blaming men and, indeed, feminism for taking a wrong turn at birth, this book makes clear once more why her influence on a nascent feminism was so emphatic. She is simply wonderful at describing the condition of women all those tugs and thrusts of desire and guilt, passivity, resentment and responsibility which shaped women, certainly in the middle and latter part of the 20th century. If she has a novelist's dislike of fixed and prescriptive positions, and particularly of those ideologies which moulded some of her time's sweetest dreams, she remains a consummate analyst both of the dynamics of their attraction and the damage they can do.
At the core of The Sweetest Dream are three women of different and often warring generations. Through and around them, the political and individual passions of the times are played out. Frances Lennox is a journalist who longs to be on stage more than her finances usually permit, since she is the abandoned mother of two boys. She goes to live in her mother-in-law, Julia Lennox's, capacious home, where as Martha Quest did before her she becomes "house-mother' to a shifting gaggle of teenage strays brought to her by children and circumstance. All of them play out their problems around a heaving kitchen table, Lessing's ikon of security and continuity.
Julia is the widow of a high-ranking civil servant, a woman who was shaped in pre-First World War innocence and who, even in the unwashed Sixties and Seventies, continues to wear gloves and a hat with veil. She is also German, though not Jewish, which leads to some slanderous assaults in the gutter press of the Eighties, one of whose badly-educated star journalists sharpened her envy in the privileged Lennox household. Julia is initially critical of her daughter-in-law's free and easy ways, but she and Frances forge bonds of understanding, not least through their mutual contempt for the man who brought them together Comrade Johnny.
Johnny Lennox stands in for all of Lessing's passionate Reds: a vainglorious rabble-rouser, indifferent to individual pain in his blind dedication to the revolutionary (and Stalinist) cause, for whom he becomes a frequent flyer, jetting to speechify at celebratory events in new pro-Soviet nations. An absentee father, Johnny is more oppressive than any present father might be to his own children; yet he is a hero to their friends, many of whom rise to positions of prominence in the Eighties. It is Johnny's stepdaughter who becomes the heroine of the last third of the book. Dumped by Johnny and his hysterical second wife, tiny Sylvia finds a space round the kitchen table. But Sylvia doesn't eat. She is anorexic.
Grandmother Julia, who usually stays away from the noisy young ones, takes her under her wing. The old lady helps her to heal and finances her medical training, whereupon Sylvia takes off to pursue her sweetest dream in Lessing's earliest terrain. She becomes a mission doctor in a remote part of Zimbabwe, here named Zimlia, where dictatorship coupled with Aids strangle life as well as hope.
Where this novel departs from Lessing's earlier ones is in the inevitable note of hindsight. The tone of the narrative is Olympian, though not impassive. The portrait of Comrade Johnny verges on satire: we know that history is not on his side. The decades tumble over each other in their hurry.
Lessing has never been a particularly careful writer and here she is more than ever impatient with the novelist's ploys and devices and refinements of language. But the haunting brilliance of her characters, whom one feels one knows rather better than one's friends, the passion of her ideas and vision, remain undiminished. She's up up there in the pantheon with Honoré and George. We're lucky that she is still writing.
Lisa Appignanesi's latest novel is 'Sanctuary' (Bantam)
February 1, 2002
BOOKS OF THE TIMES | 'THE SWEETEST DREAM'
In her long and peripatetic career, Doris Lessing has traversed the savannas of Africa, the crooked streets of London and the chilly reaches of outer space. Irving Howe once described her as "the archaeologist of human relations," and she wrote persuasively about politics, feminism, Communism and black-white relations in Africa before moving on to explore the emotional crevices of the human psyche in her groundbreaking novel "The Golden Notebook" (1962).
After abandoning her interest in realism to promulgate a visionary Sufi-inspired mysticism in her "space-fiction" series, "Canopus in Argos: Archives," however, she has struggled to find a new idiom: recent novels like "Mara and Dann" (1999) and "Ben, in the World" (2000) have evinced an uneasy blend of allegory, social observation and fairy-tale moralism.
Her latest novel, "The Sweetest Dream," is the biggest hodgepodge of styles, themes and characters yet: a novel whose moments of brilliance are obscured by reams of tiresome exposition, hokey plot twists and astonishingly opaque characters. The novel begins by reprising the setup of Ms. Lessing's 1985 novel "The Good Terrorist" (in which a motley assortment of English radicals set up housekeeping in London), then shifts scenes to Africa, the site of "The Grass Is Singing" (1950) and her early Martha Quest novels.
As in "A Ripple From the Storm" (1958), Communist Party politics are explicated, this time scornfully and in stultifying detail. As in "The Golden Notebook," the psychological struggles of women to come to terms with their marriages and their own fears of madness and despair are delineated, though this time without the daring narrative innovations of that earlier novel. The reader is left with the sense that Ms. Lessing is simply tossing everything she's ever written about before into this kitchen sink of a novel, with no regard to the niceties of narrative construction or rudiments of storytelling.
"The Sweetest Dream" not only spans some four decades — from the 60's onward, with some flashbacks to World War II — but it also takes on a dizzying array of social issues including revolutionary politics, AIDS, the antinuke movement, post-colonial politics and international relief. Its cast includes three vividly drawn women and a host of supporting characters who come across as paper dolls representing various vices and virtues like Self-Righteousness, Adolescent Self-Absorption, Fuzzy Idealism and Aged Wisdom.
The first two-thirds of the novel tells the story of one Frances Lennox, a long-suffering writer and would-be actress who has sacrificed her own dreams to take care of her two sons and accommodate their odious father, her ex-husband, Johnny Lennox, a fatuous Communist who is constantly denouncing the bourgeoisie while relying upon his well-to-do mother, Julia, for financial support. Johnny is portrayed as such a cartoonish monster that it's impossible to understand why Frances ever loved him, or why she still allows him to intrude upon her life.
Frances has moved into her mother-in-law's house, and the two women eventually form a bond, based upon their mutual disappointments in life and their shared sense — so strong among Ms. Lessing's female characters — of responsibility to others. They also share of course the frustration of having to deal with Comrade Johnny, who snarls and smirks at them both, even as he continues to show up at their house to mooch a free meal, bask in their attention or complain about the capitalist state.
Comrade Johnny does nothing to support his two sons — the moody Colin, who is an aspiring novelist, and the smoothly cultivated Andrew. He spends most of his time trying to seduce their ragtag group of friends with talk of Revolution. He ratifies their taste for shoplifting — "liberating" clothing and trinkets — and encourages their rebellion against their bourgeois parents.
Passive to a fault, Frances plays den mother to these kids, even though some of them are openly contemptuous of her. Chief among these malcontents is the dreadful Rose, who is described by Ms. Lessing as an ugly avatar of the 1980's, "when getting on, getting rich, doing down your fellows, were officially applauded." Rose pretends to be a revolutionary but at heart believes in nothing but advancing herself. She later becomes a tabloid journalist, intent on bringing down many of the people she knew in her youth.
As for the other hangers-on at the Lennox house, there's Franklin, an African scholarship student who grows up to become a government minister in the newly independent country of Zimlia; Sophie, a beautiful would-be actress, who has affairs with a succession of men, including both Andrew and Colin; and the self- assured Geoffrey, who eventually takes over an international aid agency that spectacularly squanders its resources.
Because these characters are little more than line drawings, assigned a single quality or two, their constant bickering does nothing to hold our interest, and while Ms. Lessing succeeds in showing us the hypocrisy of these parlor-room Communists, her efforts are so heavy-handed and long-winded that she nearly puts us to sleep in the process.
In the third portion of the novel — which belongs to Sylvia, the daughter of Johnny's second wife — the narrative picks up speed, despite the author's overreliance on contrivance and coincidence to set events in motion. More than a decade has passed, and the action has moved to Africa, where Sylvia is working as a doctor in a small mission town in Zimlia. Here, Ms. Lessing's wonderfully evocative sense of place — reminiscent of that displayed in her earliest fiction — kicks in, providing us with a visceral sense of Sylvia's arduous day-to-day life.
The people Sylvia works with in St. Luke's, their lives all grooved by poverty and illness and deprivation, are delineated with considerably more sympathy and emotional detail than the people in London, and Ms. Lessing's narrative, liberated from the need to settle political scores with phony Communists and feminists, takes on a new energy and life. But while the novel ends on an affecting note that attests to Ms. Lessing's undimmed talent for social and psychological observation, even this achievement cannot erase the memory of the lugubrious and unconvincing pages that have taken so long to get there.
February 10, 2002
What dream, and why the sweetest? The answer is, narrowly, Communism, and, broadly, 1960's London, with its self-image of pioneering personal liberation, and with Westerners' guilty desire to help others, to ''do good.'' It's a dream because it's not real, and it's sweet because it reflects the best human instinct, to make things better, person by person.
At 82, with one hopes not quite a lifetime of work behind her (there's her long-delayed Nobel Prize, for one thing), Doris Lessing has thoughts on all this. She also has an avid cult of readers who seek in her every work of fiction scraps of autobiographical insight. She is fully aware of this, and properly defensive about it. She has written two long and thoughtful volumes of actual autobiography, which ostensibly carry us to 1962, the year of ''The Golden Notebook,'' but with many insights that extend beyond that time. Now she has announced her disinclination to publish any more, ''because of possible hurt to vulnerable people,'' as she puts it in an author's note to this novel. But, she hastens to add, this ''does not mean I have novelized autobiography.''
This might seem to protest overmuch, but also seems patently true. Characters and events in ''The Sweetest Dream'' are clearly drawn from her own life and experiences, especially the earth mother, Frances, and her big rambling house in the 60's full of stray youths, only a few her own. Frances is even a disillusioned former Communist. But all novelists draw from their experience, and so much of Doris Lessing's life is left out here -- chiefly her fascination with R. D. Laing's experimental psychology and with Idries Shah and mystical Sufism, not to mention her status by this time as a world-famous novelist with friendships throughout artistic London and the world -- that the first half of the book can hardly offer more than glancing autobiographical insight. The second half takes us off to ''Zimlia,'' which means her childhood Rhodesia and is a morphing of Zimbabwe and Zambia (she called it ''Zambesia'' in the ''Children of Violence'' novels, which she was writing at the height of her own earth motherism). This section tells us something about Lessing's current attitudes toward Africa and her embittered feelings about corrupt black politicians, but not so much about herself.
The inclination of readers to mine novels for autobiography is something Lessing has dealt with before, in the second volume of her autobiography, ''Walking in the Shade.'' ''Extraordinary, this need for the autobiographical,'' she muses, adding: ''Once, all our storytelling was imaginative, was myth and legend and parable and fable, for that is how we told stories to and about each other. But that capacity has atrophied under the pressure from the realistic novel.''
But with this new book, according to the publisher, ''Doris Lessing returns to realistic fiction.'' What the blurb may reflect is the lingering disappointment felt by some Lessing fans about her voyage into imaginative storytelling and about her ''space fiction'' in particular. Her ''Children of Violence'' series and above all ''The Golden Notebook'' made her a feminist icon, a role she has always resisted. For her early, not-so-loyal readers, the true Lessing is the Communist who lost her faith but still strove to do good, the strong woman who found her own destiny in a world of men. For them, her extended foray into science fiction was a betrayal, and they blame her questionable involvement with Eastern mysticism and, worse yet, an ostensibly Muslim form of Eastern mysticism.
For more recent admirers, myself among them, the ''Canopus in Argos'' series is where Lessing really took flight. It seemed that she had abruptly abandoned quasi-autobiographical realism for something thrilling or alienating, depending on your point of view. Allegorically depicting interplanetary civilizations and cosmic evolutionary events, these five novels, starting with the grandiose ''Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta,'' seemed to those who loved them to have freed Lessing from the prosaic constraints of ordinary life. But these novels did not come as a complete shock to followers of her work; they were preceded by ''Briefing for a Descent into Hell'' (1971), still the best evocation of the terrors and ecstasies of drug-induced visions I know, and the haunting ''Memoirs of a Survivor'' (1974), in which the protagonist, realistically drawn, matter-of-factly passes through walls to the realms behind them, and followed by ''Mara and Dann'' (1999), another cosmic allegory set in a far distant ice age.
The fact is, Lessing's work has always swung between realism and imagination, as if the two could ever be separated. Dreams and madness can be found in the early realistic novels, and by ''The Fifth Child'' (1988), about the birth of a monstrous anomaly, the lines have been totally, and fruitfully, blurred. Her ''space fiction'' is not alien; it is, as she says, full of ''myth and legend and parable and fable,'' all as insightful into the human condition as any realism could be, full of apocalyptic images and barn-burning good stories besides. For admirers of this aspect of her writerly personality, even her stern lectures on the mismanagement of the environment or the failure of politicians read fresh.
So where does ''The Sweetest Dream'' fit into the canon? It is definitely ''realistic''; the publisher did not lie, and trollers for autobiographical minutiae will no doubt seek out here juicy details about Lessing's own life. Which lover fits the withering profile of duplicity and deceit in Comrade Johnny, Frances' first husband and a lifelong revolutionary (until he discovers yoga)? Who is Sylvia, the angelic fanatic who tries to do good in Zimlia? Who is Franklin, the innocent boy turned corrupt Zimlian minister? Who is Rose Trimble, the implacably evil journalist? Who is Rupert, the lover with whom Frances finds contentment? Clues abound in ''Walking in the Shade.''
But for more innocent readers of ''The Sweetest Dream,'' who cares? The book does not quite hold up to the very best of Lessing's realistic fiction, which doesn't mean it's not an engaging read or not shot through with wonderful descriptive phrases (''the two faces were like ashes spilled on the dark'' can stand for many). By now, she's pretty bitter about a lot of things in her past, and characters abound who skewer every aspect of that past. Bad things happen, and Lessing dwells on them, skating over the good. We hear less about Frances' happy relationship in later life than about her day-to-day frustrations; Sylvia is driven out of Zimlia, and almost as an afterthought we read of a group of lower-mid-level do-gooders who are actually doing good.
The book is oddly organized and vague about chronology, with three women as protagonists. Frances and her teeming house are interestingly interwoven in the first half with the perspective of Julia, Frances' austere German mother-in-law, who has her own dream of a pre-World War I paradise near Stuttgart. But then Julia dies, and we follow Sylvia to Zimlia, where Frances is pretty much forgotten, except for a cameo toward the end. At the very end, there's Celia, Frances' granddaughter, a ''faery child'' who spins and sings about ''poor little Johnny.''
Celia's magical benediction suggests that ''The Sweetest Dream'' is a fable, with the impossibly good Sylvia, on the one hand, and the impossibly mean-spirited Rose, on the other, and with Frances as a kind of bedrock, always present even when seemingly absent. In that sense, ''The Sweetest Dream'' is yet another amalgam of realism and imagination, like ''Memoirs of a Survivor'' or ''Shikasta'' or ''Mara and Dann'' or even ''The Golden Notebook.''
Seekers after autobiographical ''truth'' will still be left wanting, to be sure. One wonders where Lessing stands now with her Sufism, especially after the death of Idries Shah in 1996. Has she grown embittered about searching for inner truth, too? No doubt Volume 3 (and 4?) of her autobiography will be, or are being, written for posthumous publication. Someday someone will write a more serious and comprehensive study than Carole Klein managed two years ago in her ''Doris Lessing: A Biography.'' In the meantime we can glean some answers from Lessing's own work, including the autobiography that supposedly stops in 1962. In ''Walking in the Shade,'' published in 1997, she still refers to Sufism as ''the main current in my life, deeper than any other, my real preoccupation.'' And then there's ''Mara and Dann,'' a fable, a story told by one of our most incantatory storytellers, about two children who traverse the continent of Ifrik toward the icy mountains of Yerrup. Imaginative, to be sure, but as full of realistic insight into how human beings work as any sweet dream.
John Rockwell is the editor of the Arts & Leisure section of The Times.
Such Fuzzy Ideals, Comrades
By SARAH LYALL
LONDON, March 17 — Doris Lessing met a bona fide old-style British Communist not so long ago, of the sort that she skewers so mercilessly in her latest novel, "The Sweetest Dream."
An easy talker and an inveterate questioner, Mrs. Lessing was waiting for a train when she struck up a conversation with an aged fellow traveler who turned out, on closer inspection, to be exactly that. "I thought, my God, it's a time warp," said Mrs. Lessing, who knows all about 1960's-style Communists, having once been one herself. "He was unchanged. Same vocabulary, same ideas. I did venture to suggest that maybe things have changed a bit, that the Soviet Union wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
"And he said: `Well of course Stalin was a great man. His time will come.' "
At 82 Mrs. Lessing is still just as interested in debating politics at train stations as she was 40 years ago, when she published "The Golden Notebook" and instantly established herself as one of the most important literary voices of her generation. Endlessly curious, analytical and prolific, she still comes out with a new book every year or two and is still using her writing to examine the great social, political and intellectual questions.
"The Sweetest Dream" is the latest work in a vast oeuvre that includes more than 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as two volumes of autobiography.
The first, "Under My Skin," tells of her birth in Persia, her childhood in Southern Rhodesia and her brief career as a housewife and secretary there. It ends in 1949, when leaving behind the two oldest of her three children, she fled the constraints of a bad marriage and a stultifying life in Africa and moved to London, with no money and a burning desire to make something of herself. The second volume, "Walking in the Shade," describes Mrs. Lessing's years as a fledgling writer in London, through the publication of "The Golden Notebook" in 1962.
"The Sweetest Dream," which tells the story of Frances, the ex-wife of an incorrigible British Communist and the doyenne of a huge house filled with an endless stream of adolescents trying to find their way in the world, clearly has its parallels to Mrs. Lessing's own life. But she makes it clear in a pointed forward that she wrote it as a novel, in place of a third volume of autobiography.
"People keep saying, `Well, why don't you write it?' " she said, of the memoir that will never be. "But you see, I can't write it. There are people who are my close friends who were around in their adolescences in my house, and it would be a terrible thing to do."
Mrs. Lessing lives now in a comfortably cluttered brownstone in the leafy West Hampstead section of London. In the flesh, she looks unchanged from her pictures over the last two decades or so, short and round, her gray hair parted in the center and pulled back from her broad, softly wrinkled face. She is surrounded by a cat or two and by books that crowd the shelves and sit in piles on tables and on the floor.
Mrs. Lessing, who had a huge, half- finished jigsaw puzzle of tiny pieces and intricate design on her living room table, admitted to having slowed somewhat in the last few years, limiting her writing to perhaps three hours a day. She clearly has a well-developed work ethic.
"I used to have this formidable energy. which I don't have any more," she said, sipping a Diet Coke. "My mind's fine. It's my body that's slow, and I suppose I had a conceit about my body and its strength, and now it's all gone."
Mrs. Lessing wrote "The Sweetest Dream," she said, as a way to examine 1960's London, when, for a short, heady time, the possibilities seemed endless. The dream of the title refers to Communism, a quixotic ideal for Mrs. Lessing and others in her social and intellectual circle then.
In the novel, its main practitioner is the ludicrous Comrade Johnny, the erstwhile husband of Frances, the character at the center of the book. Johnny is a lofty idealist, a charming thinker of grand thoughts, a persuasive believer in a communist utopia, but also an absentee father, a stupendously bad husband and a general hypocrite who spurns money as a bourgeois affectation but has no compunction about spending other people's. "It was quite extraordinary, looking back," Mrs. Lessing said. "After all, we weren't complete dopes. And yet we believed things like: `Oh, well, we'll be in power at the most in 15 years'; `Of course there won't be any race prejudice or sex prejudice' ;`We'll all be free, the state will have withered away.' We believed all this rubbish."
She continued: "People glamorize the 60's terribly. They say to me: `You're an old sourpuss. I had the most wonderful time in my life in the 60's.' For some people that was true. But there were an awful lot of casualties, people who never really came to terms with life, that everyone likes to forget." Like so much of Mrs. Lessing's fiction, "The Sweetest Dream," takes on a dizzying array of themes at once. A large portion is set in Zimlia, a fictional African country that is a loose composite of Zambia and Zimbabwe and that allows Mrs. Lessing to examine Africa's post- colonial struggles, a theme she has written about again and again. Sylvia, one of the young people Frances takes in, travels there to set up a clinic in an abjectly poor community where children beg for books and where the population eventually begins to die of a strange wasting disease.
The novel also lampoons tabloid journalists and those who work for a particularly earnest leftish newspaper called The Defender, modeled on The Guardian. The Defender is full of women who pass the time by "telling little anecdotes of this man's crassness or that man's delinquency," watching "for evidence of incorrect thought." Since the publication of "The Golden Notebook" Mrs. Lessing has been regarded as a feminist heroine. But she has distanced herself from Defender-like women.
"My role model when I was a girl," she said, "was a woman who used to say to us: `Don't waste your time complaining about men. Go out and get yourself equal opportunity and equal pay for equal work, and good child care, and then you will be equal to men.' "
She continued: "Feminists aren't working for this. That's a hard slog. It means writing to papers, forming committees, getting into Parliament. You don't change things standing around shouting about men. That's just self-indulgence."
Mrs. Lessing, who for years has been a student of Sufi mysticism, a belief system that dates back to the seventh century and is concerned with how the destinies of individuals and communities are linked, has lived an unconventional life, to say the least. She still regards the time she left her second husband and two of her three children behind in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, as the most wrenching and the most liberating thing she ever did.
She had to leave, she said, because her life was getting smaller and smaller, and she was well on the way — "there was no doubt about it," she said — to becoming an alcoholic or having a mental breakdown.
"I work very hard on not feeling guilty, because I don't see the point of it," she said, explaining that she was earning so little money at the time that it would have been impossible to support all three of her children on her own. "I would do the same again, you see. This was the worst thing I ever did in my life and also the best." She has repaired her relationships with the children she left behind, although she never expected them to forgive her, she said. One son has died, but she is close to her surviving son and daughter and her two granddaughters.
"The Sweetest Dream" ends on a note of almost magical optimism, and Mrs. Lessing said that through all she has lived and all she has seen, she, too, was an optimist at heart.
"I don't mind getting old," she said. "It's very interesting. I was always so busy I didn't have time to notice how utterly extraordinary life is, how utterly amazing. I'm continually amazed at — at everything, really. I'm just astounded at what we take for granted. We are extraordinary, you know."
"The Sweetest Dream" by Doris Lessing
One of our greatest novelists delivers a family saga that's also a scathing indictment of the selfishness of the '60s era left and its Third-World idols
By Laura Miller
Feb. 21, 2002 | Beware of those who plan to save the world: That is one message to be gleaned from Doris Lessing's skeptical fiction about the left in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. But just as "The Aeneid" offers more than a cautionary tale concerning the reliability of Greeks bearing gifts, Lessing can do plenty besides mercilessly detail the hypocrisies and selfishness of the party members and barricade manners she knew during her days among Britain's radicals. It's just that she skewers them so beautifully, with such consummate, wicked skill, that she distracts you from the countless other gifts that make her one of the major novelists of our time.
"The Sweetest Dream" is Lessing in fine form. While the material isn't new to her, she explains in her author's note that this fictional treatment is meant to stand as an alternative to Vol. 3 of her autobiography, a book she will not be writing for fear of causing hurt "to vulnerable people." Instead she aims in this novel to "recapture the spirit of, particularly, the Sixties."
In doing so, she notes, she's transposed to that decade a controversy that arose over 10 years later, when the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament "took a stand against the government doing anything at all to protect the population against the results of nuclear attack," and verbally and physically abused those who disagreed. "There has never been a more hysterical, noisy and irrational campaign," Lessing pronounces.
Maybe, maybe not -- but clearly for Lessing the CND's extreme position epitomizes a certain radical propensity for placing ideological purity over the welfare of real people. Lessing's disgust at this sort of thing is what drives "The Sweetest Dream," and it is an engine of formidable power. But Lessing is also 83 years old, with the seasoned perspective on humanity that comes from having spent so many years in its company. Rarely is such a mature sensibility animated by so much emotional energy; wisdom is usually the province of the old and scouring rage a property of youth. "The Sweetest Dream" has both, along with an expansiveness reminiscent of Balzac.
The node that links the dozen or so characters in the novel is Comrade Johnny, the posturing, irresponsible communist son of Julia Lennox, German-born widow of an upper-middle-class Englishman. Johnny's ex-wife, Frances, shares Julia's multilayered London house, along with Johnny's two sons, Colin and Andrew, and a rotating cast of rebellious teenagers who have fled their own homes for Frances' easygoing household and its long, bountiful, boisterous kitchen table.
Though Johnny only occasionally materializes to soak up the admiration of "the kids," to make stirring speeches about how "the revolution comes before personal matters" and to repeatedly disappoint Frances' hopes that he'll finally contribute something to the support of his family, he's not above dumping his discarded wives and stepchildren on Julia and Frances' doorstep when "the Cause" demands that he devote his attention elsewhere. (The fact that Lessing herself, as a young communist, abandoned her three young children when she left Africa for England only makes this portrait of political selfishness more biting.)
One of these strays, Sylvia, becomes the focus of the novel's second half. Nursed back from traumatized anorexia by Julia and Frances, she becomes a doctor and takes a post in a remote town in the post-colonial African republic of Zimlia (a stand-in for Zimbabwe, where Lessing grew up). There, teetering on the brink of untenable self-sacrifice, Sylvia patches together a little hospital and school, scrabbling for supplies and fending off corrupt, interfering officials from a black-run government that has betrayed countless promises to provide for its people. The novel's supporting characters include a malevolent leftist journalist seething with chronic, unprovoked resentment, a passel of half-mad women therapists, a fresh-faced African lad who becomes a hopelessly compromised Zimlian minister and many more, all bristling with life.
Lessing makes the point that whatever good gets done in the world is usually the work of people like Frances and Sylvia, who reach in with both hands to address a crisis, whether it be an abandoned child or a malaria-stricken village. Specimens like Johnny -- who "had spent probably two-thirds of his life in comradely luxury hotels in the Soviet Union, Poland, China, Czechoslovakia," etc. -- and their rabble-rousing, conference-attending, theory-spouting ilk are little better than parasites and sometimes far, far worse.
Everyone from feminists to astrologers gets a scathing dose of Lessing's attention, but "The Sweetest Dream" never descends into Swiftian misanthropy. For all the slaps aimed at Zimlia's bosses, there's still a tribute to those unsung "minor officials, who are competent, not corrupt ... Anyone who understood would go for help to some comparatively lowly office run by a man or a woman who, if there were any justice, would be openly running the country and who in fact were what everything depended on." Though, in the words of one character, there's "the devil" in the fantasy of leftist utopianism referred to in the novel's title, "The Sweetest Dream" is finally both an indictment of those who try to save the world and a paean to those who, against all odds, keep it from falling apart.
'The Sweetest Dream' by Doris Lessing
Reviewed by Beth Kephart
Sunday, March 3, 2002; Page BW06
THE SWEETEST DREAM
HarperCollins. 479 pp. $26.95
In the final pages of her first volume of autobiography, Doris Lessing -- the little girl who was sent away to boarding school at the age of 7, the rebellious adolescent who left home at 15, the young woman who, despising "the terrible provincialism and narrowness" of her domestic circumstances, abandoned a husband and two small children -- reflected on a life lived with eyes set firmly on the future and nary a glance back at the past. Doors, she wrote, had been shutting behind her all her life. She was done with the "tentacles of family."
If The Sweetest Dream, Lessing's 24th novel, is about anything at all, it is about the doors that never shut, about the persistent clutch of family. Sprawling and chapterless, far more interested in exposition than in anything resembling plot, the book seeks to pull readers into the whorl of one vastly overextended family -- into its talk and politics, into its tangled net of accumulated needs. Issues are here in full force: communism, AIDS, nuclear disarmament, African "liberation," idealism, personal responsibility. Characters fight for space upon the page. Dialogue cranks the novel forward. Time stalls and sputters, then suddenly bobbles by.
At the heart of the story is Frances Lennox, a British actress and writer who had the misfortune of marrying communist comrade Johnny when she was apparently too young to know any better, and who has been paying the consequences ever since. Left with two young sons and a useless, puerile ex, Frances finally takes refuge in the makeshift London home owned by Johnny's bewildered, widowed mother. By the time the story opens, Frances's boys are in their teens, and the house is filled not just with them but also with their misfit friends -- most of them selfish and haranguing and thoroughly confused about what it means to live a political life in the turbulent '60s. Longing for a career in the theater, Frances is trapped in the drudgery of a better-paying journalism job instead. She is stuck taking care of those who steadfastly refuse to take care of themselves.
And the load grows heavier. Before long, comrade Johnny (who could earn a place of distinction as the least likable and most one-dimensional scamp in literary history) has saddled Frances with the care of Sylvia, the troubled daughter of his current wife. Soon enough, the wife, too, will demand Frances's attention, and so it will go, on and on. In the face of each added burden, Frances does little more than find a way to stretch herself -- to cook more, to care more, to compromise herself endlessly. The only member of the household who seems to recognize all that Frances does is Julia, Johnny's mother, who is appalled by her son's enormous selfishness and wishes her former daughter-in-law would stick up for herself.
But Frances doesn't. She just keeps on taking care, deferring her dreams of theater, of quiet, of a man by her side. She endures the bad behavior of the teens who depend on her as if this were their inalienable right, while upstairs, in her claustrophobic rooms, Julia helps the anorexic Sylvia heal. Every once in a while, comrade Johnny or a houseguest or a colleague or a son breaks in with a new demand, and Frances, inevitably, yields.
In The Golden Notebook, the groundbreaking 1962 feminist novel that earned Lessing her greatest fame, Anna Wulf, the book's protagonist, suggests that she is "incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life." Doris Lessing is, of course, capable of writing just such a transformative novel, and she has -- forcefully, brilliantly, memorably -- over the course of her prolific 82 years. But it is the passion that Anna Wulf worries over that seems to be missing from so much of The Sweetest Dream -- that willingness to plunge deeper, to develop the narrative more fully, to make of these characters' lives more than the obvious irony, the extreme example, the deflated symbol. Sadly, too much of this novel seems tired, reiterative; too many of these themes echo the familiar rhetoric of another time.
And yet patient readers will discover that the book does relinquish its dividends, that passion does finally and gloriously kick in. For in the end, following a quick jump in time and a strange set of coincidences, Sylvia, the anorectic who was rescued in Julia and Frances's home, has, miraculously, grown into a young woman with a conscience. Trained as a doctor in London, Sylvia repairs to a small village in South Africa, where "liberation" has left the people overwhelmed by poverty and graft, and where AIDS has cast its insidious shadow. What can a woman do within such a demoralizing context? Can one person make a difference? What fruit does caring bear?
With a sudden head of steam, The Sweetest Dream rises to the challenge of these questions. The writing springs from the page. The landscape seduces. The story provokes. The characters genuinely matter. In the final pages, Lessing proves that she still has all it takes to make us care about the disturbing world in which we live. •
Beth Kephart is the author of a memoir, "Still Love in Strange Places," forthcoming this spring.
From LRB Vol
Doris Lessing: A Biography
by Carole Klein. Ben, in the World by Doris
Lessing. When Doris Lessing brought out the first
two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in
the Shade (1997), she did so, as she explained, partly in 'self-defence',
aware that at least 'five American biographers' were then writing their versions
of her life. Some had been in touch and had been given short shrift; others she
had never met. 'Yet another can only be concocting a book out of supposedly
autobiographical material in novels and from two short monographs about my
parents.' The soufflé-ish quality of Carole Klein's Life of Lessing irresistibly
suggests that Klein, who approached the forbiddingly private author in 1992 only
to be sent packing, was that unfortunate person. Sure enough, the essays 'My
Father' and 'Impertinent Daughters' (Lessing's memoir of her mother, Maude
Tayler) are both reheated here, trimmed and blanched but still instantly
recognisable: signature flavours in the bland biographical mix. Inevitably, too,
the autobiographies themselves have been cannibalised to bulk out the fare,
supplemented by conversations with journalists who have interviewed Lessing, and
with her former personal assistants, former political and literary
acquaintances, and a voluble ex-lover. Many of these contributors spilled the
beans only after insisting on anonymity. Why did they bother? Presumably it is
Lessing's wrath they want to avert, and Lessing will be perfectly capable of
remembering the name, for instance, of 'the young woman' who worked for her in
1997 and recalls how 'pissed' her employer was at the poor critical reception of
the Canopus novels. Whether Lessing likes it or not, there is
going to be more of the same. As Eve Bertelsen once pointed out, Lessing's
Bildung - her engagement with Communism, feminism, psychoanalysis and Sufism -
is often read by literary critics as the symbolic history of our age, just as 'D.H.
Lawrence's proposal that the Industrial Revolution began in the Eastwood of his
boyhood and was finally exorcised in the woods of the Chatterley estate is a
received fact of literary education.' Like Lawrence, Lessing is an author whose
life and work are held to be intimately attuned to the Zeitgeist. Assessments of
her writing usually home in on her ability to interpret and challenge the mood
of the times, and wittingly or unwittingly, in her oracular pronouncements on
everything from CND to paedophilia, Lessing herself has reinforced this
approach. The 'small personal voice' to which she laid claim in her well-known
1957 essay of the same title is that of the social prophet, constantly examining
its relationship with a wider collective voice. She has, typically, been at once
an outsider and a supremely political animal - a white radical in conservative
1940s Rhodesia; in the 1960s, a bitingly reluctant figurehead for the women's
movement; a disenchanted Red who retains a primarily sociological understanding
of the individual; a colonial writer edgily occupying a position of prominence
at the heart of the metropolitan literary scene. Her global readership stretches
from America to the Third World and she has generated a body of critical
interest equal to her own prodigious output (23 novels, ten short-story
collections, nine non-fictional works, three plays, two libretti, two volumes of
autobiography and a collection of poetry, at the last count). In spite of her
tetchy broadsides over the years against academics and the supposedly obtuse and
unimaginative line adopted towards her work by those 'fed too long on the
pieties of academia', her novels have been required reading on a number of
university courses in the United States and elsewhere for a while now: when I
started the first term of my first year at a South African university in the
1980s, Martha Quest was right there at the top of the booklist, ahead of
Dickens and the Brontës. So much for being marginalised by the university mafia
- a charge Lessing makes implicitly and explicitly in several prefaces and
afterwords to her fiction. Klein's is not the biography Lessing
deserves, however. The whole book has a meagre, reconstituted flavour that
hardly does justice to the quirkiness and disaffectedness of Lessing's literary
persona. Admittedly, the key facts are all here - Doris Tayler's birth in
Kermanshah, followed by the arrival of her brother Harry; the family's
relocation first to Tehran and then to Rhodesia; their adoption of coy pet names
(Doris became 'Tigger', which she hated); Tigger's tedious marriage to Frank
Wisdom in the gin-soaked suburbs of Salisbury and her growing involvement with
the Communist Party; her abandonment, after her divorce, of her two children by
Wisdom; her remarriage to Gottfried Lessing and subsequent escape with their
son, Peter, to England with the manuscript of The Grass Is Singing in her
suitcase; and so on. But Klein is too baffled by Lessing and the choices she
made, and usually too disapproving of them, to probe the connection between the
life and the work. This is particularly frustrating since there
is a problem with Lessing's writing, in spite of all of its praiseworthy
qualities - its ambitiousness, its formal daring and philosophical seriousness -
which it is the biographer's job to address. What, for instance, is the origin
of Lessing's characteristic detachment as an author, the forensic flatness of
her voice? Lessing herself has given us very clear pointers in Under My Skin
and 'Impertinent Daughters', where she sets out the shaping influences on her
personality with remorseless clarity. Her mother had wanted a boy, could not
contemplate having a girl, and had no name ready for the female child who
arrived in 1919. It was left to the doctor who delivered her to fix on 'Doris'.
The baby had to be bottle-fed from the start, but since Maude Tayler did not
realise that cows' milk in Persia was not as rich as English milk, Doris 'was
half-starved for the first year and never stopped screaming'. Gallingly, her
mother later took pleasure in telling her that she was an impossibly difficult baby, and then a
tiresome child, quite unlike my brother Harry, who was always so good . . .
Better say, and be done with it: my memories of her are all of antagonism, and
fighting, and feeling shut out; of pain because the baby born two-and-a-half
years after me was so much loved when I was not. Although Lessing's mother was fond of
explaining that 'a child should be governed by love,' her daughter was not
fooled: 'the trouble is, love is a word that has to be filled with an experience
of love.' Lessing is saying something crucial here.
She returns to the subject of the emotional deprivation of her early childhood
again and again, directly and indirectly: in the short story 'How I Finally Lost
My Heart'; in her autobiographies; in Love, Again, where Sarah Durham, on
a visit to the local park, observes a young mother dismissing her daughter with
the peremptoriness of Maude and identifies with the miserable child: 'Hold on,
hold on. Quite soon a door will slam shut inside you because what you are
feeling is unendurable.' In Under My Skin we are told, deliberately and
precisely, that 'my early childhood made me one of the walking wounded for
years.' Just so. That slamming door reverberates in the timbre of her writing.
Klein observes, shrewdly enough, that while Lessing's autobiography is utterly
'free of the genre's tendency to self-aggrandisement and self-pity', its tone is
often disturbingly impersonal; that 'paradoxically, her writing combines a deep
insight into humanity with very little of the empathy that usually accompanies
such insight.' Klein, however, does not explore the implications of this very
obvious limitation in Lessing's work at any length. The truth is that, for a major writer,
Lessing has an astonishingly narrow emotional register. 'The warmth, the
compassion, the humanity, the love of people which illuminates the literature of
the 19th century and which makes all these old novels a statement of faith in
man himself', as she described it in 'The Small Personal Voice', is strikingly
absent from her own writing. What we get instead is an acerbic toughness
combined with an interest in social patterns and sweeping judgments. It is hard
to avoid the suspicion, however, that this famous toughness is not the
expression of an impartial imaginative sympathy, but of a limited affective
response to the world. At her best - as she is in the autobiographies - Lessing
is a ruthless and clear-sighted observer who is utterly unimpeded by sentiment;
at her worst, she has a tendency to standardise human beings, while resorting to
heavy-handed moral and political pieties. She has been sharply criticised for
the pedestrian quality of her prose, and as vigorously defended. In her defence,
for example, Clare Hanson argued in 1990 that the inert language of the The Good
Terrorist should be read in the same way that we read Joyce's 'tired style' at
the end of Ulysses: Lessing's book 'is a grey and textureless novel because it
is "about", or speaks, a grey and textureless language: it is, surely, quite
missing the point to see the drabness as the symptom of authorial laziness.' Unfortunately this position becomes harder
to maintain as Lessing's oeuvre increases and the leaden quality of the prose
persists, regardless of its subject. The two Lessings - the tough and the pious
- are at work respectively in The Fifth Child and its sequel, Ben, in
the World. The Fifth Child is a potent and suggestive piece of
writing, a recasting of the ancient story of the Fall as urban fable. In its own
way it is as much a novel about domestic terrorism as The Good Terrorist
and, like that novel, starts with the classic paradigm of the family as a
microcosm of society. It is the Swinging Sixties. Harriet Walker and David
Lovatt meet at an office party and discover that they are both 'eccentrics', at
odds with the prevailing social climate: they want to fall in love, marry and
settle down to have at least six (or eight, or ten) children. They buy an
enormous Victorian house with a room 'for each new baby' and start reproducing.
In spite of the initial misgivings of their friends and families the home they
create is Edenic, a 'miraculous kingdom' offering warmth and stability, to which
outsiders are immediately attracted. Lessing renders all this with laconic,
deadpan precision: the sequential births in the big family bed, the long,
pleasant communal meals at Easter and Christmas around the great family table,
the happy family's triumphant sense of vindication, 'when the spirit of the
times, the greedy and selfish 1960s, had been so ready to condemn them, to
isolate, to diminish their best selves'. Imperfection intrudes into this idyll in the
form of Ben, the Lovatts' fifth child. From the outset he is different from
their other children: violently active in the womb, heavy and stiff once born,
'muscular, yellowish, long', with a low forehead and 'greeny-yellow eyes, like
lumps of soapstone' - 'absolutely not ordinary', as Harriet remarks. We
are never told what, exactly, Ben is: he is variously described as a
'changeling', a 'troll', a 'goblin', a 'dwarf', a 'gnome' or, confusingly, a
'Neanderthal'. Harriet speculates that he must be a 'throwback', the result of
'a chance gene' afloat in the human matrix: 'she felt she was looking, through
him, at a race that reached its apex thousands and thousands of years before
humanity, whatever that meant, took this stage.' Is Lessing herself clear on the
question of Ben's nature? Probably not, although at this point she depicts him
as primitively violent and antisocial. He strangles the family dog, stalks birds
in the garden and threatens his siblings, who take to locking their bedroom
doors at night. Harriet gives in to pressure from David to institutionalise Ben,
but then relents, triggering the dissolution of their home: David avoids it and
the older children all opt to live with other relatives, leaving Harriet alone
with her fifth child. By 15, Ben, preternaturally strong, with his thick speech
and 'cudgel-like bones', has become the leader of a local gang which terrorises
the neighbourhood in a series of rapes and robberies. Poised and chill, the
narrative concludes with Harriet hoping that Ben will simply drift away, leaving
her free to sell the house and move on. The Fifth Child ends somewhere in the
1980s, and one of its more pointed ironies is that Ben is finally assimilated by
a society that has itself degenerated in the interim by taking the rapacious
egotism of the 1960s a step further: 'wars and riots; killings and hijackings;
murders and thefts and kidnappings . . . the 1980s, the barbarous 1980s were
getting into their stride.' Brutal Ben fits right in. In Ben, in the World,
dismayingly, this brutality is sanitised, and the uncontainable has suddenly
become containable. The Fifth Child ultimately raised the question of how
civilisation is to be measured, inviting an answer which was at best ambiguous,
given the ugliness both of the novel's vision of the civilised world and of the
threat posed to it by the likes of Ben. In the sequel we have reached the 1990s,
and Lessing, in line with the New Age sappiness of that decade, has allowed
herself to lapse into sentimentality. In the earlier book, Ben was a rapist; now
we are supposed to believe that he is a noble savage, a lovable 'yeti' (the word
occurs some six times), more victim than victimiser. He is 'poor Ben'. The
Lovatts have moved and, at 18, he must fend for himself. Beneath the New Ageism,
the Neanderthal analogy seems to be uppermost in Lessing's mind: when Ben is not
a yeti he is, once again, a 'throwback'. As a fully-grown man he is short and
heavily built, with a mat of fur on his shoulders. He cannot digest bread, eats
raw meat and has an unusually keen sense of smell. In what reads like an
itemised denouncement of the modern (as opposed to the Stone Age?) world and its
evils - capitalism, prostitution, Third World poverty, unchallenged scientific
enterprise - Homo sapiens has become the real threat to a humane society. This conceit, if a little well-worn, might
still have worked had Lessing not been content to recycle a clutch of
stereotypes. Rube-like Ben works first on a West Country farm, then on a London
construction site, and is twice cheated by his shifty employers. He is given a
place to stay by a kindly widow and her cat but soon becomes involved with an
equally accommodating whore called Rita, who is thrilled by his taste for rough
sex, and only reluctantly allows her pimp, Johnston (a Humphrey Bogart lookalike),
to use Ben as the unsuspecting courier in a drugs run to Nice. It is
particularly difficult to take any of this seriously, since both Rita and
Johnston speak as if they have been educated at private schools and have the
middle-class sensibilities to match (this also goes for their sidekick, Richard,
a 'rough and even cruel man', who is nevertheless moved to tears by the thought
of Ben's helplessness). In fact, Lessing has written not just one, but two tarts
with a heart into the book. Once in Nice, Ben is picked up by Alex, 'a
film-maker from New York', whose girlfriend Teresa, a beautiful Brazilian
ex-prostitute, becomes his chief protector in a nefarious plot hatched by a mad
American professor to kidnap the yeti and use him for scientific
experimentation. This is all told in an enervating,
repetitive, lustreless prose, as if Lessing were unable to summon up enough
creative energy to look for fresh alternatives. At one point Ben's 'eyes are all
gratitude', at another they are 'darkened by pain and by loss'. When Rita is
unhappy we read that 'her heart hurt her'; when Ben is unhappy, we hear that
'his heart was hurting most dreadfully'. The American scientist is unironically
described as 'a madman' and 'a monster of cruelty' with, of all things,
'prominent eyeballs', while in her battle against him the angelic Teresa becomes
a front for Lessing's side-salvoes against animal testing ('she could see now
only too clearly the little paws stretched out to her for help'). Too often the
fictional world is stale and obviously contrived. The description of the
groundbreaking film in which Alex plans to cast Ben simply sounds like a precis
of Quest for Fire. The passport which Johnston forges for Ben states that
he is an actor, even though the bearer's occupation has not been given in
British passports for at least ten years. When Ben has a craving for flesh he
goes to McDonald's, where he buys 'a fat juicy lump of meat'. When did Lessing
last eat fast food? None of this will do. The real purpose of
the book, of course, and Lessing's choice of maladjusted, mistreated Ben as its
anti-hero, is to reveal 'that hell which is multiplied all over the world,
everywhere human beings make our civilisation'. This theme is not new: in 1967,
Lessing's contemporary and friend R.D. Laing ventured his notorious analysis of
the ills of social and cultural conditioning in The Politics of Experience,
using an uncannily similar central metaphor. 'The initial act of brutality
against the average child,' Laing wrote, 'is the mother's first kiss': From the moment of birth, when the Stone
Age baby confronts the 20th-century mother, the baby is subjected to these
forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father, and their parents and
their parents before them, have been. These forces are mainly concerned with
destroying most of its potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is
succesful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a
being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad
world. This is normality. Lessing's decision to jettison her
original conception of Ben between the publication of The Fifth Child and
its sequel, in favour of a Laingian meditation on the corrosiveness of the
modern world, was a miscalculation. To Doris Tayler, left at birth in Kermanshah
to the mercies of a loving mother, these violent forces are doubtless everywhere
apparent, but her thumpingly methodical account of them in Ben, in the World
has resulted in a stilted and disappointingly dated piece of work.
Elizabeth Lowry is tutorial fellow in English at Greyfriars Hall, Oxford.
Duckworth, 283 pp., £18.99, 16 March 2000, 0 7156 2951 4
Flamingo, 178 pp., £6.99, 2 April, 0 00 655229 3
Doris Lessing: A Biography
by Carole Klein.
Ben, in the World by Doris
When Doris Lessing brought out the first two volumes of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), she did so, as she explained, partly in 'self-defence', aware that at least 'five American biographers' were then writing their versions of her life. Some had been in touch and had been given short shrift; others she had never met. 'Yet another can only be concocting a book out of supposedly autobiographical material in novels and from two short monographs about my parents.' The soufflé-ish quality of Carole Klein's Life of Lessing irresistibly suggests that Klein, who approached the forbiddingly private author in 1992 only to be sent packing, was that unfortunate person. Sure enough, the essays 'My Father' and 'Impertinent Daughters' (Lessing's memoir of her mother, Maude Tayler) are both reheated here, trimmed and blanched but still instantly recognisable: signature flavours in the bland biographical mix. Inevitably, too, the autobiographies themselves have been cannibalised to bulk out the fare, supplemented by conversations with journalists who have interviewed Lessing, and with her former personal assistants, former political and literary acquaintances, and a voluble ex-lover. Many of these contributors spilled the beans only after insisting on anonymity. Why did they bother? Presumably it is Lessing's wrath they want to avert, and Lessing will be perfectly capable of remembering the name, for instance, of 'the young woman' who worked for her in 1997 and recalls how 'pissed' her employer was at the poor critical reception of the Canopus novels.
Whether Lessing likes it or not, there is going to be more of the same. As Eve Bertelsen once pointed out, Lessing's Bildung - her engagement with Communism, feminism, psychoanalysis and Sufism - is often read by literary critics as the symbolic history of our age, just as 'D.H. Lawrence's proposal that the Industrial Revolution began in the Eastwood of his boyhood and was finally exorcised in the woods of the Chatterley estate is a received fact of literary education.' Like Lawrence, Lessing is an author whose life and work are held to be intimately attuned to the Zeitgeist. Assessments of her writing usually home in on her ability to interpret and challenge the mood of the times, and wittingly or unwittingly, in her oracular pronouncements on everything from CND to paedophilia, Lessing herself has reinforced this approach. The 'small personal voice' to which she laid claim in her well-known 1957 essay of the same title is that of the social prophet, constantly examining its relationship with a wider collective voice. She has, typically, been at once an outsider and a supremely political animal - a white radical in conservative 1940s Rhodesia; in the 1960s, a bitingly reluctant figurehead for the women's movement; a disenchanted Red who retains a primarily sociological understanding of the individual; a colonial writer edgily occupying a position of prominence at the heart of the metropolitan literary scene. Her global readership stretches from America to the Third World and she has generated a body of critical interest equal to her own prodigious output (23 novels, ten short-story collections, nine non-fictional works, three plays, two libretti, two volumes of autobiography and a collection of poetry, at the last count). In spite of her tetchy broadsides over the years against academics and the supposedly obtuse and unimaginative line adopted towards her work by those 'fed too long on the pieties of academia', her novels have been required reading on a number of university courses in the United States and elsewhere for a while now: when I started the first term of my first year at a South African university in the 1980s, Martha Quest was right there at the top of the booklist, ahead of Dickens and the Brontës. So much for being marginalised by the university mafia - a charge Lessing makes implicitly and explicitly in several prefaces and afterwords to her fiction.
Klein's is not the biography Lessing deserves, however. The whole book has a meagre, reconstituted flavour that hardly does justice to the quirkiness and disaffectedness of Lessing's literary persona. Admittedly, the key facts are all here - Doris Tayler's birth in Kermanshah, followed by the arrival of her brother Harry; the family's relocation first to Tehran and then to Rhodesia; their adoption of coy pet names (Doris became 'Tigger', which she hated); Tigger's tedious marriage to Frank Wisdom in the gin-soaked suburbs of Salisbury and her growing involvement with the Communist Party; her abandonment, after her divorce, of her two children by Wisdom; her remarriage to Gottfried Lessing and subsequent escape with their son, Peter, to England with the manuscript of The Grass Is Singing in her suitcase; and so on. But Klein is too baffled by Lessing and the choices she made, and usually too disapproving of them, to probe the connection between the life and the work.
This is particularly frustrating since there is a problem with Lessing's writing, in spite of all of its praiseworthy qualities - its ambitiousness, its formal daring and philosophical seriousness - which it is the biographer's job to address. What, for instance, is the origin of Lessing's characteristic detachment as an author, the forensic flatness of her voice? Lessing herself has given us very clear pointers in Under My Skin and 'Impertinent Daughters', where she sets out the shaping influences on her personality with remorseless clarity. Her mother had wanted a boy, could not contemplate having a girl, and had no name ready for the female child who arrived in 1919. It was left to the doctor who delivered her to fix on 'Doris'. The baby had to be bottle-fed from the start, but since Maude Tayler did not realise that cows' milk in Persia was not as rich as English milk, Doris 'was half-starved for the first year and never stopped screaming'. Gallingly, her mother later took pleasure in telling her that she was
an impossibly difficult baby, and then a tiresome child, quite unlike my brother Harry, who was always so good . . . Better say, and be done with it: my memories of her are all of antagonism, and fighting, and feeling shut out; of pain because the baby born two-and-a-half years after me was so much loved when I was not.
Although Lessing's mother was fond of explaining that 'a child should be governed by love,' her daughter was not fooled: 'the trouble is, love is a word that has to be filled with an experience of love.'
Lessing is saying something crucial here. She returns to the subject of the emotional deprivation of her early childhood again and again, directly and indirectly: in the short story 'How I Finally Lost My Heart'; in her autobiographies; in Love, Again, where Sarah Durham, on a visit to the local park, observes a young mother dismissing her daughter with the peremptoriness of Maude and identifies with the miserable child: 'Hold on, hold on. Quite soon a door will slam shut inside you because what you are feeling is unendurable.' In Under My Skin we are told, deliberately and precisely, that 'my early childhood made me one of the walking wounded for years.' Just so. That slamming door reverberates in the timbre of her writing. Klein observes, shrewdly enough, that while Lessing's autobiography is utterly 'free of the genre's tendency to self-aggrandisement and self-pity', its tone is often disturbingly impersonal; that 'paradoxically, her writing combines a deep insight into humanity with very little of the empathy that usually accompanies such insight.' Klein, however, does not explore the implications of this very obvious limitation in Lessing's work at any length.
The truth is that, for a major writer, Lessing has an astonishingly narrow emotional register. 'The warmth, the compassion, the humanity, the love of people which illuminates the literature of the 19th century and which makes all these old novels a statement of faith in man himself', as she described it in 'The Small Personal Voice', is strikingly absent from her own writing. What we get instead is an acerbic toughness combined with an interest in social patterns and sweeping judgments. It is hard to avoid the suspicion, however, that this famous toughness is not the expression of an impartial imaginative sympathy, but of a limited affective response to the world. At her best - as she is in the autobiographies - Lessing is a ruthless and clear-sighted observer who is utterly unimpeded by sentiment; at her worst, she has a tendency to standardise human beings, while resorting to heavy-handed moral and political pieties. She has been sharply criticised for the pedestrian quality of her prose, and as vigorously defended. In her defence, for example, Clare Hanson argued in 1990 that the inert language of the The Good Terrorist should be read in the same way that we read Joyce's 'tired style' at the end of Ulysses: Lessing's book 'is a grey and textureless novel because it is "about", or speaks, a grey and textureless language: it is, surely, quite missing the point to see the drabness as the symptom of authorial laziness.'
Unfortunately this position becomes harder to maintain as Lessing's oeuvre increases and the leaden quality of the prose persists, regardless of its subject. The two Lessings - the tough and the pious - are at work respectively in The Fifth Child and its sequel, Ben, in the World. The Fifth Child is a potent and suggestive piece of writing, a recasting of the ancient story of the Fall as urban fable. In its own way it is as much a novel about domestic terrorism as The Good Terrorist and, like that novel, starts with the classic paradigm of the family as a microcosm of society. It is the Swinging Sixties. Harriet Walker and David Lovatt meet at an office party and discover that they are both 'eccentrics', at odds with the prevailing social climate: they want to fall in love, marry and settle down to have at least six (or eight, or ten) children. They buy an enormous Victorian house with a room 'for each new baby' and start reproducing. In spite of the initial misgivings of their friends and families the home they create is Edenic, a 'miraculous kingdom' offering warmth and stability, to which outsiders are immediately attracted. Lessing renders all this with laconic, deadpan precision: the sequential births in the big family bed, the long, pleasant communal meals at Easter and Christmas around the great family table, the happy family's triumphant sense of vindication, 'when the spirit of the times, the greedy and selfish 1960s, had been so ready to condemn them, to isolate, to diminish their best selves'.
Imperfection intrudes into this idyll in the form of Ben, the Lovatts' fifth child. From the outset he is different from their other children: violently active in the womb, heavy and stiff once born, 'muscular, yellowish, long', with a low forehead and 'greeny-yellow eyes, like lumps of soapstone' - 'absolutely not ordinary', as Harriet remarks. We are never told what, exactly, Ben is: he is variously described as a 'changeling', a 'troll', a 'goblin', a 'dwarf', a 'gnome' or, confusingly, a 'Neanderthal'. Harriet speculates that he must be a 'throwback', the result of 'a chance gene' afloat in the human matrix: 'she felt she was looking, through him, at a race that reached its apex thousands and thousands of years before humanity, whatever that meant, took this stage.' Is Lessing herself clear on the question of Ben's nature? Probably not, although at this point she depicts him as primitively violent and antisocial. He strangles the family dog, stalks birds in the garden and threatens his siblings, who take to locking their bedroom doors at night. Harriet gives in to pressure from David to institutionalise Ben, but then relents, triggering the dissolution of their home: David avoids it and the older children all opt to live with other relatives, leaving Harriet alone with her fifth child. By 15, Ben, preternaturally strong, with his thick speech and 'cudgel-like bones', has become the leader of a local gang which terrorises the neighbourhood in a series of rapes and robberies. Poised and chill, the narrative concludes with Harriet hoping that Ben will simply drift away, leaving her free to sell the house and move on.
The Fifth Child ends somewhere in the 1980s, and one of its more pointed ironies is that Ben is finally assimilated by a society that has itself degenerated in the interim by taking the rapacious egotism of the 1960s a step further: 'wars and riots; killings and hijackings; murders and thefts and kidnappings . . . the 1980s, the barbarous 1980s were getting into their stride.' Brutal Ben fits right in. In Ben, in the World, dismayingly, this brutality is sanitised, and the uncontainable has suddenly become containable. The Fifth Child ultimately raised the question of how civilisation is to be measured, inviting an answer which was at best ambiguous, given the ugliness both of the novel's vision of the civilised world and of the threat posed to it by the likes of Ben. In the sequel we have reached the 1990s, and Lessing, in line with the New Age sappiness of that decade, has allowed herself to lapse into sentimentality. In the earlier book, Ben was a rapist; now we are supposed to believe that he is a noble savage, a lovable 'yeti' (the word occurs some six times), more victim than victimiser. He is 'poor Ben'. The Lovatts have moved and, at 18, he must fend for himself. Beneath the New Ageism, the Neanderthal analogy seems to be uppermost in Lessing's mind: when Ben is not a yeti he is, once again, a 'throwback'. As a fully-grown man he is short and heavily built, with a mat of fur on his shoulders. He cannot digest bread, eats raw meat and has an unusually keen sense of smell. In what reads like an itemised denouncement of the modern (as opposed to the Stone Age?) world and its evils - capitalism, prostitution, Third World poverty, unchallenged scientific enterprise - Homo sapiens has become the real threat to a humane society.
This conceit, if a little well-worn, might still have worked had Lessing not been content to recycle a clutch of stereotypes. Rube-like Ben works first on a West Country farm, then on a London construction site, and is twice cheated by his shifty employers. He is given a place to stay by a kindly widow and her cat but soon becomes involved with an equally accommodating whore called Rita, who is thrilled by his taste for rough sex, and only reluctantly allows her pimp, Johnston (a Humphrey Bogart lookalike), to use Ben as the unsuspecting courier in a drugs run to Nice. It is particularly difficult to take any of this seriously, since both Rita and Johnston speak as if they have been educated at private schools and have the middle-class sensibilities to match (this also goes for their sidekick, Richard, a 'rough and even cruel man', who is nevertheless moved to tears by the thought of Ben's helplessness). In fact, Lessing has written not just one, but two tarts with a heart into the book. Once in Nice, Ben is picked up by Alex, 'a film-maker from New York', whose girlfriend Teresa, a beautiful Brazilian ex-prostitute, becomes his chief protector in a nefarious plot hatched by a mad American professor to kidnap the yeti and use him for scientific experimentation.
This is all told in an enervating, repetitive, lustreless prose, as if Lessing were unable to summon up enough creative energy to look for fresh alternatives. At one point Ben's 'eyes are all gratitude', at another they are 'darkened by pain and by loss'. When Rita is unhappy we read that 'her heart hurt her'; when Ben is unhappy, we hear that 'his heart was hurting most dreadfully'. The American scientist is unironically described as 'a madman' and 'a monster of cruelty' with, of all things, 'prominent eyeballs', while in her battle against him the angelic Teresa becomes a front for Lessing's side-salvoes against animal testing ('she could see now only too clearly the little paws stretched out to her for help'). Too often the fictional world is stale and obviously contrived. The description of the groundbreaking film in which Alex plans to cast Ben simply sounds like a precis of Quest for Fire. The passport which Johnston forges for Ben states that he is an actor, even though the bearer's occupation has not been given in British passports for at least ten years. When Ben has a craving for flesh he goes to McDonald's, where he buys 'a fat juicy lump of meat'. When did Lessing last eat fast food?
None of this will do. The real purpose of the book, of course, and Lessing's choice of maladjusted, mistreated Ben as its anti-hero, is to reveal 'that hell which is multiplied all over the world, everywhere human beings make our civilisation'. This theme is not new: in 1967, Lessing's contemporary and friend R.D. Laing ventured his notorious analysis of the ills of social and cultural conditioning in The Politics of Experience, using an uncannily similar central metaphor. 'The initial act of brutality against the average child,' Laing wrote, 'is the mother's first kiss':
From the moment of birth, when the Stone Age baby confronts the 20th-century mother, the baby is subjected to these forces of violence, called love, as its mother and father, and their parents and their parents before them, have been. These forces are mainly concerned with destroying most of its potentialities, and on the whole this enterprise is succesful. By the time the new human being is fifteen or so, we are left with a being like ourselves, a half-crazed creature more or less adjusted to a mad world. This is normality.
Lessing's decision to jettison her original conception of Ben between the publication of The Fifth Child and its sequel, in favour of a Laingian meditation on the corrosiveness of the modern world, was a miscalculation. To Doris Tayler, left at birth in Kermanshah to the mercies of a loving mother, these violent forces are doubtless everywhere apparent, but her thumpingly methodical account of them in Ben, in the World has resulted in a stilted and disappointingly dated piece of work.
Elizabeth Lowry is tutorial fellow in English at Greyfriars Hall, Oxford.
N Z Z Online
Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 6. Oktober 2003
Von Bernadette Conrad
Doris Lessing: Ein süsser Traum. Aus dem Englischen von Barbara Christ. Verlag Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg 2003. 527 S., Fr. 42.-.
Simlia, wo liegt das? Laut Internet gibt es einen Stamm in Indien mit diesem Namen, aber sonst? Simlia ist laut Doris Lessings neuem Roman ein Land im südlichen Afrika, das irgendwann gegen Ende des letzten Jahrhunderts seine Unabhängigkeit gefeiert hat. Nur allzu bald aber ersticken die grossen Hoffnungen in einem dichten Filz aus Korruption, Verlogenheit und Vetternwirtschaft; in der Hauptstadt beglückwünschen sich die Vertreter von «Global Money» und «Caring International» auf Stehempfängen und bei Dinnerpartys zu der neuen Demokratie, stellen Checks aus und organisieren Hilfsgüterlieferungen in den Busch, dort aber kommen diese nie an oder verrotten in den Ruinen eines nie fertiggestellten Krankenhauses neben den an Aids sterbenden Menschen. - Simlia, ein Name, der wie «similar» klingt: «ähnlich wie . . .» - fast überall auf dem Schwarzen Kontinent, muss man im Sinne Lessings wohl ergänzen. Nicht zum ersten Mal rückt die Autorin das allzu Bekannte in die Distanz des Fiktiven oder Symbolischen; nicht zum ersten Mal machen sich ihre Reflexionen über die himmelschreienden Ungerechtigkeiten dieser Welt an Afrika fest. «Ifrik» hiess der Kontinent der Dürre und Trostlosigkeit in Lessings letztem Roman; fast scheint es, als würde, im persönlichen Kontext von Lebensrückblick und Aufzeigen grosser Zusammenhänge, Afrika für sie immer wichtiger.
Wo geht die Menschheit hin? Die Zukunft der Welt hat Doris Lessing immer umgetrieben. Die Schriftstellerin wurde nicht müde, Science-Fiction-Szenarien wie in den «Sirianischen Versuchen» oder zuletzt in «Mara und Dann» zu entwerfen; und noch bevor die grosse kommunistische Utopie als Thema in ihre Literatur einging, hatte sie selbst ihren Weg von der Begeisterung zur Desillusion hinter sich. Mit diesem Teil von sich selbst, der zukunftsgläubigen Genossin Träumerin, geht sie weiterhin hart ins Gericht. Wenn wir in der ersten Hälfte von «Ein süsser Traum» die 17- bis 25-jährigen «Kinder» am Tisch sitzen sehen - die Söhne Andrew und Colin sowie etliche von ihren eigenen Eltern Unverstandene mit Namen Jill, Rose, Geoffrey, Daniel, James -, die sich eine halbe Jugend lang an Frances' niemals leeren Kochtöpfen nähren, trösten und aufbauen lassen, während Frances' Ex-Mann Johnny als immer berühmterer Genosse die grossen Reden schwingt: Dann meint man hinter ihnen eine fassungslos den Kopf schüttelnde Erzählerin zu sehen.
«Den Hausmüttern, den Erdmüttern, von denen es in den sechziger Jahren immer mehr gab, wurde auf diese Weise allmählich klar, dass da draussen noch andere waren, und sie verstanden, dass sie zu einem Phänomen gehörten: Der Geist war wieder am Werk. Sie hatten schon ein Netzwerk gebildet, noch ehe dieser Ausdruck zum Sprachgebrauch gehörte. Sie und all diese Frauen waren das Netzwerk der Hegenden. Der neurotischen Hegenden. Wie die ‹Kinder› ihr erklärt hatten, arbeitete Frances ein Schuldgefühl ab, das in ihrer Kindheit verwurzelt war.»
Und doch gehört diesen sich verausgabenden Erdmüttern die Sympathie der Schriftstellerin; Frances nicht weniger als Sylvia, die sich - die zweite Romanhälfte lang und knapp 30 Jahre später - als Ärztin der Ärmsten im Busch von Simlia aufopfert; natürlich eine «neurotisch Hegende», aber was, scheint Lessing zu fragen, wäre denn unsere kaputte Welt ohne diese?
Es scheint, als träte uns die Autorin gleich in dreifachem Alter Ego entgegen: In Frances, die zwischen vierzig und fünfzig, nach der Phase der Haus- und Erdmutter, noch einmal im Schreiben und im Lieben auf vorher nicht gekannte Weise zu sich findet; in ihrer Schwiegermutter Julia, die die ganzen Schätze und Lasten der konventionell-grossbürgerlichen Welt aus Vorkriegs-Deutschland mit in ihre Ehe nach England gebracht hat und die zum Sprachrohr der Autorin wird: wenn sie an der Ignoranz nicht nur ihres Sohnes Johnny, sondern einer ganzen Generation leidet, die die Ideologie den wahren Zusammenhängen, seien sie politischer oder persönlicher Natur, vorzieht. Und nicht zuletzt in Sylvia, die man als verschrecktes, magersüchtiges und schliesslich in Julias Haus und an Frances' Esstisch beheimatetes Kind kennen gelernt hatte. Sylvia findet - und verliert - ihr Leben im afrikanischen Busch, wo sie ernst, asketisch und ungemein pflichtbewusst ihre harte Arbeit tut. Die Hoffnungslosigkeit des Helfens; die problematische Rolle der vielen Mitläufer, die nicht richtig böse und doch irgendwie verantwortlich für den schnellen Niedergang von Hoffnungen sind; die verzweifelte Not durch den leisen Mörder Aids: Dies sind allesamt Themen, die Doris Lessing kenntnisreich und erfahren zu gestalten weiss.
Liest man Doris Lessings neues Buch als Erörterung geistiger und lebensweltlicher Positionen in der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts; als Erörterung weiterhin von (vor allem weiblichen) Lebenswegen, die ausschnitthaft über 30 Jahre verfolgt werden, dann geraten am ehesten die Stärken des Romans in den Blick.
Erwartet man von ihr hingegen gut gebaute Figuren und einen subtilen Stil, wird man sich vielfach am allzu grob Gestrickten, am vielleicht zu schnell Hingeworfenen stossen - auch dies nicht zum ersten Mal. Wenn uns Doris Lessing an den von Hausmutter Frances veranstalteten Essgelagen teilnehmen lässt, dann interessiert sie sich zwar für die Psychodynamik in diesem rebellischen Haufen, die Leserin aber muss sich mit lapidar hingeworfenen, fast protokollarischen Informationen begnügen, wer gerade die Schule abgebrochen, einen Schwangerschaftsabbruch verheimlicht, wer sich von wem getrennt und wer wo was geklaut hat, statt dass einmal die Dynamik einer solchen Szene selbst gestaltet wäre. Wichtige Figuren wie Andrew oder Colin bleiben bis zum Schluss vage Skizzen. Stilistische Nachlässigkeit springt einem geradezu ins Gesicht, wenn der Übergang zu einem neuen Thema bewältigt wird mit einem dürren: «Folgendes war passiert: . . .» oder: «Folgendes war die Situation . . .».
Wenn sich am Schluss die Zufälle häufen; und zwischen England und Afrika und über den Zeitraum mehrerer Jahrzehnte hinweg ausgerechnet die damaligen «Kinder» von Frances' Tisch in lauter Schlüsselpositionen stehen und sich zu Konferenzen oder journalistischen Recherchen in Simlia aufhalten, so dass die zu Tode erschöpfte Sylvia ihnen allen über den Weg läuft, dann mutet dies schon als ein sehr grobes Raster der Folgerichtigkeit an, wo ein subtilerer Zusammenhang not getan hätte.
Ungemein fähig, gesellschaftliche Mechanismen erzählend aufzuzeigen, aus «gut» und «böse» gemischte Figuren glaubwürdig zu zeichnen, läuft Lessing auch in diesem Roman trotzdem öfters in die Falle von Klischee und manch einer gar simplifizierten Kausalität. Hier hätte Entrümpelung not getan. Denn wenn das Hin-und-her-Rücken der Spielsteine in der Romanwelt gar zu laut klappert, wird es einem leicht gemacht, die Relevanz des Erzählten für das «wirkliche Leben» nicht hoch zu veranschlagen.
Trotzdem: «Ein süsser Traum» ist nicht nur eine Wiederbegegnung mit der Moralistin Doris Lessing; der Roman versammelt etliche ihrer Lebensthemen zu einem Text, der über lange Strecken gerade in seiner Unzeitgemässheit fasziniert und der trotz den angedeuteten Mängeln überraschend bleibt bis zum Schluss.
EXTRACTS FROM THE
An early evening in autumn, and the street below was a scene of small yellow lights that suggested intimacy, and people were already bundled up for winter. Behind her the room was, people already bundled up for winter. Behind her the room was filling with a chilly dark, but nothing could dismay her: she was floating, as high as a summer cloud, as happy as a child who had just learned to walk. The reason for this uncharacteristic lightness of heart was a telegram from her former husband, Johnny Lennox - Comrade Johnny - three days ago. SIGNED CONTRACT FOR FIDEL FILM ALL ARREARS AND CURRENT PAYMENT TO YOU SUNDAY. Today was Sunday. The 'all arrears' had been due, she knew, to something like the fever of elation she was feeling now: there was no question of his paying 'all' which by now must amount to so much money she no' longer bothered to keep an account. But he surely must be expecting a really big sum to sound so confident. Here a little breeze - apprehension? - did reach her. Confidence was his - no, she must not say stock-in-trade, even if she had often in her life felt that, but could she remember him ever being outfaced by circumstances, even discomfited?
On a desk behind her two letters lay side by side, like a lesson in life's improbable but so frequent dramatic juxtapositions. One offered her a part in a play. Frances Lennox was a minor, steady, reliable actress, and had never been asked for anything more. This part was in a brilliant new play, a two-hander, and the male part would be taken by Tony Wilde who until now had seemed so far above her she would never have had the ambition to think of her name and his side by side on a poster. And he had asked for her to be offered the part. Two years ago they had been in the same play, she as usual in a serviceable smaller role. At the end of a short run - the play had not been a success - she had heard on the closing night as they tripped back and forth taking curtain calls, 'Well done, that was very good.' Smiles from Olympus, she had thought that, while knowing he had shown signs of being interested in her. But now she had been watching herself burst into all kinds of feverish dreams, not exactly taking herself by surprise, since she knew only too well how battened down she was, how well under control was her erotic self, but she could not prevent herself imagining her talent for fun (she supposed she still had it?) even for reckless enjoyment, being given room, while at the same time showing what she could do on the stage, if given a chance. But she would not be earning much money, in a small theatre, with a play that was a gamble. Without that telegram from Johnny she could not have afforded to say yes.
The other letter offered her a niche as Agony Aunt (name still to be chosen) on The Defender, well paid, and safe. This would be a continuation of the other strand of her professional life as a freelance journalist, which is where she earned money.
She had been writing on all kinds of subjects for years. At first she had tried her wings in local papers and broadsheets, any place that would pay her a little money. Then she found she was doing research for serious articles, and they were in the national newspapers. She had a name for solid balanced articles that often shone an unexpected and original light on a current scene.
She would do it well. What else had her experience fitted her for, if not to cast a cool eye on the problems of others? But saying yes to that work would have no pleasure in it, no feeling she would be trying new wings. Rather, she would have to steady her shoulders with the inner stiffening of resolve that is like a suppressed yawn.
How weary she was of all the problems, the bruised souls, the waifs and strays, how delightful it would be to say, 'Right, you can look after yourselves for a bit, I am going to be in the theatre every evening and most of the day too.' (Here was another little cold nudge: have you taken leave of your senses? Yes, and she was loving every minute.)
The top of a tree still in its summer leaf, but a bit ragged now, was glistening: light from two storeys up, from the old woman's rooms, had snatched it from dark into lively movement, almost green: colour was implied. Julia was in, then. Readmitting her mother-in-law – her ex-mother-in-law – to her mind brought a familiar apprehension, because of the weight of disapproval sifting down through the house to reach her, but there was something else she had only recently become aware of. Julia had had to go to hospital, could have died, and Frances had to acknowledge at last how much she relied on her. Suppose there was no Julia, what would she do, what would they all do?
Meanwhile, everyone referred to her as the old woman, she too until recently. Not Andrew, though. And she had noticed that Colin had begun to call her Julia. The three rooms above hers, over where she stood now, below Julia's, were inhabited by Andrew the elder son, and Colin the younger, her and Johnny Lennox's sons.
She had three rooms, bedroom and study and another, always needed for someone staying the night, and she had heard Rose Trimble say, “Why does Julia need four rooms? The house was hers. This rackety over-full house, people coming and going, sleeping on floors, bringing friends whose names she often did not know, had at its top an alien zone, which was all order, where the air seemed gently mauve, scented with violets, with cupboards holding decades-old hats that had veils and rhinestones and flowers, and suits of a cut and material not to be brought anywhere now. Julia Lennox descended the stairs, walked down the street, her back straight, her hands in gloves – there were drawers of them – wore perfect shoes, hats, coats, in violet or grey or mauve, and around her was an aura of flower essences. 'Where does she get those clothes?' Rose had demanded before she had taken in that truth from the past, that clothes could be kept for years, and not discarded a week after buying them.
Below Frances's slice of the house was a sitting-room that went from back to front of the house, and there, usually on a huge red sofa, took place the intense confidences of teenagers, two by two; or if she opened the door cautiously, she might see on it anything up to half a dozen of 'the kids', cuddled together like a litter of puppies.
The room was not used enough to justify taking such a big slice out of the centre of the house. The life of the house went on in the kitchen. Only if there was a party did this room come into its own, but parties were few because the youngsters went to discos and pop concerts; though it seemed hard for them to tear themselves away from the kitchen, and from a very large table that Julia had once used, one leaf folded down, for dinner parties when she had 'entertained'. As she put it.
Now the table was always at full stretch with sometimes sixteen or twenty chairs and stools around it. The basement flat was large and often Frances did not know who was camping out there. Sleeping bags and duvets littered the floor like detritus after a storm. She felt like a spy going down there. Apart from insisting they kept it clean and tidy - they were taken by occasional fits of 'tidying up' which it was hard to see made much difference - she did not interfere. Julia had no such inhibitions, and would descend the little stairs and stand surveying the scene of sleepers, sometimes still in their beds at midday or later, the dirty cups on the floors, the piles of records, the radios, clothes lying about in tangles, and then turn herself around slowly, a severe figure in spite of the little veils and gloves that might have a rose pinned at a wrist, and, having seen from the rigidity of a back, or a nervously raised head that her presence had been noted, she would go slowly up the stairs, leaving behind her on the stale air the odours of flowers and expensive face powder.
Frances leaned out of the window to see if light was spilling down the steps from the kitchen: yes, they were all there then, and waiting for supper. Who, tonight? She would soon find out. At that moment Johnny's little Beetle appeared from around the corner, parked itself neatly, and out stepped Johnny. And, at once, three days of foolish dreams dissolved, while she thought, I've been mad, I've been crazy. What made me imagine anything was going to change? If there was in fact a film, then there wouldn't be any money for her and the boys, as usual . . . but he had said the contract was signed?
In the time it took her to walk slowly, stopping at the desk to look at the two fateful letters, reaching the door, still taking her time, beginning to descend the stairs, it was as if the last three days had not happened. She was not going to be in the play, not enjoy the dangerous intimacy of the theatre with Tony Wilde, and she was pretty sure that tomorrow she would write to The Defender and accept their job. Slowly, collecting herself down the stairs, and then, smiling, she stood in the open door of the kitchen. Against the window, standing with his arms spread to take his weight on the sill, stood Johnny, all bravado and - though he was not aware of that - apology. Around the table sat an assortment of youngsters, and Andrew and Colin were both there. All were looking towards Johnny, who had been holding forth about something, and all admiringly, except for his sons. The smiled, like the others, but the smiles were anxious. They, like herself, knew that the money promised for today had vanished into the land of dreams. (Why on earth had she told them? Surely she knew better!) It had all happened before. And they knew, like her, that he had come here now, when the kitchen would be full of young people, so he could not be greeted by rage, tears, reproaches - but that was the past, long ago.
Johnny spread out his arms, palms towards her, smiling painfully, and said, 'The film's off... the CIA...' At her look he desisted, and was silent, looking nervously at his two boys.
'Don't bother,' said Frances. 'I really didn't expect anything else.' At which the boys turned their eyes to her; their concern for her made her even more self-reproachful.
She stood by the oven where various dishes were shortly to reach their moments of truth. Johnny, as if her back absolved him, began an old speech about the CIA whose machinations this time had been responsible for the film falling through.
Colin, needing some sort of anchor of fact, interrupted to ask, 'But, Dad, I thought the contract... Johnny said quickly, Too many hassles. You wouldn't understand . . . what the CIA wants, the CIA gets.' A cautious glance over her shoulder showed Colin's face a knot of anger, bewilderment, resentment. Andrew, as always, seemed insouciant, even amused, though she knew how very far he was from that. This scene or something like it had been repeated throughout their childhoods.
In the year the war began, 1939, two youngsters, hopeful and ignorant - like those around the table tonight - had fallen in love, like millions of others in the warring countries, and put their arms around each other for comfort in the cruel world. But there was excitement in it too, war's most dangerous symptom. Johnny Lennox introduced her to the Young Communist League just as he was leaving it to be a grown-up, if not yet a soldier. He was a bit of a star, Comrade Johnny, and needed her to know it. She had sat in the back rows of crowded halls to hear him explain that it was an imperialist war, and the progressive and democratic forces should boycott it. Soon, however, he was in uniform and in the same halls, to the same audiences, exhorting them to do their bit, for now it was a war against fascism, because the attack by the Germans on the Soviet Union had made it so. There were barrackers and protesters, as well as the faithful; there were boos and loud raucous laughter. Johnny was mocked for standing up there tranquilly explaining the new Party Line just as if he had not been saying the exact opposite until recently. Frances was impressed by his calm; accepting - even provoking - hostility by his pose, arms out, palms forward, suffering for the hard necessities of the times. He was in the RAF uniform. He had wanted to be a pilot, but his eyes were not up to it, so he was a corporal, having refused on ideological grounds to be an officer. He would be in administration.
So that had been Frances's introduction to politics, or rather, to Johnny's politics. Something of an achievement, perhaps, to be young in the late Thirties and to care nothing about politics, but so it was. She was a solicitor's daughter from Kent. The theatre had been her window into glamour, adventure, the great world, first in school plays, then in amateur dramatics. She had always played leading roles, but was typecast for her English-rose looks. But now she was in uniform too, one of the young women attached to the War Ministry, mostly driving senior officers around. Attractive young women in uniform in her kind of job had a good time, though this aspect of war tends to be played down from tact, and perhaps even shame, towards the dead. She danced a good deal, she dined, she mildly lost her heart to glamorous Frenchmen, Poles, Americans, but did not forget Johnny, or their anguished passionate nights of love and that rehearsed their later longing for each other.
Meanwhile he was in Canada attending to the RAF fliers being trained there. By now he was an officer, and doing well, as his letters made clear; then he came home, an aide to some bigwig, and he was a captain. He was so handsome in his uniform, and she so attractive in hers. In that week they married and Andrew was conceived, and that was the end of her good times, because she was in a room with a baby and was lonely, and frightened, because of the bombing. She had acquired a mother-in-law, the fearsome Julia, who, looking like a society lady in a nineteen-thirties fashion magazine, descended from her house in Hampstead - this house - to show shock at what Frances was living in, and to offer her space in her house. Frances refused. She may not have been political, but with every fibre she shared her generation's fervent desire for independence. When she left her home, it was for a furnished room. And now, having been reduced to little more than Johnny's wife and a baby's mother, she was independent, and could define herself with that thought, holding on to it. Not much, but her own.
And the days and nights dragged by, and she was as far from the glamorous life she had been enjoying as if she had never left her parents' home in Kent. The last two years of the war were hard, poor, frightening. The food was bad. Bombs that seemed to have been designed to wreck people's nerves affected hers. Clothes were hard to find, and ugly. She had no friends, only met other mothers of small children. She was afraid above all that when Johnny came home he would be disappointed in her, an overweight tired young mother, nothing like the smart girl in uniform he had been madly in love with. And that is what happened. Johnny had done well in the war, and had been noticed. No one could say he wasn't clever and quick, and his politics were unremarkable for that time. He was offered good jobs in the London reshaping itself after the war. He refused them. He wasn't going to be bought by the capitalist system: not by an iota had he changed his mind, his faith. Comrade Johnny Lennox, back in civvies, was preoccupied only by The Revolution.
Colin was born in 1945. Two small children, in a wretched flat in Notting Hill, then a run-down and poor part of London. Johnny was not often at home. He was working for the Party. By now it is necessary to explain that by the Party was meant the Communist Party, and what was meant to be heard was THE PARTY. When two strangers met it might go like this: 'Are you in the Party too?' 'Yes, of course.' I thought you must be.' Meaning: You are a good person, I like you, and so you must, like me, be in the Party. Frances did not join the Party, though Johnny told her to. It was bad for him, he said, to have a wife who would not join. 'But who would know?' enquired Frances, adding to his contempt for her, because she had no feeling for politics and never would.
'The Party knows,' said Johnny.
'Too bad,' said Frances.
They were definitely not getting on, and the Party was the least of it, though a great irritation for Frances. They were living in real hardship, not to say squalor. He saw this as a sign of inner grace.
Returning from a weekend seminar, 'Johnny Lennox on the Threat of American Aggression', he would find her hanging up the children's clothes to dry on rickety arrangements of pulleys and racks screwed precariously to the wall outside the kitchen window, or returning, one child dragging on her hand, the other in a pushchair, from the park. The well of the chair would be full of groceries, and tucked behind the child was a book she had been hoping to read while the children played. 'You are a real working woman, Fran,' he would compliment her.
If he was delighted, his mother was not. When she came, always having written first, on thick white paper you could cut yourself with, she sat with distaste on the edge of a chair which probably had residues of smeared biscuit or orange on it. She would announce, Johnny, this cannot go on.
'And why not, Mutti?'
He called her Mutti because she hated it.
'Your grandchildren,' he would instruct her, 'will be a credit to the People's Britain.'
Frances would not let her eyes meet Julia's at such moments, because she was not going to be disloyal.
She felt that her life, all of it, and herself in it, was dowdy, ugly, exhausting, and Johnny's nonsense was just a part of it. It would all end, she was sure of it. It would have to.
And it did, because Johnny announced that he had fallen in love with a real comrade, a Party member, and he was moving in with her.
'And how am I going to live?' asked Frances, already knowing what to expect.
'I'll pay maintenance, of course,' said Johnny, but never did.
She found a council nursery, and got a small job in a business making theatre sets and costumes. It was badly paid, but she managed. Julia arrived to complain that the children were being neglected and their clothes were a disgrace.
'Perhaps you should talk to your son?' said Frances. 'He owes me a year's maintenance.' Then it was two years, three years.
Julia asked whether if she got a decent allowance from the family would she give up her job and look after the boys?
Frances said no.
'But I wouldn't interfere with you,' said Julia. 'I promise you that.'
'You don't understand,' said Frances.
'No, I do not. And perhaps you would explain it to me?'
Johnny left Comrade Maureen and returned to her, Frances, saying that he had made a mistake. She took him back. She was lonely, knew the boys needed a father, was sex-starved.
He left again for another real, genuine comrade. When he again returned, to Frances, she said to him:
She was working full time in a theatre, earning not much but enough. The boys were by then ten and eight. There was trouble all the time at the schools, and they were not doing well.
'What do you expect?' said Julia.
'I never expect anything,' said Frances.
Then things changed, dramatically. Frances was amazed to hear that Comrade Johnny had agreed that Andrew should go to a good school. Julia said Eton, because her husband had gone there. Frances was waiting to hear that Johnny had refused Eton, and then was told that Johnny had been there, and had managed to conceal this damaging fact all these years. Julia did not mention it because his Eton career had hardly covered him or them with glory. He had gone for three years, but dropped out to go to the Spanish Civil War.
'You mean to say you are happy for Andrew to go to that school?' Frances said to him, on the telephone.
'Well, you at least get a good education,' said Johnny airily, and she could hear the unspoken: Look what it did for me.
So - Julia paying - Andrew took off from the poor rooms his mother and brother were living in, for Eton, and spent his holidays with schoolfriends, and became a polite stranger. Frances went to an end-of-term at Eton, in an outfit bought to fit what she imagined would suit the occasion, and the first hat she had ever worn. She did all right, she thought, and could see Andrew was relieved when he saw her.
Then people came to ask after Julia, Philip's widow, and the daughter-in-law of Philip's father: an old man remembered him, as a small boy. It seemed the Lennoxes went to Eton as a matter of course. Johnny, or Jolyon, was enquired after. 'Interesting said a man who had been Johnny's teacher. 'An interesting choice of career.'
Thereafter Julia went to the formal occasions, where she was made much of, and was surprised at it: visiting Eton in those brief three years of Jolyon's attendance there, she had seen herself as Philip's wife, and of not much account.
Colin refused Eton, because of a deep, complicated loyalty to his mother whom he had watched struggling all these years. This did not mean he did not quarrel with her, fight her, argue, and did so badly at school Frances was secretly convinced he was doing it on purpose to hurt her. But he was cold and angry with his father, when Johnny did blow in to say that he was so terribly sorry, but he really did not have the money to give them. He agreed to go to a progressive school, St Joseph's, Julia paying for everything. Johnny then came up with a suggestion that Frances at last did not refuse. Julia would let her and the boys have the lower part of her house. She did not need all that room, it was ridiculous...
Frances thought of Andrew, returning to various squalid addresses, or not returning, certainly never bringing friends home.
She thought of Colin who made no secret of how much he hated how they were living. She said yes to Johnny, yes to Julia, and found herself in the great house that was Julia's and always would be.
Only she knew what it cost her. She had kept her independence all this time, paid for herself and the boys, and not accepted money from Julia, nor from her parents who would have been happy to help. Now here she was, and it was a final capitulation: what to other people was 'such a sensible arrangement' was defeat. She was no longer herself, she was an appendage of the Lennox family.
As far as Johnny was concerned, he had done as much as could be expected of him. When his mother told him he should support his sons, get a job that paid him a salary, he shouted at her that she was a typical member of an exploiting class, thinking only of money, while he was working for the future of the whole world. They quarrelled, frequently and noisily. Listening, Colin would go white, silent, and leave the house for hours or for days. Andrew preserved his airy, amused smile, his poise. He was often at home these days, and even brought friends.
Meanwhile Johnny and Frances had divorced because he had married properly, and formally, with a wedding that the comrades attended, and Julia too. Her name was Phyllida, and she was not a comrade, but he said she was good material and he would make a communist of her.