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Dark times

Jane Rogers revisits Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, a novel she was first drawn to when she was living in a squat

Saturday December 3, 2005
The Guardian

I first read Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist in 1987, two years after it was published. I thought it was a surprising book for Doris Lessing to have written: my sense of her territory was Africa, women, and a fascination with the exploration of inner worlds. There was always something expansive, even exotic, about her fiction.

There is nothing exotic about The Good Terrorist. It is a novel in unsparing close-up, featuring a cast of damaged and disaffected characters, living in squalor in a very real London. Living, in fact, in a squat rather like one I lived in briefly in 1974. We too had a grand, vandalised house, with a cemented-up bath and a shifting population. I don't think any of us were terrorists, but there was certainly that rebellious, angry feel to the household, which called itself a commune; there was the same contemptuous rejection of bourgeois family life.

So to begin with I was fascinated by The Good Terrorist because it took a domestic situation I had known, and pushed it to an extreme. Lessing is exploring the territory where the personal becomes political (and when I understood that, I realised that it is indeed a sister book to her earlier novels, to books such as The Grass is Singing, where the evils of a political system, apartheid, are exposed through close examination of individual lives). In The Good Terrorist she shows us the point where the heaped-up disappointments and hopes and contradictions of individual lives coalesce into wilfully murderous public action.

The plot is simple, but each time I read this novel I'm impressed by the compulsive power of the story-telling. Alice is a founding member of the Communist Centre Union, a leftwing group committed to revolutionary action (albeit careful to disassociate itself from Stalin). The comrades are living in filth in a house scheduled for demolition. At first, suspense centres on the house: will Alice be able to rid it of gallons of raw sewage, to hack cement out of the toilet, to repel the police, to clear the rubbish and restore water and electricity, and prevent major fallouts between antagonistic members of the household, before the council meeting that must decide its fate? And as this race against time accelerates, other questions are set ticking; why is Alice so obsessed with creating a home? Why does she dote on the odious Jasper? How will the IRA react to Bert and Jasper's naive offer of assistance? Will the apolitical Jim, who was the first to move into the derelict house and welcomed all comers, get thrown out? Who are the mysterious comrades next door, and are they really burying explosives in the garden?

Once the house is temporarily saved, the question of how and where the group can make their mark becomes the racing engine of the plot, and the novel moves into darker territory. The "professionals" (who may be KGB, or IRA, or Special Branch) are closing in; Alice becomes a thief, Faye attempts suicide, Philip is killed, parcels of gun parts are delivered in the middle of the night. Moving on inexorably to the detonation of the bomb itself, with its random destruction of innocent lives.

The key to Alice's character is her perverted relationship with her mother. In 1985 I had become obsessed with the contradictions of motherhood, and explored them in a novel. (It was then that I wrote to Lessing telling her how important her books were to me, and asking if she minded me echoing her title in The Ice Is Singing. She replied, magnificently, "I think you will find it is TS Eliot to whom we are both indebted.") But it wasn't until I reread The Good Terrorist in the early 90s that I realised that it is as unsparing and incisive about motherhood as it is about the extreme left. Alice's need to go to any lengths to see her comrades eating happily together around the big kitchen table is motherly. Her protectiveness of deadly Jasper is motherly, and she even acknowledges that while she is with him she can never have a child. When she hugs him it is as though she held a wraith, something cold and wailing, a lost child. When Jim is about to start his new job, Alice thought she was rather like a mother, making sure a child had eaten before going off to school. In the final confrontation between Alice and her mother, Dorothy, Dorothy's cruellest retort is to reveal the similarity between them: "I thought ... I won't have Alice stuck in my position, no qualifications for anything. But it turned out you spend your life exactly as I did. Cooking and nannying for other people. An all-purpose female drudge."

Motherhood here is terrible: for poor Dorothy, giving and giving to her crazily selfish daughter, until she is reduced to bleak poverty. For Alice, giving and giving (financially and emotionally) to cruel Jasper, who occasionally rewards her with a crumb of love - permission to put her sleeping bag along the same wall as his. The theme is echoed in the lesbian relationship between Roberta, comforting mother figure, and Faye, the pretty, naughty child who harms Roberta in the most effective way she can, by blowing herself up. Motherhood is presented as an obsessive need to love and protect those who seem weaker and less adequate than yourself, and yet who reject and hurt you. Alice's motherliness is even applied to the act of terror itself; after the bomb has exploded she pities those who don't understand the necessity for the outrage. "Alice sat with tears in her eyes, thinking, Poor things, poor things, they simply don't understand! - as if she had her arms around all the poor silly ordinary people in the world." Motherhood has become a perversion.

Rereading the book now, in the light of the London terrorist attacks on July 7, I see it as an example of fiction going where factual writing cannot: exposing, in all their blinkered self-righteous rage, a group of people who want to smash the society they live in. The media image of a terrorist is shark-like in its simplicity - which is why it's terrifying: the notion of a person so driven by one idea (be it that the Brits must get out of Northern Ireland, or that revenge must be taken on the west for Muslim deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Palestine) that he or she can sacrifice everything else, even love of life itself, to that single idea is appalling.

Yet such shark-people are rare, as Lessing shows us; her terrorists are contaminated by the muddle of being human, have parents they rebel against, have suffered injustices, have maternal impulses and physical needs, and a burning need for identity and recognition. This is not to suggest for a moment that Lessing demands sympathy for her characters; this is no touchy-feely book to help us understand the poor things who are driven to such extremes. It is a witty and furious book, angry at human stupidity and destructiveness, both within the system and without. It shows us people who commit an evil act and it shows how that evil springs out of our own society. It connects us to it, while condemning it. It makes any kind of complacency impossible.

Jane Rogers's latest novel is The Voyage Home (Abacus)



on her latest book "Time Bites"


Thursday 11 November 2004

The meditations of Doris Lessing
Elaine Showalter

Views and reviews
Doris Lessing

376pp. | HarperCollins. £20. | 0 00 717985 5

On the cover of this book is a photograph of a sweet-faced, silver-haired woman, elegantly dressed in velvet and silk, seated on an art-deco sofa next to a vase of roses. It could almost be a portrait of a society matron from Country Life, but it is Doris Lessing. Now eighty-five, a former Communist, radical and feminist gadfly, Lessing has analysed and dramatized in novels, stories, plays, operas and two volumes of autobiography, the failures of Communism and her fascination with the capacity of intelligent people, including her own young self, to believe in its dreams of freedom. She has criticized African nationalism and feminism for the same delusions, and fiercely attacked political correctness. Usually admired as bold, controversial and wise, Lessing is now described by her publishers as one of the “best-loved” female writers in Britain.

Time Bites, her fifty-first book, is a collection of sixty-five bits and pieces – speeches, lectures, contributions to symposia, broadcasts, reviews, prefaces written as far back as 1972 and as recently as 2004. Their subjects include books, opera, cats, rooms and places, old age, memory, politics and Sufism. The contents are as baffling as the cover. Lessing has not written an introduction to pull these pieces together, or explain their collective title. Is “bites” a noun or a verb? Are these fragments snatched out of time like sound bites? Or is the title a declaration, about the wounds time inflicts? “Time” is indeed a problematic factor in the book. In “Writing Autobiography”, she discusses “the unreliability of memory, and the circumstantial nature of ideas and views of the self” that make autobiography an “interim report”: “Once I read autobiography as what the writer thought about her or his life. Now I think, ‘That is what they thought at that time’”. But the pieces in this book are out of chronological order; their dates of publication have to be figured out through the acknowledgements.

Moreover, they have not been revised to reflect the current moment, so, for example, we come up against startling statements such as “the Islamic world is enjoying the economic renaissance which profoundly affects us all”. They haven’t been edited to eliminate repetitions, and anecdotes, comments and allusions frequently recur. Several essays, the most hyperbolic and frustrating, deal with the late Idries Shah and his various scholarly writings on Sufism, an Islamic form of mysticism which Lessing has admired for many years. Shah “wrote about travel, magic and shamanism, the reconciliation of religions, made fresh translations of Sufi classics and poetry – and was well known as a savant – in the Muslim world”. She tells us that Shah revived the Middle Eastern tradition of the jokester Mulla Nasrudin, and that the Nasrudin stories are both profound and very funny, but the examples she gives seem flat and generic, much like Zen koans, or Freud’s examples of Jewish humour, or even the pointlessly existential alternative comedy of the contemporary club circuit. In an essay written after Shah’s death, she reviews his impressive career, but although she asserts that Shah’s books “form the most remarkable literary and instructional phenomenon of our time”, she does not manage to convey their spiritual uniqueness or their literary quality to the reader. Given the current interest in the Islamic world, this is a serious disappointment.

Although Lessing is a passionate, generous reader and lover of books, and herself an autodidact, literary criticism is not her strong suit. Too often her reviews extol rather than explain (for example, on The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, “How simple this novel is. How subtle. How strong. How unlike any other. It is unique. It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary”). Too many meander and digress and end with lengthy quotations.

Yet despite these limitations, each of her reviews is an occasion for meditation and reflection on writers and ideas. The range of her literary interests is impressively wide and unaffected by literary fashion. She quotes Barbara Cartland on the Cinderella plot of romantic fiction as readily as she discusses Mikhail Bulgakov. She is invariably interesting and personal on women writers, seeing her kinship with them and their common concerns. She identifies with Jane Austen’s isolated world in which country-house visits drive the plot,

"because when I was a girl in Africa, the early rattling cars, the poor roads, some of them not more than wheelmarks through grass, meant that to go to supper with a neighbour was the same as us going to Paris or even New York. We used to be invited to “spend the day” since the effort of travelling meant you had to make the most of it."

In a preface to some short essays by Virginia Woolf, she acknowledges the snobbery and class bias of Bloomsbury bohemia, but also defends Woolf against the contempt or condescension of other critics: “It is hard for a writer to be objective about another who has had such an influence – on me, on other women writers. Not her styles, her experiments, her sometimes intemperate pronouncements, but simply her existence, her bravery, her wit, her ability to look at the situation of women without bitterness”. She comments acerbically on the caricature of Woolf in the film The Hours as the “very image of a sensitive suffering lady novelist”.

Lessing also writes sympathetically about Muriel Spark, the Australian novelist Ethel Richardson, Anna Kavan and Simone de Beauvoir, whose novel The Mandarins did for the French intellectuals of the 1950s what The Golden Notebook did for the British Left in the 1960s. Lessing’s comment on The Mandarins, indeed, reflects on her own fiction: “these politics already have something of the flavour of ancient religious squabbles, but the novel will continue to be read, I think, for an ironical reason: its brilliant portraits of women”.

Lessing is also strong on male writers who specialized in stories about New Women, or feminism, or sexuality – George Meredith, Leo Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence. Lessing first read Aaron’s Rod as a “young woman in the old Rhodesia”, and “was seduced while resisting the man’s message, which seemed to be a recommendation to find a strong personality to submit oneself to”. Invariably, she disapproves of writing from both women and men that divides the sexes. Lawrence’s story “The Fox”, she finds, is “full of the feminism of the time, strong in Lawrence’s work, and what a simple and naive feminism it seems now, after getting on for nearly a century”. In contrast, one of her favourite writers, the South African novelist Olive Schreiner, is “large in scope, generous, bold – woman as she can contribute to the development of humanity”. Schreiner would not recognize as sisters, Lessing writes with the tartness that has made her feared as well as loved, “those women who make ‘Women’s Lib’ a means to the narrowing of their sympathies”.

On the whole, however, the political essays are the most satisfying and persuasive in the book. Lessing is at her best when she is dealing with the concrete and the particular, the observed and the individual. In “The Tragedy of Zimbabwe” (first published “in an edited form to suit American tastes” in the New York Review of Books in 2003), she describes the betrayal of the white farmers and the black natives, and mercilessly exposes the political attitudes that excused the corruption, venality and violence of black Africans. In “The Wrong Way Home”, she writes sensibly and precisely about the connections between terrorism and cults, from The Possessed by Dostoevsky to al-Qaeda – the need for an enemy, “the pleasure people take in secrecy”, the “enjoyment of destruction” and the seductiveness of martyrdom. In these pieces, we hear the tough, uncompromising, direct and courageous voice that has made Lessing an icon for freedom of thought around the world.

Unfortunately, these essays are in the minority, and there is a good deal of routine writing in between about cats, the King James Bible, and golden English days. Overall, Time Bites offers much more balm than bite. If she doesn’t watch out, Doris Lessing may find herself acclaimed as a National Treasure.


The TLS n.º 5303   November 19, 2004

Tempus edax rerum

Sir, – In her review of Doris Lessing’s latest volume (November 12), Elaine Showalter briefly discusses the possible meanings of the title, Time Bites. She observes that it could be read as “a declaration, about the wounds time inflicts”, but fails to note what looks to me like a specific allusion to Ovid’s famous line, “Time, devourer of all things”. This might hardly seem worth mentioning, except for the happy coincidence that the original Latin from the Metamorphoses, “Tempus edax rerum”, appears in the inscription on a painting of “Antique Ruins” reproduced on page 12 of the very same issue.

7 Rivington Street, New York 13332.


The TLS n.º 5305,  DECEMBER 3, 2004

Thought bites

Sir, – Benjamin Friedman (Letters, November 19) suggests that, in calling her recent collection Time Bites, Doris Lessing alludes to Ovid’s “time, devourer of things”. This strikes me as forced, and would have fitted “Time Devours” better. But the main problem with Friedman’s hypothesis is that it disambiguates what is essentially equivocal. In her review of the book (November 12), Elaine Showalter complains that Lessing fails to tell us whether “bites” is noun or verb. This surely misses the point: that it is deliberately both.

I feel specially qualified to urge this view as one who is allegedly at work on a book entitled “Thought Bites”.



Wolfson College, Oxford.



November 07, 2004

Literature: Time Bites by Doris Lessing

by Doris Lessing

Fourth Estate £20 pp376

It is not often that the ephemera that writers have to produce in order to pay bills is worth preserving in book form. The material in Doris Lessing’s collection of “views and reviews”, however, deserves a wider circulation than it originally had. Even her most fervent admirers might have missed an introduction written for a Norwegian edition of Pride and Prejudice, for example, or a fragment of autobiography that appeared in an anthology of New Writings for the NHS. Furthermore, although covering all manner of topics — from the consolations of old age to bird life in Heidelberg — this book is remarkably cohesive, and one comes away with a real sense of who Lessing is and what she believes.

Even when tackling complex subjects, she writes almost casually, with a conversation-like directness. Discussing books and authors, she also writes as an enthusiast — though a qualified one in the cases of Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence, whose failings are dealt with in an admirably commonsensical manner. Like all enthusiasts, she encourages us to follow her into unfamiliar realms: Niccolo Tucci’s Before My Time, Jaan Kross’s Professor Marten’s Departure, Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace. Other books, once popular, have been lost in time. The Fables of Bidpai, an 8th-century Arabic version of an earlier collection of Sanskrit tales that no longer exists, was once claimed to have “travelled more widely than the Bible”; yet, writes Lessing, “it is safe to say that most people in the West these days will not have heard of it”. Thanks to her we now have, and will be encouraged to track down Ramsay Wood ’s 1980 translation, particularly since Lessing defies “anyone to sit down with it and not finish it at a sitting”.

Born in Persia, brought up in southern Rhodesia, married (briefly) to a German, now living in England, Lessing is the least insular of writers. It is perhaps significant that the countries of her birth and upbringing have both undergone changes of name and regime, becoming to some degree isolationist or at any rate isolated. This is part of a more general, cultural fragmentation that she deplores. She refreshingly and perhaps unfashionably sees books as a positive force for good, and laments the failure of modern governments to provide its citizens with a broad “humanist education”. There was a time, she says, not so very long ago, when “an educated person from Argentina would meet a similar person from Spain, one from St Petersburg meet his counterpoint in Norway, a traveller from France spend time with one from Britain, and they would understand each other, they shared a culture, could refer to the same books, plays, poems, pictures in a web of reference and information that was like a shared history of the best the human mind has thought, said, written. This has gone.”

Several pieces are devoted to Sufism, a strain of Islamic mysticism that has devotees not only among Muslims, but also Hindus, Christians and people such as Lessing “who find it hard to see in religion anything more than systems of indoctrination with perennial tendencies towards the persecution of differently thinking people”. Much Sufi teaching takes the form of fables that can be understood all over the world. Lessing particularly appreciates the way Sufi texts combine “tales, maxims, aphorisms, reminiscences, verse and poetry”, partly because “the effect, if not the intention, is to break down barriers, to create a liberating sense of comprehensiveness”.

A sense of community extends elsewhere to animals, about which Lessing always writes with insight, wit and affection. In the course of a long preface to D H Lawrence’s The Fox, she considers the relationships between humans and animals, going back to the dawn of civilisation: “It is not only humans we see outlined against the flames of those cave fires, but the dogs. And surely, just outside the circle of firelight, the first foxes. Animals shade off into the wild and the wilderness, in tales and legends, and the first men probably did not know where their thoughts ended and the consciousness of beasts began.” She suggests that we still don’t really know, particularly in the case of cats: “We share our emotional apparatus with them,” she writes, “though there are those who angrily deny it: but some people like to inflate themselves with superior feelings about other species.” There are no superior feelings whatsoever on display in this humane and truly internationalist book, which is particularly welcome given the current climate of increasing hostility and suspicion between the peoples of the world.



November 27, 2005


By Susan Salter Reynolds

Time Bites: Views and Reviews

Doris Lessing
HarperCollins: 376 pp., $27.95

"WOMEN writers did not, and occasionally even now do not, have an easy time of it," Doris Lessing writes in an essay on Virginia Woolf. "We all wish our idols and exemplars were perfect; a pity she was such a wasp, such a snob — and all the rest of it, but love has to be warts and all."

In this invaluable collection of "views and reviews," you will get Doris Lessing warts and all. Just like my imperious grandmother, Lessing is wry and amusing — until she gets shrill, and then she's just loud.

Many of the reviews and essays in "Time Bites" — on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," for example, which boils down to how very different Austen's world was from ours ("This tale is set firmly in its place and time, detail by certain detail, fact by verifiable fact") — are simply overstated, overly authoritative, and lacking in any sort of doubt or humility. One feels, as in her essays on Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, that she has simply travelled too far from the text.

When Woolf, for example, felt compelled, as she often did, to include an author's entire culture in her judgment, she was careful to return frequently to the work. Lessing all too often moves from hearsay to rumor to opinion.

That being said, Lessing's extraordinary outspokenness is often refreshing and invigorating. Side by side with the reviews, the essays — "My Room," for example, and "A Book That Changed Me" and "Old" — are not as laced with the "waspishness" that Lessing claims brought Woolf down a notch or two. (Lessing's reviews are nothing if not "waspish.")

Lessing is very funny indeed on Bohemianism, tender on the subject of Islam and Sufism ("It was easier in the ancient world, perhaps, when culture was more unified than it ever has been since, to grasp a concept of something hidden, but ever-present, central but many-featured") and full of rage on the subject of unauthorized biographies (particularly biographies of herself). On the subject of the United States and its citizens in the aftermath of Sept. 11, she has this to say: "Everything is taken to extremes."
Ah, the withering heights of fame and old age.




Lessing cleans off desk -- skillfully
Reviewed by John Freeman
Sunday, December 25, 2005

Time Bites

Views and Reviews

By Doris Lessing

HARPERCOLLINS; 376 Pages; $27.95

These past few years have been tough ones for humanists. Torture, war, tax cuts for the wealthy, corporate greed, drilling in the Arctic, rampant consumerism and a cutback in certain civil liberties have all been defended as key ingredients to keeping "the American people" safe from an unseen and -- to this day -- still uncaught enemy. In such an environment, it would seem there is nothing quite so decadent as a collection of old book reviews.

And yet to pick up Doris Lessing's "Time Bites" is to remember why a mere whiff of that hoary liberal humanism is so compelling. Here are Lessing's essays on Tolstoy and Austen, on the wholesale rape of Zimbabwe's economy by Robert Mugabe, and the traditions of Sufism. In different circumstances, this jumble would send a red flag -- the sign of an older writer clearing her desk, which she is doing. But running through each essay is a passionate belief that humans can overcome their ignorance and cruelty if they simply compassionately apply their minds to the task.

Lessing's roundabout pathway into becoming a writer seems to give this idea greater ballast. Born in 1924 in what would later become part of the "Axis of Evil" (now Iran, then called Persia), she grew up on a farm in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father had moved the family in hopes of making a living from tobacco and corn. By the time she moved to London in 1949 with her young son, she had been twice married and divorced, once a secretary, now a writer.

None of the pieces in "Time Bites" date back quite this far, but the pinch of postwar poverty hangs about them. Lessing takes nothing for granted, including the luxury of having something to read at all. In "Books," a short piece published to mark the opening of a library in Cairo, she writes about a trust that sends donated novels and volumes of poetry to villages in Africa. The response is astonishing.

"These villages may have no electricity, telephone, running water, but they beg for books from every visitor. ... In a bush village far from any big town, or even a little one, such a trestle with 40 books on it has transformed the life of the area. Instantly study groups appeared, literary classes -- people who can read teaching those who can't -- civil classes, and groups of aspirant writers. A letter from there reads 'People cannot live without water. Books are our water and we drink and we drink from this spring.' "

One might say the same about Lessing. Ornery in her dislikes, comfortable with the imperfect, she possesses the open-minded curiosity of an autodidact. "Time Bites" contains essays on Woolf, Austen and Simone de Beauvoir, as one might expect, but there are also reviews of lesser-known work such as "The Past Is Myself," by German writer Christabel Bielenberg, a new translation of the Arabic classic "The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan," and "The Ice Palace," by Norwegian novelist Tarjei Vesaas.

Like John Updike, Lessing never frets over whether or not she is entitled -- or well enough informed -- to enter these texts. Political correctness to her is a language experiment gone awry, and reading the equivalent of a passport; it can take you just about anywhere. As does Lessing's prose, which limps and grumbles along with all the grace of a 1974 Volvo -- sturdy and inelegant, but trustworthy because it is so homely.

She is not one for humor, though. The one chuckle-making moment in the book comes when Lessing is forced to be self-conscious, which is a different thing than writing about one's self. A biographer has tracked her down and will not let go, at least from afar:

"It is evident from the letter's tone, which is that of a happy chipmunk who has just found a stash of hallucinogenic mushrooms, that it has not crossed her mind her victim might not welcome spending what is bound to be weeks if not months in the company of someone she has never met and certainly would not have chosen, sharing intimate details of her past and deep thoughts about life in general."

Given her matter-of-fact tone, Lessing is sometimes at her best when addressing not books but the world at large with the chop-chop rhythm of an opinion columnist. A series of pieces written after Sept. 11 address the attacks with an empathic equanimity that was often lacking during those strident times. " 'Ignorant armies' like the Taliban are not terrorists," Lessing writes. "Saddam Hussein is not a terrorist, he is a brutal dictator. ... Terrorists are those highly trained ruthless groups waiting in the United States and the countries of Europe to murder, poison and destroy. Let us catch them, if we can. In order to understand them we must learn the laws that govern cults, and brainwashing."

It is strange here that Lessing neglects to mention terrorists in Latin America or the Middle East, who have been just as lethal, if not more so -- especially on their own populations. The lesson, one supposes, is that we all have our blind spots. Overcoming them, one book or experience at a time, is what Lessing celebrates in this thoughtful and engaging collection. Whoever said that humanism couldn't fight terrorism?

John Freeman lives in New York. His reviews have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.



on her latest book "The good gang of four"



11 June 2005

The good gang of four
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog
Doris Lessing
Fourth Estate, 282pp, £15.99, ISBN 0007152809

Reviewed by Allan Massie

On the back cover of this novel I am quoted as calling Doris Lessing ‘the most incredible of writers’. No doubt the phrase appeared in a review. Perhaps I did indeed write it, and carelessly did not remark it when reading over the typescript. If so, my fault. It is of course nonsense. What I intended to say was that she is ‘the most credible of writers’. She commands belief.

This novel with its long title is a sequel to Mara and Dann, which I haven’t read. There are many references back to the earlier novel, but this one is complete, and completely satisfying, in itself. It is so well done, written with such zest, imagination, sympathy and intelligence, that my prejudice against the sort of novel it is was soon disarmed.

It’s set in a distant future, perhaps thousands of years ahead. Climate change has taken place. Europe (Yerrup) has long been uninhabitable, experiencing an ice age. Africa (Ifrik) is hot and dry. But the ice has long been melting, the waters are rising, cities lie under the seas, the northern littoral of Ifrik is swampy marshland. The arts of civilisation have long been lost. War is endemic, there are refugees everywhere. Massacres, enslavement, the burning of villages are common experiences.

Lessing does not, however, offer us another dystopia. On the contrary. The four characters of the title — two men, a child and a dog — are bound together in love and friendship, and are all admirable. The most interesting and complex is Dann himself, a charismatic figure who has experienced horrors, much suffering, and loss. He is a divided character, with his dark side. His awareness of the apparently endless cycle of war, misery and destruction brings him close to despair. Yet he goes on, seeking to rebuild or recapture the civilisation that has been destroyed.

The first part of the novel, telling of Dann’s wanderings, is a piece of compelling narrative, wonderfully imagined. It is an adventure story and a very good one. The second part, when he returns to the mysterious Centre, once the seat of power and the repository of a lost civilisation, is questioning, philosophical. Lessing never lets us forget that while men and women are capable of great things (which must include the recognition of virtue), we are always open to mischief and worse. Dann, everybody’s hero, yet knows that he keeps ‘locked up a part of himself that wanted to destroy him’. Don’t we all?

Something good is re-established. Griot, the loyal lieutenant, says to Dann, ‘We are an example to everyone. So there would be no advantage in attacking us, I mean, it would be too stupid. I am pretty sure there is no need to lose sleep over it.’ Dann is wiser. ‘Well, yes, Griot, it would certainly be stupid. I agree with you there.’

The snow dog, Ruff, is a delight. Wholly credible too.



The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, by Doris Lessing

Chilling news from the frozen future

By Michèle Roberts

Published: 17 June 2005

Every age, since literature began, has produced its thrilling tales of apocalypse. Doris Lessing currently occupies the post of prophet-in-residence, warning us of the threats posed by the nuclear arms race, the rage of the dispossessed and starving, the unloved and misunderstood. Some critics label hers a paranoid vision. Others salute her as a brave lone voice crying in the wilderness.

Every age, since literature began, has produced its thrilling tales of apocalypse. Doris Lessing currently occupies the post of prophet-in-residence, warning us of the threats posed by the nuclear arms race, the rage of the dispossessed and starving, the unloved and misunderstood. Some critics label hers a paranoid vision. Others salute her as a brave lone voice crying in the wilderness.

Her new novel is as unsettling, indeed as terrifying, as anything she has ever written. It continues the the tale of Mara and Dann, the eponymous heroes of her 1999 novel, as the archetypal brother and sister make a laborious journey through a hostile universe. Lessing paints a picture of a future world whose inhabitants have forgotten most of their past: our present. She describes a lost civilisation, beautiful cities and advanced technology destroyed by drought, by an ice age, by floods. The seas, like an image of repression drowning memories, have covered an Atlantis-like vanished culture. People survive in settlements on islands, on the edges of marshes and swamps.

Dann, separated from his indomitable sister, abandons his lover Kira and their unborn child, and continues, alone, his quest for understanding. He searches for the great ice cliffs of Yerrup (Europe), adopts a "snow dog", loves a couple of women, and finally returns to the Centre, capital of his former world, to take up his responsibilities, care for his daughter, and search for traces of old wisdom. With libraries, museums and communication systems decayed, he has to rely on his wits. Hope for a sustainable future is embodied in his daughter Tamar, whom he tries to teach to become as formidable as his adored Mara.

The novel works like a classic myth, in that it deals with families and their troubles. Dann learns to become a good, tender father. But will that prove enough to save the world? Dann, like Lessing, is up against human fear, human denial, human smugness. All the way, Dann meets people who refuse to understand that the flood waters will soon engulf them. Dann is driven to rage and almost despair by this wilful ignorance. He is like a Green politician, pleading with people to change their ways before it is too late.

True to myth, the novel deals with archetypes in simple pairs of opposites (good women vs bad women, knowledge vs stupidity). An apparently omniscient voice recounts the story, sometimes switching to an over-the-shoulder narrative perspective. Sometimes this switch happens too abruptly; sometimes, language is carelessly used. The godlike narrative voice, impatient of the conventions of human storytelling, sometimes falls into didacticism, which dilutes the power of Lessing's warning. But, like all sibyls, she is working to her own rules.

Michèle Roberts's novel 'Reader, I Married Him' is published by Little, Brown


Ancestral voices

Doris Lessing evokes a storytelling tradition in her haunting novel, The Story of General Dann and Maria's Daughter and the Snow Dog, says Geraldine Bedell

Sunday July 3, 2005
The Observer

The Story of General Dann and Maria's Daughter and the Snow Dog
Doris Lessing
HarperCollins £15.99, pp282

The unwieldy, apparently naive title of Doris Lessing's latest novel gives quite a lot of clues as to what follows. This is a meandering, episodic book, peopled by disconnected characters, told in pared-down, at times, almost perfunctory prose.

I think we have to assume that this is deliberate: the apparently uncrafted quality of the novel is crafted to mimic an oral storytelling tradition, reminiscent of ancient epics in which characters had more role than psychology. A sequel to Mara and Dann, published in 1999, the novel is set in a future when melting ice covers the continent now known as Yerrup and waters are creeping up along the marshy coasts of Ifrik.

Dann, whose odyssey through Africa was the story of the earlier book, is living a settled life as a princely figurehead, holding out the promise of stability and security to the refugees and the straggling survivors of wars. But he is acutely aware of his inadequacy in the face of the role the community requires of him.Broken by the death of his sister, Mara, he is haunted by glimpses of a global civilisation that once occupied now-drowned cities.

He becomes obsessed with a library the ancients have left sealed behind some kind of plastic, and he races against time and the destructiveness of other tribes, to comprehend their languages before the pages are drowned, disintegrate or destroyed by war.

Around him swirl other characters, if characters we can call them: Griot, so damaged by childhood trauma and soldiering that he has no emotions left, who is now effectively running the community; Tamar, Mara's daughter, who is being groomed as a scholar and the future; and snow dog Ruff, who is allowed to be the most feeling character of all, simply loved and loving (although a bit improbably intelligent and idealised for this non-dog enthusiast).

Lessing's novel is a fable, with the lingering, troubling quality of an ancient tale, a meditation on the potential hostility of the planet, the value of the culture we shore up against our ruins, and the constant presence of war and inevitability of the loss of everything learned in a lifetime. If the world ends, all the time, with each death, what is the value and meaning of our thoughts, our literature, our learning? What will be left of us? Even a novelist, who has more than most of us to leave, knows that her work is eminently destructible.

In that sense, as in others (in west African culture, a griot is the wise storyteller entrusted with relaying the history and genealogy of the tribe), the book is a puzzle and a palimpsest. But its simple structure, meandering prose and uncomplicated characters are sometimes difficult to read. Big events are accomplished in a paragraph, time passes suddenly without comment, narrative leads dribble away.

While I was reading this book, I felt frustrated: we haven't yet lost the complexities of our culture, been reduced to this rawness. But after I had put it down, it seemed to me dreamlike, haunting, powerful.

The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog

Doris Lessing

Fourth Estate, £ 15.99, 336 pp

Apocalypse now for a puppy
(Filed: 08/08/2005)

David Robson reviews The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog by Doris Lessing.

The title could be pithier, to put it mildly. I suspect Doris Lessing was tempted to call the novel Ruff - the name of the cutesy white puppy who is saved from drowning, then meets a tear-jerking end later in the piece - but lost her nerve at the last minute. The longer version, from a writer who was once admired for her succinctness, is just awful. Pity the bookshop assistants who have to work out which shelf to put it on.

The novel is a sequel to Mara and Dann, published to mixed reviews in 1999. Lessing is fond of science fiction, with which she has experimented on several occasions, but there must be a big question-mark as to whether the genre suits her. It is hard to know whether to treat the book as a light adventure story or a serious environmental parable: the thud of a great writer falling between two stools reverberates through the novel.

Dann and Mara, children in the first book, still find themselves in a landscape devastated by climate change. Ifrik, in the southern hemisphere, is an arid wilderness; Yerrup, to the north, is frozen over, its vast ice cliffs an object of terror to all who visit them. In the middle, between the Middle Sea and the Bottom Sea, is a string of low-lying islands inhabited by people with little sense of their past. They scrape a meagre living from fishing, fight occasional tribal wars, but are otherwise completely primitive. Tundra, Mahondi, Shari, the Northlands… Even the place names tell of rootlessness and cultural poverty.

For Dann, now a military leader at a place called the Centre, it is that rootlessness that most depresses him. What hope is there for the people he leads if they have no sense of history? If they do not realise that their own civilisations are as precarious as the great cities of Yerrup now buried beneath the sea? Only fragments of the past remain. Teams of scholars try to decipher the crumbling remnants of old books, but come up with only a few phrases. "Rose, thou art sick… truths to be self-evident… and all roads lead to…" No wonder short-term survival is all that people can comprehend.

It is a bleak, apocalyptic vision, but not one that ultimately convinces. Despite some fine descriptive passages, the novel rambles: there is little sense of purpose or direction in the writing.

Apocalypse Now
A noted British author offers an all too serious view of a bleak new world.

Reviewed by Rachel Hartigan S



A Novel

By Doris Lessing

HarperCollins. 282 pp. $24.95

Doris Lessing imagines a bleak future. Ice has crushed Europe, its people fleeing south to Africa, where drought and famine prey on everyone. Europe becomes Yerrup, Africa becomes Ifrik, and civilization devolves. Everything is forgotten: how to make machines, how to read books, how to learn, how to create. Only survival matters in this newly primitive world.

Lessing first wrote about Ifrik seven years ago in Mara and Dann , which follows a young brother and sister on a desperate trip from the south of the continent to the north, where conditions are said to have improved. That novel is subtitled "An Adventure," and it is full of kidnappings, narrow escapes, desperate (dare I say incestuous?) love and misshapen villains.

The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog is a different sort of book, not least because its title outweighs its contents. The classic simplicity of the first novel -- a brother and sister searching for safety -- is replaced by angst-ridden ramblings, and the high seriousness with which Lessing clearly takes her work is unleavened by stirring plot points.

The story begins where Mara and Dann ends: Brother and sister have found comfortable refuge with their lovers on a farm far to the north. But Dann discovers that peace -- and seeing his sister with another man -- can be unsettling. He flees to the nearby Centre, a palace complex with a secret stash of long-lost knowledge. He is followed by Griot. Dann led an army during one of the longer stops along his northern journey, and Griot, a loyal soldier, expects him to do it again. Refugees are streaming into the Centre, in the hope that Dann will be the one finally to establish a country where they can rest and prosper.

Yet Dann's sense of history -- his own and the dimly recalled tales of dead civilizations -- paralyzes him. "Over and over again, all the effort and the fighting and the hoping, but it ends in the Ice, or in cities sinking down out of sight into the mud," he laments. And laments. And laments some more. And when he gets the news that Mara has died giving birth to a daughter, he goes mad. He is brought back to health and sanity by the love of a good dog and Griot's determination that Dann should do what the people expect of him. Eventually, with minimal drama, he does, establishing a peaceable kingdom in nearby Tundra.

Any novel about a depressed person, even one set in an imagined world, can be tedious at times. Lessing's Ifrik -- with its bands of emaciated and glassy-eyed refugees, its communities willfully blind to the calamities of war and drought that stalk them, its dearth of gentleness -- is the more compelling character here, one worth meeting as we ponder what our own climate change has in store for us. ·

Rachel Hartigan Shea is a contributing editor of Book World.


on "The Cleft"


January 7, 2007

Between a rock and a hard place


by Doris Lessing
Fourth Estate £16.99 pp288


The Cleft is about what Freud might think it was about: women is the most delicate way of putting it. In a short preface, Doris Lessing explains the inspiration behind her 26th novel. Reading a “recent scientific article”, she discovered that the “basic and primal human stock was probably female . . . males came along later, as a kind of cosmic afterthought”.

Lessing’s work has always been curious about the difference between the sexes, but her thinking appears to have hardened lately: she admits to wondering “if men were not a younger type, a junior variation”. The Cleft is the product of this speculation. The novel imagines a world in which our earliest forebears were women, living in a society consisting exclusively of women: a kind of prehistoric Handmaid’s Tale.

These women, whom Lessing calls the Clefts, inhabit an unnamed country near the sea, next to a big rock with a cleft in it. I’m sorry to say that the word “cleft” filled this reader with foreboding: memories came flooding back of A-level English literature spent hunting for sexual metaphor in To the Lighthouse (“Anyone care to say what the lighthouse stands for?”). Phallic architecture is one thing; Lessing’s yonic geography is something much worse. The women have an ancient ritual: when the moon is full, they take armfuls of red flowers and flush them through the crack in the rock. Creating a red tide, as it were. B+ to anyone who wrote “menstru- ation??” in the margin. Undergraduate cunning is not required, however, as Lessing boots the message home: when the red waters run, explains a Cleft, “we all have our blood flow”. (Oddly, for a book so besotted with the Great Cycle of Womanhood, later the full moon triggers an outbreak of ovulation rather than menstruation, but perhaps such a finicky desire for consistency is to miss the freespirited point.) Aside from enacting embarrassing menstrual rituals, the women loaf and snooze and are sensual. Occasionally, they become pregnant in some unexplained way. The archetypal woman may as well have been an aubergine for all the signs of intelligent life manifested here. Lessing has consistently had a gendered view of the world, but here her determinism has become, simply, sexism. “They were incurious. They did not think to wonder or ask questions . . . Their minds were not set for questions,” an unnamed Cleft says of the earliest Clefts. In fact, the Clefts’ minds don’t appear to be set for much at all, which makes reading their mythic history a pretty somnolent experience.

What happens, the novel asks, when this cow-like bunch eventually spawns a male? One day, some babies with “squirting protruding things” are born, and everything changes. The Clefts castrate a couple of the new arrivals out of a mixture of curiosity and fear. (This, like the violence elsewhere in Lessing’s books, is well done.) They take to leaving the mutant babies on the rocks where the eagles will get them. They name them “the Squirts”. But the males, being males, are smart and cunning and energetic and inventive — men are from Mars, kind of thing. Some of the infants survive and set up a colony. Finally, sexual intercourse is born (many years before Larkin said it was) and everything becomes more complicated, in that familiar postlapsarian fashion.

The story is not very good. Only Lessing’s considerable talent saves the novel from catastrophe: her certainties are persuasive, when she’s writing well. But The Cleft is tryingly oracular. Forty-odd years after her renunciation of communism, Lessing still has the communist’s aversion to irony, the cloth ear for pomposity. Like Nadine Gordimer, her near- contemporary, Lessing has the kind of relentless sincerity that easily slips into unintentional comedy.

But it’s not entirely her fault. Both novelists write as though they are bringing news from a country — sex — that is still foreign and exotic and unknown. In their dignified excursions, they fail to notice that the culture is now festooned with genitalia, that Lady Chatterley’s Lover no longer raises a blush. Both writers use the kind of primly graphic terminology that makes DH Lawrence such a trial: a Gordimer novel talks of a man’s “slippery soft tube” and his “pouch”; Lessing is also fond of “tubes”, which show up in unforgivable sentences such as this one: “His tube was inside her and behaved as the name suggested.” It is good for serious writers to write seriously about sex; but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The Cleft begins enthusiastically but ends arbitrarily, suggesting Lessing’s own slow realisation of the awkwardness her subject has got her into. Whether Eve came first, or Adam, the result is nothing but trouble.




January 6, 2007

Unto them, a boy is born

Reviewed by Lisa Appignanesi

Lessing's new novel is a creation myth set in a women-only paradise

The Cleft
by Doris Lessing
Fourth Estate,
£16.99; 288pp


BACK IN THE EARLY 1980s, Doris Lessing was shrugging off the straitjacket of critical labels and -isms that novelists rightly despise.

Why shouldn’t a writer, certainly the great, innovative one that she was, vault from the psychological realism of The Children of Violence to the political fantasy of the Canopus in Argos series? Readers might choose to make The Golden Notebook the iconic novel of the women’s movement, but that hardly marked her as a feminist writer constrained to bear witness to women’s condition for ever.

In a 1982 interview Lessing noted: “What the feminists . . . would really like me to say is, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle towards the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women?” Fast forward 25 years and The Cleft comes as an uncanny fictional exploration of that question. Imagine an early paradise inhabited only by women. Like emanations of the sea, they loll on rocks, swim, live in collective harmony, reproducing by some magic of moon and tide.

No beastly men in sight. Not much thought either, or individuality, or demarcation of time, for that matter. They are unnecessary in this world where the rhythms of repetition prevail and work is wholly practical and co-operative. The only domination is that of The Cleft, a great canyon of rock that, ritual and story have it, controls menstruation and so, generation.

Then a boy child is born. He’s not yet seen as a “boy”. He’s a monster — other, disgusting in those alien nether parts that the women repeatedly and violently maim. The eagles save the monsters from extinction, fly them to a valley near by, where they form a separate clan. Only gradually, with the flickering of desire, do the women recognise their kinship and link monster parts to reproduction.

The coming of beastly men, “squirts”, brings not only sexual difference, but serves as the template of all other differences, including individual consciousness. In Lessing’s myth of origins and the coming of civilisation, these men are doers. “Cosmic afterthought” they may be, but they adventure, travel, and make things, while women, despite an initial girlish moment of exploration and desire, are caught in a cycle of anxiety (about babies) and complaint (about the men who get their young ones killed).

All this is told in a narrative with the compelling stamp of Lessing’s late tales. What distinguishes The Cleft is the hard edge of mirroring irony provided by her teller, an elderly historian in Nero’s Rome who sifts the fragments of ancient manuscripts in his villa while his much younger wife gambols off to orgies.

The manuscripts have been culled from the oral storytellers of yore, whom the women designated as “memories”, but they already reflect a male bias. This our Roman must weigh. He must also weigh his feeling for his wife and the son and daughter his second marriage has brought.

The relief that this recognisable world provides with its jealousies, its reflections on history and origins, its rather more subtle enactment of the war between the sexes makes me rather glad that men arrived in paradise. Can this be Lessing’s playful comment on her earlier worries about feminist essentialism? Whatever, The Cleft, like Philip Roth’s Everyman, has the feeling of a conceptual fable, a pared down form that perhaps only writers who have tried so much else can permit themselves. Where Roth gave us life told as a tale by a mortal and altogether male body, Lessing gives us a myth of origin and a speculation on how sexual difference tumbled us into history where generation is key.

Lisa Appignanesi’s Women and the Mind Doctors will appear later this year



13 January 2007 08:59


FOURTH ESTATE £16.99 (260pp)

The Cleft, by Doris Lessing


Sex and schism at the dawn of time

By Michael Arditti

Published: 12 January 2007


A Roman senator observes the confrontation between a male and female slave. The man is clumsy, the woman furious; the woman penitent, the man contemptuous. The man walks off, certain to return to her bed later, a scene that sums up the eternal battle of the sexes. The senator is studying material purporting to tell the story of our first ancestors, an all-female tribe called the Clefts. He fears that should his account be published, it would be derided.

Doris Lessing has been canny enough to anticipate potential criticisms of her latest novel. In a prefatory note, she reveals it was inspired by a scientific claim that "the basic and primal human stock was probably female, and that males came along later, as a kind of cosmic afterthought". So she portrays a group of near-amphibious women who have no need of men since they are impregnated by a fertile wind, or a wave, or the moon. It is, however, no feminist utopia, for the women behave brutally, mutilating male babies before placing them on a rock for eagles to devour. The eagles turn out to be their allies, transporting the babies to the forest where they are suckled by does.

The adult males understandably view the women with suspicion until one Cleft ventures into the enemy camp and the first fully human baby is born. As a result, tensions fester between the Ancient Shes, who cling to the old ways, and younger women, who favour relations with men. With harmony finally established, the Squirts (as the males are called) explore the island, leaving the Clefts resentful and unfulfilled. Lessing's treatment of gender conflict is far more even-handed than the blurb, with its reference to "a mythical society free from sexual intrigue... free from men". The Clefts are more devious than Squirts, as well as less inventive, adventurous and visionary.

The Cleft is neither a conventional nor an easy novel. Apart from fleeting allusions to the senator's own family, there are no identifiable characters. The chief personages of the second part, the Cleft Maronna and Squirt Horsa, are types. The richest strand of the novel is its discourse on history: Lessing skilfully manipulates multiple perspectives as she portrays the senator grappling with chronicles of events at the dawn of time. Although it lacks the vision and energy of Lessing's recent futuristic novels about General Dann, The Cleft is a bold, inventive and challenging book from a writer who continues to enlighten and astonish as she approaches her tenth decade.

Michael Arditti's 'A Sea Change' is published by Maia Press


The great contrarian

The Golden Notebook made Doris Lessing a reluctant feminist icon in 1962, but her many works since then have often confounded her disciples. Her latest novel is no exception

Interview by Lisa Allardice
Saturday January 20, 2007
The Guardian

"I don't think it fits anywhere at all with my other novels," Doris Lessing says of her latest book, which brings her total to well over 50. The Cleft was inspired by "a scientific report claiming that women were the basic human stock, and that men came along much later", she says. The title comes from a quote by Elizabeth I ("If I had been born crested not cloven, your Lordships would not treat me so") and is the name given to this female species. Their universe is disrupted when one of them gives birth to "a monster", so called on account of the "ugly" bundle of "bumps and lumps and the thing like a pipe which is sometimes called a sea squirt". It is from this that the men earn their nickname "the squirts". This isn't a joke - Lessing is famous for many things, but humour isn't one of them.


For a writer who is most celebrated for social realism, Lessing has an almost perverse attraction to the fantastical. "She is one of the very few novelists who has refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand," Margaret Drabble has said. But as long-time Lessing follower John Leonard lamented in a review of one of her outer-space Canopus novels in 1982: "Why does Doris Lessing - one of the half-dozen most interesting minds to have chosen to write fiction in English in this century - insist on propagating books that confound and dismay her loyal readers?" His answer: "She intends to." And here she's at it again. The Cleft has provoked some confusion and dismay - and not a few sniggers - among critics. "I'm naturally rather nervous, wondering how people are going to react to it," she says, without a hint of nervousness. "It's probably not a very easy book for some people."

Lessing is a professional contrarian, to be relied upon to stir things up (as she did at the Edinburgh book festival a few years ago by declaring that women should stop giving men such a hard time). She has spent the near-half-century since The Golden Notebook - her "albatross" - was appropriated as "the bible of the women's movement" taking swipes at her disciples. "I'm not interested in being a feminist icon. If you are a woman and you think at all, you are going to have to write about it, otherwise you aren't writing about the time you are living in," she says. "What I really can't stand about the feminist revolution is that it produced some of the smuggest, most unselfcritical people the world has ever seen. They are horrible." It's not for nothing that she earned her reputation as feminism's favourite misogynist.

She might have shrunk four inches in recent years to just five foot, but at 87 Lessing is still a formidable presence; squat and solid as a carved deity. The only times she shows any sign of her age is as she pushes herself creakily from the sunken sofa in the corner of her first-floor living room. Yum Yum (from Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado), her black and white cat, is curled up between us - Lessing's gentler side is revealed in her love of cats, about which she has written two books. An interviewer in the early 1980s remarked that she seemed to "camp out" in her own home; now the room is muffled in the rugs and throws of several decades of camping out. The tall West Hampstead terrace, where she lives with her middle-aged son from her second marriage, might be supported only by the many towers of books (a recent biography of an artist, another about Stalin, the New Yorker are on the closest pile).

Although there might be a whiff of 1970s evolutionary feminism about The Cleft, there is little here to cheer those who feel abandoned by the author of The Golden Notebook. The "Old Shes" are lazy, stupid creatures; the younger clefts are more curious (at least sexually), but display a handy instinct for housework and childcare. The squirts, meanwhile, are blessed with an appetite for adventure and invention. No wonder the feminists get cross. "What I was suggesting with the advent of the males was that a whole new spirit of curiosity and enquiry was born, which seems to me quite possible. Men are restless, adventurous. Women are conservative - despite what current ideology says. Of course men and women are different. You cannot escape the fact that women mould your first five years, whether you like it or not. And I can't say I do like it very much," she says grimly.

The mother is an ambivalent figure, both protector and tormentor, throughout Lessing's fiction, reflecting her troubled relationship with her own mother, from whom she was forever in "nervous flight". One of the defining memories of her childhood was of her parents sitting in front of the house under a cloud of resentment and cigarette smoke, shackled together by the life of disappointment and genteel poverty in which they found themselves in Southern Rhodesia. "I won't. I will not. I will not be like that" became the mantra of her adolescence. And indeed, much of her early life can be understood as a series of escapes, shedding skins as completely as a snake in the bush.

The outline of her life - the African childhood, the two marriages, the abandoned children, the journey to London and her rise to become one of the most important figures in postwar literature - will be well known to her readers. So, too, will her ideological or spiritual journey from communism through psychiatry to mysticism. She has thoroughly documented both, not only in her memoirs - Under My Skin (to 1949) and Walking in the Shade (1949-62) - but in her fiction, from The Grass is Singing (1950), a story of racial injustice set in Rhodesia, through the "Children of Violence" series (her most autobiographical novels, better known as the Martha Quest books), right up to later novels such as Love, Again (1996) and The Grandmothers (2003). Not forgetting The Golden Notebook in 1962.

Instead of completing the final instalment of her autobiography, she wrote The Sweetest Dream in 2001. This was not, she insists, "novelised autobiography", but an attempt "to recapture the spirit" of the 1960s, in particular her own experience as a "housemother", opening her home to waifs and strays. "I think I got the time right, the atmosphere," she says. "I didn't put the actual people in because they are all now middle-aged or elderly and some are quite famous." And she's still not letting on. "Good God no." Adding teasingly: "It's a pity - a great pity."

Lessing was born Doris Taylor in Persia in 1919, to parents scarred by the first world war; her father lost his leg, her mother the love of her life. They moved to Rhodesia when Doris was five. According to Lessing, you "couldn't have a luckier combination" for a novelist than the "quite excessively British" attitudes of her parents and "the other eye" that growing up in another country provides. While she loved roaming around the bush and helping out on the farm, she was a passionate reader and the house was full of books her mother ordered from London. "I had two different lives: what I read about and what was around me. If you are brought up in Southern Rhodesia, you can read Dickens and make comparisons. There's not that much difference between Oliver Twist and a black child who doesn't get fed enough."

She declared her intention to be a writer in her convent dormitory when she was 11. At 14 she left school on sick leave, never to go back, returning home to fight with her mother and to read. "I didn't have any proper education or qualifications, so I had to be a writer. What else would I have done?" A few years later she escaped to work on the telephone exchange in Salisbury and plunged gratefully into a world of heavy drinking, smoking and partying. All too soon she married Frank Wisdom, a civil servant 10 years her senior, with whom she had two children. Afternoon tea slipped too easily into sundowners and she is sure that, had she stayed, she would have ended up an alcoholic. "There is no boredom like that of an intelligent woman who spends all day with a very small child," she has written of this period.

Her escape this time came in the form of Salisbury's influx of European immigrants fleeing the Nazis, "most but not all were Jewish, many were intellectuals. They were a very great influence. They educated me." She became political, she says, at 24: swapping tea parties for the Left Book Club, the Observer for the New Statesman, and Wisdom for Gottfried Lessing, a German refugee and communist. Although they might have been politically well suited, their sex life, she makes clear in her memoirs, was lousy. Marriage, she has admitted, "is not one of my talents".

Before she was 30 she found herself on a boat bound for England, with two marriages behind her, a baby, a suitcase full of unsuitable clothes, a lot of books, £100 and the manuscript for The Grass is Singing. She left behind her son and daughter from her first marriage. "It's in my books - why ask me?" she says now, pre-empting the questions that have dogged her ever since. "I don't want to put myself on this level, but when Rousseau put his kids into a foundling home, he did it with the best possible conscience: 'they are going to be much better brought up, because look at me, I'm so rakkety'. I read it the other day with amazement. At least I'm ashamed of the lies I've told myself."

Postwar London might have been an inhospitable place for a young single mother, but her growing literary success introduced her to a bohemian set of writers and artists who hung out in the pubs and clubs of Soho. "It was just so attractive, so witty and marvellous. I would have been there every afternoon and I would have been sunk. Unfortunately I had a hopeless responsibility, I couldn't go out at night, I couldn't afford babysitters. Thank God."

She is reluctant to say much about the two greatest influences on her life - communism and Sufism. "Well that was a great mistake, wasn't it?" she says brusquely of the former, but goes on to add how much she enjoyed Tom Stoppard's Rock'n'Roll. "The night I went, the theatre was packed full of old reds. I could recognise everyone, it was terribly funny. There was this wonderful moment when one of the characters looks at the old red and says, you've been wrong about everything you know, everything. It was wonderful. Even the old reds [she claps enthusiastically] applauded." Although she is dismissive of the cliché that a novel can change your life - "people are ready to think differently" - The Sufis by Idries Shah, which she discovered in 1964, had a profound effect on her and her fiction, prompting the mystical Canopus novels. "Most people just think it's a load of old socks, but it is an extraordinary book."

She plans to start work immediately on her next novel, which she insists will be her last. "I really do think enough is enough. I feel I've lived too long. You just go on so ... I look at all these years ... years ... years that I have lived through." In all those years of writing, giving readings, lectures and interviews, is there anything that hasn't been asked or said? "My dear, at my age, there are all kinds of things that you can't tell anyone because they are so totally subversive, you couldn't possibly."


The Russians (novelists)
The Spanish civil war
Refugees from Europe who went to Rhodesia after the second world war
Glamorous pubs and bars of Soho in the 1950s
The Sufis by Idries Shah



Where do little boys come from?


Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 14/01/2007


Claudia Fitzherbert reviews The Cleft by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing has always written about the violence that men and women do to another in the name of difference, whether of race or class or sex. But she suggests that just societies are as difficult to achieve as they are dangerous to conceive and, by pitting the stagnation of gated communities against the narrow destructiveness of those who think they are in the business of building a brighter world, she has left very little room for hope.

In recent years this hopelessness has taken her into a distant future of murderous tribes and molten ice caps. The world of The Cleft, though it is set in the past rather than the future, is similarly fabulous and, unlike the early novels that made Lessing's name, is presented without the consoling graft of familiar faces and places.

The Cleft is a fragment of mythical history, recounted by an aging senator in the time of Nero, who has resolved to spend his last days piecing together the story of human creation as preserved in a roomful of partial records. These describe an ancient community of women – the Clefts – who live in a coastal valley overlooked by a rock that has a clean cut running all the way through leading to a deep hole.

The Clefts treat this sculpture of their own anatomy as something holy, and every month red flowers are flushed through the rock and the women bleed. It is an easy life – these early females have the "slow tranquil gaze of eyes that had never been troubled by thought" and their always female babies are undemanding creatures.

Trouble begins with the unexplained birth of the first boy, who is labelled a Monster and put out on a place they call the Killing Rock for the eagles to destroy. When the Monsters keep coming the Old Shes – women past childbearing age – insist that sacrifices be made, and from that time – and time is necessarily vague here – the Clefts regularly choose one of their number to be thrown into the hole in the rock from which they take their name.

Still the Monsters keep coming, and new strategies are devised by the increasingly frightened and deranged Clefts. Some monsters have their "squirts" mutilated and are kept as playthings; several more escape. The eagles, meanwhile, have not been destroying the monsters but transporting them to the other side of the mountain – the distance is not far but the Clefts are not the exploring sort. Unlike the Squirts, which term our lugubrious senator much prefers to Monster – "at least it describes something" – who are soon scrambling all over the island.

But it is a Cleft, in the end, who first stumbles into Squirt territory, and gets herself with a different sort of child, and this opening of one door leads to the closing of another and before long the Clefts have lost their ability to fill their wombs by the moon. In the pages – centuries? – that follow we see Clefts and Squirts warring first between themselves and then with one another as they come together and fall apart in cycles of desire, indifference, mutual incomprehension and angry despair. It is the old story made even older: we are damned, whatever we do.

The Golden Notebook (1962) made Lessing into something of a figurehead for the women's movement but she never settled comfortably into the role of feminist seer and The Cleft crackles with separate sphere revisionism. I remember reading an early Martha Quest novel as a teenager, in which the heroine turns control freak sadist around the feeding of her toddler daughter, and thinking more clearly than ever before or since – you have been warned.

But in The Cleft motherhood comes easily to the women, and all the problems arise not from the Clefts' reluctance to nurture their infants but from the Squirts' unfitness to look after the young boys who insist on searching out their fathers and brothers, rather than remain in safety with kinder but less exciting mothers.

Lessing often reads like a writer in a hurry, with too much to say to bother about saying it well, and so it is here. The story sometimes palls, but the author's reach continues to thrill. As Clefts and Squirts try and fail at different ways of living, together and apart, we are offered sudden vistas:

Without the hunters, the big boys, nothing could happen, and so the little boys, who were no longer so little, waited for the men, just as the women did, for their lives to become whole.

It is the stuff of suburban trilogies, dispatched in a sentence. There's witchery in the Old She yet.


Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 28/01/2007

Lured into her toils 

David Robson reviews The Cleft by Doris Lessing


Storytelling comes with experience. 'People wishing to avoid offence to their sensibilities may start the story on page 29,' writes Doris Lessing on page 7. Could there any better way of guaranteeing an attentive readership for pages 8 to 28, the guts of the narrative, in which she sets the scene? The Cleft is a strange novel, one of her strangest, but it lures one ineluctably into its toils.

The narrator is an unnamed Roman senator, an elderly scholar trying to piece together the origins of the human race from surviving literary fragments. What he finds is both poetic and shocking. The Cleft of the title is a prehistoric wilderness in which women, or Clefts, live an idyllic, untroubled existence, partly in the water, partly on the shore, where they bask on the rocks like seals. Childbirth is controlled by the cycles of the moon, and they bear only female children – until the first males, or Monsters, come along.

Naturally, with their unlovely appendages, Monsters are assumed to be deformed, and either destroyed at birth or exposed on the rocks for the eagles to eat. Some of them are deliberately mutilated so they can look like 'normal' Clefts.

Then an eagle carries off an intact baby Monster in its claws, enabling it to come to manhood. Then the real trouble starts, with Monsters and Clefts developing as separate tribes, living in adjoining areas, divided by mutual suspicion and hatred.

Monster children are more outgoing and like doing reckless things like climbing trees. Clefts prefer loafing around in the sun. All that unites them is their common enthusiasm for sex. They mate frequently and indiscriminately.

It is an amusing conceit and, as an explanation for why the sexes are hard-wired differently, being obsessed with football or tan-lines according to their gender, is as good as any. Lessing has a lot of fun in her prehistoric world which, at its best, has an Edenic quality.

'Hunting parties returned from the trees with carcasses, which were cut up and there was much sex.' It makes Islington sushi bars seem very dull. The raw excitement of life in an age when fire was a novelty, and notions of time, family, morality, were completely alien, is well captured.

But does it tell us anything significant about the differences between the sexes? I have my doubts. The novel is best seen as pure entertainment: an amusing series of what-ifs by one of the world's great storytellers.



The TLS   n.º 5415  January 12, 2007


A community of Shes

Caroline McGinn


Doris Lessing

The Cleft

260 pp. Fourth Estate.  £ 16.99

0 00 723343 4


In her thirty novels, Doris Lessing has explored some strange and profoundly familiar places. She has backed away from her early realist interiors, into the wide perspective of dystopian satire and sci-fi, then back into docudrama again. Whether in realist or experi­mental mode, she has always observed human behavior with the dispassionate eye of a Martian naturalist. Looking back on her first short stories, she says that she took “the high­way” away from a feminine and interior style to something “straight, broad, direct”. Her prose thrives on a bigness which comes from her imaginative origins on the Veld of her African childhood, and her rangy plots take vast, fast strides over the horizon, collapsing lifetimes like pocket telescopes.

The Cleft - a distinctly feminine fiction which imagines the birth of the first “Monsters” (boys) in a primordial community of asexually reproducing females — is a return to a road not taken, as well as to the Tempest-like condensation of themes that has always enlarged her work. Its timescale is ambitious: it is a sceptical, sometimes whimsical investigation of an aeons-long anthropological conjecture.

The Clefts are a community of porpoise-like Shes, who bathe in the sea, worship the moon and ritually wash the rocks of the cleft (their volcanic home) with red flowers in water, propitiating their blood flow. Lessing’s account of them has mythic elements, but it is also anti-myth, in that it offers no explanation or consolation for experience, and deliberately undermines the Christian foundation of genesis, “the exact opposite of the truth”.

Lessing uses a Roman historian, the keeper of secret scrolls, to narrate, introduce and interpret this “oral history... all purporting to deal with the earliest record of us, the peoples of our earth”. He continually quibbles with this “mass of material”, alerting the render to the fact that his account is contentious and diffuse. The “oral history” from which he quotes sounds like the transcript of an interrogation of some Clefts by the Monsters. Ii is also carefully sedimented by Lessing in order to distress the edges of a monolithic perspective. Out of the primordial Shes emerges Maire, the mother of the “First One” to be born of a man as well as a woman. Lessing’s portrait of her is slow and accretive. She may be one woman or many, and extracts from her story wander, circle, repeat and contra­dict themselves; they suggest a group-mind at work - a long slow catastrophe in the human organism, gradually acquiring a woman’s shape and name through generations of remembrance and retelling. Or, as the narrator puts it, “an account preserved in the memories of the Memory, and passed down to succeeding generations of Memories”. Lessing’s ur-mother, Maire, is a construction of archaeological proportions, a sort of Pompeii Woman, more painstakingly crafted than Piltdown Man, but nonetheless a composite figure, vaguely replete with doubtful imaginings.

Lessing’s Roman narrator imagines her as a protective figure, an Artemis whose loving kindness prevents the repelled and curious Clefts from genitally mutilating their “deformed” new children. She is like Venus too: her multiple mating with the “Monsters” corrects the gang rape and murder which they first commit on the women. For Lessing, Maire springs from the thought that men are a “junior variation” who “lack the solidity of women... endowed with a natural harmony with the ways of the world”. Consequently she possesses a stolid, implacable is-ness; the perspective of the anti-myths shifts through and around her, but she remains a blank and powerful figure, physically reminiscent of Picasso’s bathers.

Lessing’s double narrative makes a careful remonstrance about projecting a modern imagination back into the past: Maire herself is portrayed as maternal fantasy for Lessing’s mate narrator, as well as for all lost boys whose mothers have rejected them. But she also dramatizes the evolutionary moment when the Old Shes are rendered an obsolete species by their new daughters, a change which is condensed and made visible in a vivid perception of disgust:

The old Clefts lolled by the right of long use. Large flabby Clefts, their flesh all about them in layers of fat - there they lay with their legs sprawled and their clefts were fatty and full, with pale hair growing over tongues, and pulps of pinkish flesh. Ugly, oh so ugly, thought these girls who had shuddered at the little Monsters’ pipes and bulges . . . . And each vast shapeless thing had two little eyes, just like the tiny eyes of the old Clefts there, lost in the loose flesh of their faces.

This sudden and unheimlich manoeuvre is typi­cally disquieting. Lessing’s account up to ibis point has been of a barely individuated primordial infancy, a cultural lumber-room for the construction of myth. At this moment, something recognizably modern looks into its origins and sees something cruel and antediluvian slowly blinking back.

It is also the moment where Lessing’s powerful imagination recedes from myth into saga -specifically into the saga of the age-old argument between men and women. This contention, the origin of Lessing’s origin story, is told and retold as the argument of generations as well as genders. It is played out in two disputes: the civilized account of relations between the elderly Roman narrator and his amoral young wife, and its rambling subtext, an ongoing row between Horsa (the new leader of the men’s community) and Maronna (the new leader of the women). As Horsa wanders about with his lost boys, searching for a new land which will be “seductive and desirable in a way their land never could be”, the narrative wanders with him, following a symbolic rather than a dramatic logic (away from the women, his feral boys get lost plunging into caves and trying to blow up all the rock clefts they can find). The women’s repealed lament, “Don’t you care about us?”, and the men’s losses and desire to complete themselves, is a long coda, placed next to the decline of the Roman Empire.

As Lorna Sage noted, Doris Lessing writes by synecdoche; here, every scene is designed to sum up a truth in the relations of men and women’. The repetitions and the reductiveness in these scenes bring her lone dose to universal despair. But ii is closer still to a measured acknowledgement of a universal ignorance, which compels men and women to be only belatedly aware of what makes them most themselves. In The Golden Notebook, she expressed it as the “thinning of language against the density of our experience”. By bleaching out the language of culture in her primitive story. she is also reimagining a specie’s inability to grasp precisely the sort of crux-point in its evolution which it may at present have reached.


Saved by a Squirt

Doris Lessing's parable of slobbering walrus-women, The Cleft, puzzles Ursula K Le Guin

Saturday February 10, 2007
The Guardian

The Cleft
by Doris Lessing
260pp, Fourth Estate, £16.99

A Roman scholar of the age of Nero possesses a mysterious manuscript from ancient times - times that he considers ancestral to his world, though they differ strangely from Roman, or even human, history and myth. The Cleft is his translation of this document, with his comments and occasionally a modest bit of autobiography.

Somewhere, sometime, creatures like a cross between women and walruses, called Clefts, heaved about on a seashore and had babies. They conceived by an unspecified mechanism of parthenogenesis, since there were no males. They did nothing but wallow, give birth, suckle and occasionally sacrifice a young female by pushing her off a high rock, also called the Cleft. It was an idyllic life.

But suddenly, somehow, one of the females had a baby with a spigot rather than a cleft. Ruled by unthinking instinct as they were, this upset the walrus-women. As more of them bore such monsters, they dimly perceived that trouble lay ahead - change, progress, even perhaps the dawn of something like intelligence. They tried discarding their male infants, and mutilating them, and so on; but they kept having them, and large eagles kept carrying the babies off and depositing them safely in a valley just over the hill. There some eventually survived, nourished by a single extremely patient doe.

After a while these males - or Squirts - grew up, and a female who went over the hill found them and discovered sex. Just sex; nothing in the story so far has indicated that these creatures knew love, affection or friendship, or had any community feeling more developed than that of a school of fish. As in other speculative fiction by Doris Lessing, free will is not an option; people are driven by an inner or outer imperative, ineluctable orders from Nature or God or people from another planet. So impelled (and having become slenderer and more terrestrial), the young women desert the fat old walrus-women and start keeping house for the men. Of course they go on having babies. The men neither keep house nor have babies, but do brave and adventurous things.

Eventually - the passage of time is deliberately vague - some men, led by a man named Horsa, set off by raft and coracle to explore beyond their world-island. Since the unruly mob of little boys that tags after them is on foot, the men of the fleet hug the shore, landing every night to be with the boys and some young women who also came along for sex. Why they use boats at all is unclear. At last they sight a farther shore, and Horsa sets sail for it with a single companion, but is thrown back by a storm. The whole exploring party blunders its way overland back to the original colony. There some of the young men, for no particular reason, destroy the great rock called the Cleft, and Horsa and the leader of the women, Maronna, move the colony up the coast. And so the story ends.

There are a few other names - Maire, Astre and Maeve (as puzzlingly Celtic as Horsa is puzzlingly Anglo-Saxon) - but there are no characters: the author scrupulously refrains from anything characteristic at all. Description is in the most resolutely general terms. The climate is warm. The landscape has trees, caves. There are wild animals. Nothing vivid, no details. Perhaps Lessing believes inexactness is typical of myth, or that lack of local colour gives a parable more universal applicability. I can only disagree, as I find the power of myth often lies in its startling immediacy, and follow Blake in believing that "All Sublimity is founded on Minute Discrimination".

I call the tale a parable, but hesitantly, because I can't believe it says what I think it says. It appears to be as prescriptive as Desmond Morris and more essentialist than Freud himself. Anatomy is destiny. Gender is an absolute binary. Women are passive, incurious, timid and instinctively nurturant; without men, they scarcely rise above animal mindlessness. Men are intellectual, inventive, daring, rash, independent, and need women only to relieve libido and breed more men. Men achieve; women nag. Much of the presentation of this is familiar from the literature of misogyny. The "Old Shes" are described with utter loathing and disgust; the escapades of boys are made much of, while the doings of girl-children are ignored.

Now this, of course, may be the voice of the Roman scholar, who seems a decent fellow in his autobiographical musings, but who is, after all, retelling the story from a man's viewpoint. He's aware of that, and often speaks of it. Yet where does that leave us? It merely makes it impossible to read the text as irony or satire.

There are some strange omissions. Our Roman would wonder at men who never fought, showed no signs of being warriors and kept no discipline over their sons - all very unmanly, by Roman standards. Living in the days of Greek influence, he might also have wondered why homosexuality is mentioned only as a temporary expedient for boys without access to women.

If we are offered the story as an origin myth of human sexuality and gender, I can't accept it. It is incomplete; it is deeply arbitrary; and I see in it little but a reworking of a tiresome science-fiction cliché - a hive of mindless females is awakened and elevated (to the low degree of which the female is capable) by the wondrous shock of masculinity. A tale of Sleeping Beauties - only they aren't even beautiful. They're a lot of slobbering walruses, till the Prince comes along.

Ursula K Le Guin's City of Illusions is published by Gollancz