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Has anyone read anything by Doris Lessing?


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Yes, but it seems like the critics are divided on her sci-fi stuff. I was thinking about reading Shikasta.

Harold Bloom doesn't like her at all.

That doesn't really surprise me. I haven't read a lot of his criticism, but he strikes me as generally pompous and old fashioned.

ETA: Another novel (not Science Fiction just fiction) that I want to check out by her is The Grass Is Singing.

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October 12, 2007

An Appraisal

Tracing the Internal Tug of War at the Heart of Human Life


In the course of her very long and peripatetic career, Doris Lessing has done just about everything, from naturalism to psychological realism, from postmodern experimentation to moralistic fable-making, from science fiction to horror stories. She has evoked the Africa of her youth, postwar London and the chilly latitudes of outer space.

She has chronicled the 20th century's utopian search for defining ideas — be they communism, feminism or psychology — and the fallout that such ideas have had on the lives of women trying to find an identity of their own.

Ms. Lessing's childhood in Rhodesia seems to have heightened her awareness of the inequities of race and class and the inescapable connection between the political and the personal. And regardless of their setting, her books have tended to pivot around certain persistent themes: the relationship between the individual and society; the tension between domesticity and freedom, responsibility and independence; and the tug of war between human will and the imperatives of love, betrayal and ideological faith. This dynamic has often resulted in books with an air of impending disaster and humorless gloom, featuring people who are defined more by their problems than their dreams, people caught, like fish in a net, in the tumultuous, troubled zeitgeist of 20th-century Africa and England.

In the first volume of her autobiography, "Under My Skin," Ms. Lessing described herself as a young girl, watching her parents sitting side by side in front of their house in the Rhodesian countryside, their faces tense and full of anxiety: "There they are, together, stuck together, held there by poverty and — much worse — secret and inadmissible needs that come from deep in their two so different histories. They seem to me intolerable, pathetic, unbearable, it is their helplessness that I can't bear." She vows never to forget this scene, never to be like her parents: "Meaning," she wrote, "never let yourself be trapped. In other words, I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances."

A similar determination informs the choices made by many of Ms. Lessing's heroines, from Martha Quest in the "Children of Violence" series through Anna Wulf in "The Golden Notebook" (1962) — women who find that intelligence and talent do not ensure success or control, women who must grapple with "the hazards and chances of being a free woman" at a time when "women's emotions are still fitted for a kind of society which no longer exists." Ms. Lessing, Mary McGrory once observed, "writes about her own sex with the unrelenting intensity of Simone de Beauvoir, and about sex itself with the frankness and detail of John O'Hara."

"The Golden Notebook," acclaimed by many critics as Ms. Lessing's masterpiece, was innovative not only in its psychological acuity, providing an emotionally detailed portrait of a woman frightened of chaos and breakdown, but also in its unorthodox structure, separating Anna's experiences into four notebooks (black, red, yellow and blue), dealing with disparate aspects of her life. Out of these pieces can come something new and transformative, Ms. Lessing suggested: a fifth, golden notebook, where "things have come together, the divisions have broken down" and there is the promise of unity.

In the 1980s, Ms. Lessing traded in the microscope she'd trained on the human psyche for a telescope aimed at distant stars and galaxies, producing "Canopus in Argos: Archives," a cycle of visionary novels set in outer space and fueled by a belief in Sufi mysticism. Though some of these novels contained passages of lyrical writing — quite at odds with her customarily utilitarian prose — the stories evinced little of the passionate interest in the human anthropology that had animated her earlier books. Some of them were moralistic fables about good and evil; others were more social-political satires in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. Ms. Lessing took a similar tack in her 1999 novel "Mara and Dann," a fable set in the distant future, thousands and thousands of years after a great ice age has destroyed civilization.

In later books like "Ben, in the World," "The Sweetest Dream" and "The Grandmothers," Ms. Lessing struggled to integrate her gifts: her matter-of-fact ability to conjure a specific place and time, already on display in her first novel "The Grass Is Singing," her psychological insight and eye for sociological detail honed in the Martha Quest novels and her later penchant for fairy-tale allegories and sci-fi perambulations.

Ms. Lessing herself has said she sees all her forays into different genres and styles as part of a single, golden continuum: "I see inner space and outer space as reflections of each other," she once declared. "I don't see them as in opposition. Just as we are investigating subatomic particles and the outer limits of the planetary system — the large and the small simultaneously — so the inner and the outer are connected."

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