Books by Doris Lessing

ALFRED AND EMILY by Doris Lessing
NONFICTION
Released: Aug. 5, 2008

"At age 89, the author may be slowing down a trifle, but the best parts here are as bracing and engaging as anything she's written in the past 30 years."
In her first post-Nobel book, Lessing (The Cleft, 2007, etc.) imagines what her parents' life—and England—would have been like if World War I had never happened. Read full book review >
THE CLEFT by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Aug. 2, 2007

"A dark parable, powerful yet baffling."
One of postcolonial fiction's brightest lights makes mythic the battle of the sexes. Read full book review >
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 4, 2006

"It is Lessing's ability to summarize a complex behavior in a sentence rather than the haphazard plot that compels our interest here."
A sequel to Mara and Dann (1999), this book employs a similar terse narrative style, appropriate to people who for centuries have been adrift in a world of primitive technology and thought and violent social structures. Read full book review >
TIME BITES by Doris Lessing
ESSAYS & ANTHOLOGIES
Released: Dec. 1, 2005

"While this collection of random journalism—some dating back to 1974, but most from the past decade—has the inevitable repetitions and a rather scattershot feel, it still gives a nice sense of Lessing's character and commitments in vigorous old age."
Agreeable ephemera—book reviews, forewords to reissues, personal essays, etc.—illuminating the distinguished novelist's nonfictional preoccupations. Read full book review >
THE GRANDMOTHERS by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 9, 2004

"When you're dealing with an author whose track record spans a half-century and paradigm-altering works like The Golden Notebook, it's too easy to simply praise another excellent effort. Where is this woman's Nobel Prize?"
Four novellas demonstrating that 84-year-old author (The Sweetest Dream, 2002, etc.) still boasts a range and power few writers half her age can muster. Read full book review >
THE SWEETEST DREAM by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Feb. 10, 2002

"Lessing's best in years. She remains, in vigorous old age, one of the world's essential writers."
The dream of a perfect society is the ironic center of Lessing's absorbing new novel: her 24th, published in her 82nd year. Read full book review >
BEN, IN THE WORLD by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Aug. 10, 2000

" Isn't it about time this woman received serious Nobel Prize consideration? Few, if any, living writers can have explored so many forbidding fictional worlds with such passion and conviction. "
Far from resting on her laurels, Lessing—who has been publishing for 50 years, and goes from strength to strength—offers this bleak monitory sequel to her harrowing The Fifth Child (1988). Read full book review >
MARA AND DANN by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 8, 1999

Lessing's 22nd novel, a dystopian allegory set in "Ifrik" (formerly Africa) thousands of years hence, is a ponderous, hectoring, fascinating second cousin to her Memoirs of a Survivor (1975) and The Four-Gated City (1969) (and quite reminiscent, incidentally, of Norman Mailer's similarly forbidding Ancient Evenings). After a global war and second Ice Age have decimated the continent and a more recent drought has made "civilization" only a distant memory, two children, seven-year-old Mara and her younger brother Dann, are abducted and forced to join a slow northward migration, toward water and the remnants of destroyed cities. As they grow to adulthood, together and apart, both are subjected to numbingly repetitive ordeals: capture by conflicting "armies"; enslavement for various purposes (Dann suffers both drug addiction and homosexual rape, while Mara is exploited as a spy and as a "breeder"); and hairbreadth escapes (rather too many) from their several oppressors. Eventually reaching a northern territory where specific knowledge of their culture's past is available, Mara and Dann learn the secret of their own origin—and the duty they were born for but now reject. Neither plot nor characterization is Lessing's strongest suit, and the story's climactic developments may strike some readers as willful overkill, but this often frustratingly turgid tale generates considerable power nevertheless. The world Lessing's opaque protagonists inhabit has been imagined in weirdly convincing detail: cities ("as temporary as dreams") lie drowned beneath scarce remaining rivers, which run shallow and are infested with "water dragons" (crocodiles) and other exotic predators; men struggle for dominion over exhausted land; and women scheme to outwit male "rulers." The powerful, almost erotic attraction between brother and sister is virtually palpable—as are Mara's fierce hungers: to give birth, be loved, and learn the history of the world crumbling around her. As demanding and intermittently infuriating as anything Lessing has ever written—and as necessary. She isn't a stylist, and she takes no prisoners, but this writer remains one of contemporary fiction's genuine thinkers and visionaries, and it would be folly to ignore her. Read full book review >
HISTORY
Released: Oct. 1, 1997

Lessing, as this second installment of her autobiography again proves, is one of those rare writers who has lived the examined life and is willing to share what she has learned and done, even if it is not to her credit. Unlike the first volume of memoirs (Under My Skin, 1994), the personal narrative takes second place here as Lessing concentrates on the intellectual and ideological forces that affected her during the 1950s. She arrived in London with her young son, Peter, in 1949, after leaving her second husband. London was still a bleak and bombed-out city—housing was short, food was rationed, and the people were enervated. Lessing found a good agent and managed to live on her earnings as a writer. She describes her mother's lonely death in Rhodesia, caused in part, Lessing thinks, by her rejection of her mother's offers of affection and support. She does not slight the personal or domestic: She worries about raising Peter as a single parent, and frankly describes her two lengthy affairs. But it is the world of ideas, of publishing, writing, and the theater, that primarily engage her. She describes how she writes and what she tried to achieve in writing her immensely influential novel The Golden Notebook. She is frank about joining the Communist Party (probably "the most neurotic act of my life"); about her disillusionment with it and other mass movements ("the first impulse was the thrills . . . secondly came the politics"); and she is angry and insightful about the British, who suffer, she says, from "a reluctance to understand extreme experience." A history of a difficult, often grim time related by an astute observer, as well as a truthful record of a bumpy journey to self-knowledge. Further proof, if it were needed, of Lessing's remarkable ability to look reality in the face and not blink. Read full book review >
LOVE, AGAIN by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: April 1, 1996

A probing and provocative examination of the experience of love as the mind and body approach old age, by the eminent British author best known for The Golden Notebook, her classic depiction of woman's fate (which this new novel intermittently evokes and resembles). Sarah Durham is 65, long widowed and freed of most family responsibilities. Yet she's burdened by the needs of her teenaged niece Joyce (whose parents virtually abandon her to Sarah's care), and also handles a demanding job as all-purpose manager (and sometime writer and director) with a thriving London theater. A play in production, Julie Vairon, requires Sarah to research the life and work of its title character, a beautiful quadroon girl from Martinique whom various men loved to distraction and who spent the last years of her brief life in France, where she became an accomplished composer and a famous diarist. The image of this mysterious woman's mingled happiness and despair reawakens in Sarah feelings long suppressed, as do the flirtations of a handsome young actor who joins the play's cast, as well as the more comfortable (though no less erotic) presence of its 35-year-old director, a man irrevocably committed to his family. We feel throughout this absorbing story—told both from Sarah's viewpoint and in its author's confident omniscient voice—the pressure of a preternaturally keen analytical intelligence, making every vividly dramatized scene resonate with judicious commentary. The web of sensation, emotion, and fantasy that all but overpowers Sarah during her reawakening is woven with clarity and force, and when Lessing frankly describes Sarah's sexual rekindling, you almost feel the heat rising off the pages. Lessing is a contemporary George Eliot, an intellectual whose imagination is firmly grounded in the sensual life and the natural world. Love, Again is a triumphant vindication of her literary method. Read full book review >
NON-FICTION
Released: Sept. 22, 1994

As is to be expected from Lessing (The Real Thing; 1992, etc.), whose clear and always intelligent no-nonsense writing has explored subjects that transcend the commonplace, this first volume of her autobiography reflects all her remarkable strengths. The year of her birth, 1919, was auspicious neither for her parents in particular nor for the world in general. The ill-matched Taylers had married not out of love but out of a mutual need to expunge the horror of the recently ended world war, which had maimed Lessing's father both physically and mentally — he'd lost a leg in battle, but more important, be was embittered by what he considered Britain's poor treatment of her soldiers. Her mother, an able nurse, had lost a fiancÉ, and marriage now seemed to offer only the consolation of children. These disappointments, exacerbated by the harsh life in rural Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), where her family settled after a stint in Persia, would indelibly shape Lessing. She quarreled frequently with her mother, whose well-meaning strictures she resented; observed her father's despair and his failures as a settler-farmer; and resolved that she would not live like them — "I will not, I will not!" — even if it meant defying convention. Which she did, as she left her first husband and their two children for another man — Gottried Lessing; joined the local Communist Party in the midst of WW II "because of the spirit of the times, because of the Zeitgeist"; and then moved in 1949 permanently to London. Like so many bright and alienated provincials, Lessing found an escape in voracious reading. Though determined to be a writer, the consuming distractions of motherhood, wartime society, and political activities frustrated this ambition for a long time. Refreshingly, not a self-indulgent mea culpa, but a brutally frank examination of how Lessing became what she is — a distinguished writer, a woman who has lived life to the full, and a constant critic of cant. Read full book review >
NONFICTION
Released: Oct. 21, 1992

Leasing, once a "Prohibited Immigrant" barred from her childhood homeland of Rhodesia by its white minority government, returns to what is now Zimbabwe—and in inimitably forthright style records her impressions. The author last visited her homeland in the late 50's, when the country was a British colony, not as rigidly segregated as South Africa but nonetheless dominated by a white ruling class that enjoyed a way of life impossible elsewhere. When she returned in 1982, Zimbabwe was just two years old, and blacks and whites were still bitterly divided as well as devastated by the ten-year bush war that had pitted blacks against whites as well as blacks against blacks. The countryside seemed equally devastated ("...the game mostly gone. The bush was silent"), and squatters were overfarming already fragile lands. Most whites whom Lessing met, including her brother, delivered what she called "The Monologue," as much a racist critique as a display of the after-effects of a tremendous shock. On her three subsequent visits, the last made earlier this year, race relations proved healthier, but Prime Minister Mugabe's government seemed increasingly autocratic and corrupt; the economy was poorly organized along socialist lines; a terrible drought had ravaged the region; and unemployment continued to rise, especially among the young. On these visits, Lessing talked to a range of contacts, black and white; stayed on farms where white owners were trying out new crops to boost the local economy; accompanied the multiracial Book Team, which helps rural women create "how-to" textbooks; and traveled fearfully to her childhood home, where the beloved bush had disappeared and "everything spoke of failure." Always the fair-minded realist, Leasing isn't overly optimistic about the future, but her sympathetic account of Zimbabwe's struggle to forge a common destiny is most worthwhile. Read full book review >
Released: June 1, 1992

In a new collection, Lessing (The Fifth Child, 1988, etc.) again demonstrates the formidable intelligence and lucid vision that make her writing so distinctive. Set mostly in present-day London, the sketches reflect a smaller, more domestic world where pleasures are as simple as watching dogs run in the park ("Pleasures of the Park"), and where characters remember when they were young and the city itself was "pinko-grey English" and not the great polyglot city it now is ("In Defence of the Underground"). But the sketches, interesting and perceptive as they are, are secondary to the short stories, which are mainly about the terrible self-absorption that can, if left unchecked, afflict even the most decent men and women. Four are especially fine: "Debbie and Julie," almost clinical in the telling but devastating in effect, is the story of pregnant teenager Julie, who runs away, bears her child alone, and then comes back to her emotionally cold home, having left the baby in a telephone booth because she "understood that Rosie, her daughter, could not come here, because she, Julie, could not stand it." In "Among the Roses," a mother and a congenitally quarrelsome daughter accidentally meet and warily become reconciled as both are admiring a display of roses. Sarah, the abandoned wife of James, with a terrifying insight, suddenly understands ("In the Pit") why Rose, who supplanted her, behaves so deviously and melodramatically; and in the title story, two couples—both previously married—realize that relationships between the sexes are more complex than they imagined, and learn that there is indeed a place for friendship. No warm and fuzzy feelings here, only bracing truths—but then that's what Lessing has always done best. Read full book review >
THE FIFTH CHILD by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: March 25, 1988

Ever unpredictable, Lessing now offers a rather cryptic yet uncommonly accessible tale of psycho-social horror: a variation on the classic "changeling" formula—here marbled, subtly and disturbingly, with such Lessing themes as apocalyptic doom, the rough dignity of society's outcasts, and the dark underside of human nature. (The five-novel "Martha Quest" series, Lessing readers will remember, is called Children of Violence.) In the 1960's, that "greedy and selfish" time of alienation and "bad news from everywhere," young architect David (terribly old-fashioned) meets solid, homey Harriet (a grownup virgin)—and soon they're a couple, blissful and confident in their sharing of all the traditional, "unfashionable" values. They buy a big house (with help from David's wealthy father), joyfully begin having babies (they want at least seven or eight), and become the happy center of rich, extended family life, continually visited by assorted in-laws. Circa 1972, they're relieved and grateful: "they had chosen, and so obstinately, the best—this." With Harriet's fifth pregnancy, however, this idyll (quickly, hypnotically sketched) begins to fall under a sickly, expanding, implacable shadow. The expectant mother is tormented by the fierce, unnaturally strong fetus. When born, baby Ben is heavy, muscular, creepy-looking—"like a troll, or a goblin or something"—and violent. As a child, he's hostile, unteachable, "neanderthal"dike, more dangerously violent (he kills a dog, then turns to humans) with each passing year. The family is splintered, cruelly transformed—by fear, shame, and furious sorrow (especially vulnerable little Paul). Eventually, urged on by David and flinty Grandma Dorothy, Harriet agrees to give Ben over to "one of those places that exist in order to take on children families simply want to get rid of." But, in a truly nightmarish sequence, the mother reclaims her unlovable horror-child from a death-ward for the unwanted. And, through sheer willpower and ruthless shrewdness, Harriet manages a sort of coexistence between the family (forever fractured) and the "throwback"—though the teen-age Ben inevitably takes off to roam the earth with the punks and outlaws who accept him. "Perhaps quite soon. . . she would be looking at the box, and there, in a shot of the News of Berlin, Madrid, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, she would see Ben, standing rather apart from the crowd, staring at the camera with his goblin eyes, or searching the faces in the crowd for another of his own kind." As a symbolic summing-up of the past three decades, from Sixties cataclysm to Eighties terrorism, this short novel is vaguely provocative at best; the even broader, socio-anthropological subtext—civilized, familial mankind forced to confront the primitive animal within—is only slightly more persuasive. But, despite echoes of pop-fiction (Rosemary's Baby, etc.) and TV-movie case-histories (damaged child, valiant mum), the plain story itself—fine-tuned with ordinary-life details yet also insidiously fable-like—is stark, relentless, and memorably harrowing. Read full book review >
PRISONS WE CHOOSE TO LIVE INSIDE by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 14, 1987

Many of Lessing's (Shikasta; The Good Terrorist, etc.) novels have dealt with the particular confusions and complexities of modern life. In these brief essays, originally lectures, she confronts the greatest confusion of all—that with all the wondrous leaps of scientific and psychological knowledge since the Enlightenment, we still manage to blunder into the same paths of error as always. We all just take ourselves too seriously, Lessing argues, from the early rash of idealistic passion—"group lunacy"—to later years when we frown on the upcoming generations of raving lunatics. Lessing believes that we must infuse public life with some laughter. "Laughter is a very powerful thing, and only the most civilized, the liberated, the free person can laugh at herself, himself." There is a law of society at work in this world, she says: "It is this: the people at the top of a government, a department, a ministry, or any institution of government or administration never know what goes on at the lower levels." Lessing gives examples of the individual giving in to the group (as well-known as the famed Milgram "torture" experiment or as obscure as her own experiment in submitting manuscripts to her longtime publisher under a pen name, only to have them turned down). But at times her argument is muddled, as when she argues that it is bull-headed of the majority to so passionately resist an idea: after all, "today's treason is tomorrow's orthodoxy." In the end, she has nothing more to hang her hat on than the "individual"—who has already reigned as a hero of sorts in the Western world for two centuries. Lesser Lessing. Read full book review >
THE GOOD TERRORIST by Doris Lessing
MYSTERY THRILLER
Released: Sept. 25, 1985

In her first signed novel since the mythical Canopus in Argos series, Lessing returns to reality—and to her considerable gifts for social observation and vivid characterization. Using a spectrum of left-wing characters, she focuses on the kinds of personal instability that would be drawn to—and solaced by—a terrorist stance. Lewis Carroll's Alice began by falling down a rabbit hole; Lessing's contemporary Alice—36, overweight, mixed-up, terrified of sex—began by being involved (since the 1960's) in squatter's rights and increasingly radical politics. Though celibrate, Alice lives with and for gay Jasper, a self-centered, politically pure neurotic (psychotic?) who has decided, as the novel opens, to make contact with the provisional IRA. Though early chapters show Alice's curious mixture of calm competence (she manipulates bureaucrats at the gas and water boards into supplying service to their new "squat") and infantile rage (she travels to her father's house one night expressly to throw a rock through the window, striking one of the young children of his second marriage), Alice is a mother-figure, not only to Jasper but to every waif that drifts into her new squat. Yet from the beginning there are frissons of instability: in Alice herself and in the web of relationships that quickly form in the household which Alice, quite unconsciously, dominates. These tensions increase as Jasper and Bert, titular heads of the group, become absorbed in plans for a car-bombing. Lessing offers a penetrating analysis of a sub-group (middle- and working-class political extremists) more often caricatured than characterized. The main focus is on the pathology of ideological "purity"—on how a "good" person like Alice, who is instinctively kind whenever one of her blind spots is not in operation, can arrive at an almost bland acceptance of random violence. The implied political message—as idiosyncratic as the quirky feminism of the Canopus series—seems to be that we don't really choose our political preferences; rather, they choose—and then control—us. The self-deluding Alice is not an easy character to spend time with, but her story is an extraordinary tour de force—a psychological portrait that's realistic with a vengeance. Altogether, this is a book which is strong as a diagnostic study of political motivation—and stronger still as an uncannily authentic character-study. Read full book review >
NONFICTION
Released: Feb. 17, 1981

The fourth novel in Lessing's Canopus in Argus series is the shortest, the simplest, and (though frequently given over to long, lyric/philosophical monologues) the most fable-like. The narrator is Doeg, a "Representative" on Planet 8 who recalls "the times of The Ice"—when the beautiful, temperate little planet (a colony of Canopus) slowly began to freeze to death. Half the planet soon becomes an icy wasteland; the other half, protected by a great black wall, which has been built according to orders from Canopean agent Johor (cf. Shikasta), suffers more gradually. And Joher promises that the people of Planet 8 will eventually be "spacelifted" to paradisical planet Rohanda. So Doeg and the other Representatives labor to keep their weakening, greying people going until salvation comes: there's a harrowing journey to the cold side in search of food sources (the people have had to switch to an all-meat diet); a sacred lake is reluctantly violated—also in search of food; the Representatives go house to house, urging the people to resist torpor, to refrain from crime (which is escalating). But then Johor arrives with the worst of news: there will be no mass spacelift to Rohanda; though the Representatives may be rescued, millions will simply be left to die with the planet. And so—while the lake freezes, the black wall crumbles, and the icy apocalypse approaches—Johor, Doeg, and the other Representatives engage in a colloquy on the nature of existence: the relationship of the individual to all humanity; the elusive, perhaps illusory essence of "meness"; the place of a single life or memory in the endless universe, of a single thought in "this system of fine and finer" particles. None of these ruminations is particularly fresh, of course—and the longwinded exchanges sometimes become droningly static. But often here, with near-Biblical rhythms and imagery (and a spiritual-transfiguration finale), Lessing achieves the sort of primal resonances which weren't possible in the more intricately sociological Canopus books. And this time the ambivalent symbolism—again paternal, hapless Canopus seems to represent both empire-building Britain and God—is more provocative than confusing. (To get really confused, however, read Lessing's afterword—which explains the connections between the last two Canopus novels and Scott's Antarctic expeditions.) So: perhaps the least ambitious or demanding of Lessing's visionary parables—but one with moments of great, dirge-like, roughly poetic power. Read full book review >
Released: April 4, 1980

This brief fable, the second work in the science-fiction series begun with Shikasta (1979), is bound to be read as a return to the portrayals of sexual politics responsible for Lessing's initial vogue. And indeed she has again taken up a favorite theme: the story of a chosen one's painful and humiliating struggle to obey an imperfectly understood summons, the redemption of a world meanwhile hanging in the balance. In the past, Lessing's thorny presentations of this motif—something like a modern Paradise Regained—have generated confusion, even annoyance. But this version, though superficially only an arid schema in which the queen of a serene matriarchy marries the king of a neighboring warrior state, is in fact Lessing's most humane and loving variation on the theme. The states in question are two of the levels of being mentioned in the first novel as lying around Shikasta (Earth) in six concentric shells progressively more open to the illumination of the lofty colonizing world, Canopus. AlIth, queen of the sane, civilized, and radiant Zone Three, is commanded by the unseen "Providers" (presumably the Canopeans) to descend to the stultifying air of Zone Four, there to marry the arrogant Ben Ata. As her own people see it, her marriage gradually corrupts her to the sexual serfdom and emotional crudities of a lower existence. But in the devious ways of the oppressed Zone Four women, AlIth eventually discovers a treasury of spiritual aspirations ironically forgotten in the bright and well-conducted "higher" world. At last she is ready to pass beyond both realms of being to a condition that surpasses either, while Zone Four has glimpsed enough of the truth shining through all conditions to disband its army and set about civilizing the desert marauders on the border of Zone Five. True, Lessing is not the writer to carry off improving parables with flawless elegance. The gracelessness of her prose style has never been more conspicuous, and her impatience with uncongenial detail makes the war economy of Zone Four a silly cartoon sketch. But there is a sweetness and generosity about this work not quite like anything she has done; like the difficult but moving Shikasta, it seems to encompass and summarize dozens of her previous concerns with a sort of piercing magnanimity. Read full book review >
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Jan. 5, 1980

After a digression into sexual politics (The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five), Lessing's science-fiction cycle returns to the broad sociological preoccupations of Shikasta (1979)—in which we learned of the Canopean Empire's benevolent, triumphant, yet doomed experiments with primates on Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta. Now the focus is on the very un-benevolent experiments carried out by the Canopeans' rival Empire-builders—the Sirians, who control Shikasta's southern hemisphere. And Lessing's Sirian narrator is Ambien II, a crisply efficient bureaucrat/scientist who will gradually come to realize that the Sirians' obsessive, envious fears of Canopus are unfounded, that the Canopean guiding-principle of "Necessity" is valid, that the Canopeans are "altogether finer and higher." But before this awakening, Ambien II masterminds some dreadful experiments: the kidnapping of thousands of "Lombis" from Planet 24 for training as slaves (kept in a social vacuum to prevent upward mobility, this easygoing race becomes nervous and paranoid); pathetic stabs at simulating the miraculous Canopean rapid-evolution experiments; doomed attempts to alleviate the existential malaise of Sirians ("enfeebled by soft living") via Shikastan work camps. And this experimental era ends only when the entire planet falls under the disastrous influence of planet Shammat, evil incarnate; Sirius gives up on Shikasta completely. Canopus never loses interest, however, and millenia later, altruistic Klorathy of Canopus guides Ambien II back to Shikasta, now dotted with assorted cross-bred civilizations: Utopian Adalantaland, which vanishes beneath the sea when Shikasta suddenly tilts on its axis; the decadent city of Koshi, where Ambien II engages in a good-vs.-evil duel and begins doubting all her Sirian principles; the theocratic slave-state of Grakconkranplatl, where she's taken prisoner; the lovely democracy of Lelanos, which (like all good things, apparently) is doomed to fall away into despair. (Ambien II herself temporarily descends into "Shammat-nature" and leads the spoiling of Lelanos.) And finally, after joining Klorathy in a scheme to avert total Shammat devastation on Shikasta's moon, Ambien II starts denouncing her own Sirian government (a dictatorship in disguise) and winds up "under planet arrest". . . As narrative, Ambien's report is largely unsatisfying—episodic, shapeless, choppy. As a crammed forum of ideas, it's sometimes provocative, more often murky, with distracting, conflicting signals along the way (e.g., Canopus seems to be part Marxism, part God, part Britain). Still, the notion of intellectual awakening—a delicate transformation sometimes illuminated here with dazzling sharpness—is strong enough to pull the whole, challenging, disorganized piece together. Demanding and uningratiating, then, but—like previous Canopus volumes—worth the effort of readers attuned to the very biggest questions. Read full book review >
SHIKASTA by Doris Lessing
NONFICTION
Released: Oct. 22, 1979

Lessing's latest project, a series entitled Canopus in Argos—Archives, will (if this first volume is any indication) firmly pull together and extend all the most controversial elements of her recent work. Shikasta does not flirt with science-fiction premises, but conspicuously adopts them, much like that remarkable story "Report on the Threatened City." The benevolent civilization of Canopus attempts through a "Forced Growth Plan" to bring a promising bunch of monkeys to "Grade A species" status in less than half the usual 50,000 years. But at a stage apparently corresponding to the early Adamic generations of the Book of Genesis, the evil representatives of another empire cut off the flow of love and intelligence from Canopus and begin wresting the inhabitants of ruined "Shikasta" (Earth) to their own purposes. With terrible pain and difficulty, a few Canopean envoys in successive human incarnations keep the sense of our first destiny fitfully alive through the unspeakable centuries of later history. This material is arranged as a cut-and-paste documentary culled chiefly from Canopean history textbooks and the reports of the emissaries; but the culminating episode—the final mission of "Johor" to free the surviving fragments of humanity after the last cataclysms of the 20th century—is narrated entirely from the viewpoint of the people who know him as the gifted leader George Sherban. In many ways Shikasta is a failure—impatient, flimsy science fiction; much crude historical and political analysis. But at the same time it links up virtually all of Lessing's work since The Four-Gated City (tied to Shikasta by the figure of Lynda Coldridge) as a sustained attempt to point out the coupled mechanisms of derangement and salvation built into human endeavor. And there are passages here—all the more striking for the deliberately disjunctive form of the narrative—which are like miraculous, passionate crystallizations of everything Lessing has ever said about out squandered selves and misconceived hopes. Seeing this stubborn mind returning more elaborately than ever to the theme of transhuman vision, those in quest of illuminating political autobiography or feminist rallying-cries are bound to wonder whether she has become entirely irresponsible. No, this is the same Doris Lessing, grasping even broader moral and political nettles. She has never been more preposterous, more difficult. . . or more worth reading. Read full book review >
STORIES by Margaret Drabble
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 22, 1978

Thirty-five short fictions by the author of The Golden Notebook: principally the entire contents of The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories (1972) and A Man and Two Women (1963). Though Lessing's taste for marbling emotions with sinewy intellectual give-and-take is probably best served by longer forms—the many knots can then be loosely tied—these stories manage to reflect her characteristic style (intense but deadpan) and her range of interests: male-female relationships, political commitments (socialist, Communist), everyday life in London, personal growth, sexuality, and the borders of madness-occult-or-fantasy. Along with the thoroughly expected person-to-person vignettes, here also are spurts of socioscience fiction, some (unimpressively) lyrical nature musings, and a few colonial-Africa tales. The vast bulk of Lessing's Africa stories (she grew up there) are not included, however. Nor is there any introductory or annotating material. An appropriately austere package for the only very occasionally sentimental Mrs. Lessing. Read full book review >
THE MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: June 1, 1975

After touching down on common ground In The Summer Before the Dark, Doris Lessing has written another didactic, apocalyptic briefing which she has described elsewhere as "an attempt at autobiography." But then all of her books have been autobiographical to a degree—all of them have been about women—while this one more markedly is about Woman, that uncomfortable presence. The self-trip takes place in a glum, anarchical present which is of course a projection of the near future although it keeps simultaneously returning to the past and the amenities that were. The city is bleak—all but a few people have left it, services have stopped, food is scarce. The woman here, an elderly one, is alone until Emily (and her familiar, an unsightly cat named Hugo) is visited upon her. Emily is an overserious, bright, undeceived girl of about twelve who keeps running off to join one of the scavenging communal packs of young people led by the attractive Gerald with whom she falls in love. In between her sorties, the woman and Hugo watch and wait; sometimes she opens endless doors to the endless rooms beyond her flat—all devastated; sometimes she attains more "personal," if enclosed, experiences in which she witnesses Emily as child or as infant—or is it herself? At the end Gerald loses control over his entourage and Emily. But it is Emily "transmuted" who steps across the final threshold and "there she was"—"the one person I had been looking for all this time." Read this as you will—as Mrs. Lessing's attempt to define herself and her tenacious sex; as a commentary on the strata of disintegrated society; on the stages of womankind, not only outmoded but outlived; on the levels of reality observed chiefly in regressive reverse. True, the Lessing name and perhaps more hold a certain initial inductive curiosity but somehow no matter how many doors are opened, unease, antipathy, "cold and silence" are there along with Her. Read full book review >
SMALL PERSONAL VOICE by Doris Lessing
NONFICTION
Released: Sept. 26, 1974

Assorted insights and opinions dom assorted book reviews, essays, interviews including a new preface to The Golden Notebook which redefines Doris Lessing's best known book from several facets (which she claims eluded most critics) and not necessarily as a pro-feminist statement (even if Anna did say — did she not — that the real revolution of our time is that of "women against men"). We know the various positions Lessing has taken and they are of course asserted here — whether on the disintegration of society and perhaps worse to come (which will make Women's Lib only seem "quaint" at some future time); on education (she left school at fourteen and benefited from her own ability to read or discard what she wanted); on madness or breakdown as she interpreted it, before Laing, as a form of self-healing; on the falling away of life in general and the small-mindedness of the systems imposed on it; etc. etc. etc. There is a touching piece on "My Father" who ended up "a thin shabby fly-away figure under the stars" and the reviews are variously on Malcolm X and Idries Shah and Sufism, Vonnegut and the little known Eugene Marais, Isak Dinesen and Olive Schreiner whose Story of an African Farm (1885) was recently reprinted. Necessarily in this form, or rather these forms, a certain repetitiousness is invited; inconsistency is also not hard to find; but all of that is incidental to what is really important for and about Doris Lessing. The title essay is where you will find her at her strongest — contending that the realistic novel, particularly of the 19th century, is the "highest form of prose writing" and that the novel should entail warmth, compassion, a love of people (as against Camus, Sartre, Genet, Beckett and their "acceptance of disgust" which betrays it) and make "a statement of faith in man himself." All in all, both controversially and reconcilably, a stimulus, an illumination, a pleasure. Read full book review >
THE SUMMER BEFORE THE DARK by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 1, 1973

With what tenacity, as well as shattering effectiveness, has Doris Lessing functioned as the cartologist of women in our time scanning their various intellectual, biological and emotional binds ali the way beyond reality. This is certainly her most accessible (viz. successful) book since The Golden Notebook — not quite as overwhelming but whatever may have been lost in urgency has other compensations. On the surface, for example, it takes place within a much more fashionable and attractive ambit than she has used before. This of course narrows the distance and heightens the rapport even if, when all is said — or rather thought, and done (or undone by default) — Miss Lessing is only dealing in the cold comforts of home and universal truths. The summer before the dark is the one in which Kate Brown, wife of Michael, mother of four now quite self-sufficient children, finds herself alone — not only with time but many options on her hands. Still attractive, in her early forties, she's offered a summer job as a translator. She really can do what she likes since Michael for years has been having desultory affairs. However "We are what we learn" and what Kate has learned in the years of her marriage is to be amenable and available — "the warm center of the family, the source of invisible emanations like a queen termite." Now for the first time she realizes how useless she is on the terms she has so admirably fulfilled. She goes to the continent, then on to Spain with a young man — not young enough or anything enough. She becomes ill and returns to England, first to a hotel, and then to the apartment of a young woman who keeps changing her mind about what she'll be along with the way she looks from day to day — shying away from the "home paddock" — from what Kate is. And finally Kate completes her dream — her long serial dream about the seal (that other ecological casualty) trying to decide although what is there really left for her to decide? All of Doris Lessing's novels are defoliating acts of protest. But this time she's chosen a problem common enough to be commonplace without submitting to any of its overfamiliarity and managing her material with greater technical sharpness than ever before. Her novel is, as it should be, an experience which is apposite and applicable and all too true. Who can remain exempt? Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 27, 1972

It is almost ten years since Doris Lessing's last collection of short stories and in this form she is less identifiably herself — there is none of the militance, both personal and political, which has intensified the thrust of her novels. Only in the socio-science-fiction, "Report on the Threatened City," does she distance beyond the ordinary world, quite accessibly to be sure. In fact all of these stories are most accessible, softer-spoken than any she has done, occasionally slipping into prettiness (the three quite lyrical eclogues — "The Other Garden," "Lions, Leaves, Roses," and "A Year in Regent's Park") or just sentimentality — "An Unposted Love Letter." There are two teasing story stories — "The Story of a Non-Marrying Man" and "Out of the Fountain." The strongest include the derelict abandonment of "An Old Woman and Her Cat," the very mixed pleasures of adultery in "Not a Very Nice Story," and the title piece in which a middle-aged man faces his own annihilation during the death of his father and finds himself directionlessly "outside humanity" before he looks beyond it. This one is undershot with intimations and speculations. . . . The stories have the virtues of their diversity and ease and, on the whole, a gentleness which suggests an accommodation and acceptance one might never have expected. Read full book review >
BRIEFING FOR A DESCENT INTO HELL by Doris Lessing
NONFICTION
Released: Feb. 1, 1971

The briefing, one of a very few fixed points in Miss Lessing's self-styled "inner space fiction," takes place well above the clouds at a conference where Minna Err and Merk Ury (oh dear) decide to send some delegates to Hell, or Earth, to reclaim the planet from aggressiveness and irrationality and "separativeness." (The latter is an important contention in this driven polemic namely to the effect that it should not be "I.I.I.I." but We.) Those sent will be totally disassociated and will struggle and struggle to wake up, if at all. Like the at first unidentified man in Central Intake Hospital who is totally amnestic and spends the first third of this book cycling around and around and in and out and in and through a prismatic primordial world (from a raft at sea to the land to the ruins of a stone city). Eventually he will be enclosed in a "bell of light" where everything is fused and influenced by the pull of galactic forces. All of this section is accomplished in a violent blaze of lyricism. In the second half of the book the patient has been subdued and there are the attempts to bring him back — he's a professor — via his wife and friends and the diametrically opposed efforts of attending Drs. Y. & Z. Readers of The Four-Gated City will remember Miss Lessing's earlier projection of madness and strong attack against psychiatric techniques and resources. When last seen the professor has been returned to his work and family and one never knows whether or not he will retrieve what he has been trying to remember in these weeks of vertiginous submersion. As for the reader (this time certainly a more reluctant reader than Doris Lessing usually attracts), what will he remember from this imaginative spin-off of cosmic abstractions and sometimes arbitrary judgments? Perhaps only the primary message of the book that the individual is only a small part of humanity which is in turn only a small part of that grand design. Read full book review >
THE FOUR-GATED CITY by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: May 16, 1969

This is the fifth and last installment of Doris Lessing's Bildungsroman—Children of Violence—which began with Martha Quest, published in England in 1952. Twice as voluminous (more than 600 pages) and much more overwhelming than any novel in the series, it will reveal changes in Miss Lessing, Martha, and the world which now outdistances our time and crosses into the next century after The Catastrophe. When last seen before leaving Africa, Martha was a combative young woman with a strong masculine mind and female instinct—the latter only apparent here at the very outset since sexuality becomes a very ancillary concern. So too for the most part do the political events and ideas and stances (Communism) with which Martha was involved. Now as the book opens in London, she is totally unaffiliated, wanting no liens and having no belongings beyond a suitcase. Temporarily she goes to live with Mark Coldridge, whose wife is in a mental hospital, and help him with his writing and his messy, muddled household which expands continuously (relatives, children of relatives, mental patients, etc.) Lynda, Mark's wife, comes back from the hospital to live in the converted basement with another disturbed woman and hold seances. Martha herself has one period of dangerous instability when threatened with the visit-visitation of her own mother. As time goes on, she identifies more and more with Lynda and the failure of drugs, psychiatrists, shock treatment—a failure which is a lack of awareness of some sort of inner life unknown to science. Miss Lessing, always a protester, seems to be inveighing once again against entrapment—whether political or social or psychiatric, opting for freedom which ultimately she and Lynda (with their special extrasensory powers) find at the close on a nameless island. Certainly much less of a direct documentary than the earlier books, at times ambiguous and confusing. But it does have the self-propelled continuity of The Golden Notebook, a kind of flaying, furious, obsessive momentum which should assure much of the same audience. Read full book review >
PARTICULARLY CATS by Doris Lessing
NON-FICTION
Released: May 9, 1967

Novelist Doris Lessing can recall "a hundred incidents involving cats, years and years of cats"—and does so in a memoir that reaches across continents and the years, and extreme feline states. She writes most particularly of her own two cats, the exquisite grey, part Siamese, part street, with her willful charm, who after an only-kittenhood never gave way to the "steady, obstinate, modest" black who invaded the household to stay. A change of scene from domestic strife comes with other memories: of the gentle Persian who kept her company in illness and herself succumbed to pneumonia, of her father on the grim mission of shooting a roomful of cats when the South African homestead was overwhelmed with them, of the more merciful recovery from a mineshaft of an outcast cat's kittens and a restoring of the brood to the family hearth. Mrs. Lessing is a keen mistress, alert to the intricacies of catly involvement and her qualities as a novelist are everywhere evident. Particularly cat lovers. Read full book review >
AFRICAN STORIES by Doris Lessing
FICTION & LITERATURE
Released: Oct. 15, 1965

Doris Lessing spent most of her first thirty years in South Africa, the "tough, sunburnt, virile, positive country contemptuous of subtleties and sensibility" described thus on the first page of this 700 page collection of shorter and longer stories. The majority are from earlier collections, such as This Was the Old Chief's Country and Five (the novellae) prefaced by the author's introduction; some have had no previous book publication. As she says in her introduction, some of them appeared at a time when "indignation about the colour bar in Africa had not yet become part of the furniture of the progressive conscience." But as any one familiar with her work (the early novel- The Grass is Singing; even the more recently published (here) Martha Quest books) know, Miss Lessing has always been sharply critical of the dichotomy between white and black and Africa has been a specific background for her intense political and social convictions. Her first story here which she describes as full of the "bile" she feels toward alien white colonials, deals with the rejected offertory of a painting of a Black Madonna by an Italian during the war.... It is an impressive collection, confirming the stringent sympathies of this writer which consistently represent protest and commitment. Read full book review >
CHILDREN OF VIOLENCE by Doris Lessing
Released: Nov. 11, 1964

Doris Lessing's glittering Golden Notebook (1962) was five books in one; Children of Violence is made up of the first two books of a prospective quintet. A more important checkpoint, the Martha of these two books bears a considerable resemblance to the Anna of the notebooks although she has not evolved that far as yet. Still one knows that Martha (still a young girl rebelling against her mother in the first volume- Martha Quest and a very young wife in the second, A Proper Marriage) will become one of Mrs. Lessing's free women. The prefatory experience here is largely emotional as Martha leaves home (an African farm in the '30's) to go up to town and get a job; as she mixes with the young blood at undowners at the Sport Club; as she has a first affair in which the man is almost irrelevant; as she makes a precipitous marriage and has an almost immediate and at first resented pregnancy; as her husband, Douglas, goes off to war is sent home only to find that Martha by now is dissatisfied with him and with the acceptance attitude of the older generation— one must "just jog alone." She is last seen leaving Douglas and their child and heading towards a left of liberal group... Mrs. Lessing again traps her heroine in a much older conflict where Martha's emancipated convictions are handicapped not only by imposed social codes but biological betrayals. Her story is a consistently interesting audit of experience, and full of the emotional energy, integrity, and clear if sometimes wrongheaded intelligence which has validated and distinguished earlier books. Read full book review >
A MAN AND TWO WOMEN by Doris Lessing
Released: Oct. 9, 1963

This is Doris Lessing's first collection of short stories in some time and it is to be hoped that her audience in this country (she has always commanded considerable attention in England) will now, since The Golden Notebook, be more alert. Some of the stories here have had little magazine appearance (Partisan, Kenyan, Encounter, etc.) and for the most part there are fewer social inferences and political inflections than in her earlier books. In almost all cases they are sharply personal and inherently intense- intensity has always characterized her writing to an exceptional degree. Always- there is a terrible awareness of the exposed areas and lonely stretches in fairly ordinary lives: in One off the Short List a middle aged "impresario of other people's talent" attempts to seduce a bright young woman in the theatre and is shown up as a boor and a bore; in the title story, a woman's first baby is an alienating experience- for her husband; in England versus England there is a social concern, as a boy from the poverty of a mining town pays a high price for upward mobility—learning at Oxford; in Our Friend Judith, the cool, intellectual and "uncomforted" life of a spinster takes some surprising turns; and then there's the stifling sequestration of married life and motherhood- which drives a woman to the anonymity of a shabby hotel room in To Room Nineteen. Nineteen stories in all, which pinpoint and needle the anxieties, collisions, betrayals of emotional experience in disabused terms. Read full book review >
THE HABIT OF LOVING by Doris Lessing
NONFICTION
Released: Jan. 1, 1957

A collection of short stories, always able and sometimes notable, range from England to Africa to the continent, from lighter sketches to soberer commentaries on beaten, broken lives, and are distinguished by their quietly perspicacious view of human existence and experience. For those who remember her The Grass Is Singing (1950) there are several, desolate South African scenes: a woman maintains her gracious notions on an isolated South African farm but submits to the coarsest relationship possible with an itinerant insurance salesman; subdued, apologetic Mrs. Slatter holds as her only hope- in her life with a brutal, unfaithful husband- the fact she may grow old quickly; a young girl, running away from home, will walk the streets willingly rather than return. The title story concerns the sad dependence of an aging man- once successful with women- and professionally prominent- on a younger woman; there is the defective boy whose only lien to the world in which he lives is the body of his mother; and there's a sinister, searching story of the aftermath of the war- as two young English doctors try to find the congenial, sentimental Germany of the past in her present and see only the lingering stigmata of Naziism..... An audience- while deserved- may be difficult to assure. Read full book review >
THE GRASS IS SINGING by Doris Lessing
NONFICTION
Released: Sept. 11, 1950

In monotones, this is a tragic story of emotional immaturity as it retreats to the borderline of madness, effectively projected against the sultry, faded, bleak country of the South African farming country. Its focus is Mary Turner, whose early upbringing by a drink-fuddled father and a bitter mother scarred her with many distastes, left her with many fastidiously unnatural responses. Pretty, girlish, and emotionally untouched at thirty, Mary marries Dick Turner, a farmer, is transposed to a life of bare necessities, loses her early restlessness to a later apathy, is only occasionally stirred by her hatred of the black boys who work for her. In the years that follow Mary loses what little respect she had for Dick when she realizes that incompetence underlies his many failures; she tries to leave him but is forced to return; and in the last years she is shadowed by the fear of Moses, the Negro whom she had once whipped but who now assumes an increasingly familiar power over her which attains its full revenge in her murder... The deadening atmosphere here, the external pressures which combine with inner weaknesses, all blend into a saddening and often compelling portrayal of deterioration. Read full book review >

Doris Lessing has been established in England, rather than here, as one of the most interesting writers since the '40's and this remarkable book, unquestionably her major work to date, reflects a savage intelligence which does not exclude passion. Technically the novel is intriguing, subdivided in alternating, cyclical sections, and the prefatory Free Women introduce Anna Wulf and her friend Molly, emancipated and enlightened, living "emotionally hand to mouth". Most of the novel however is devoted to the notebooks kept by Anna: The Black Notebook which covers a period during the war in South Africa and a first nostalgic love; The Red Notebook spans the 1950's, her entry into the Party, her disaffection and a five year affair; The Yellow Notebook is a novel written within this novel in which she projects and paraphrases her own experience; and The Blue Notebook, the most contemporary, is filled with her analysis, a short-lived marriage, her daughter, and finally a very devastating affair which leads up to the final reprise in the notebook of the title. Perhaps a claim of one of the characters may be used to define the book, that the real revolution of our time is not Chinese- not Russian- but that of "women against men", women, like Anna, who achieve freedom only to submit to chaos, and certainly the notebooks are a device to mirror her anxiety, discomfort and fragmentation as she drifts through experiences with careful men, non-committed men, castrated men. With all its passionate probing and deliberate truthtelling, it is sexually, biologically clinical to a point which may offend some readers. Others will find it a painful, revelatory, fascinating book, and while Doris Lessing is not as glittering a writer as Simone de Beauvoir, some of her concerns may occasion the comparison and suggest a market. Read full book review >