Agreeable ephemera—book reviews, forewords to reissues, personal essays, etc.—illuminating the distinguished novelist’s nonfictional preoccupations.
Now 86, Lessing (The Grandmothers, 2004, etc.) occasionally comes across as a cranky old lady in scattered asides about the horrors of political correctness (a bit much from a former Stalinist), the deleterious effects of 1960s “hedonism” and the fact that no one knows the Bible anymore. In general, however, these short works show her to be living very much in the present. “The Tragedy of Zimbabwe” scathingly anatomizes the corruption of Robert Mugabe’s regime, betrayer of the hopes for black empowerment and a multiracial society in her former homeland of Rhodesia. A half-dozen pieces, including reviews of several books about Sufism and two tributes to Idries Shah, remind us of Lessing’s pioneering interest in the mystic tradition and her understanding that the West ignores the achievements and history of Islam to its own detriment. “After 9.11” casts a cold eye on America’s tendency to feel “unique, alone, misunderstood, beleaguered,” reminding the U.S. that other nations have suffered terrorism with considerably less self-pity. In the collection’s warmer moments, Lessing eloquently praises writers she loves (D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, Christina Stead, Stendhal, Olive Schreiner) and some noteworthy contemporary works, from Desmond Morris’s Catlore (she adores cats and birds) to Alma Guillermoprieto’s Dancing with Cuba. The power of literature is a perennial theme, and on more than one occasion Lessing movingly notes the hunger for books expressed by people in impoverished Third World countries. Storytelling has always shaped society, she argues in “Problems, Myths, and Stories.” It is not just a leisure-time distraction for the privileged, but a means of imparting values and instruction on proper behavior.
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.