Book Review: Doris Lessing’s Colossal Range

The indispensable octogenarian, Doris Lessing, continues to astonish with her latest books.

“Time Bites: Views and Reviews” (HarperCollins) and “The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, and Griot and the Snow Dog” (HarperCollins) by Doris Lessing.

By Harvey Blume

When I interviewed Doris Lessing several years ago apropos “Walking in the Shade: 1949-1962,” the first volume of her autobiography, I alarmed her. I alluded to “Misery,” the Stephen King movie in which a madwoman locks an injured novelist in her basement. Then I boisterously announced that if I could keep my own private novelist in a basement, it would be her. At this, she paled, and backed away — but quickly recovered, cackling at the very thought of “your own private novelist,” and merrily repeating the phrase several times during the interview.

My estimate of Lessing as the most indispensable of living writers — first pick for my basement, anyway — hasn’t changed. Her range is colossal. She’s written about sex, derangement, colonialism, loneliness, memory, terrorism and evolutionary atavism. She’s exposed the private and the public spaces of the zeitgeist as it unfolds. And in chronicling the fraught relationship between Western intellectuals and Soviet Communism, she’s rivaled only by Jean Paul Sartre and Cselaw Milosz — both Nobel Laureates, as it happens, which incomprehensibly, and scandalously, she is not.

Lessing is known for the plain, quasi-documentary style of “The Golden Notebooks,” but she’s also capable of immensely poignant and lyrical prose, as in “Love Again.” Her essays and occasional pieces (the latest of them collected in “Time Bites: News and Reviews”) demonstrate her enviable talent for addressing varied interests and passions in an unfailingly friendly and inviting tone of voice. T.S. Eliot once remarked that the most terrifying thing about William Blake was his complete lack of condescension. By that standard, Lessing would be very scary — at least for Eliot. (Is the Nobel Committee scared? Or only blind?)

Lessing has repeatedly expressed her fascination with science. She’s observed, for example, that we now find out “where our frontiers are” by turning to science, rather than to “the latest literary novel,” which, especially in its English variant, she compares to a “stuffy and old-fashioned little room.” Not surprisingly, she decided to experiment with science fiction, focusing more on human behavior in alternative historical and environmental contexts than on science itself. Predictably, she’s been scorned for her efforts by self-appointed guardians of literary purity, including Gore Vidal at his nastiest. But Lessing has persisted. Her new novel, “The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, and Griot and the Snow Dog,” is sci-fi, as is its prequel, “Mara and Dann,” which it would be a good idea to read first.

She sets the stage for these novels in “Time Bites.” In the essay called, “”Kalila and Dimna — The Fables of Bidpai,” she writes about “stories within stories, one leading to another,” a method she values for showing it “is not easy to decide where anything beings or ends.” Here she is guided by an Eastern tradition of storytelling in which “tales and parables are for instruction and illustration as well as for entertainment.”

There’s much else in “Time Bites” besides the blue-print for her ventures into sci-fi. In “Writing Autobiography,” for example, she reports that as you age: “You float way from the personal. You have received the great gift of getting older — detachment, impersonality.” And she shows a McLuhanesque appreciation for media, demanding to know, for example, ” what changes took place in our brains then, when people began to read instead of to listen?” In her discussion of the novel she refers to the “different personalities” that novelists uncover in themselves as they write. She detects in herself, for example, the recurrence of a “delinquent girl or boy … defective in some way … lurking or latent.” This persona may remind readers of the murderous boy at the center of her novel, “The Fifth Child.”

In the essay, “Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age,” Lessing takes up the theme of amnesia on a global scale, asking: “Is it possible that in the warm intervals between … long past Ice Ages were civilizations whose trace we may one day come across, perhaps in the depths of an ocean where a glacier pushed them?”

Those reflections serve as an apt introduction to the Mara and Dann novels, where civilizations have disappeared, and whole cultures have been dispersed and diminished by encroaching ice. In the parched interior of what is then known as Ifrica, where many have fled, there is barely any recall of the achievements or catastrophes that came before. Mara and her younger brother, Dann, come from drought stricken reaches where crocodilian predators rule the precious waters that remain.

As a child, Mara was taught to play “What did you see?” a game about memory. Later, Dann — General Dann by then — decrees the same game be played on a continental scale. He is tormented by hints of what has been forgotten — remnants of old technology, and above all, books, mostly in dead languages, that he finds stashed in a place called The Centre. Dann invites everyone to the Centre to contribute bits of memory, with the aim of reassembling at least part of what has been lost.

Hopefully, there will be a further novel from Doris Lessing to tell us how well memory can be salvaged. There’s reason for hope at the book’s end. The ice is melting, and Dann is teaching the “What did you see” game to Mara’s daughter, Tamar.

Sci-fi may not be Lessing at her path-breaking best. There’s a bit too much of the one thing after another approach in them, and perhaps too much effort to create parables of instruction. Still, you can lose yourself in these narratives. And the author dares to take up the complexities of memory on a scale few other novelists, busy scribbling in “stuffy rooms,” would consider.

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