Lessing's Living Drama of London

By Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction | The Christian Science Monitor, August 4, 1992 | Go to article overview

Lessing's Living Drama of London


Merle Rubin. Merle Rubin regularly reviews literature and contemporary fiction, The Christian Science Monitor


DORIS LESSING's first novel, "The Grass Is Singing," was published in 1950. Her work includes more than 20 novels, 10 story collections, plus drama, poetry, reportage, and essays.

It is remarkable not so much for sheer quantity as for the range of approaches she has used - from the old-fashioned realism of "Martha Quest" (1970), the first of her politically oriented, five-novel sequence "Children of Violence," to the futuristic mythopoeia of her five-novel series "Canopus in Argos: Archives," which brought her new readers with a taste for science fiction.

Lessing's use of contrasting styles in "The Golden Notebook" (1981), a novel interspersed with excerpts from its protagonist's personal notebook, is itself a contrast to the technique of straightforward, windowpane clarity she employs with such powerful effect in "The Good Terrorist" (1985).

Narrated with even greater detachment, her novel "The Fifth Child" (1988) applies the method of starkly objective observation to a story that borders on grotesque fairy tale.

Lessing's political position has also run the gamut: from her early sympathy for communism to a kind of extreme skepticism about all political ideologies, particularly those of the radical left.

Yet her most fervent readership has long been among feminists, who elevated "The Golden Notebook" to the status of a classic feminist text.

Born in Persia to British parents who resettled on a farm in Southern Rhodesia when she was five, Lessing fled the repressive, provincial world of her youth for England in 1949. She has written of England and Africa, Afghanistan and the Sufis, women's issues and the British Labour Party - not to mention her foray to other planets in the "Canopus" series.

Her recent work has inclined toward ever-increasing simplicity and realism, to the point where it can even be criticized as too flatly matter-of-fact.

By the time readers find themselves having to make do with her previous book "Particularly Cats" (1991), a detailed description of various cats Lessing has owned, her gift for endless observation of just about everything becomes a sign of writerly complacency and a source of readerly boredom.

The 18 stories in her latest collection, "The Real Thing," are narrated with a clinical detachment that is at once minutely observant and emotionally distant.

There is a certain charm in this, particularly when she is writing about animals (lots of them here: sparrows, dogs, goats, deer, crows, but none, thank goodness, dwelt on to the extent of the aforementioned cats). Such detachment enables her to cherish small details without seeming overly sentimental.

But in stories dealing with people, this approach can sound at times like an unwitting parody of a social worker's field notes. Indeed, one story, "The Mother of the Child in Question," is about a social worker's visit to an immigrant household.

Another, "D.H.S.S." (Department of Health and Social Services), portrays a destitute young woman's resentment, not only against official relief, but also against the spontaneous efforts of two well-meaning people who are moved by her plight. …

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