Time Bites

By Gardam, Jane | The Spectator, October 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Time Bites


Gardam, Jane, The Spectator


A romantic socialist TIME BITES by Doris Lessing Fourth Estate, £20, pp. 376, ISBN 0007179855 * £18 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

There is no introduction to this collection of essays, reviews and 'think-pieces' by Doris Lessing, but they are presumably chosen by herself from the quantity of her literary criticism (the hardest work, or so they say) over a long political and literary lifetime. The pieces must have been difficult to assemble, for the acknowledgments in the back of the book include some very obscure sources alongside the blue-ribbon publications where you would expect to find 'one of the most influential writers of the 20th century'. Some are from the Guardian, the New York Observer, the L. A. Times; more from The Spectator, the Literary Review and the late lamented Books and Bookmen; but others must have had to be dug out. There is an extract from a Cat Anthology from Salt Lake City and a Little Book of Advice for the Maynard School for Girls, Exeter.

She writes not only about the great. There are Tolstoy, Stendhal, the King James Version of the Bible but also articles about the underrated, such as Niccolo Tucci whose Before My Time she believes 'will continue to gather lustre until it is set firmly ... with the great classics of world literature'. She writes, of course, about Africa; a whole essay on 'The Tragedy of Zimbabwe'; of 'Sufi Philosophy and Poetry'; about her cats; about her bedroom at the top of a London house above a tangled, luminous garden. She writes about the political and religious thought that has formed her, particularly about Idries Shah, the Sufi mystic; about English hospitals today and in the past. (Her mother was to have been appointed matron of the great Royal Free Hospital in London but opted for a thatched house in Africa and the child Doris, who sat reading old nursing manuals on the mud floor.)

She writes of old friends of the romantic-socialist age in Britain; about the rise and fall of communism, the horrors behind the Iron Curtain; about the life of the American politico, William Philips, who knew more than anyone else about the history of the British Left; about old-fashioned writers like A. E. Coppard 'whose books are still found in friends' libraries where they will be kept always by those who have read their own way into literature'. Coppard was a friend. They were in Russia together, Doris burning with political curiosity, Coppard examining the errant wild flowers growing around the fields of a collective farm. 'What came out strong in him was his inability to play "the writer" .'

She writes about Russian literature at the time of Stalin who had a passion for great writers and she believes was a writer manqué, the infamous Black Notebook being perhaps a sort of mad novel. She writes about a reissue of her own Golden Notebook, standing away from it, quizzing it like a student, noting what a second generation and even a third are making of it. She remembers the 'fury of energy' that went into it. 'It does have a "charge"... a remarkable vitality.' This sort of ingenuous objectivity is so rare. …

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