THEME BOOKGROUP – DORIS LESSING

February 3, 2015 at 9:25 am Leave a comment

dorisfaceDoris Lessing is one of the great figures of 20th century english language literature. She published many short stories, novels, plays, operas, essays and some poetry over five decades, was shortlisted for the Booker, and ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 for lifetime of achievement.

As remarkable as all that is, her personal life is equally so. According to wikipedia she was born Doris Taylor in 1919, she spent her early childhood in what was then Persia in the 1920s. But she actually grew up in colonial Rhodesia. She was the child of a former British Army Captain, who had become an amputee in WW1, and an expat mother desperately trying to keep up appearances in the colonies.

She left high school at 13 and educated herself in Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia, by reading books ordered from London.  She got married twice and had three children. She left two of them in Salisbury when she went to London to become a literary figure in 1949. She did this spectacularly, being awarded many major literary prizes until her death in 2013.

All of this is relevant to the books we read as much of her writing is autobiographical, either directly or metaphorically.

The books we did are listed below, and the dust jacket blurb for each is provided. These blurbs are taken from the Doris Lessing site. They describe very well what the books are about and their themes, but obviously in entirely positive terms. There is no place for negativity in a dust jacket blurb. Unfortunately none of us chose The Grass is Singing or The Golden Notebook which appear to be her most famous offerings.

So what i’ll do to add some value is report what the bookgroupers who read each of these said that is different from the blurbs, in particular the negative things, and some of the commonalties between the books that seemed to emerge from what bookgroupers said. Some of these commonalities also become obvious from reading the dust jackets, and they are reiterated in her obituaries.

Bookgrouper Mark said

Doris often strops aside and asks what is this person, these people really like? As a literary critic, in the smallness of a short story or as an emissary writing a report across the galaxy Doris was unafraid to leave orthodoxy behind.  This is why she is rarely considered a mainstream feminist. Some of her women do cruel, stupid and bad things….because they do. Sometimes men, Neanderthals and aliens have her sympathy. Mostly she wants to know who this human being is. Her universe can be captured in the sound of grass.

Bookgrouper Don said

Greetings fellow bookgroupers…

It is with my ‘tale’ between my legs that I send out this apology, especially to Trish, for missing last weekend’s bookgroup meeting. Somehow the change in dates from Feb 1 to Jan 26 never made it to my diary and unfortunately I live and die by that diary so I have missed out.

I have since heard that it was a rousing discussion and I can understand why as I had been very much enjoying the experience of ready Lessing’s Short Stories. At first I found the style a little off-putting due to the severity of what appeared to be a constrained ‘Englishness’. That profound sense of understatement that often results in emotional miscommunication and confusion at first felt irritating until I began to see the depth of cultural commentary that Lessing was attempting in the context of her place and time. In fact it is the manner of her times, and perhaps that sense of social and psychological entrapment that seemed so much a part of English life both at home and abroad that lay most directly in her sights.

Some of her stories seemed to essentially be about nothing – the narratives were in many cases quite trivial, but this focused the reader’s attention where she wanted it to be, focused on how the characters succeeded and failed in communicating their own unique experiences of life. In many of the stories I read the characters seemed to pass by each other like two galleons in a sea battle firing cannons across each other’s bow but rarely scoring a direct hit. It felt as if they would spend a great deal of time manoeuvring their ships around each other before they could land a blow. And it was this dance that I think delighted Lessing the most.

You can imagine her analysing her own relationships in this light and of course using many as the basis for her writing. Hard to know whether she was satirising the dance at all times or perhaps on occasion celebrating it. I think fundamentally she was commenting on the dysfunction of that form of communication, however without those strange mannered behaviours where would her writing come from?

All that said I just want to confess how disappointed I am to have missed the discussion. Please strike me not from your dance cards…Originally I was thinking about explaining my absence with a made up a story that involved large mutant robotic monkeys who laid eggs filled with thousands of spiders emerging from embryonic fluids of sulphuric composition which upon hatching turned the sky the colour of beetroot blood and called down upon the earth an apocalypse of screaming horror, but Campbell Newman wouldn’t sell me the TV rights…

 

What these two poetic bookgroupers are getting at is the same thing we all picked up. She is deliberately, painstakingly, in great length and detail, trying to give an outsiders perspective. Its as if she wants to be the Earth correspondent for the Martian Broadcasting Service. To do this she invents for each book, or book series, characters that give an extreme outsider, or as post-modernists would describe it ‘other’, perspective. Unlike the post- modernists she is not trying to speak for these ‘others’ or make us see their world. I think she knows that is impossible. She doesn’t presume to speak for them, and she is careful to ensure they are not some identifiable category of real outsiders. Her outsiders are not the usual suspects, the disabled, indigenous or diagnosably mentally ill. Instead she creates fictional outsiders – neanderthals, aliens, cats – characters the reader understands are fictional.

This means the reader knows the subject of the book is not the outsider, its us. The outsider is just the vehicle she is using to make us look at ourselves.

And the ‘us’ she shows is a complex nuanced ‘us’. She is honest. Even though she is a mid-twentieth century woman of the left, the female characters are not universally good, and the poor characters are not all good hearted just driven to do bad things because they are oppressed. Everyone is all mixed up in Doris Lessing’s world – because if you were a Martian that is what you’d see.

Unfortunately there is a cost for this painstaking honesty. It can get tedious being inside the heads of these strange fictional others. You cant help thinking – what is the point of creating this character, empathising with it, seeing the world through its eyes when its a fantasy being? Most book groupers found the middle section of their books a bit slow for this reason, but worth the effort. Her books make you ask why do I behave like this or that, what really is important to me, why don’t I just go ahead and do that?

Book groupers also discussed the writing in the books but what emerged was a terrific variation in styles. She seems to have the ability, necessary for literary greats i imagine, to completely change styles depending on the character for whom she is speaking. For example the main character in the book i read, ben, is some kind on neanderthal throwback. he is not very articulate and many of the people he interacts with are fairly poor and uneducated. So the writing is predominantly simple and matter of fact, even if what is being described is extraordinary. Whereas the book groupers that read Descent into Hell and Love Again said the writing got very elaborate and meandering at times, which seems to fit in with the main characters in those books. So it seems she is not someone you read if you want one particular style.

Finally I’d say neither is she someone to read if you want one coherent ‘message’ or view on the world. It seems her one consistent trait is that she is a contrarian. As soon as you think you know what she is saying she is likely to contradict that and put the opposite view. If you want nuance and complexity, not simplicity or easy answers, she is your woman.

Martha Quest, the first volume of Children of Violence republished 11 times between 1952 and 1995

marthaFrom the book jacket:

In this full-scale portrait of a girl from adolescence to womanhood, Doris Lessing does for her sex what D. H. Lawrence and Arnold Bennett did for theirs in Sons and Lovers and Clayhanger. To feminine sensibility and perception Miss Lessing adds an unusual directness, vigour and energy to produce a remarkable combination of talents.

Martha Quest is essentially the story of a rebel. When we first meet her, she is a girl of fifteen living on an impoverished African farm with her parents; a girl of passionate vitality, avid for experience and for self-knowledge, bitterly resentful of the conventional narrowness of her home life. From this background she breaks away to take a job as a typist in the local capital, and here, in the world of the +big city,, she begins to encounter the real life she is so eager to experience and understand.

The background to Martha’s story is the Africa that was Doris Lessing,s birthplace: the tough, spacious and yet circumscribed life of the veld farms; the all-pervading, corrosive atmosphere of racial fears and antagonisms; the superficial democracy and sophistication of city life. As a picture of colonial life Martha Quest fascinates by the depth and realism of its insight; but always at its centre is the figure of Martha, a character in the grand manner, conceived in sympathetic understanding but drawn with an unerring objectivity.

This is book 1 of the series: Children of Violence

African Stories republished 6 times between 1964 and 1981

african storiesFrom the book jacket:

Doris Lessing spent twenty-five years in Southern Rhodesia, for the most part on a farm. This was very different from the English idea of a farm, being 3,000 acres of unfenced scrub bush, kopjes, vleis, of which a couple of hundred acres were cultivated, and the rest left empty, but populated with all kinds of game – buck of many varieties, wild pig, jackals, wild cats, snakes, birds. The district was Lomagundi, not far south from Zambesi, hundreds of miles of empty bush where a couple of dozen white farmers grew tobacco and maize, where a small handful of miners dug for gold.

It was from this experience – perhaps best summed up, in her words, as Africa give you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape – that a good part of her work has come.

The stories in this volume are a collection of four new ones and the whole of This Was The Old Chief’s Country, together with four tales from Five. These two books, probably the most popular of Mrs. Lessings work, are much reprinted and translated.

Of the new stories Mrs Lessing says she particularly likes The Black Madonna which is full of the bile she feels for white society as she knew and hated it. Traitors, another new one, owes its appeal to that particular quality or atmosphere which she says is Africas chief gift to writers… an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or thought.

About The Pig and The Trinket Box she comments in a preface which sums up her ideas on writing from Africa.

Particularly Cats republished 5 times between 1967 and 1978

catsFrom the book cover:

This little book is about the cats Doris Lessing has known or lived with, two in particular, Grey Cat and Black Cat, who are as different in character, temperament and tastes as two people, and who now share her life, mostly in London, sometimes in a Devon cottage. They are both half Siamese, and have Siamese traits: they talk, growl, complain, express themselves volubly in a number of ways.

The first serious cat in the author’s life was when she was three years old, in Persia, where she spent the first five years of her life. In Africa, her childhood on a bush farm was full of cats – at one alarming point, forty of them. In London they are a very different thing – complicated, intense, emotional, taking their patterns of behaviour from the humans they live with.

Mrs. Lessing holds the view that a good part of human behaviour, much more than it is flattering to believe, is no more evolved than cat behaviour – which gives us the clue to this book – casual, informal, and indeed, gossipy, about animals and people.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell republished 5 times between 1971 and 1995 and shortlisted for The Booker Prize.

descentFrom the book jacket:

Doris Lessing’s new novel – which she defines as inner space fiction – is an incomparably exciting voyage into the marvellous, terrifying, unexplored, yet sometimes glimpsed territory of the inner man.

Professor Charles Watkins (Classics), doomed to spin endlessly in the currents of the Atlantic, makes a landfall at last on a tropical shore. He discovers a reined stone city, participates – moon-dazed – in bloody rituals in the paradisiacal forest, witnesses the savage war of the Rat-dogs and is borne on the back of the lordly White Bird across the sea of the dead. Finally, the Crystal claims him, whirling him out into space on a breathtaking cosmic journey.

Yet this most exotic of trips is as firmly rooted in the reality of a mental breakdown as De Quinceys fantasies were in the chemistry of opium. Watkins is a patient of Central Intake Hospital, an enigma to the doctors who try with ever more powerful drugs to subdue his minds adventure, a candidate for electric shock treatment. In a series of extraordinary letters – brilliantly illuminating both the writers and their subject – Watkins is reconstructed by those who have known him: the forgotten women who have loved him, or been awakened by him; the pendant, incensed by his intellectual anarchy; the wartime colleague around whose exploits with the Yugoslav partisans Watkins builds an astonishing fantasy.

Doris Lessing believes that society’s treatment of the mentally ill is civilizations biggest and blackest blind spot, and that it is through the minds of the broken-down that truths we choose to shut out enter like the disguised messengers in myths and fairy tales. Developing themes central to The Golden Notebook and The Four Gated City, this book is her most astounding imaginative achievement – a rare work which explores new areas of thought.

Love, Again republished twice in 1996 and 1997

love againFrom the book jacket:

Love, Again is Doris Lessing’s first novel since The Fifth Child in 1988. It is based around the discovery of the journals of Julie Vairon, an intelligent and lovely but wayward French girl from Martinique, brought to Provence at the end of the nineteenth century by one of her devoted lovers. Julie was a musician, a diarist, an artist, a free woman ahead of her time. Nearly eighty years after her death in 1912, her music and her art illuminate the lives of the characters of Love, Again, when Sarah Durham, a theatrical producer, commissions a play based on her life. The play captivates all who come into contact with it, and dramatically changes the lives of everyone involved. For Sarah – an old woman – the change is profound; she falls in love with two younger men, one after the other, causing her to relive her own stages of growing up, from immature and infantile love (the beautiful and androgynous Bill) to the mature love, Henry.

Lessing brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the theatre and the overheated atmosphere of any group of people continuously together or obsessively concerned with a long-running project. But the main themes of the book are different, and ones she has never tackled before. What happens to the sexuality of middle-aged, or older, men and women like Sarah? What happens when they fall in love, or lust, with people much younger than themselves? How do any of us cope (or not) with passion, real passion, with real pain, and when one part of our life overwhelms all the others? Where does our need for love come from, and does it ever disappear? Or are we condemned, or blessed, to fall in love again and again and again?

The force with which Doris Lessing confronts these questions makes this novel one of the most compelling and memorable she has ever written. In the course of it she shows she has lost none of her power to shock or surprise: she is a writer for whom there are no taboos. Nor has she begun to give easy answers: life is often messy, things don’t fit together as they should, we often don’t get what we want. But by going out unflinchingly in front of us she is able, without a trace of sentimentality or condescension, to reassure us – and to show us, like all truly great writers, that this, perhaps, is what life is really like.

Ben, in the World republished twice in 2000 and 2001

benFrom the book jacket:

Ben Lovatt can never fit in. To those he meets, he seems awkward – too big, too strong, inhumanly made. He baffles and he terrifies: those who do not understand him want him locked up.

His own mother locked him up; then, guilty, she liberated him. But her unyielding love for him corroded their family; the fifth child broke the home into bits. And now he is come of age, and again finds himself bewildered and alone. He searches in the faces of those he meets, to see the hostility there, or the fear, or, more rarely, the kindness. Occasionally, a gentler, less fearful person understands his need, how hard he is trying to fit in. Mostly, people make use of him, and he finds himself in the south of France, in Brazil, and in the mountains of the Andes, where at last he finds out where he has come from, who are his people.

The Fifth Child is one of Doris Lessing’s most powerful, most haunting books. In this sequel, Ben Lovatt is loosed on the wider world: how that world receives him, and how he fares in it, will keep the reader of this novel gripped and on tenterhooks until its dramatic finale.

Time Bites: News and Reviews republished three times in 2004 2005 and 2006

timeFrom the book jacket:

‘The approach to old age, that Via Dolorosa, is presented to us as a long descent after the golden age of youth… But now start the delightful surprises. Best of all, not ever predicted nor, I think described, as fresh liveliness in experiencing. This must be what a very small child feels, looking out at the world for the first time: everything a wonder. Old age is a great reviver of memories, in more ways than one.’

Towards the end of this long life, Goethe said that he had only just learned how to read. In this collection of the very best of Doris Lessing’s essays – never before published in book form – we are treated to the wisdom and keen insight of a writer who has herself learned, over the course of a long, rich, life, to read the world differently. From imagining the secret sex life of Tolstoy to the secrets of Sufism, from reviews of classic books to tales of her beloved cats, these essays span a huge range of subjects, cultures, periods and themes, but they are utterly consistent in one key regards: Lessing’s clear-eyed vision and clearly-expressed prose. This is a book about books and writers – Stendhal and Muriel Spark, Pride and Prejudice Bulgakov and Clarissa – but in its breadth and precision, Time Bites is also a map of the human spirit, of our hopes, fears and basic needs; and on a more personal level, a map of the wonderful, searching mind of one of our greatest living writers.

Stories published in 1978

doris

From the book jacket:

This major collection by one of the most important writers of our time contains all of Doris Lessing’s short fiction other than the stories set in Africa, from the beginning of her career until now.These stories, in their rich variety of background and mood, are set in London, Paris, the south of France, the English countryside; and the themes that have always characterized Doris Lessing’s work are vividly represented: men and women possessed by love or driven into obsessive encounters by lust or chance or needs they can barely trace; the bedrock realities of marriage in which serious, thoughtful, interesting people are trying to find out what they are doing with, and to, each other; what they really want, what they have to give; the fate of women; the crisis of the individual whose very psyche is threatened by a society unattuned to its own most dangerous qualities; the irrevocable moments of decision that somehow identify someone’s fundamental character or destiny. Lessing’s people are instantly recognizable and real – actresses, journalists, a T.V. producer, an aging rake, an old woman poorer than poor, a little diamond cutter, an elderly gentleman in Regent’s Park, and always the couples – married, having affairs, having ended affairs – whose emotional progress she traces with an uncanny and unerring intelligence about the ways in which relationships proceed and feel, how they alternatively repress and provoke that self-knowledge which is crucial to the development of character and spirit.

“Her grasp of what is actually happening in the world is ministerial,” wrote Margaret Drabble. “Doris Lessing is one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand.”

Here are thirty-five stories, ranging from short, resonant sketches to the superb novellas, The Temptation of Jack Orkney and The Other Woman (the latter never published before in America). They constitute a major aspect of Doris Lessing’s work, powerfully conveying the uncompromising vision of one of the most passionately admired writers in the world today.

 

 

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Entry filed under: african, english, short story.

BURIAL RITES by HANNAH KENT THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH by RICHARD FLANAGAN

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