In Pursuit of Doris Lessing

Children of Violence

by Doris Lessing
Simon & Schuster, 605 pp., $7.50

Alienation, as Mr. Harold Rosenberg has lately reminded us, is becoming an overworked and threadbare concept. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to use it when talking about Doris Lessing, two of whose early novels have now appeared in a one-volume edition entitled Children of Violence. In all her writing Mrs. Lessing has returned time and again to the study of lost and alienated beings in some of the major proletariats of the modern world, notably the African natives and poor whites of Rhodesia, where she grew up or the emancipated woman of twentieth-century urban society, educated, articulate, and yet as much a prey to sexual exploitation as her unliberated counterparts in less enlightened times. A typical Doris Lessing situation will concern a white couple on a crumbling farm in a remote part of the veld, declining into the neurosis born of prolonged failure and frustration, observed closely but silently by their native servants, with their progress to inevitable disaster perhaps recorded by a female child from a neighboring farm, who has all the perception of Henry James’s Maisie and rather more understanding. Or, in Mrs. Lessing’s more recent fiction, we might, for instance, be invited to observe a brief, abrasive affair between a London professional woman, once married but now divorced or separated from her husband (with a child possibly in the background), and a weak, amiable, vaguely self-seeking intellectual, whose own marriage has long since ceased to mean anything, and who is unworthy of her.

Doris Lessing did not go to England until she was thirty, and her accumulated African experiences were crystallized in her first two books, both of remarkable imaginative strength and authority: a novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), and a collection of stories, This Was the Old Chief’s Country (1952). In these books Mrs. Lessing made a pained but unflinching examination of the manifold ways in which human beings are forced apart: the primary alienating force was, of course, the moral enormity of the color bar, but she was also concerned with the divisions in the white community between the British and the Afrikaaners; and with the cruel though invisible barriers between husband and wife. And also in the background, underlining by its indifference the puny human tragedies, was the parched and inhospitable veld, stretching for miles under a vacant, blazing sky. Few modern writers have established so immediately their own unmistakable world.

The dominant influence on Mrs. Lessing’s early fiction, particularly her stories, was certainly D. H. Lawrence; she frequently catches Lawrence’s precise tone of urgent casualness—“The Farquars had been childless for years when little Teddy was born,” the opening of a story called “No Witchcraft for Sale”—and she echoes, too, his awkward, rather baffled comments on his own characters: “Perhaps he really did feel he ought to marry. He knew it was suspected that this new phase, of entertaining and being entertained, was with a view to finding himself a girl.” But Mrs. Lessing got more …

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