Mara and Dann fabled itself to a fare-thee-well. There was a magic cloak, a designated nemesis, gold coins, evil twins, black towers, even a labyrinth, a counterplot, and a restoration fantasy. Not that Lessing, a Sister Grimm, admits of happy endings. If her 1999 novel accused its century of specializing in refugees, in forced relocations of the outcast and anathematized, it never suggested that any other century had been nicer. If Dann’s ancestors seemed to him omniscient (“There were people once—they knew everything. They knew about the stars…they could talk to each other through the air…compared to them we are beetles”), yet these know-it-alls, staring up from drowned cities, immured like woolly mammoths in blue ice, were just as dead as their epigoni. After 12,000 years of civilization, war was still the end of every story, “the ways of war became crueller and more terrible,” and a punishing ice age was what we deserved.
The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog is a lesser effort, a tying up of loose ends. It has some of the fairy-tale quality of its predecessor—aromatic forests, broken-hearted beasts, red and black armies, white witches, and “more of the long, long ago, the here-we-go-again”—plus a Candide garden, where a pregnant Mara takes up farming; a gloss on Max Weber, in which charisma is a curse; a marvelous account, as if to conflate the Tower of Babel, the Library at Alexandria, and Noah’s Ark, of “sand librarians,” frantic scribes in the Centre’s bowels, trying to save a page here, a paragraph there, even a skittering phrase (“Rose thou art sick”) from rising waters and disintegrating bark; and passages that remind us of Lessing’s raw power when her interest and ire are aroused. A calving of glaciers is reported in eddas and skalds:
They were staring at the ice cliffs of Yerrup, that seemed undiminished, in spite of how they cracked and fell. As they gazed, a portion of the lower shining mass groaned and fell, and slid into the waves, leaving a dark scarred cliff which from here looked like a black gap on the white….
Now they were close, too close, to a tall shining cliff face, bare of ice, though water was bounding down, off rocks, in freshets and rivers, and the sea was rocking and rearing so badly that the boat was in danger of overturning. They were clutching the sides and calling out, while Dann was yelling with exultation, for this was what he had dreamed of, and it was what he was seeing—there were the ice cliffs of Yerrup and the sounds they made as they fell was like many voices, all at once, shouting, groaning, screaming—and then, crack, another ice face was peeling off, and Dann found that the others had turned the boat and it was rocking its way back to shore, a long, dangerous way off…. And before they reached shore and safety, a large block of ice that shone blue and green and dusky pink was coming straight for them.
But there is an impatience to this sequel, a rude rush that can’t be bothered with chapter divisions or more than a handful of line-space breaks. Mara being dead, we are stuck mostly in the head of her unhappy brother, the poppy-smoking “General” Dann, whose “authority” as a wonder-worker is as unearned as it is widespread, whose fame is an illusion, “a flicker of nothing, like marsh gas, or the greenish light that runs along the tops of sea waves,” but who has been born with the peculiar ability “to set fire to the expectations of people who had never even met him.” And when Dann retires to anguish over his sister, or to indulge his bitter envy of those “lost time” ancestors who were so much cleverer than he, the narrative chores fall to Griot, his dutiful, humorless, green-eyed aide-de-camp, a former child soldier who followed Dann all the way from Agre, who sees to the training of the army his general leads into pointless battle, and who, like all the griots before him, will sing praise-songs on the killing fields.
Also green-eyed is the snow dog saved by Dann from drowning, whose “sodden mass” and “dense wetness” he buttons into his own jacket, whose dead weight he carries overland to a stranger’s shack, whose sneezes and shakes he warms through a winter’s night against his skin, the only creature he will ever love besides his sister—but an adoring pet who must turn against his own master to protect Mara’s daughter, the girl-child Tamar, from the despair and rage of her brain-sick uncle. Surely this remarkable beast deserved a better name than Ruff?
Dann, Griot, Ruff, and an army of men wearing blankets invade the nation next door, not because anyone believes that their promises of “justice, order, fairness, kindness as a ruling idea” will work out better this time than elsewhen: “Over and over again, all the effort and the fighting and the hoping, but it ends in the Ice or in cities sinking down out of sight into the mud.” Nor is Dann under any illusion that “happily ever after” means more than “whistling in the dark.” Somewhere nearby, some other charismatic leader is already rousing another rabble. Soon there will be more children on the run. Still, this is how the story has always been written, and everyone must play his part. Sisters die, and so do civilizations, and in the rear-view mirror of the Sufi levitation the rest of us look smaller and smaller. But Doris Lessing is her own ecosystem, biocosm, Big Bang, and entropic universe. Her advice to us is chin up, and socks, too.
I was seeing a mature woman, a woman who has had her fill of everything, but is still being asked from, demanded of, persuaded into giving: such a woman is generous indeed; her coffers and wells are always full and being given out. She loves—oh, yes, but somewhere in her is a deadly weariness. She has known it all, and doesn’t want any more—but what can she do? She knows herself—the eyes of men and boys say so—as a source; if she is not this, then she is nothing. So she still thinks—she had not shed that delusion. She gives. She gives. But with this weariness held in check and concealed.
The Memoirs of a Survivor
Shake her family tree and down fall bootmakers, bank clerks, mariners, medics; a cousin to the painter Constable, a farmer who versified, a soldier who Charged with the Light Brigade, a widow who captained a barge. Doris’s father, having lost a leg in the Great War, talked about the trenches till the day he died, of diabetes. Her mother, a nurse who had once aspired to be a concert pianist, “wanted children, to make up to them what she had suffered as a child.” Follow these minor players on the British imperial stage from Kermanshah, Iran, where Doris was born in 1919, on a nightmare passage by oil tanker across the Caspian and lice-ridden train through war-torn Russia, to “wet, dirty, dark and graceless England”; by boat past sunsets, seagulls, and flying fish to Cape Town; by prairie schooner behind a team of oxen north to the flaming skies and termite heaps of Rhodesia, where the maize crop failed and so did tobacco, where gold didn’t pan out and neither did social ambition.
Did you know she spent four years in a convent school, so admiring of holy water, rosary beads, and sanctus bells that she actually converted for a minute or two to Roman Catholicism? Then her mother explained the Inquisition, and she quit religion and piano.
Imagine the novelist as Artemis, Doris as Diana: by age twelve, she already knew how to raise rabbits, worm dogs, churn butter, make cream cheese and ginger beer, shoot guinea fowl, and walk on stilts. Not that she wasn’t also reading—Dickens and Lewis Carroll. When at last she left the unhappy homestead where her mother loved her brother best, for the dance hall, typing pool, and Left Book Club in Salisbury, Rhodesia’s capital, she added Lawrence, Proust, and Virginia Woolf to Kipling and Olive Schreiner. She also switched from The Observer to The New Statesman. The hard-drinking Young Married writing her first novel discovered the Russians “like a thunderclap”: Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoevsky. After which, as she abandoned the “spineless social democrats” for the “kaffir-loving” local Reds, she would abandon her dull husband, Frank Wisdom, and their two children for Gottfried Lessing and the Revolution.
He was a Communist, a German, an enemy alien in World War II, and lousy in bed: “It was my revolutionary duty to marry him. I wish I could believe this was just one of our jokes, but probably not.” To her children by Frank, she explained that she must leave them to make a better world; “One day they would thank me for it. I was absolutely sincere. There isn’t much to be said for sincerity, in itself.” Gottfried, the father of her third child, deserted them both after the war, for East Germany. Doris, alarmed at her habit of having children by every man she went to bed with, had her tubes tied. She moved to England in 1949, and published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, the following year.
Her second volume of autobiography, Walking in the Shade (1997), is less thrilling than her first, Under My Skin (1994), unless you count a late date with Kenneth Tynan, during which they didn’t use his bedroom whips. Briefly, she would be lumped in with England’s Angry Young Men, but seems to have preferred the company of the novelist and art critic John Berger. Other names march by, tooting their horns—Honor Tracy, Isaak Dinesen, C.P. Snow, Kenneth Kaunda, Siobhan McKenna, Paul Robeson, Brendan Behan, Bertrand Russell, Laurence Olivier—and we are none the wiser. We do meet the American Trotskyist Clancy Sigal, on his way to a nervous breakdown for which a crazy doctor (probably R.D. Laing) would prescribe LSD, who shows up as Saul Green in The Golden Notebook, and who gave Doris the gift of jazz.
We also meet Mrs. Sussman, the analyst Lessing saw for three years before conscripting her so memorably into The Golden Notebook as Mother Sugar. Mrs. Sussman, a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism, was a Jungian who specialized in “unblocking” artists. In Doris she found archetypal residues of Electra, Medea, and Antigone. She especially liked the giant lizard dream that Doris would inflict on Martha in two of the “Children of Violence” novels. Later, in an essay on Laurens van der Post and the literature of exile, Lessing noted that “Papa Jung” and Africa were so compatible because “vast spaces, hinterlands and the nameless can so easily be archetyped into sympathetic symbols.” There is also an obvious kinship, in folk wisdom, ritual drama, and a collective unconscious, between Jung and Sufism.