Before Her Time


by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 626 pp., $15.00

Like Chinese grandmothers, novelists eventually earn respect for their sheer staying power; by the time they have an honorable career behind them and are having their work reprinted they deserve, and get, a certain homage. Earlier in their careers the critics nag and carp; later, the cold eye of reassessment is cast over their life’s work; at the peak of a writing career, which is where Doris Lessing now stands, the years of solid achievement command maximum respect. She has been writing now for twenty-eight years and the front of this book lists twenty-two titles (with at least two of them, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City, several times as long as an average novel).

A survey of critical responses to her books might reveal curious strata of social history; it is hard to remember now that she was once considered very daring and very militant (she indicated that one of her characters menstruated; and insisted that relations between the sexes were difficult and unequal). She has been accused of being feminist, and then accused by feminists of not being feminist enough; she has been a communist, and moved on from a belief in simplistic political solutions to interest in deeper psychological change, touching on themes of madness and of mystical and extrasensory states of consciousness. She has written clearly into all her work the conviction that we are moving blindly and inevitably toward global catastrophe.

Certainly she has earned the respect accorded to a writer of her stature and fertility. Doggedly she has been writing into her fiction signposts and warnings that we need desperately to be reminded of, in a way that has been more persuasive and imaginative than if she had been a pure polemicist. She is the kind of writer one would especially like to meet—though it may be a backhanded compliment—just to discuss some of the ideas she raises in her fiction: the description in The Four-Gated City, for instance, of the woman whose sensitivity to psychic influences is labeled psychotic, and who is then edged into being actually mad, speaks more vividly than any antipsychiatric volume.

But the critic has the problem of distinguishing between what an author says and the way she says it. The moralist in Lessing, struggling with the very skilled writer, at times has made her prolix, clogged, slow—though in her latest novels she has successfully introduced a leavening of fantasy. The fact is that there are writers who in an economical page or two can make us feel our dilemmas more piercingly than she does in a leisurely fictional exposition. Missing from her work is that fusion of the absurd and the agonizing, that sense of time and space gathered up for a moment between the hands, that sudden shift from understanding to seeing directly, that we can expect at rare moments to get from our storytellers.

One would imagine then that, like many novelists not of the first rank, she would distill her best work in…

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