It is as if some gauze or screen has been dissolved away from life, that was dulling it, and like Miranda you want to say, What a brave new world! You don’t remember feeling like this, because, younger, habit or the press of necessity prevented. You are taken, shaken, by moments when the improbability of our lives comes over you like a fever. Everything is remarkable, people, living, events present themselves to you with the immediacy of players in some barbarous and splendid drama that it seems we are part of. You have been given new eyes.
—Doris Lessing, Time Bites
Doris Lessing, who turned eighty-seven in October, is telling us what “old” feels like. Not a believer in “the golden age of youth,” she “shudders” at the very idea of living through her teens again, even her twenties. Since she left Africa for England more than half a century ago, a single mother and a high school dropout with a wardrobe full of avatars—angry young woman, mother superior, bad-news bear, bodhisattva—she has published an astonishing fifty-five books. Although Time Bites is her first collection of articles, lectures, book reviews, and broadcasts, The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog is her twenty-fifth novel. Nor does the fact that she’s four inches shorter than she used to be make her a shrinking violet. “Old” is as nice as she gets in Time Bites. Her default mode is usually imperious, as if ex cathedrawere the normal respiration of her intelligence.
With a muster more of adjectives than argument, she admires the great in their shallow graves (Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Bulgakov); promotes some personal favorites (Christina Stead, George Meredith, Muriel Spark); scolds us for neglecting others (Anna Kavan, Jaan Kross, Tarjei Vesaas); gets huffy about our provincial ignorance of a Sanskrit folktale cycle, The Fables of Bidpai; and chats up autobiography (Casanova, Cellini), Stone Age civilizations (Knossos, Catal Hoyuk), cults (Cromwell, the Red Guards, al-Qaeda), and Ecclesiastes (“the thundering magnificence” of the King James version). She has a genuine affection for the composer Philip Glass, who turned two of her “space fictions” into operas, and for the editor William Phillips, even if his name is twice shamefully misspelled. But for every lovely fugitive impression (“the first men probably did not know where their thoughts ended and the consciousness of beasts began”), there is a snide kick at “militant feminists,” and for every gut-wrenching account of the agony of Zimbabwe, a couple of twaddles about the “tyranny” of “Political Correctness.”
What makes Time Bites nonetheless a valuable addition to the Lessing index is its account of her finding her way to Sufi mysticism in the late 1960s. Loyal readers who have followed her out of Africa into celebrity are all too aware that a different Doris finished off the fifth and final…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.