Doris Lessing has written 45 books in her lifetime, yet it’s hard to definitively place her in the way one places, say, Philip Roth. Her fiction floats in some vague constellation that includes Nadine Gordimer and Margaret Atwood. Like Atwood, Lessing’s an acute observer of human interaction (and she’s written several books that dabble with fantasy and SF). She shares with Gordimer a knack for fiction with a complex understanding of politics culled from personal experience: The Grass Is Singing, her 1950 debut, wrangled with racial tensions in the postwar South Africa she knew from her youth in Rhodesia; 1962’s The Golden Notebook, which made Lessing a reluctant feminist heroine, featured a fractured narrative about a young woman in ’50s and ’60s London buffeted by Communism and sexism and psychoanalysis.
You only need to read the first two volumes of her memoirs, Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade, to recognize how much Martha Quest and the “Children of Violence” series mirrored Lessing’s biographical details: A young girl grows up on an African farm, is seduced by the Communist Party, deserts her husband and child for a charismatic movement leader, moves to London, and loses faith in both her marriage and the Party. The Sweetest Dream, her latest novel, picks up where the previous memoir left off, in the early ’60s. Lessing apparently wrote this in place of a third volume of autobiography, to protect the living.
Freed of the necessity to spare anyone’s feelings, Lessing lets rip, savaging the ’60s and ’70s with a portrait of the era so jaundiced it could only have come from the pen of a lapsed believer. Her memoirs documented the rapture of political commitment, people with “hearts permanently swollen with compassion for the world.” The Sweetest Dream is about the aftermath of that fervor, when gangrenous disappointment sets in. It’s a wildly uneven book, veering between a satire of the left and a contemporary family saga, but Lessing’s unsentimental eye provides an unexpected, rather poignant view of the late 20th century.
The novel’s focus is the Lennox family. Frances is a bohemian single mother of two boys, Andrew and Colin; her ex-husband, Johnny, is a hardline Communist rogue who swans around the world with little thought (or money) tossed in his family’s direction. Their North London house becomes a crash pad for Andrew and Colin’s troubled teenage school friends, swept up in the chaos of the ’60s, just as Lessing’s apparently were. Among them are Rose, a nasty limpet who believes the world owes her a living, and Geoffrey, who spends his spare time “liberating” (i.e., shoplifting) books. Frances presides over them all, repeatedly forsaking her own desires to nurture a generation of lost souls that includes Sylvia, Johnny’s anorexic daughter by his crazy second wife.
Imagine the extended Lennox clan as a more radical Brady Bunch: Marcia and Greg were far too bland to represent the ’60s, whereas Lessing allows us to glimpse the zeitgeist via her creations. Rose mutates from activist-troublemaker to ’80s tabloid scandalmonger, for instance, while ethereal Sylvia flirts with New Age mysticism and nuclear disarmament before becoming a doctor in an impoverished African village.
Frances is the book’s one brilliantly nuanced character, a woman trapped in a transitional cultural moment: She’s not Carol Brady, but she’s not exactly a fully liberated woman either. Instead of returning to the acting career she loves, she specializes in ridiculing cultural fads like Carnaby Street and yoga for a lefty newspaper. An ex-Communist, Frances also bitterly rejects revolutionary politics. She has come to a realization about Johnny:
He wanted to pull everything down about his ears, like Samson. . . . “The Revolution” which he and his mates never stopped talking about would be like directing a flame-thrower over everything, leaving scorched earth, and then—well, simple—he and the mates would rebuild the world in their image. . . . But the thought then had to be faced: how could people unable to organize their own lives, who lived in permanent disarray, build anything worthwhile?
Frances knows about this disarray firsthand. She has ended up as a cleaning lady for the Revolution, dusting off kids jettisoned by their parents in favor of some sweet dream of a perfect world.
Lessing lends the novel a skewed perspective by zooming in on the cloistered Lennox house and its motley inhabitants. Since most of the action—the protests and love affairs—is taking place outside, what we see are characters returning from battle and seeking refuge. The result is an annoyingly unspecific sense of political ferment, with passing references to class, race, Vietnam, and nuclear disarmament thrown into the mix. Johnny is the vaguest character of all; he speaks in Marxist clichés and spends his life skipping between hot spots like Cuba and Africa, soaking up the admiration of young wannabe rebels.
The first half of the novel is an appealing circus of vivid characters and cultural tableaux. But somewhere in all the melee, the characters lose their fluidity and harden into stereotypes. Optimism comes to seem like a personality flaw, as Johnny and his circle blind themselves to painful revelations (Stalinist horrors, corruption in Communist African governments, etc.). Just as it seems that the book might sink under the weight of its own cynicism, Lessing shifts focus to Africa, to a dusty missionary town in newly liberated Zimlia under siege by a new disease called Slim (AIDS).
Sylvia has landed there to become the local doctor, although there are no medical supplies or books for miles. The Sweetest Dream deftly sketches the muddle of interests in Africa, the incompetence, poverty, superstition, and foreign intervention hobbling Zimlia’s new black Communist government. Lessing allows Sylvia to take center stage the way no other character in the novel has, playing out the themes of belief and action in a concrete way. Others in the book devote themselves to changing things, but only abstractly (by preaching or throwing money at problems); Sylvia actually gets her hands dirty, lives side by side with the people she wants to help. It’s not that The Sweetest Dream goes all warm and gooey for Sylvia—her well-meaning whitegirl labor is undoubtedly futile, a drop in the proverbial bucket. But Lessing seems touched by this woman who, like generations before her, is propelled by the dream of a better world. Buried in all that jaded despair, Lessing has her own sweet spot for selflessness.
Also in This Week’s Books Section:
Alisa Solomon on Strangers in the House: Coming of Age in Occupied Palestine by Raja Shehadeh
J. Hoberman on Reading The Funnies: Essays On Comic Strips by Donald Phelps