The Cleft

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Doris Lessing, Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature

Doris Lessing, one of England's finest living novelists, invites us to imagine a mythical society free from sexual intrigue, free from jealousy, free from petty rivalries: a society free from men.

An old Roman senator, contemplative at his late stage of life, embarks on what will likely be his last endeavor: the retelling of the story of human ...

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Overview

Doris Lessing, Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature

Doris Lessing, one of England's finest living novelists, invites us to imagine a mythical society free from sexual intrigue, free from jealousy, free from petty rivalries: a society free from men.

An old Roman senator, contemplative at his late stage of life, embarks on what will likely be his last endeavor: the retelling of the story of human creation. He recounts the history of the Clefts, an ancient community of women living in an Edenic, coastal wilderness, confined within the valley of an overshadowing mountain. The Clefts have no need nor knowledge of men -- childbirth is controlled, like the tides that lap around their feet, through the cycles of the moon, and they only bear female children. But with the unheralded birth of a strange, new child -- a boy -- the harmony of their sexless community is suddenly thrown into jeopardy.

In this fascinating and beguiling novel, Lessing confronts head-on the themes that inspired much of her early writing: how men and women, two similar and yet thoroughly distinct creatures, manage to live side by side in the world, and how the troublesome particulars of gender affect every aspect of our existence.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Eminent novelist Lessing offers an alternative origin story for the human race, indirectly recalling the alternate world speculations of her Canopus in ArgosSF novels. Positing that the primal human stock was female rather than male, Lessing invents a cult of ancient women called the Clefts, a name derived, in part, from that essential part of female anatomy. The story of the Clefts is bookended by the journal of a Roman historian, who interprets ancient documents stating that females were originally impregnated by "a fertilizing wind or a wave," to give birth to female children. But one day a "deformed" baby is born, with a "lumpy swelling" never seen before. The first rape and the first murder follow soon enough, as do the first instances of consensual intercourse and the babies-the first of a new race, with a nature derived from both sexes-that are the result. Humor, which may or may not be intentional, is introduced into a generally lethargic text when women and men discover they can't live with or without each other, and the battle of the sexes commences. The novel has elements of a feminist tract, but the story it tells doesn't present a significant challenge to that of Adam and Eve. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In this thought-provoking and compelling novel, an elderly Roman scholar retells the story of how human beings originated. But in his version, people were at first female only-he portrays a community called the Clefts who give birth to girls in conjunction with the cycles of the moon. Understandably, the Clefts are shocked and confused when the first male is born. What develops is much like an original battle of the sexes; the men are cast out and form their own community, but eventually the curiosity of both groups gets the better of them. Images of the scholar's own life emerge as he attempts to piece together this story from fragments of manuscripts and the oral traditions of both the women and the men of that time. The award-winning author of The Golden Notebookand the "Children of Violence" series, Lessing does not present an idealized view of women; far from being loving and peaceful, they actually treat the men quite cruelly. This multifaceted account of life, love, gender, history, and the power of story is engrossing if not easy reading. Highly recommended for literary collections.
—Alicia Korenman

Kirkus Reviews
One of postcolonial fiction's brightest lights makes mythic the battle of the sexes. It's men vs. women. Or, less subtly, "Monsters" vs. "Clefts." Lessing (The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, 2005, etc.), manufacturing a legend out of prose somewhere between grunting and incantation, imagines pre-history. As if commenting on ancient lore, a Roman senator tells of "the Cleft where the red flowers grow," a Shangri-La soon to turn oppressive that's peopled only by moon-worshipping women bearing the name of their land. One day, on this isle of Fish Skin Curers, Seaweed Collectors and Old Shes, a virgin birth produces a Monster, complete with a "tube" below his navel and nipples that "aren't good for anything." As in old Greece, unwanted babies are exposed to the elements on the Cleft, and even while the Clefts insist that "there is no record of any of us doing cruel things-not until the Monsters were born," they leave most of the Monsters out to die or castrate them. Except Maire, who instinctively mates with one of the surviving Monsters grown to adulthood (they're then dubbed "Squirts"). In time, more Cleft-Squirt copulation ensues (they do it fast, Lessing says, like birds). The Squirt offspring are pretty much dunderheads who "did not understand that if they did this, then that would follow," but they're resourceful, making fire and suckling female deer when their Cleft mothers abandon them. After a while, in this anti-Genesis, an alternative Adam and Eve rise up: Horsa and Maronna. Like all Clefts, who "always talked down to the men, chiding and scolding," Maronna rules the roost; Horsa explores. But just as he seems about to venture toward some newwonderland and Clefts and Monsters achieve some kind of acceptance, the Cleft, like Vesuvius, explodes. A dark parable, powerful yet baffling.
Alan Cheuse
“Superb and daring…What an amazing book...A marvelous…gift from one of the great mothers of the contemporary novel.”
Elsbeth Lindner
“A revised origin of species…ironic, provocative, epic, heretical, post-modern…vividly descriptive”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780007233434
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/2/2007
  • Pages: 288

Meet the Author

Doris  Lessing
Winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, Doris Lessing was one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time, the recipient of a host of international awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature, the James Tait Black Prize for best biography, Spain's Prince of Asturias Prize and Prix Catalunya, and the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.

Biography

"Doris Lessing is the kind of writer who has followers, not just readers," Lesley Hazleton once observed. But the Nobel Prize-winning Lessing, whose classic novel The Golden Notebook was embraced as a feminist icon, has seldom told her followers exactly what they wanted to hear. For much of her career, she has frustrated readers' expectations and thwarted would-be experts on her work, penning everything from traditional narratives to postmodern novels to mystic fables.

Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) and grew up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her father made an unsuccessful attempt to farm maize. Though she loved living on the farm, her family life was often tense and unhappy. Lessing married at the age of 20, but three years later, feeling stifled by colonial life and increasingly distressed by the racism of her society, she joined the Communist Party, "because they were the only people I had ever met who fought the color bar in their lives."

Soon after that, she left her husband and first two children to marry fellow Communist Gottfried Lessing, with whom she had a son. They divorced, and she took her son with her to England, where she published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, to high acclaim. After several more novels, including the semi-autobiographical series Children of Violence, Lessing wrote The Golden Notebook, a postmodern, fragmentary narrative about a writer's search for identity. The Golden Notebook gained a passionate following in the feminist movement and "left its mark upon the ideas and feelings of a whole generation of women," as Elizabeth Hardwick wrote.

To Lessing's dismay, she was frequently cited as a "feminist writer" after that. Yet as Diane Johnson pointed out in a 1978 review of Stories, Lessing "also understands men, politics, social class, striving, religion, loneliness and lust." Johnson added: "Mrs. Lessing is the great realist writer of our time, in the tradition of the major Continental novelists of the 19th century, particularly Stendhal and Balzac, but also Turgenev and Chekhov -- a masculine tradition with which she shares large moral concerns, an earnest and affirmative view of human nature, and a dead-eye for social types."

But Lessing, who once called realist fiction "the highest form of prose writing," soon launched into a science-fiction series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, which baffled many of her fans. Lessing used the term "space fiction" for the series, which recounts human history from the points of view of various extraterrestrial beings. Though Lessing gained some new readers with her Canopus series, her early admirers were relieved when she came back to Earth in The Fifth Child, the story of a monstrous child born to ordinary suburban parents, which Carolyn Kizer deemed "a minor classic." Later novels like Mara and Dann included elements of fantasy and science fiction, but recently, with the publication of The Sweetest Dream, Lessing has returned to domestic fiction in the realist mode, which many critics still see as her best form.

Throughout her life, Lessing has been drawn to systems for improving human experience -- first Marxism, then the psychiatry of R. D. Laing, then Sufi mysticism. But her yearning for a single, transcendent truth coexists with a sharp awareness of the contradictory mix of vanities, passions, and aggressions that make up most human lives. As Margaret Drabble noted, Lessing is "one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand."

Good To Know

Lessing's African stories painted a grim picture of white colonialism and the oppression of black Africans, and in 1956, Lessing was declared a prohibited alien in South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. In 1995, she was able to visit her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, where her works are now acclaimed for the same content that was once condemned.

Though she was briefly allied with the Communist Party in Salisbury, Lessing has frequently insisted that the picture of her as a political activist is exaggerated. "I am always being described as having views that I never had in my life," she once told the Guardian. She has, however, been an outspoken critic of the racial politics of South Africa, and she once turned down the chance to become a Dame of the British Empire on the grounds that there is no British Empire.

To demonstrate how difficult it is for new writers to get published, Lessing sent a manuscript to her publishers under the pseudonym Jane Somers. Her British publisher turned it down, as did several other prominent publishers (though her American editor detected the ruse and accepted the book). The Diary of a Good Neighbour was published as the work of Jane Somers, to little fanfare and mixed critical reviews. Lessing followed it with a sequel, If the Old Could..., before revealing her identity as the author of both.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Doris May Tayler (birth name), Jane Somers (pseudonym)
    2. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 22, 1919
    2. Place of Birth:
      Persia (now Iran)
    1. Date of Death:
      November 17, 2013
    2. Place of Death:
      London, England

Read an Excerpt

The Cleft
A Novel

Chapter One

I saw this today.

When the carts come in from the estate farm as the summer ends, bringing the wine, the olives, the fruits, there is a festive air in the house, and I share in it. I watch from my windows like the house slaves, for the arrival of the oxen as they turn from the road, listen for the creak of the cart. Today the oxen were wild-eyed and anxious, because of the noisy overfull road to the west. Their whiteness was reddened, just like the slave Marcus's tunic, and his hair was full of dust. The watching girls ran out to the cart, not only because of all the delicious produce they would now put away into the storerooms, but because of Marcus, who had in the last year become a handsome youth. His throat was too full of dust to let him return their greetings, and he ran to the pump, snatched up the pitcher there, drank—and drank—poured water over his head, which emerged from this libation a mass of black curls—and dropped the pitcher, through haste, on the tile surround, where it shattered. At this, Lolla, whose mother my father had bought during a trip to Sicily, an excitable explosive girl, rushed at Marcus screaming reproaches and accusations. He shouted back, defending himself. The other servants were already lifting down the jars of wine and oil, and the grape harvest, black and gold, and it was a busy, loud scene. The oxen began lowing and now, and with an ostentatiously impatient air, Lolla took up a second pitcher, dipped it in the water and ran with it to the oxen, where she filled their troughs, which were nearly empty. It was Marcus's responsibility to make sure the oxen got theirwater as soon as they arrived. They lowered their great heads and drank, while Lolla again turned on Marcus, scolding and apparently angry. Marcus was the son of a house slave in the estate house and these two had known each other all their lives. Sometimes he had worked here in our town house, sometimes she had gone for the summer to the estate. Lolla was known for her quick temper, and if Marcus had not been hot and dusty after the long slow journey he would probably have laughed at her, teased her out of her fit of impatience. But these two were no longer children: it was enough only to see them together to know her crossness, his sullenness, were not the result only of a very hot afternoon.

He went to the oxen, avoiding their great tossing horns, and began soothing them. He freed them from their traces, and led them to the shade of the big fig tree, where he slipped the traces over a branch. For some reason Marcus's tenderness with the oxen annoyed Lolla even more. She stood, watching, while the other girls were carrying past her the produce from the cart, and her cheeks were scarlet and her eyes reproached and accused the boy. He took no notice of her. He walked past her as if she were not there, to the veranda, where he pulled out another tunic from his bundle and, stripping off the dusty tunic, he again sluiced himself with water, and without drying himself—the heat would do that in a moment—he slipped on the fresh one. Lolla seemed calmer. She stood with her hand on the veranda wall, and now she was penitent, or ready to be. Again he took no notice of her, but stood at the end of the veranda, staring at the oxen, his charges. She said, 'Marcus . . .' in her normal voice, and he shrugged, repudiating her. By now the last of the jars and the fruit had gone inside. The two were alone on the veranda. 'Marcus,' said Lolla again, and this time coaxingly. He turned his head to look at her, and I would not have liked to earn that look. Contemptuous, angry—and very far from the complaisance she was hoping for. He went to the gate to shut it, and turned from it, and from her. The slaves' quarters were at the end of the garden. He took up his bundle and began walking—fast, to where he would lodge that night. 'Marcus,' she pleaded. She seemed ready to cry. He was about to go into the men's quarters and she ran across and reached him as he disappeared into the door.

I did not need to watch any longer. I knew she would find an excuse to hang about the courtyard—perhaps petting and patting the oxen, giving them figs, or pretend the well needed attention. She would be waiting for him. I knew that he would want to go off into the streets with the other boys, for an evening's fun—he was not often here in this house in Rome itself. But I knew too that these two would spend tonight together, no matter what he would have preferred.

This little scene seems to me to sum up a truth in the relations between men and women.

Often seeing something as revealing, when observing the life of the house, I was impelled to go into the room where it was kept, the great pack of material which I was supposed to be working on. I had had it now for years. Others before me had said they would try to make something of it.

What was it? A mass of material accumulated over ages, originating as oral history, some of it the same but written down later, all purporting to deal with the earliest record of us, the peoples of our earth.

It was a cumbersome, unwieldy mass and more than one hopeful historian had been defeated by it, and not only because of its difficulty, but because of its nature. Anyone working on it . . .

The Cleft
A Novel
. Copyright © by Doris Lessing. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 6, 2011

    Would not recommend

    Disturbing. I threw it away. No character development, nothing enjoyable, nor was it interesting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2011

    Must Read!!

    I loved this book. The describtion is amanzing. You really get sucked into the book enough to feel like your there, watching. It's a unique view upon how the our race began.

    Highly recommended for more "Grown up" minds
    Ages- 16 and up mostly for women.
    Men under 45 are to mentally inappropriatte

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 5, 2009

    Strange Book

    Very original, I agree, but I found it too strange for my taste.

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  • Posted March 14, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Broad cloth

    In many was is about racism as it is about sexism.

    Details the nature and reliability of Scripture writing. The Historian attemopts to make a linear history out of the witness' story and distorts it with his own projections.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 6 Customer Reviews

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