Mara and Dann

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Overview

Thousands of years in the future, all the northern hemisphere is buried under the ice and snow of a new Ice Age. At the southern end of a large landmass called Ifrik, two children of the Mahondi people, seven-year old Mara and her younger brother, Dann, are abducted from their home in the middle of the night. Raised as outsiders in a poor rural village, Mara and Dann learn to survive the hardships and dangers of a life threatened as much by an unforgiving climate and menacing animals as by a hostile community of ...

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Mara and Dann

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Overview

Thousands of years in the future, all the northern hemisphere is buried under the ice and snow of a new Ice Age. At the southern end of a large landmass called Ifrik, two children of the Mahondi people, seven-year old Mara and her younger brother, Dann, are abducted from their home in the middle of the night. Raised as outsiders in a poor rural village, Mara and Dann learn to survive the hardships and dangers of a life threatened as much by an unforgiving climate and menacing animals as by a hostile community of Rock People. Eventually they join the great human migration North, away from the drought that is turning the southern land to dust, and in search of a place with enough water and food to support human life. Traveling across the continent, the siblings enter cities rife with crime, power struggles, and corruption, learning as much about human nature as about how societies function. With a clear-eyed vision of the human condition, Mara and Dann is imaginative fiction at its best.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
An emotionally involving science-fantasy novel with a focus on history and sociological relevance, Mara and Dann is Doris Lessing's return to magic realism after a number of autobiographies and books of essays. As with most of her work, this tale is set in Africa (now known as Ifrik) but several thousand years in the future. Mara and Dann is a strange and powerful parable concerned with both mankind's usual foibles and great shifts in the environment, any of which might spell doom for the human race. Read author Tom Piccirilli's review.
Norah Vincent
If at least two Doris Lessings can be said to exist in that writer's massive body of work -- the introspective, politically minded one of The Golden Notebook and the Martha Quest novels, and the wildly imaginative one of the Canopus in Argos: Archives -- then the Doris Lessing of this most recent fantasy novel is the latter. What Lessing did in space with the Canopus quintet she now does on Earth with Mara and Dann. This dystopian vision of our planet undergoing another ice age thousands of years in the future is something on the order of Paradise Lost in reverse, or a children's Odyssey for two.

In the middle of the night, our surrogate Adam and Eve, 7-year-old Mara and her younger brother Dann, are kidnapped from their home in the southern region of the continent called Ifrik. They are deposited at a safe house farther north where intermittent droughts and floods have made the land all but uninhabitable except by giant lizards, insects and a few hearty survivors known as "the rock people." So begins Mara and Dann's arduous and perilous journey ever farther north toward their Eden, the lush and clement northern coast of Ifrik. As they grow into adolescents, and then young adults, they travel through hundreds of miles of terrain dotted by various troubled civilizations.

As ever, Lessing is concerned with race and class in her (this time) parabolic Africa. For their protection, Mara and Dann's true identities are kept from them, but they are, in fact, the only surviving members of the Mahondi royal family. The Mahondi, a race of people who once ruled the entire continent of Ifrik, are nearly extinct and openly hated by their former subjects. Mara and Dann are the sole heirs to their slain parents' kingdom; the Alexei and Anastasia Romanovs of their time and place, saved from execution by their beneficent kidnappers and sheltered from their pursuers by a network of loyalists. In their eventual Eden, Mara and Dann form a kind of commune with their companions of various races and classes.

In a retrospective introduction to the Vintage edition of Canopus in Argos, Lessing commented on the tendency of reviewers and academics to dismiss science fiction and fantasy as lesser genres. The question of what constitutes "literature" has been raised again recently over Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, which both Norman Mailer and John Updike have dismissed as unworthy of the name. Is Mara and Dann literature? It lacks the explicit intellectual rigor of The Golden Notebook, but because it will make you think about and vividly imagine some of the deeper questions of human existence, Mara and Dann must qualify, in some sense, as literature.

Lessing's prose here is deceptively simple. There are no grand pronouncements, no outright disquisitions on imperialism, postcolonialism, incest (Mara and Dann struggle with their romantic attachment to each other), ecosystemic disaster, the second sex, the failure of communism or the persistence of slavery in Africa today, but they, and much more, are implied, embedded in Lessing's spare portrait of a world in which everything and nothing about nature and culture has changed radically. If there is a theme, or aphorism, to be gleaned from Lessing's storybook view into the distant future, it is not the familiar conviction that "This, too, shall pass," but, after Nietzsche, the bitter conclusion that "This, too, will happen again ... and again, and again."
Salon

Victoria Glendinning
Mara and Dann had me by the throat immediately. Whenever I had to put the book down I fretted about the danger in which I had left the characters, until I could get back and let their story move along again.... This skilful novel, both as adventure story and as ecological fable, displays all the vision and energy of a muscular mind, combined with the wisdom of years. I hope everyone reads Mara and Dann and that it wins all the prizes.
Literary Review Magazine
Sunday Times (London)
[Lessing is]...one of the most serious and intelligent and honest writers of the whole post-war generation.
Hartford Courant
[An] engrossing novel...wonderful.
From The Critics
At times violent, this is a complex book, both frightening and tender.
Library Journal
Mara and her brother Dann are abducted as children and raised by strangers in Ifrick, or Southern Africa, thousands of years in the future. All traces of the technological society of the 20th century have been obliterated by the advance of glaciers that cover most of Europe. The ice cap is finally retreating, but as global warming opens new lands in the north, it also turns the south into a barren desert. Mara and Dann join the great migration to Yerrup, encountering outposts of culture where ancient artifacts are preserved. Mara's insatiable curiosity about these things supplies most of the background for this adult fairy tale. The book's pacing is painfully slow, but the obsessive level of detail may indicate the author's personal involvement: there are obviously some elements of autobiography here. This long novel misses the mark as an adventure story, but it may appeal to diehard Lessing fans. For larger fiction collections.--Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles
The New Yorker
On the surface a grand adventure, this novel at its heart makes a fascinating argument for the force of affection and the power of the questioning mind.
Boston Globe
[A] remarkable book from a seemingly inexhaustible writer....She is a major novelist...a substantial achievement.
Michael Upchurch
Doris Lessing...is the foremost creative descendant of the 'great tradition' which includes George Eliot and D.H. Lawrence.
The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
...Doris Lessing returns to Africa....[the novel] takes place in the distant future....[It explores Lessing's] favorite themes: namely, the ever-shifting relationship between individuals and society, and the eternal tension between domesticity and freedom, responsibility and independence.
The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
Lessing's 22nd novel, a dystopian allegory set in "Ifrik" (formerly Africa) thousands of years hence, is a ponderous, hectoring, fascinating second cousin to her Memoirs of a Survivor (1975) and The Four-Gated City (1969) (and quite reminiscent, incidentally, of Norman Mailer's similarly forbidding Ancient Evenings).

After a global war and second Ice Age have decimated the continent and a more recent drought has made "civilization" only a distant memory, two children, seven-year-old Mara and her younger brother Dann, are abducted and forced to join a slow northward migration, toward water and the remnants of destroyed cities. As they grow to adulthood, together and apart, both are subjected to numbingly repetitive ordeals: capture by conflicting "armies"; enslavement for various purposes (Dann suffers both drug addiction and homosexual rape, while Mara is exploited as a spy and as a "breeder"); and hairbreadth escapes (rather too many) from their several oppressors. Eventually reaching a northern territory where specific knowledge of their culture's past is available, Mara and Dann learn the secret of their own origin—and the duty they were born for but now reject. Neither plot nor characterization is Lessing's strongest suit, and the story's climactic developments may strike some readers as willful overkill, but this often frustratingly turgid tale generates considerable power nevertheless. The world Lessing's opaque protagonists inhabit has been imagined in weirdly convincing detail: cities ("as temporary as dreams") lie drowned beneath scarce remaining rivers, which run shallow and are infested with "water dragons" (crocodiles) and other exoticpredators; men struggle for dominion over exhausted land; and women scheme to outwit male "rulers." The powerful, almost erotic attraction between brother and sister is virtually palpable—as are Mara's fierce hungers: to give birth, be loved, and learn the history of the world crumbling around her.

As demanding and intermittently infuriating as anything Lessing has ever written—and as necessary. She isn't a stylist, and she takes no prisoners, but this writer remains one of contemporary fiction's genuine thinkers and visionaries, and it would be folly to ignore her.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060930561
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/28/1999
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 805,114
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.93 (d)

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

Chapter One

The scene that the child, then the girl, then the young woman tried so hard to remember was clear enough in its beginnings.She had been hustled—sometimes carried, sometimes pulled along by the hand—through a dark night, nothing to be seen but stars, and then she was pushed into a room and told, Keep quiet, and the people who had brought her disappeared.She had not taken notice of their faces, what they were, she was too frightened, but they were her people, the People, she knew that.The room was nothing she had known.It was a square, built of large blocks of rock.She was inside one of the rock houses.She had seen them all her life.The rock houses were where they lived, the Rock People, not her people, who despised them.She had often seen the Rock People walking along the roads, getting quickly out of the way when they saw the People; but a dislike of them that she had been taught made it hard to look much at them.She was afraid of them, and thought them ugly.

She was alone in the big, bare rock room.It was water she was looking for—surely there must be water somewhere? But the room was empty.In the middle of it was a square made of the rock blocks, which she supposed must be a table; but there was nothing on it except a candle stuck in its grease, and burning low ... it would soon go out. By now she was thinking, But where is he, where is my little brother? He, too, had been rushed through the dark.She had called out to him, right at the beginning, when they were snatched away from home—rescued, she now knew—and a hand had come down over her mouth, "Quiet."And she had heard him cry out to her, and thesudden silence told her a hand had stopped his cry in the same way.She was in a fever, hot and dry over her whole body, but it was hard to distinguish the discomfort of this from her anxiety over her brother.

She went to the place in the wall where she had been thrust in, and tried to push a rock that was a door to one side.It moved in a groove, and was only another slab of rock; but just as she was giving up, because it was too heavy for her, it slid aside, and her brother rushed at her with a great howl that made her suddenly cold with terror and her prickle.He flung himself at her, and her arms went around him while she was looking at the doorway, where a man was mouthing at her and pointing to the child, Quiet, quiet. In her turn she put her hand over his open, howling mouth and felt his teeth in her palm.She did not cry out or pull away, but staggered back against a wall to support his weight; and she put her arms tight around him, whispering, "Hush, shhh, you in must be quiet." And then, using a threat that frightened her too, "Quiet, or that bad man will come." And he at once went quiet, and trembled as he clutched her.The man who had brought in the little boy had not gone away.He was whispering with someone out in the darkness.And then this someone came in, and she almost screamed, for she thought this was the bad man she had threatened her brother with; but then she saw that no, this man was not the same but only looked like him.She had in fact begun to scream, but slammed her own free hand across her mouth, the hand that was not pressing her brother's head into her chest."I thought you were ... that you were ... " she stammered; and he said, "No, that was my brother, Garth." He was wearing the same clothes as the other one, a black tunic, with red on it, and he was already stripping it off.Now he was naked, as she had seen her father and his brothers, but on ceremonial occasions, when they were decorated with all kinds of bracelets and pendants and anklets, in gold, so that they did not seem naked.But this man was as tired and dusty as she and her brother were, and on his back, as he turned it to put on the other tunic he had with him, were slashes from whips, weals where the blood was oozing even now, though some had dried.He pulled over his head a brown tunic, like a long sack, and she again nearly cried out, for this was what the Rock People wore.He stood in front of her, belting this garment with the same brown stuff, and looking hard at her and then at the little boy, who chose this moment to lift his head; and when he saw the man standing there, he let out another howl, just like their dog when he howled at the moon, and again she put her hand over his mouth—not the one he had bitten, which was bleeding—but let him stare over it while she said, "It's not the same man.It's his brother.It's not the bad one.

But she could feel the child trembling, in great fits, and she was afraid he would convulse and even die; and she forced his head around, back into her, and cradled it with her two arms.

For days, but she did not know how long, the two children had been in a room in their own home while the other one, who looked like this man, questioned them.The other one, the bad man, and others in the room, men and women, wore the long black tunics, with red.The two children were the centre of the scene.

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Table of Contents

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Interviews & Essays

On Wednesday, January 20th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Doris May Lessing to discuss MARA AND DANN.


Moderator: Welcome, Doris Lessing. It is an honor that you could join us tonight to discuss your new book, MARA AND DANN. Is this your first online interview?

Doris May Lessing: Yes, it is. I have never done it before. It is quite an excitement for me.


Jan from South Hampton: Was there a particular inspiration behind MARA AND DANN? Love your work, Mrs. Lessing.

Doris May Lessing: No, there was not a particular inspiration. The idea of a story, a very old story, a very classic story in European literature of two orphans who have to struggle against all problems and adversary -- this idea fascinated me, and as soon as I started to write it, it took me over.


Patti Padgett from Shelton, Washington: I am sincerely sorry you are not finishing up your autobiography because of strict British laws. Can it not be published in the U.S. without punishment? Your life is so interesting -- I want to know as much as you will let me! Thanks for everything, by the way!

Doris May Lessing: No, it is not a question of the English liberal laws. In the '60s, I was the typical '60s housemother to a lot of people, and it is difficult for me to write of this time because of them, because of what that particular audience would feel. Some are well known now. I have tried to think of ways to write about this period, and I may still try to do it. There is an essential point here. I talk in volume two about the growing point. This means a logical line in your life that you are following. What I was doing in the '60s was working this out and fighting for some very damaged people. So volume three cannot be as personal as the first two if I write it.


Nancy from Connecticut: Your work has gone from realistic to the fantasy realm in several of your novels, and now in MARA AND DANN. Why did you decide to leave this world for these imaginary realms?

Doris May Lessing: You see, I don't see them as nonrealistic. The first part of MARA AND DANN is set in a very terrible drought. And today, large parts of the world are afflicted by drought. The people living in these areas would not think of this as nonrealistic, believe me. For example, I was in Zimbabwe, and they have suffered many droughts. I was there at the end of the drought years, and I was with women who would get up at 3 or 4 in the morning, and they would walk four or five miles to a well and back again with a bucket of water with which they had to cook, and there was no water for washing. This is the reality of bad drought, and this is what I am describing in MARA AND DANN. This terrible poverty and people suffering is not imaginary, and you can see it if you travel to certain parts of the world or even parts of our own country that are not privileged. This book I describe, it is an adventure. This is not something new but an old form, an old form reworked. So I would be sad for people to think Lessing is off again to one of those labels -- science or space fiction. It is nothing of the kind. I am just telling a story, and there is really only one criterion for a story. Is it a page-turner? Do you want to turn to the next page? That is what you ask of an adventure story.


Kim from Lakes Entrance, Australia: I'm interested in your views on dreams and dreaming. In many of your books, you report your characters' dreams, and some entire books read like dream descriptions. How do you explain the phenomenon of dreaming, and why do you think humans have the ability to dream?

Doris May Lessing: I can't explain it, but my private theory is that we, the human race, are storytellers above all. We tell each other stories all the time, and at night we tell ourselves stories. Dreams are stories -- sometimes with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Some are like B movies. There is something mysterious about it all. MARA AND DANN draws on my early childhood, when I had a little brother who I absolutely adored. He was one of the great passions of my life. When I wrote the first part of MARA AND DANN, I plugged right in to my early childhood. I was dreaming episode after episode of the story until about halfway through, when the emphasis shifted.


Bill Parslow from UK: I've lived with and enjoyed all your books ever since I borrowed A PROPER MARRIAGE while picking grapes in France in 1978. I think your books have changed the way I think. So what do you think goes on when someone reads a novel? Why is it so important that we have "stories" about us, and do we suffer for their lack? (And does the medium matter -- is the TV enough?) I think it is a sense of wonder that's important -- but why? What's going on here?

Doris May Lessing: Well, these are some fundamental questions. About TV -- TV tells us stories. But the TV observer is passive and taking into the brain already created and imposed images. Whereas when you read or listen to the radio, your imagination is creating for you. That is a very, very different process. It is my personal belief that the children that have never been read to or told stories are very much impoverished.


JLM from Peoria, IL: The roles of the brother and sister are very traditional in their gender definitions. Tell us your thinking behind this assignment of male/female attributes.

Doris May Lessing: This is a society which has gone back to the basics. It is not a sophisticated society. In a limited society, the old gender roles are likely to operate. But I have to point out that Mara is a very strong character. I think that we often exaggerate how much the roles of men and women have changed. I don't think they have changed as much as we would like. One little example: There is a young women who has perhaps worked hard, done well, and has all kinds of possibilities in front of her, and she throws them all up or out because of the possibility of a man. I have seen this happen so many times in the last ten years. This is not what I approve or disapprove of necessarily, just what I observe. I think it is not so easy to change these very old emotional responses. In THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK I made this point. I had these very conversations between the women, who are supposed to be free women, but they are actually caught in old emotional patterns. This is such a large topic, I can't really touch on everything.


Janet Gicker from Eugene, OR: There is something I think might be of interest to you. The police here are cracking down on "anarchists." They raid my house at gunpoint because my 15-year-old son is a suspect in an anti-Nike protest where minor property damage was done. They spent seven hours hauling stuff out of our house, and guess what they took from my husband's library? His copy of THE GOOD TERRORIST! No kidding! Thanks for listening.

Doris May Lessing: [laughs] That is very funny.


Bo Jacobs from Louisville, Kentucky: Hello, Ms. Lessing. This is a great honor. Given the mythological framework of your Canopus books as a context, how do you view the role of DNA in the evolution of consciousness here on earth and elsewhere in the universe?

Doris May Lessing: Well, I certainly am being asked some nice simple questions! The role of DNA and the universe is a very large one. Our view of ourselves has been transformed in the last century, and I don't think we have begun to understand what the ramifications may be. There was a little paragraph in today's paper saying human cloning will probably be allowed. My feeling of quiet horror at this is described in MARA AND DANN, because in the book I have a certain race be descendants of clones. This is such an old theme in science fiction -- deliberate cloning to create slave workers. I would not be at all surprised to see it come into reality.


Jan Hanford from California: MARA AND DANN flowed so smoothly -- it was really captivating, and I loved it. Was it a more enjoyable book to write than usual? Are some books more fun to write than others?

Doris May Lessing: Yes, this was great fun to write. I loved writing it, except for the beginning, when I plugged deep into uncomfortable childhood memories. I was sorry when I finished it. The interesting thing is, a book can be hell to write, and you labor over it, but when it is all done, it is hard to tell a book that had been hard to write and one you have done easily. I don't understand this myself. My book called THE MARRIAGES BETWEEN ZONES THREE, FOUR, AND FIVE was a pleasure to write because I know I plugged deep into a subconscious thing. It became an opera by Philip Glass. I loved writing that book, but when I look at that and see my book called THE FOUR-GATED CITY, which was sweating blood to write, or THE FIFTH CHILD, which I loathed writing, it all doesn't make sense.


Fiona Kenyon from Montreal: Dear Ms. Lessing, do you ever reread your own novels? For instance, did you reread MARTHA QUEST before you began writing your autobiography?

Doris May Lessing: No, I didn't. I do reread my books, but usually from the point of view of the misprints that have gotten into books and have to be corrected. I am able tell the difference in my mind between what I have made up and what has actually happened. I have a very good memory for certain things, and I trust it.


Marilyn Seymour from Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania: Ms. Lessing, I'm very excited that you are participating in this online chat. Technology can be marvelous, as tonight's interview proves. However, do you see the technological influence on human relationships in any way responsible for the breakdown of society you so vividly portray in many of your books?

Doris May Lessing: Well, I see that we are at the beginning of this kind of technological influence. Take the Internet, for example. I know people who are so in love with the Internet, they can't get off of it. This is surely alarming. People expect us writers to answer things we are not equipped to. In the last 15 years, we have fax machines, email, Internet -- and they have transformed communication. Our minds will certainly be changed by this, but don't forget, they have been changed before. When the printing press was invented, in the course of two or three centuries, we lost our memories. Before we kept things in our minds. Then you could write it all down. You can still meet people, old men and women who are illiterate, and they have everything in their minds. They have the kind of memories that we lost. We take all of this for granted. We are so dependent on reference books and such. No one foresaw this, but it happened. What will happen to our minds now? I wonder.


Leslie from Ohio: My English class has just begun reading THE FIFTH CHILD. Do you have any advice for first-time readers of your work?

Doris May Lessing: An interesting thing about THE FIFTH CHILD. When I wrote it, it never occurred to me that young people would like it. For instance, in Italy the Italians set up a literary prize and called in novels from all over the world. The judges got it down to a final 20 and sent them to schoolchildren and asked them which they thought should win this prize. They chose THE FIFTH CHILD. Since then, when I go around lecturing and meet teachers and librarians, they always tell me how much the children like that book. Don't ask me why. Right now I am writing a sequel to it. This is actually because of the suggestion of my German publisher, because that book did very well in Germany. It was on their bestseller list for weeks and weeks. This one is called THE FIFTH CHILD IN THE WORLD, and all I can say is that it is a very sad story. I have finished the first draft and now am working on the second. Many people have said to me that my character Ben is evil. All I see is that he is a creature out of context, because he would have been perfectly all right on a hillside or in a savage group, but you put him in a middle-class family and he is totally destructed. So now I have become extremely sorry for this poor creature. Often people don't like sequels, so I am taking a bit of a risk. And now MARA AND DANN is being liked by adolescents. Sometimes toward the middle of writing it, I thought, My goodness, kids will like this, and in experimental tests, we tried the book out on young folks and they do indeed like it. This pleases me very much. I have gotten many letters over the years from librarians and teachers, and my reply is always the same -- that the things I have written that kids like were never written deliberately for children. Three of my short stories have been particularly liked by children. One is "Flight," another "Through the Tunnel," and also "The Story of Two Dogs." I didn't write them specifically for children, though. It gives me so much pleasure that young people like MARA AND DANN.


Marilyn Seymour from Orwigsburg, Pennsylvania: I've been a devoted fan since reading THE MEMOIRS OF A SURVIVOR many years ago. I was fortunate to hear you read at Barnes & Noble at Union Square in New York a little over a year ago. Do you have plans for another U.S. tour?

Doris May Lessing: I am not coming to the U.S. for a tour. I will be 80 this year, and I can no longer dash around the world like I used to. But next time I come, it will not be in midwinter. I am told it is so cold with you now.


KB from Boston: Mrs. Lessing, I've loved your work since I was a teenager (and think Nadine Gordimer got your Nobel Prize, but that's another story!). I recently reread THE MAKING OF THE REPRESENTATIVE FOR PLANET 8 and found it to be a very spiritual story. Were you greatly influenced by your studies of Sufism while writing the Canopus books?

Doris May Lessing: That particular book -- I don't know how much it was influenced by Sufism. When you study something for 30-some years, it is hard to tell. I can say that that book has in it the furthest I have gone on these particular lines. That was also made into an opera by Philip Glass.


Nancy Zaffaro from Oregon: What, if anything, has changed in the publishing industry since you published the Jane Somers books? Love your work, Mrs. Lessing. Thank you!

Doris May Lessing: What is happening, as you might know, publishing firms used to be small and independent and predominantly run by people madly in love with literature; now it is dominated by enormous conglomerates. This is very good for the big commercial books and established writers, but it is very bad for beginning writers, for because of the nature of their work, they will need time to develop. In the long run, this will impoverish literature, which is dependent on new lifeblood from writers who are not necessarily commercial at all. I am sorry, it is a big subject, and I can't deal with it adequately in a few words.


Dee Seligman from Austin, Texas: Dear Doris Lessing, this moment is one of the more exciting ones for my life, as I finally have the chance to connect with you personally after all these years of reading your work, thinking about it, and writing about it. You've influenced me in so many aspects of my life; I do consider you a teacher. Technology has brought us together finally. Thanks for trying out this medium. So, as a teacher, let me ask you: Where should the quest be now? And how has writing your autobiographies affected you? How has it influenced your fiction?

Doris May Lessing: I am not a teacher in the sense that you mean it. Autobiography affected my fiction? I don't think it has, because they are two completely different kinds of writing and things. I don't think I can answer what you ask. Thanks, though.


Leslie from Ohio: What other authors do you feel have influenced you the most?

Doris May Lessing: When I was young, I read everything there was to read -- all the classics, I mean. That was my education, really. I don't know which influenced me more than others. Perhaps the Russians: Dostoevsky, Chekhov. That is true of my generation and the one after; so many were influenced by this constellation of genius, and there hasn't been one really since, with the exception of Proust. And in passing, Proust would not now be published today because it took time to see -- as the books came out one by one -- the shape of them, the themes, the patterns. The accountants who run the publishing firms today would say, "Too long, too elitist," et cetera, et cetera. A great masterpiece would be lost now. It is true.


Cindy from Arcadia, FL: Is MARA AND DANN how you would imagine the end of this world and the return of the ice?

Doris May Lessing: No, not at all. As far as I am concerned, it could be the past as well as the future. There have been many ice ages in the past. There were perhaps great civilizations in the past that were demolished that we will never even know about. This is just convention that I am using to tell a story.


Moderator: What women in history do you most admire, and why?

Doris May Lessing: I don't want to specify individuals, because the women I admire are those that I see when I go traveling in poor countries. You see women bringing up children and making a good job of it on the kind of money that we would use to go on holiday or have a very good meal. I think these women have always been unsung and unheard of. If you look at them, you see the most astonishing feats of heroism being accomplished by them. In Africa you see women with nothing at all, but somehow they manage to bring up their children.


Moderator: What are your predictions for the future of women?

Doris May Lessing: I have no idea. I think there is one certainty: that we will go on giving birth to the world's population. I know some extraordinary scientific advances have taken place -- test-tube babies, for example -- but I don't think this basic fact will be changed.


Moderator: What three books by or about women have been most influential in your life?

Doris May Lessing: This is very difficult. There are so many. Olive Schreiner, a South African writer who came to London before the first World War -- her novel THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM is extraordinary. She was a very original thinker, a feminist. She was asking questions that I don't think people got around to asking until the '60s. She was a socialist of that kind and time. She wrote about things such as trade unionism, the labor struggle, and birth control. She was truly remarkable. Also Nadezhda (the word for "hope" in Russian) Mandelstam: She was the wife of Osip Mandelstam, the great Russian poet, and she wrote a book called HOPE AGAINST HOPE, a pun on her name, about the persecution suffered under poets under Stalin. It is one of the greatest books of this century, and I recommend it. She wrote another called HOPE ABANDONED. These two books together are extraordinary. Also a biographer, Claire Tomalin -- she wrote a book about Jane Austen called JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE, recently out. What is admirable about this is that we have been used to seeing Austen rather as a maiden aunt observing the world from a corner, but Claire puts her into the context of a great web of family relations of that time, a detailed society. Jane Austen was very busy indeed, working with friends, family, and children, and had a hard time -- there was never any money. There is a refrain throughout this book -- cousin Fanny died in childbirth with her tenth child last summer -- and a whole new picture is painted for us of this time. Really great detail in this book -- what people were eating, how they were dressing, how they traveled. It is a completely new picture of a lady believed to have never gotten dust on her hands -- which is very far from the truth.


Patti from Shelton, WA: You say you are not a teacher.... I recall when you were in Seattle a few years back -- you nearly growled that you were not anyone's guru, but my dear, you are, you know! You have opened so many persons' eyes as to how far one can go with the written word, to say nothing of opening us up to how broad our very thinking can be! A thousand thanks for being a "nonteacher" and letting us learn from you, anyhow.

Doris May Lessing: [laughs] Well, thank you. Thank you very much!


AB from Massachusetts: Mrs. Lessing, I was wondering if there are any current authors whose work you greatly admire. Thanks.

Doris May Lessing: Well, at the moment I am reading a great deal of biographies. We have some marvelous biographers at the moment. I was quite surprised to be told that this kind of biography is specific to Britain, this kind of literary biography. Perhaps the most brilliant is Richard Holmes's new book on Samuel Coleridge, called COLERIDGE: DARKER REFLECTIONS. And a lively book by Amanda Forman about the Duchess of Devonshire. It is a woman writing from a certain viewpoint, and once again the fine details she shares bring so much to a life. It is Forman's first book, and I am sure she will write many more good ones.


Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us this evening, Doris Lessing! It has been a great privilege and a true pleasure. We wish you the best of luck with MARA AND DANN. Before you go, do you have any parting words for your online audience?

Doris May Lessing: Well, it has been truly a great pleasure to do this. I have never done anything like it. The idea of people from everywhere -- Australia, Paris, UK -- conversing, well, it is a wonderful experience. Thanks.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2001

    Adventure, strong women and insight

    This is the first book that I've read of Ms. Lessing's and after reading it I'm eager for more. It has all the elements of great literature: an engaging and original plot, suspense, strong characters (especially Mara, the kick-butt female lead), and astounding insight into human nature. By all means read this book and give it to someone who loves books or could use a jumpstart on his or her reading career.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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