London. The '60s. Frances Lennox, who can support herself precariously in the theater, which she loves, or more securely by journalism, which is mere work to her, is cooking a wonderful dinner for an ill-defined crowd of young people: her two teenage sons, their friends who are estranged from their parents and who have been camping out at the Lennoxesin some instances for monthsand assorted dropouts, waifs and hangers-on. With offhand skill and the merest glint of effort, Doris Lessing sorts out and vividly sums up these characters. Sulky, red-cheeked Rose Trimble, for example, "does not know she is unlikable," and she hates the Lennoxes, despite their kindness, because everything seems so easy for themboth what they have and what they know. Thus Lessing catches the spite or yearning or amorous glance in each exchange around the kitchen table in the opening scene of her latest novel. Not everyone present is kind, or happy, or well-disposed to the rest, yet there is a collective feeling of coziness and fellowship.
Into this setting Lessing drops Frances' estranged husband, a major figure in radical politics whom the family mockingly calls Comrade Johnny. His fervent, unsmiling commitment to the revolution is in inverse proportion to his concern for his family's well-being. He has shown up now, Frances and her sons realize, because "the kitchen would be full of young people, so he could not be greeted by rage, tears, reproaches" for his confession that the money he had recently promised them, like all such money, will never be paid. As this realization sinks in, he helps himself unbidden to food, dazzles the young people with his political authority and makes thereader's blood boil with his insolent selfishness.
No writer, with the possible exception of D.H. Lawrence, is as good as Lessing at fostering rage and loathing where it is deserved. Like a Jane Austen of the barricades, she has an exquisite touch, exploring the mechanisms by which relationships, particularly ones involving political opinions, unfold.
Here Johnny, with magnificent insouciance, confides that he has a favor to ask. His crazy second wife's child, fourteen-year-old Tilly, has been near-suicidal. Since Frances does so well with young people, could Tilly, who has been waiting, half-frozen out in the car all this time, join the household? It is an utterly unreasonable request, but when Frances sees the child, she takes her in: "She was a little bird blown by a storm, and Frances was across the room to her, and had her arms round her.... Meanwhile Johnny, just behind the girl, was saying, 'I think bed is indicated,' and then, generally around the room, ‘I'll be off.' But did not go."
This opening is as nourishing and compact as a seed: Everything is present from which an entire novel can grow. We see each young person develop over decades, nevertheless retaining the essential personality of childhood. We move forward into the present and backward to the 1930s, exploring the life of Johnny's straitlaced mother, Julia, who proves to have surprising sympathy and backbone. And while the sphere of action expands outward, the heart of the novel remains Frances' kitchen table.
In her astonishing career, which spans more than fifty years, Lessing has fearlessly produced works of both great authority and great eccentricity. Her fiction has always been rife with political turmoil, the hostilities arising from intimacy and dependence and the threat of violence. But with this novel, the author seems to relax, as if not only her characters but also she can feel at home in the warm kitchen. Her gifts are intact. She can set a scene, delineate a character and move forward or backward in time to establish or dispose of that character with a superfluity of energy that's positively Dickensian.
The story pours out in a torrent, encapsulating the whole turbulent era, yet Lessing never sacrifices the particularity of individual experience. When Julia turns to her aged gentleman friend, she thinks the two of them are as coolly insubstantial as the "shadows a bare branch lays on the earth, a thin and empty tracery, no warmth of flesh anywhere." From this close, personal focus, we pull back to the kind of observation Frances makes thinking of Johnny, a question that could be posed to the entire decade: "How could people unable to organise their own lives, who lived in permanent disarray, build anything worthwhile?" And occasionally Lessing pulls us back even further to make the most general assessment of human nature, noting that "perhaps one's fate is just one's temperament, invisibly attracting people and events. There are people who use ... a certain passivity towards life, watching to see what will arrive on their plate, or drop in their lap, or stare them in the face ... allowing the thing to develop, show itself."
Both the author's companionable, heartfelt tone and the sweep of lives impinging on one another are irresistibly alluring. The book summons us to continue reading; we follow it faithfully and, at the end, discover that it does not conclude neatly, although Lessing certainly has the skill to make a neat bow of the separate strands of narrative if she chooses. With a new generation joining the old around the kitchen table, it simply breaks off, its vitality still at full flood, like a broad river suddenly disappearing underground. Only when it is past do we realize that this has been one of Lessing's most generous works.
HIn lieu of writing volume three of her autobiography ("because of possible hurt to vulnerable people"), the grand dame of English letters delves into the 1960s and beyond, where she left off in her second volume of memoirs, Walking in the Shade. The result is a shimmering, solidly wrought, deeply felt portrait of a divorced "earth" mother and her passel of teenage live-ins. Frances Lennox and her two adolescent sons, Andrew and Colin, and their motley friends have taken over the bottom floors of a rambling house in Hampstead, London. The house is owned by Frances's well-heeled German-born ex-mother-in-law, Julia, who tolerates Frances's slovenly presence out of guilt for past neglect and a shared aversion for Julia's son, Johnny Lennox, deadbeat dad and flamboyant, unregenerate Communist. Frances's first love is the theater, but she must support "the kids," and so she works as a journalist for a left-wing newspaper. Over the roiling years that begin with news of President Kennedy's assassination, a mutable assortment of young habituEs gather around Frances's kitchen table, and Comrade Johnny makes cameo appearances, ever espousing Marxist propaganda to the rapt young dropouts. Johnny is a brilliantly galling character, who pushes both Julia and Frances to the brink of despair (and true affection for each other). Lessing clearly relishes the recalcitrant '60s, yet she follows her characters through the women's movement of the '70s and a lengthy final digression in '90s Africa. Lessing's sage, level gaze is everywhere brought to bear, though she occasionally falls into clucking, I-told-you-so hindsight, especially on the subject of the failed Communist dream. While the last section lacks the intimate presence of long-suffering Frances, the novel is weightily molded by Lessing's rich life experience and comes to a momentous conclusion. (Feb. 10) Forecast: A must for Lessing fans, this book carries echoes of much of her previous work, both novels and memoirs. New readers may well be attracted by her brisk, discerning view of the '60s and '70s. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Lessing leaves sf behind. It is the early Sixties, and Frances Lennox happily serves big meals to her teenaged sons, their friends, and whoever else happens to wander in off the street. But her "sweetest dream" is about to go sour. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
The dream of a perfect society is the ironic center of Lessing's absorbing new novel: her 24th, published in her 82nd year.
“Irresistibly alluring … [THE SWEETEST DREAM is] one of Lessing’s most generous works.”
London Times Literary Supplement
“Lessing’s most engrossing novel in many years.”
The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
“[Lessing’s] acute political and artistic awareness makes her vision of our time rich and almost always freshly perceptive.”
Financial Times [London]
“[THE SWEETEST DREAM] is a beautifully made book.”
“A great story with a Dickensian cast of memorable characters”
Read an Excerpt
An early evening in autumn, and the street below was a scene of small yellow lights that suggested intimacy, and people already bundled up for winter. Behind her the room was filling with a chilly dark, but nothing could dismay her: she was floating, as high as a summer cloud, as happy as a child who had just learned to walk. The reason for this uncharacteristic lightness of heart was a telegram from her former husband, Johnny Lennox Comrade Johnny three days ago. SIGNED CONTRACT FOR FIDEL FILM ALL ARREARS AND CURRENT PAYMENT TO YOU SUNDAY. Today was Sunday. The 'all arrears' had been due, she knew, to something like the fever of elation she was feeling now: there was no question of his paying 'all' which by now must amount to so much money she no longer bothered to keep an account. But he surely must be expecting a really big sum to sound so confident. Here a little breeze apprehension? did reach her. Confidence was his no, she must not say stock-in-trade, even if she had often in her life felt that, but could she remember him ever being outfaced by circumstances, even discomfited?
On a desk behind her two letters lay side by side, like a lesson in life's improbable but so frequent dramatic juxtapositions. One offered her a part in a play. Frances Lennox was a minor, steady, reliable actress, and had never been asked for anything more. This part was in a brilliant new play, a two-hander, and the male part would be taken by Tony Wilde who until now had seemed so far above her she would never have had the ambition to think of her name and his side byside on a poster. And he had asked for her to be offered the part. Two years ago they had been in the same play, she as usual in a serviceable smaller role. At the end of a short run the play had not been a success she had heard on the closing night as they tripped back and forth taking curtain calls, 'Well done, that was very good.' Smiles from Olympus, she had thought that, while knowing he had shown signs of being interested in her. But now she had been watching herself burst into all kinds of feverish dreams, not exactly taking herself by surprise, since she knew only too well how battened down she was, how well under control was her erotic self, but she could not prevent herself imagining her talent for fun (she supposed she still had it?) even for reckless enjoyment, being given room, while at the same time showing what she could do on the stage, if given a chance. But she would not be earning much money, in a small theatre, with a play that was a gamble. Without that telegram from Johnny she could not have afforded to say yes.
The other letter offered her a niche as Agony Aunt (name still to be chosen) on The Defender, well paid, and safe. This would be a continuation of the other strand of her professional life as a freelance journalist, which is where she earned money.
She had been writing on all kinds of subjects for years. At first she had tried her wings in local papers and broadsheets, any place that would pay her a little money. Then she found she was doing research for serious articles, and they were in the national newspapers. She had a name for solid balanced articles that often shone an unexpected and original light on a current scene.
She would do it well. What else had her experience fitted her for, if not to cast a cool eye on the problems of others? But saying yes to that work would have no pleasure in it, no feeling she would be trying new wings. Rather, she would have to steady her shoulders with the inner stiffening of resolve that is like a suppressed yawn.
How weary she was of all the problems, the bruised souls, the waifsand strays, how delightful it would be to say, 'Right, you can look after yourselves for a bit, I am going to be in the theatre every evening and most of the day too.' (Here was another little cold nudge: have you taken leave of your senses? Yes, and she was loving every minute.)
The top of a tree still in its summer leaf, but a bit ragged now, was glistening: light from two storeys up, from the old woman's rooms, had snatched it from dark into lively movement, almost green: colour was implied. Julia was in, then. Readmitting her mother-in-law her ex-mother-in-law to her mind brought a familiar apprehension, because of the weight of disapproval sifting down through the house to reach her, but there was something else she had only recently become aware of Julia had had to go to hospital, could have died, and Frances had to acknowledge at last how much she relied on her. Suppose there was no Julia, what would she do, what would they all do?
Meanwhile, everyone referred to her as the old woman, she too until recently. Not Andrew, though. And she had noticed that Colin had begun to call her Julia. The three rooms above hers, over where she stood now, below Julia's, were inhabited by Andrew the elder son, and Colin the younger, her and Johnny Lennox's sons.
She had three rooms, bedroom and study and another, always needed for someone staying the night, and she had heard Rose Trimble say, 'What does she need three rooms for, she's just selfish.'
No one said, Why does Julia need four rooms? The house was hers. This rackety over-full house, people coming and going, sleeping on floors, bringing friends whose names she often did not know, had at its top an alien zone, which was all order, where the...The Sweetest Dream. Copyright © by Doris Lessing. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.