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In this collection of the very best of Doris Lessing's essays, we are treated to the wisdom and keen insight of a writer who has learned, over the course of a brilliant career spanning more than half a century, to read the world differently. From imagining the secret sex life of Tolstoy to the secrets of Sufism, from reviews of classic books to commentaries on world politics, these essays cover an impressive range of subjects, cultures, periods, and themes, yet they are remarkably consistent in one key regard: ...

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In this collection of the very best of Doris Lessing's essays, we are treated to the wisdom and keen insight of a writer who has learned, over the course of a brilliant career spanning more than half a century, to read the world differently. From imagining the secret sex life of Tolstoy to the secrets of Sufism, from reviews of classic books to commentaries on world politics, these essays cover an impressive range of subjects, cultures, periods, and themes, yet they are remarkably consistent in one key regard: Lessing's clear-eyed vision and clearly expressed prose.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Arguably the grande dame of English letters-the list of her published works comes to 60-plus-Lessing has always been outspoken about literature, politics and social issues. The 65 essays and book reviews collected here range over those topics and others, all declaimed in Lessing's brisk, wry voice and articulated with pragmatic intelligence. Her literary reviews always amplify the book at hand; the pieces on Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy and Jane Austen resonate with fresh insight. Her enthusiastic reconsiderations of authors who are little read today, including Olive Schreiner, George Meredith, A.E. Coppard and Walter de la Mare, may pique readers' curiosity. Another obscure book, about an American prostitute, comes to light in the fascinating "The Maimie Papers." Six essays discuss the writer Idries Shah and his books about the mysteries and consolations of Sufism, which, Lessing claims, were "like a depth charge" and fulfilled all her philosophical and spiritual needs. Not every reader will be convinced. There's a tirade against Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (Rhodesia was Lessing's homeland) and a coruscating indictment of American complacency before 9/11. The main theme, whether addressed overtly or underlying her literary criticism, is the indispensable place of books in the life of an educated person and an enlightened culture. Hers is a clarion call. (Dec.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
From the prolific Lessing (The Sweetest Dream) comes this wide-ranging assortment of literary criticism and short essays that reads like the interior of a knowledgeable, insightful, and lively mind. Most of the essays date from the last decade, though one dates back to the 1960s and several others to the 1970s. Lessing comments cleverly on the classic novelists (e.g., Leo Tolstoy), but some of the most interesting pieces are centered on less well known or virtually forgotten writers. There are quite a few essays on the Sufi author Idries Shah (1924-96); other topics Lessing covers range from politics to cats. The only problem with this book is its format. Explanatory notes and original publication dates would have nicely fit at the beginning of each essay; instead, the reader is required to flip continuously to acknowledgments located in the final pages. In addition, an introduction to the collection would have provided a helpful overview. These issues, however, do not detract from the superb quality of the writing and Lessing's ability to provoke and entertain. Recommended for all public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/05.]-Stacy Shotsberger Russo, California State Univ. Lib., Fullerton Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Elaine Showalter
“In these pieces, we hear the tough, uncompromising... courageous voice that has made Lessing an icon for freedom of thought.”
Peter Parker
“Remarkably cohesive . . . one comes away with a real sense of who Lessing is. . . . [A] humane and truly internationalist book.”
Miami Herald
“Lessing has a first-rate critical mind. Her social and political observations are acute.”
New York Times Book Review
“There’s much to enjoy in this collection of essays.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Refreshing and invigorating... An invaluable collection..”
The Times (London)
“Full of that sympathy for the human condition that informs her fiction... Each of these pieces is worth reading.”
Seattle Times
“Eloquent, worthy essays.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060831400
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/29/2005
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (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.


"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

Time Bites

Views and Reviews
By Doris Lessing

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Doris Lessing
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060831405

Chapter One

Jane Austen

If there is one generally popular novel in the English language, it is Pride and Prejudice and this was true before a recent successful television version. It has always been taken seriously by the eminent in society and in literature: Jane Austen was celebrated from her first book, Sense and Sensibility. It is a very English novel, and foreigners have been known to question our admiration. Class and money! -- and where are the great themes of Life and Death? So come the criticisms, still, and the reply often is that class and money defined the lives of the novel's characters, not to mention the life of the woman who wrote it. So let us deal with these issues first, leaving aside for the moment the real themes of the book.

Jane Austen was a member of a network of middle-class families that merged upwards into the aristocracy, but her own family was poor. Her father, with six children -- two girls and four boys -- to feed and clothe and find careers for, had to take in pupils, so the home was for part of the year a school, noisy and full of rambunctious boys. Jane and her sister Cassandra felt themselves to be, and were often treated as, poor relations, dependent on presents, little trips and handouts from better-off and generous relatives. Not until -- late -- Jane earned some money writing, did she enjoy any kind of independence. Her situation was a common one then for poor unmarried women anywhere in Europe.

She has often been portrayed as a conventional spinster, partly because of Mary Mitford's unfriendly description of her as 'a poker' -- upright and judging. She was malicious -- this time the critic is Virginia Woolf quoting not very attractive bon mots at others' expense. She wrote her immortal novels in corners, always ready to set them aside to take part in tea and gossip. What do we have here? A woman of the kind I remember from when I was a girl, the unmarried maiden aunt, ready to be useful to others, without any life of her own, a pitiable figure. Austen was supposed, so we have often read, to be a sheltered woman, her experience limited to village life and a narrow middle-class circle.

Here is a quote from an article by a once influential critic, Demetrius Capetanakis, in the very influential periodical New Writing and Daylight for winter 1943-4 -- that is, in the middle of the war. 'Round every page of Jane Austen's novels one feels the hedge of an eighteenth-century English home. It is the hedge of ''sense'', of logic, or rather the logic of a person leading a secure life in the midst of a secure society. Jane Austen was protected by a hedge of unquestionable values . . .' Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, her situation among the genteel poor exposed her: there can be few worse positions in society, even if often useful for the creation of literature. She had a close woman friend in the fashionable world, a cousin, probably Warren Hastings' illegitimate child, married to a French count who lost his head to the guillotine. The whole course of the French Revolution and its aftermath must have seemed as close to her as news from her own family. Her four brothers were often off fighting in the Navy against Napoleon, in danger, and afflicting their family with anxiety. Above all, Jane was enmeshed in the lives of female relatives and friends, who were always pregnant, nursing, giving birth to innumerable children who died then so easily and often. And, more potent as an influence than anything, Jane was sent as a tiny child to boarding school, and there was as miserable and neglected as Jane Eyre was at her school.

The triumph of Jane Austen's art was that the little piece ofivory she claimed as her artistic territory was carved out of such an abundance of experience and material. She excluded and refined. That means for people now who know even a little about that time, her stages seem confined brightly lit places where all around loom and mass shadows, dangers, tragedy. Nowhere in an Austen novel does an aristocrat lose his head, a woman die from milk fever or puerperal fever, or give birth to a mentally sick child, like her cousin Eliza. Pain and grief are cured by love, kindness and presumably kisses, though I cannot imagine more than a chaste kiss in an Austen novel: more and the delicate fabric, the tone, would be destroyed.

Jane Austen loved well and lost, young. He was Irish and he loved her too, and now it seems this marriage would have been made in heaven, but he was poor, had a mother and sisters to support, and so he must marry for money. This abnegation was understood by both sides. But she did love him, and he her, and the pain of it is, so it is generally thought, in Persuasion.

Later, when her single state was at its most circumscribing and difficult, she was asked in marriage by a neighbouring estate owner, who was rich, with a big house. The temptation was such that she accepted him, and the prospect of running an estate, being wife to a man of considerable standing, having children, leaving behind for ever her status as poor relation. But next day she changed her mind and refused him. This seems to me as sharp a glimpse into her mind as any we have. It is suggested that the memory of her love for Tom Lefroy made it impossible for her to marry anyone else. But it is useful to remember here that Cassandra reported Jane's moments of exultation at being free and unmarried. Free from what? Surely, childbearing. Again and again one reads how some cousin, or friend, has died in childbed with her eighth or . . .


Excerpted from Time Bites by Doris Lessing Copyright © 2005 by Doris Lessing. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Jane Austen 1
2 D. H. Lawrence's 'The fox' 13
3 Carlyle's house : newly discovered pieces by Virginia Woolf 21
4 On Tolstoy 27
5 The man who loved children 42
6 Kalila and Dimna - the fables of Bidpai 59
7 Speech at Vigo on getting the Prince of Asturias prize 2002 68
8 Censorship 72
9 The forgotten soldier, Guy Sajer 79
10 Preface to Ecclesiastes, King James version 85
11 Writing autobiography 90
12 The amazing Victorian : a life of George Meredith 104
13 Bulgakov's The fatal eggs 107
14 'Now you see her, now you don't' 113
15 Stendhal's Memoirs of an egotist 121
16 Lost civilisations of the Stone Age 130
17 Henry Handel Richardson 134
18 A reissue of The golden notebook 138
19 Anna Kavan 142
20 Philip Glass 145
21 Trail of feathers 149
22 William Philips, who died in 2002 153
23 Books 157
24 Niccolo Tucci's Before my time 159
25 The wrong way home 164
26 Biography 172
27 About cats 176
28 The Maimie papers 179
29 Olive Schreiner 195
30 When I was young ... 201
31 Preface for the Writers' and artists' yearbook 2003 202
32 Simone de Beauvoir 206
33 My room 210
34 A book that changed me 212
35 The autobiography of an unknown Indian, Nirad C. Chaudhuri 214
36 Old 215
37 Professor Martens' departure 217
38 How things were 220
39 A Nazi childhood 226
40 Knowing how to know : a practical philosophy in the Sufi tradition 228
41 The tragedy of Zimbabwe 231
42 East meets West : The elephant in the dark 247
43 'What novel or novels prompted your own political awakening?' 251
44 The most significant book to come out of Africa 253
45 The Sufis 254
46 The ice palace : frozen secrets stranded in a waterfall 269
47 Problems, myths and stories 273
48 After 9.11 293
49 The past is myself, Christabel Bielenberg 295
50 The story of Hai 297
51 Sufi philosophy and poetry 302
52 The way 308
53 A week in Heidelberg 315
54 Dancing with Cuba, Alma Guillermoprieto 321
55 For a book trust pamphlet 326
56 The three royal monkeys, Walter de la Mare 329
57 Catlore, Desmond Morris 331
58 The Englishman's handbook 333
59 A. E. Coppard 336
60 A festschrift, Idries Shah 342
61 The nine emotional lives of cats 348
62 Mukiwa : a white boy in Africa 351
63 Clarissa 355
64 Summing up : when Idries Shah died 357
65 Opera 369
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