At eighteen, Ben is in the world, but not of it. He is too large, too awkward, too inhumanly made. Now estranged from his family, he must find his own path in life. From London and the south of France to Brazil and the mountains of the Andes. Ben is tossed about in a tumultuous search for his people, a reason for his being. How the world receives him, and, he fares in it will horrify and captivate until the novel's dramatic finale.
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.
Date of Birth:
October 22, 1919
Place of Birth:
Persia (now Iran)
Read an Excerpt
Ben, In the World
'How old are you?'
This reply did not come at once because Ben was afraid of what he knew was going to happen now, which was that the young man behind the glass protecting him from the public set down his biro on the form he was filling in, and then, with a look on his face that Ben knew only too well, inspected his client. He was allowing himself amusement that was impatient, but it was not quite derision. He was seeing a short, stout, or at least heavily built man he was wearing a jacket too big for him who must be at least forty. And that face! It was a broad face, with strongly delineated features, a mouth stretched in a grin what did he think was so bloody funny? a broad nose with flaring nostrils, eyes that were greenish, with sandy lashes, under bristly sandy brows. He had a short neat pointed beard that didn't fit with the face. His hair was yellow and seemed like his grin to shock and annoy, long, and falling forward in a slope, and in stifflocks on either side, as if trying to caricature a fashionable cut. To cap it all, he was using a posh voice; was he taking the mickey? The clerk was going in for this minute inspection because he was discommoded by Ben to the point of feeling angry. He sounded peevish when he said, 'You can't be eighteen. Come on, what's your real age?'
Ben was silent. He was on the alert, every little bit of him, knowing there was danger. He wished he had not come to this place, which could close its walls around him. He was listening to the noises from outside, for reassurance from his normality. Some pigeons were conversing in a plane tree on the pavement, and he was with them, thinking how they sat gripping twigs with pink claws that he could feel tightening around his own finger; they were contented, with the sun on their backs. Inside here, were sounds that he could not understand until he had isolated each one. Meanwhile the young man in front of him was waiting, his hand holding the biro and fiddling it between his fingers. A telephone rang just beside him. On either side of him were several young men and women with that glass in front of them. Some used instruments that clicked and chattered, some stared at screens where words appeared and went. Each of these noisy machines Ben knew was probably hostile to him. Now he moved slightly to one side, to get rid of the reflections on the glass that were bothering him, and preventing him from properly seeing this person who was angry with him.
'Yes. I am eighteen,' he said.
He knew he was. When he had gone to find his mother, three winters ago he did not stay because his hated brother Paul had come in she had written in large words on a piece of card:
Your name is Ben Lovatt. Your mother's name is Harriet Lovatt. Your father's name is David Lovatt. You have four brothers and sisters, Luke, Helen, Jane, and Paul. They are older than you. You are fifteen years old.
On the other side of the card had been:
You were born .............. Your home address is ............
This card had afflicted Ben with such a despair of rage that he took it from his mother, and ran out of the house. He scribbled over the name Paul, first. Then, the other siblings. Then, the card falling to the floor and picked up showing the reverse side, he scribbled with his black biro over all the words there, leaving only a wild mess of lines.
That number, fifteen, kept coming up in questions that were always so he felt being put to him. 'How old are you?' Knowing it was so important, he remembered it, and when the year turned around at Christmas, which no one could miss, he added a year. Now I am sixteen. Now I am seventeen. Now, because a third winter has gone, I am eighteen.
'OK, then, when were you born?'
With every day since he had scribbled with that angry black pen all over the back of the card he had understood better what a mistake he had made. And he had destroyed the whole card, in a culminating fit of rage, because now it was useless. He knew his name. He knew 'Harriet' and 'David' and did not care about his brothers and sisters who wished he was dead.
He did not remember when he was born.
Listening, as he did, to every sound, he heard how the noises in that office were suddenly louder, because in a line of people waiting outside one of the glass panels, a woman had begun shouting at the clerk who was interviewing her, and because of this anger released into the air, all the lines began moving and shuffling, and other people were muttering, and then said aloud, like a barking, short angry words like Bastards, Shits and these were words that Ben knew very well, and he was afraid of them. He felt the cold of fear moving down from the back of his neck to his spine.
The man behind him was impatient, and said, 'I haven't got all day if you have.'
'When were you born? What date?'
'I don't know,' said Ben.
And now the clerk put an end to it, postponing the problem, with, 'Go and find your birth certificate. Go to the Records Office. That'll settle it. You don't know your last employer. You don't have an address. You don't know your date of birth.'
With these words his eyes left Ben's face, and he nodded at the man behind to come forward, displacing Ben, who went straight out of that office, feeling as if all the hairs of his body, the hairs on his head, were standing straight up, he was so trapped and afraid. Outside was a pavement, with people, a little street, full of cars, and under the plane tree where the pigeons were moving about, cooing and complacent, a bench. He sat on it at the other end from a young woman who gave him a glance, but then another, frowned, and went off, looking back at him with that look on her face which Ben knew and expected. She was not afraid of him, but thought that she might be soon. Her body was all haste and apprehension, like one escaping. She went into a shop, glancing back...
What are the prerequisites for survival in the modern world? What would happen if a fully-grown man of limited mental faculties, but strong of body and with a good spirit, were to engage with the world completely unassisted? How would a man cope with life in the western world if he couldn't make rational decisions, and also could not trust anybody? In Ben, In the World, the sequel to The Fifth Child, we are given the story of what happens when Ben Lovatt, the main character of both novels, is released into the world to fend for himself. The story crosses national borders, continents, and social classes, and the result is profound -- for while the reader is presented with the complexities of coping with the modern world as a person of insufficient understanding, Ben Lovatt also acts as a touchstone of human nature globally. Through him and the people he encounters, we discover which qualities inspire sympathy, and a whole spectrum of emotions, ranging from ambition and pride to indignation and fear. The all-too-common willingness to exploit the disadvantaged and the limitations on the human capacity for sustaining concern for others through difficult situations is the unavoidable theme of this novel. And yet there are also those with beautiful, humane and kind qualities, people he bumps into by accident. They manage to peer through Ben's peculiar appearance and see a person with feelings that require the same caution and consideration as any person with more normal faculties. The differences could hardly be more explicit, and so the book consistently operates on a highly philosophical plane. Rich with twists of plot and literaryintrigue, Ben, In the World is an exceptional work of fiction. However, the novel manages to ask very fundamental questions about life and society: What is human nature? How are our behaviors and motivations driven by evolution? A driving force in the novel is the very lack of clarity surrounding Ben's apparent mental deficiencies. Much comes from a close third person perspective -- we are aware of his feelings as they come and go, but their origins remain as mysterious as our own. The result is a richly textured and engaging tale of the scarcely explored and often unintelligible qualities of the human spirit. Discussion Questions
At the very beginning of the text is a note from the author explaining the origin of "the cages." As a result, the reader is aware of something grotesque that is going to be encountered throughout the reading of the book, and the cages do not emerge in the plot until near the end. Do you think it was the author's intention to influence the reader in this manner, or was the note a matter of cultural sensitivity? Did this influence your reading, and if so, how?
The narrator has a tendency to rush ahead to the end of various plot lines. We learn early on that Johnston and Rita will both survive well and be successful, and also that the girl in Alex's film will become a star. When Teresa and Alfredo meet, their happy future marriage is disclosed almost immediately. How does this affect your sense of the plot, and of your feelings toward the protagonist, whose future remains unknown?
If, as we are led to believe, the nature of Ben's deficiency is that he is indeed a throwback of sorts, a fully emotional human being but of the kind that walked the earth perhaps a hundred thousand years ago -- what does this indicate about how humans have changed?
Ben is incapable of coping with life, and yet often understands situations more than people give him credit for. It is as though his emotions overtake him from time to time in ways that they don't other people -- particularly fear and anger. How would you describe the precise nature of Ben's mental deficiency? Does he have more than one?
So many of the people Ben encounters are opportunists who seek to use him to their own benefit -- Johnston with the drug smuggling, Alex with his film, and, worst of all, the American scientist. Is this a jaded narrative, or a realistic one? How does this story reflect on human nature?
Of the people who are the most concerned for Ben's welfare -- Ellen and Rita in London, and Teresa in Buenos Aires -- each is female and has had a difficult life. What is the narrative position on the motivations of men versus women? Also, what does this say of how ethics relate to social class?
Teresa's closing statement at the end of the book carries a strong judgment, one that has all the more gravity because it ends the story. Why precisely are "we" glad not to have to think about Ben? Why is thinking about the likes of Ben a burden to us? About the Author: Doris Lessing was born to British parents in Persia in 1919 and moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia when she was five years old. She went to England in 1949 and has lived there ever since. She is the author of more than 30 books -- novels, short stories, reportage, poems, and plays -- and is considered among the most important writers of the postwar era.
Ben, in the World 3.3 out of 5based on
More than 1 year ago
After teading the fifth child, i was very disappointed with this book. It could stand on its own, but in my opinion, the story felt like the author was on a desperate mission to write a follow up story about ben.
More than 1 year ago
More than 1 year ago
Ben is like a forgotten child. Lost, Lonely, and full of rage. The emotions evoked by Ben are quite powerful. In this novel we see the world from Ben's point of view, and come to understand the unbearable loneliness born of difference. Doris Lessing has created a unique story line mixed with many emotions. It was stunning and a powerful book.
More than 1 year ago
A real page-turner. It is an exciting, emotional and powerful book, filled with the truth of human nature and its effect on those who do not 'fit in.' Ben does not fit in and his story is both fascinating and moving. A completely different book than 'The First Child,' this new book stands well on its own and is one of Doris Lessing's very best.
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