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Lessons in Survival.

At 79, Doris Lessing is still writing provocative and timely novels in vividly rendered settings.

Judith E. Chettle is a South African--born writer and editor who now lives in the United States. She reviews frequently for this publication, as well as the Washington Times, Kirkus Reviews, and the Washington Post.

In many ways the twentieth century has been exceptionally good to women writers. They dominate the best-seller lists; teach their craft at countless colleges; and unlike their Victorian predecessors no longer need write under men's names to appease public prejudice. But for all their achievement, as the century ends, the quality of what they write is less heartening. It sometimes seems that their intellectual eminence has shrunk as their numbers have expanded; they have become prolix but not profound. Miniaturists, they work on smaller and smaller canvases with equally downsized themes.

The women they write about, and they write almost exclusively about women, live narrowly focused lives despite the extraordinary opportunities available to them. Most are weak vessels, often vulnerable as any endangered species trying to survive in a threatened habitat. Emotionally fragile, intellectually confused, and seemingly incapable of making sensible choices, they resemble more the band of lost boys that lived with Peter Pan.

And like J.M. Barrie's lost boys, these women, usually young, don't want to grow up. They, too, would like to live in a "never-never land" where they would not have to be responsible for others, or compete for jobs and lovers. Relentlessly self-absorbed, they have little interest in or pity for others and typically are as limited in what they want for themselves. Like children still fixated on getting a Barbie doll or roller blades for an upcoming birthday, they don't think large thoughts or dream big. To judge at least from their novels, they don't want to find a cure for cancer, become president, or found a company. They just want to write poetry, raise vegetables, and live with a sensitive someone who shares their feelings.

And reading about these women, it seems as if that long journey to empowerment and autonomy--the virtual and real room of one's own--suggested by such writers as Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, has ended today in a whine--or a twelve-step recovery plan. There is, however, a splendid exception to this dreary parade--the British writer Doris Lessing, who at seventy-nine is still writing provocative and timely novels in vividly rendered settings. Born in 1919 in what was then Persia, she was raised in Southern Rhodesia before moving as a young woman to England. Lessing is one of those rare writers who still illuminate the dark corners of the heart as well as the times in which her characters live. Acutely attuned to the zeitgeist, but not in any trendy, superficial way--she is not the Faith Popcorn of contemporary fiction--she rather probes and dissects it looking for portents and patterns. Her most recent novel, Mara and Dann, is a quintessential example of what distinguishes her from so many of her contemporaries, women as well as men. In it she again addresses some of the ideas and concerns that have preoccupied her in other novels: the value of storytelling, the fragility of civilization, and characters who are strong and ingenious enough to survive disruption and sea changes in their lives.

A vision of the future

Survival for Lessing is always as much a question of intelligence as stamina. Her survivors, like Mara in this novel, Martha Quest of the "Children of Violence" series, or the elderly woman narrator of the Memoirs of a Survivor, another story about a future time of disorder, coolly keep their wits about them as they confront danger and disaster. The personal also has its place: Mara falls in love twice in the novel but is also loving and attentively protective, especially of her younger brother, Dann. Yet she is also aware of a wider world more significant and larger than herself.

Like all Lessing books, Mara and Dann is replete with those details of what people eat, drink, or wear that always give her works a recognizable texture as well as contextual authenticity. And again she is writing about the future, as she has done in such novels as the Canopus in Argos: Archives Series and The Four-Gated City, but now the setting is Earth and a continent called Ifrik. It is a realistic future, however, with recognizable features and peoples, not some disembodied sci-fi fantasy.

Ifrik is suffering from a pervasive drought. As Lessing told a questioner when she recently gave an on-line interview sponsored by,

"I don't see them [Mara and Dann] as unrealistic. ... 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 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."

This realism and familiarity with much of what Lessing describes enhances the story she is telling. Ifrik is a credible place, as is the situation she details. The story itself is another version of the classic adventure tale: two young people set off on a dangerous quest that will test their character and courage but in the end bring them to their desired destination. And, like the most accomplished of the genre, it suggests links to its predecessors--the old Nordic myths, the Odyssey, and Arthurian legend.

As the story begins, Europe has long been covered by an ice sheet that extends from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. Western civilization as we know it is long dead, and life for most inhabitants of Ifrik, a recognizable Africa, is Hobbes' vision writ large--nasty, brutish, and short. Literacy and books have almost disappeared, people live as primitively as they did in the first Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, and most have forgotten that something better once existed. The past--in which there were machines, culture, and learning--has all the mythic resonance for them that tales of the Greek gods have for us. Here and there, like the ruined monuments of our ancient past, are scattered remnants of machines that suggest the technically accomplished society that once existed. Skimmers that resemble airplanes glide from hilltop to hilltop, railway cars must be pushed by teams of young men over the remaining and disintegrating rails, and the last solar panel fuels a barge plying the central waterways.

Government has broken down, and power is wielded by force and terror. War is endemic, and as the rainfall becomes scantier and then eventually stops in places to the south, fearful groups seeking new homes and security range destructively across the land. Some catastrophic event, either natural or man- made, is responsible, though Lessing is intentionally vague. As once-fruitful lands turn into desert, food is in short supply and often consists of dried roots or small insects. People will kill for a drink of water.

The changes in the climate have not only affected human lives but also, in a more sinister way, insects and animals. Large, crocodile-like creatures called water dragons and "stingers" stalk and kill anyone sailing on, or even walking near, rivers or lakes; spiders, beetles, and scorpions have mutated into deadly creatures as large as men. It is in many ways a future descent into hell, but Lessing is not preaching here; rather, she is doing what she has always done: suggesting a possible and logical outcome to some ominous present trends. We are, she has often suggested, especially in such novels as The Four-Gated City or Memoirs of a Survivor, surrounded by portents of disaster, and the prudent person of common sense would be foolish to ignore them. Nothing should be taken for granted. Not a love affair, not life.

Lessing is the relative, the good friend we all need, the one who quietly takes us aside and tactfully offers us some good advice. The one who suggests that it may be good to save more this year because the economy will be rocky, stock the pantry with extra canned goods and candles when there's a bad storm brewing, or check out what your spouse is doing on those numerous business trips. Keep your eyes open, or your child's new friend might be trouble. Above all, don't be complacent. She is not a polemicist, though, or an angry female Savonarola anathematizing in the public square. Her concerns are not fiery admonitions to repent before it is too late or helpless hand-wringings that nothing can be done. Rather, she warns quietly, even offhandedly, that attention should be paid. You should be ready, but you must make up your own mind.

Relics of the past

So, the plight of Ifrik, while an implicit likely scenario for the future, is primarily the setting for the story, not the story itself. Mara and Dann are members of the aristocratic and learned Mahondi people. As much as Mara, the novel's protagonist, can recall, their early childhood was privileged. She was surrounded by comforts and love, taught to read and count, but the most important lesson taught by her noble parents was how to play the "What Did You See?" game. The game subtly taught her not only to recollect accurately but to effectively deduce and think. These skills would be invaluable when the troubles began and she and Dann, still young children, were taken away by strange men to the remote and impoverished village of the Rock People.

There they live with Daima, an old woman and fellow Mahondi, who raises them until they are adolescents. Daima is especially protective of them, for the villagers, an uncouth and primitive people, are hostile and suspicious of strangers. Life is hard, and Mara learns to draw water from the communal water holes, milk a goatlike animal, and prepare the dry roots and herbs that are their main foods. The only relics of the past in this arid, rocky outpost are some metal containers and garments the villagers made out of an ugly but indestructible fabric. Daima also makes sure that Mara still plays the "What Did You See?" game, telling her that "once, long ago, there was a civilization--a kind of way of living--that invented all kinds of new things. They had science ... and they kept making new machines and metals ... machines so clever they could do everything ... no one knows why all that came to an end."

That things will, or can, end is another theme of Lessing's: Nothing is permanent but sometimes there are ways of surviving change, sometimes not. The answer is to anticipate and adjust. Kate, the middle-aged protagonist of The Summer Before the Dark, learns how, over a summer suddenly freed from family responsibilities, to accept the inevitability of aging and death by choosing independence.

Changes that we believe important may later be overtaken by even greater alterations in our lives. Writing in a foreword to a later edition of The Golden Notebook, Lessing observes,

"I don't think Women's Liberation will change much though--not because there is anything wrong with their aims but because it is already clear that the whole world is being shaken into new patterns by the cataclysms we are living through: probably by the time we are through, if we do get through at all, the aims of Women's Liberation will look very small and quaint."

Now she was writing this in 1971, when fears were rife about nuclear war, exploding populations, and diminished food supplies, but typically she has a point: War and disaster would render the question of how to break through the glass ceiling moot.

She claims in this same preface that the Notebook was never intended to be a feminist handbook. Her intention, though she supports Women's liberation, was rather "to shape a book which would make its own comment a wordless statement; to talk through the way it was shaped" as it described the intellectual and moral climate of its times.

When Daima dies, Mara is free to travel north. Dann, who fears recapture, is particularly insistent that they make this dangerous journey. And Mara agrees, both to please him and because she has observed that the droughts and deserts are spreading north. But this journey has, Mara soon learns, other implications. Already sensing that she and Dann are being preserved for some special, larger purpose, she finds further proof and eventual confirmation of their unsuspected destiny as they travel. They seem to be expected en route and often receive special treatment. Protective strangers ensure their safety when they are in danger.

The novel is also a picaresque tale rich in exciting incidents and encounters with the strange and fearful that, though numerous, seldom slow the narrative. The brother and sister find temporary homes in Chelops, a city to the north. There they are welcomed by Mahondi kin, who are the slaves of the Hadrons, a tribe whose lives are spent in drug-induced lethargy. Dann, always weaker and more susceptible than Mara, falls in with the gang that sells and produces the drugs, while Mara is given a home with a leading Mahondi family. Though slaves, the Mahondi essentially run the city; they work its fields, raise its crops, and guard its boundaries.

In the unmarried women's quarters where Mara first lives, tales are told of a "Madam Bova," who hated her husband, and another woman, "Ankrena," who also hated her husband and threw herself under a machine "running on parallel rails." The older women are guardians of the oral tradition and keep alive the knowledge that was once in books. Descendants of the young people who were trained to be Memories, they preserve, Mara learns, the fragments of stories that perished when the sands buried ancient cities and their libraries.

As in all good adventures, there are brief time-outs for happiness: while in Chelops, Mara falls in love and moves in with Meryx. But Dann is in danger of becoming a drug addict, and Mara has also noticed that the rains each season are less. She warns the Mahondi, a gentle and kindly people, that Chelops is in danger of being overtaken by the rapidly encroaching desert, but they are too comfortable to heed her warnings. No one, not even Meryx, who despite his love for her fears abandoning his familiar world and embarking on a dangerous journey into the unknown, can be persuaded to join her and Dann as they resume their journey north.

Small but telling details

Complementing their wanderings over Ifrik, Lessing, like the best kind of travel writer, supplies those vivid details and acute observations that are as necessary to a story as furniture is to a comfortable room. For--and this makes her a fine reporter as well as novelist--Lessing is not only interested in grand, abstract ideas but in the small, ordinary aspects of life: the food people eat, the clothes they wear, the pets they cherish. The things, in short, that shape our days as much as love and marriage, or war and politics. She does not sentimentalize or exaggerate their importance, but they are vital to the integrity of the story she is telling.

In Lessing's acclaimed first novel, The Grass Is Singing, for example, the tin-roofed house with its broken windows and faded curtains signals the tangled mix of passions that leads to the murder of Mary Turner, a poor and hapless white farmer's wife, as clearly as any obvious smoking gun. Set in Africa, it is as much about racism and sexuality as a case study in personality deterioration that eerily echoes Oscar Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray. Another example is Hugo, the catlike dog in The Memoirs of a Survivor, whose devoted love of the young girl Emily highlights both the poignancy and danger of her situation as gangs of children roam the city killing people and animals for food.

Minutiae can also express some more abstract concept in a refreshingly ordinary way. Anna, who, along with her lover Saul, experiences a breakdown in The Golden Notebook, discovers one day that perhaps "all sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh."

Lessing's ability to select those small but telling details that reinforce a story's themes and ideas also separates her from many of her contemporaries. She is not a lyrical writer, nor is her prose especially luminous; rather, it is a work of exact and intelligent craftsmanship--something that can be put to good use as well as admired for its good bones. Her contemporaries lyrically describe sunsets, the wilderness, and walks along the beach and woods, but these are generic evocations. They often fail to provide, as Lessing always does, the exact description--the cheap chintz pinned over a chair's old upholstery, or the way bunches of weeds sway in an underwater town, its roofs of red tiles that Mara sees on the edge of the retreating ice sheet--that will illuminate the essence of the story.

The journey after Chelops is as dangerous as its predecessor. Mara and Dann fly in a skimmer, take a barge that passes the unruly river towns, and are constantly threatened with capture by wandering bands of soldiers or desperate refugees who want their food. They are eventually captured and taken prisoner by the Charad, who seem to have links with the Mahondi.

Though at war with a neighboring people, one of the leading Charad generals, Shabis, a man of many accomplishments and generous with his time, agrees to give Mara writing lessons. Mara especially values these lessons, because like so many of Lessing's protagonists she is not only intelligent, resourceful, and brave but interested in the larger world, in ideas and knowledge. She thinks, asks questions, and shaped by her early childhood game, tries to look beyond her first impressions. She has learned and developed, as the narrator in Memoirs of a Survivor suggests we all do, "by swallowing whole other people, atmospheres, events, places."

Mara is, in fact, the kind of woman women writers used to celebrate until they embraced victimhood and feelings as the measure of a character's worth. Mara, like so many of Lessing's female characters, prizes rationality above emotion; she is at home more in the cooler emotional latitudes where the watchword is "think rather than feel first." But it's the same levelheadedness and caution that Jane Austen or George Eliot advocated. Unchecked emotions can lead to folly: Lydia running off with Wickham or the Bennets' own imprudent marriage based more on sexual attraction than intellectual compatibility in Pride and Prejudice, and Lydgate's destructive marriage to the beautiful but foolish Rosamond in Middlemarch.

But paradoxically, Lessing also movingly celebrates the ties of affection that warm and bind. Like few other contemporary writers, she regularly acknowledges and honors, without being maudlin or smug, the difficult and often trying obligations of the loving and kindly. Mara tenderly nurses the dying Daima back in the Rock Village and is always lovingly protective of Dann, often at great cost. For Dann is impulsive, emotionally susceptible, and plagued by rapid personality changes that make him behave in dangerously selfish and reckless ways. He once gambles away most of their money, and, to pay off his debts, lets Mara be taken away to a brothel.

Affections, though, are not substitutes for the truth, and when the time comes Mara chooses truth rather than acceding to a step Dann believes would make him happy. Tough love, for Lessing, always wins out over foolish sentimentality, which inevitably would cause more harm and trouble. For when Mara and Dann do reach the north and the destiny that awaits them as the last of the royal Mahondi line, Mara understands the truth and the price of the situation that has brought her and Dann so far.

Ever the realist

Welcomed by an aging noble couple, who are the loyalist caretakers of the Mahondi heritage and artifacts, Mara soon sees why she and Dann have been allowed to survive their hazardous journey to the edge of Ifrik, to the Mahondi Center. These Mahondi keepers of the flame want her and Dann to marry and create a new dynasty--a Ptolemaic-like dynasty that will rule a newly fertile Ifrik and restore the long-dead civilization. But Mara understands it's an impossible as well as corrupting proposition. For one thing, she knows that such marriages, as well as being unnatural, usually produce defective children. But she has also seen the reality of what Ifrik has become: It is a dry and increasingly waterless continent, where people are dying and cities disintegrating. If there are to be further climate changes, they will take millennia to be effective. A fertile and well-watered Ifrik will not be possible for centuries, perhaps never again.

She eventually persuades Dann, who is tempted by the scope of the invitation, to decline it and continue their wanderings, now westward to the Atlantic coast. And here they find a certain equilibrium in a big house on a farm where she and Dann settle down with the loves they met along the way. The big house "spreading over a hill where you could hear the sea booming or sighing all day, all night, was like the end of tales she had seen in ancient books in the Center: 'And so we all lived happily ever after.' But Mara's heart told her otherwise." As old troubles and quests end, new ones are sure to begin: For Lessing, ever the realist, there can be no happy endings, no terminal bliss, only some treasured moments of contented reflection on what has been achieved against the odds. Lessing writes in that great tradition that once made novels and their protagonists part of our lives, creations we treasured and returned to time and time again. It is hard now to think of contemporary equivalents that have the same enduring powers or resonance. Lessing understands that life, without any help from us, insouciantly delivers both numbing blows as well as the sweetest unimagined surprises, not always in equal measure. She knows that wars, economic downturns, and brutal droughts can shape a life as much as a failed marriage, an unhappy time in high school, or a neurotic mom, subjects on which so many women writers dwell.

Perhaps too many contemporary writers just lack the imagination or the talent to write beyond the narrow narcissism and triteness that nowadays so often define protagonists. Perhaps they are merely unable to show that living as well as dying still is "an awfully big adventure" (J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan). An adventure that Lessing, as she has done from the beginning, describes with verve and insight. Mara and Dann may not be her best, but it is very fine indeed.n
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Publication:World and I
Date:May 1, 1999
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