Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Cleft

by Doris Lessing (London: Fourth Estate [HarperCollins], 2007, 260 pp.)

The Cleft was published only a few months before Lessing was announced as the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, for her prolific lifetime of writing. For those who maintain The Golden Notebook (1962) was the high point of Lessing's literary achievement, The Cleft will be another in a long series of further disappointments. The Golden Notebook remains far and away Lessing's most literarily controlled piece of writing. It uses a complex set of rubrics, but its content replays a great deal that appears in the five-volume semi-autobiographical Martha Quest series (The Children of Violence). Two of the books of that series appeared in print after The Golden Notebook, but judging by style I'd hypothesize that really only the last, The Four-Gated City (1969) represents the stylistic and content breakthrough Lessing learned and one might say earned from doing the restrictive exercise of putting together The Golden Notebook.

Somewhere in the middle of The Four-Gated City, Lessing abandons realism (albeit a realism with a bit of psychic phenomenon involved) and the present, and takes the world and her characters into a period of massive dislocation. As best I can tell from my own intense but not total reading of her works, this is her earliest foray into the "space fiction" genre that is much derided by many of her reviewers.

Personally, I'm very delighted with many of Lessing's works of space fiction. In The Golden Notebook, there are many different kinds of fragments agglomerated into a single structural concretion. In the later works, the pieces are given their own space and are more accessible to contemplation. Lessing's brilliantly thought-provoking Shikasta series makes me think of Anais Nin's conception of her own series of short novels, Cities of the Interior, which Nin describes as "a mobile in space." There's a lot of space, literally as well as figuratively, between the different novels in Lessing's Shikasta series. But my favourite Shikasta novels, especially The Marriage between Zones Three, Four and Five, and The Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, contain strong insights and a lot of the very wicked Lessing sense of humour. They are not science fiction (a genre I actually loathe) at all, but closer to the satirical fantasy tradition of Gulliver's Travels.

The Cleft is not precisely "space fiction," but one might call it "time fiction." Its framework is very clever - an historian in the Roman Empire looks back at documents he says survive in his time from ancient transcriptions of an even more ancient oral tradition. The position of the historian is within the prototypical literate colonial society that still gives form to our own time. He is attempting to re-create the origins of gender relations, beginning with parthenogenetic females, who suddenly start giving birth to more and more deformed monsters, who eventually become understood as both human themselves and necessary for future human fertility.

Lessing often says that she is not a feminist. Recently she was quoted as saying that all the topics feminists thought they invented were being discussed long before that [her ism, which she describes herself as having exorcised with the writing of The Golden Notebook, was Communism]. She also, if you take the evidence of The Children of Violence series, had a somewhat sadistic mother, which would incline one not to put all hope for the world upon the mothering sex. So, it is not too surprising, although hard to approve, that she has the early females in her story rejecting and sometimes torturing and mutilating the deformed creatures that are the male babies. Tortured escapees from female society (helped by eagles) are the founders of the separate and different male society. Frankly, I don't feel the female ur-society she lays out depicts enough of the frustrations and thwarted ambitions that would ordinarily go into making sadists psychologically, and so the torture reports seem a bit gratuitious. But by having the historian who tells the stories be male, and much of the oral history he analyzes being from males, she builds in a rationale for this possible distortion. Clearly, Lessing is speculating from her own nearly 9 decades of human experience about how it came to be that men fear women and women disapprove of men and consider them careless of the essentials of human security and development.

I'll leave this review without a great deal more comment. The Cleft has something of the emotional feel (or lack of emotional feel) of the Canongate Myths series - in which well known and great writers were set the task of rewriting ancient canonical tales. In The Cleft, one is left to suspect that the tale that is being rewritten was perhaps expunged from the canon - perhaps indeed around the time of the Roman Empire. Stories of woman born from man cover over this old story of man born from woman, at first rejected, ultimately necessary, changing woman's life irrevocably, but still without her wellbeing and that of their children firmly at heart.

Postscript: CBC Radio's program Writers & Company just re-aired a 2004 interview with Doris Lessing, by Eleanor Wachtel. You can listen to this (it's 52 minutes long) in Real Audio at:

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