Doris Lessing

Time Bites: Views and Reviews, by Doris Lessing
London: Fourth Estate, 2004
New York: Harper Collins, 2004

In Time Bites, a 2004 collection of book reviews and essays, Doris Lessing discusses a good number of neglected books — by my count,easily a third of the titles covered qualify. Most of the pieces in the book date from the 1990s and early 2000s; none date back further than 1975. Had Lessing chosen to include work from the 1950s and 1960s, I suspect the list below would be twice as long, as she has long been an enthusiast for underappreciated writers such as Patrick Hamilton.

The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead

“… this is Christina Stead’s most special gift; there has never been a writer who can take you so strongly into a room, or a house, or a street that you are immediately a part of….

The Man Who Loved Children may be read for its evocation of a lost world as much as for its great virtues. For it is a great novel, one that is always being rediscovered and then for some reason slips away out of sight, and then is found again. Christina Stead is a great writer. Beside her name is a list of novels, each one unlike the work of any other writer and unlike each other, and perhaps that is why she is not finally accepted into the company of great writers.”

Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai, retold by Ramsay Wood

“The claim has been made for this book that it has travelled more widely than the Bible, for it has been translated through the centuries everywhere from Ethiopia to China. Yet is is safe to say that most people in the West these days will not have heard of it….

“This fresh creation by Ramsay Wood follows the more than 2,000-year-old precedent of adapting, collating and arranging the old material in any way that suits present purposes. It is contemporary, racy, vigorous, full of zest. It is also very funny. I defy anyone to sit down with it and not finish it at a sitting: his own enjoyment in doing the book has made it so enjoyable.”

The Forgotten Soldier, by Guy Sajer

“This book was put into my hands by a veteran of the campaign in Burma, a particularly nasty theatre of the Second World War. ‘You’ll never read a better book about being an ordinary soldier. Pity they were Nazis.’ I read it with awe at what human beings can stand, and rereadings have not dulled my reactions….

“I cannot think of another book that is such a protest against human destiny, and which succeeds so well in what he attempted. ‘To reanimate with all the intensity I can summon, those distant cries from the slaughterhouse.'”
[Editor’s note: Lessing’s essay, which first appeared as the introduction to the 2000 Phoenix reissue of The Forgotten Soldier, makes no mention of the skepticism with which the authenticity of the book is viewed by many historians of the Wehrmacht. For a sample of both sides of the controversy, see “‘The Forgotten Soldier’: Fact or Fiction?”]

• The works of George Meredith

“We all know the Victorian writers, Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Hardy, even Gissing. But there is one, in his time as celebrated as any of them, who is forgotten. George Meredith was admired by his peers. Stevenson, for instance, said that he was ‘out and away the greatest force in English letters.’ He was commended by most critics, even while some complained of his difficulty. He had fervent readers. Yet now the literary departments hardly know his name….

“His first book was The Shaving of Shagpat; influenced by The Thousand and One Nights, it was madly idiosyncratic. It was applauded by George Eliot for one. His second, The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, announced his preoccupations…. In the 1960s, I watched a houseful of teenagers snatching this novel out of each other’s hands….

The Egoist is, for me, the distillation of Meredith, a cool, witty, intelligent novel. I could in another mood say The Amazing Marriage, which includes almost as much of socialist politics as it does the logics of the heart. Some people prefer Diana of the Crossways, because of its spirited heroine….

“A novel that has been unfashionable and ‘too reactionary’ through much of its existence is The Tragic Comedians…. Surely now this novel’s cool hawk’s viewpoint could be admired as it deserves: it is a true comic novel. It is out of print. Those critics who complained that Meredith’s writing was too rich a mix have triumphed. Virginia Woolf said, ‘He will be forgotten and discovered and again forgotten and discovered, like Donne and Peacock and Gerard Hopkins.'”

The Fatal Eggs, by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Fatal Eggs can be seen as a parable about the nature of Soviet communism, though the frame of the tale is a mad scientist of genius and a ray — not a death ray, but one that vitalises — engendering swarms of reptiles, instead of beneficent beasts, because of some mix-up in the laboratory….

“How Bulgakov did enjoy writing The Fatal Eggs: the exuberance of it, the enjoyment, has to enliven the reader, and make us laugh.”

• The works of Henry Handel Richardson

Ethel Richardson decided to test the contention that it is easy to see when a book is written by a woman. She wrote Maurice Guest as a man, as Henry Handel Richardson, and proved her point. She has often been claimed as a great writer, and I think she is…. The trouble is, her three major books are so unlike each other, and the same set of phrases will not do to describe them all….

“The easiest to come at is The Getting of Wisdom, about a girls’ boarding school in Melbourne…. H. G. Wells and others called this novel a masterpiece. It belongs on the shelf with the classic school novels….

“Her first novel, Maurice Guest, was a bold book then for man or woman writer. It is about erotic obsession…. It is unputdownable, unforgettable, but if it is a good read no one could say it is an easy one, for it is too painful.

“And now the three volumes of the Fortunes of Richard Mahoney. If tragedy is a great character brought down by inner weakness, then this is not a tragedy, yet it has the effect of one, because if the hero is not up to the role, he nevertheless stands in for England, Europe, the Old Country’s values…. This is another novel dense as a plum pudding, nineteenth-century in feel, slow-moving, contemplative, while we watch fates and destinies reveal themselves. People who enjoy Trollope would find themselves at home here: the same sense of quiet and patient irony, the same understanding of weakness.”

• The works of Anna Kavan

“Anna Kavan wrote quite a few novels, some under her own real name. She is better known in Europe, but if her reputation here is still small it is secure and growing….

Change the Name was an early work, and there cannot be a better novel about the fate then of a middle-class girl denied training…. This is a conventional novel, short, bleak and shocking because of its honesty.

My Soul in China…. This novel’s intensity compresses it into a sort of poetry….

Ice, a late book, is a phantasmagoria, and was claimed by Brian Aldiss as the best science fiction of 1967. ‘She is De Quincey’s heir and Kafka’s sister,’ he said. However we class the book, there is nothing else like it.”

Before My Time, by Niccolo Tucci

“There are many readers who mourn the nineteenth-century novel, its capaciousness, its pace, its scope, its ironies, the firmness of characterisation that is rooted in a world with neater moral boundaries. Those readers will find food and delight here.

“I think this is one of the books, unjustly ignored, which come into their own when their time comes at last. This, I hope is the time for one. It is a great book, which will, I am sure, continue to gather lustre until it is set firmly on that special shelf side by side with the classics of world literature.”

The Maimie Papers, edited by Ruth Rosen and Sue Davidson

Why was so much effort needed to get into print material you’d think any publisher anywhere, male or female or of any political complexion, would clamour for? It doesn’t make any sense…. I’ve read it three times, carefully, because of the way it springs speculation and fresh associations. This is partly because so much is between the lines. I am reminded of the fascination I felt first reading Clarissa. Life has done almost as well as art. Yes, The Maimie Papers does have the quality of a novel, for Maimie was able to bring a person or scene to life with a word.”

The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, by Nirad C. Chaudhuri

“A book may live quietly, half-visible, for decades, admired and talked about by a few, and then there is a new generation of readers, a change in the prevailing wind, and there it is, towering over its contemporaries and clearly seen for what it is. Reading this book is to be immersed in India…. This is one of the great books of the twentieth century.”

Professor Martens’ Departure, by Jaan Kross

“The frame of this tale is a long leisurely train journey from the rural Estonia of his childhood to St Petersburg where the professor is Your Excellency and a Privy Councillor, and it can be seen as a representation of an ascent from poverty and humble beginnings to his achievements as an internationally acknowledged expert on international affairs…. This is a dense and many-layered novel. To borrow Virginia Woolf’s remark about Middlemarch, Jaan Kross is a novelist for grown-ups.”

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas

“The superlatives are all worn out; we have used them too often while trying to make some good book visible among others clamouring for attention. ‘Unique!’ ‘Unforgettable!’ ‘Extraordinary!’ But these words are used of any old rubbish. Peter Owen says The Ice Palace (Isslottet) by Tarjei Vesaas is the best novel he has ever published, and that is saying a lot….

“How simple this novel is. How subtle. How strong. How unlike any other. It is unique. It is unforgettable. It is extraordinary.”

Three Royal Monkeys, by Walter de la Mare

“Some books read in childhood put such a spell on you that for ever after you remember something like those sunset clouds illuminated pink and gold….

“The book is out of print. I found a copy in a secondhand shop and read it to find out if it really was the wonder I thought it. Yes it was and is and it sits in my memory side by side with The Secret Garden, The Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland.”

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