• Saturday, September 26th, 2015

Doris Lessing, was born Doris May Tayler in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran) in 1919 from British parents. Her father was crippled in the first world war and was working as a clerk in The Imperial Bank of Persia and her mother had been a nurse. Her parents moved to the British colony in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1925, hoping to become wealthy through maize farming, which was to prove a disappointment.

Doris Tayler had a difficult childhood. She was educated at a Roman Catholic convent, the Dominican Convent High School in the capital Salisbury (now Harare). She left school at the age of fourteen and worked as a nursemaid, a telephone operator, an office worker and a journalist before marrying her first husband, Frank Wisdom, in 1939, with whom she had two children and divorced in 1943. She remarried a second time in 1945 with Gottfried Lessing after joining the Left Book Club – a communist club. She divorced from Lessing in 1949 after having a son from him and didn’t marry again.

Lessing has an extensive bibliography having written fiction, non-fiction, libretto, short stories, autobiography, drama, comics, and poetry. She received many prizes and notable awards for her work including the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007. Lessing died in November 2013 at her home in London at the age of ninety-four, predeceased by her two sons but survived by her daughter.

The sweetest Dream, Doris Lessing’s twenty-fourth novel, was published in 2001. It is a family saga spread over three generations, three decades and two countries: England and a fictitious country called, Zimlia, alluding to Zimbabwe where the author grew up. The story starts in the early sixties: “that contradictory time” whose spirit the author particularly wanted to recapture.

The period when people believed they could change the world. What a “sweet dream” it was then. Unfortunately all ideologies are doomed to failure due to human greed, pride and thirst for power. This is a generation that has witnessed the relinquishment of collective utopias in favour of individualism. The shift of political commitment towards the disappointed hopes born of disillusionment.

During the time Lessing spent among the fundamantalist British communist party members she gained first hand experience of their hypocrisy, selfishness, idleness and political opportunism. The author now in her eighties, is no longer naïve, she can reflect on the past with lucidity. She mockingly describes the commuist character of comrade Johnny, who is always repeating his clichés and doesn’t live acording to what he is preaching. The only thing that his mother and ex-wife agree upon is that he is a sloth and an imbecile. There are also his comrades who were either utopian fools or opportunists.

Frances, her mother-in-law Julia Lennox and her step-grand-daughter Sylvia are three extraordinary women from three different generations who nonetheless have in common: their altruism, their independent free spirit, their tolerance, and a good sense of responsibility. Each one of them tries to make this hopeless world slightly better. These female characters are portrayed more positively than the males by the author, they are going to endeavour like her, each one of them her own way, to improve things.

Frances, is paying for her mistake of marrying Julia’s son at a young age. Julia’s son is the unreliable, irresponsible, comrade Johnny Lennox, whose dream is to save the world. These were the high days of the communist party in England. Johnny, is a prototype of an apparatchik who believes in his duty toward the communist party more than his responsibility towards his widowed mother, his wife and his two sons: Andrew and Colin, who didn’t have a normal childhood being brought up by their mother without their apathetic father.

Frances has to give up her dream of becoming part of the theatrical world and works in a left-wing newspaper, The Defender, in order to provide for her sons’ education with help from her mother-in-law. Frances, who becomes Johnny’s ex-wife, is very maternal, a model of abnegation. She is always providing abundant meals, comfortable lodging, succour and advice to her two boys and their dropout, stray, rebellious, friends who, estranged from their parents come, like them, from middle class families.

Most of these adolescents will grow-up to be self-centred and without any empathy for others. Rose Trimble becomes a Marxist as well as a journalist, finding herself a suitable niche, to suit her character, in “World Scandals”. She is bitter and ungrateful and goes as far as using her paper to besmirch the reputation of the Lennox family who sheltered her and looked after her. Andrew is now working for “Global Money” and allocates large sums to the corrupt government of Zimlia, none of which will benefit the citizens who are in desperate need of basic items but the sums will disappear into the pockets of the leaders. Colin becomes a mediocre novelist. Sophie, their good looking spoilt friend, is now a theatrical actress and behaves like a prima donna. Comrade Franklin is back home and is a corrupt minister in the newly liberated communist Zimlia.

Julia is Frances’ former mother-in-law. She is a German-born World War Two exile who became the widow of the upper-middle-class Englishman, Philip Lennox, with whom she had Johnny. She is the matriarch of this big house in Hampstead, London who rightly said that the new generation is disoriented because one cannot expect to go back to normal as if nothing had happened after two devastating world wars.

The teenager Sylvia, Johnny’s anorexic step-daughter, with her absent communist father and abnormal mother, is looking for an anchor, a certain stability, which she finds in the Hampstead home with Julia as her “foster mother”. After Julia’s coaching, Sylvia obtains her diploma and becomes a medical doctor. She is transferred to a remote, small village in the post independent African state called Zimlia. There she is confronted for the first time in her life with extreme poverty, orphans left destitute, superstitions, helpless people dying of AIDS and other minor diseases because of the lack of education, equipment, medicines as well as corrupted leaders. Sylvia works herself to death trying to help the suffering Zimlians.

In her semi-autobiographical, compelling novel, the author analyses with acuity the complexity of human relationships and describes the gloomy reality with some humour and compassion. She feels comfortable with her novel’s subject, a period she lived and experienced first hand. She is portraying the baby boomer generation who wanted to change the world on their own terms. They succeeded to change the world for ever but, as Lessing outlines it, the result was not for the better.

The Sweetest Dream, with its rich characters as well as its rich subject, is a novel that leaves the reader with much to reflect upon.

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Category: Book Reviews
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