The Sweetest Dream, by Doris Lessing. New York: HarperCollins. 479 pages. $26.95. BUY NOW

     
 

Doris Lessing, though born in 1919, is the last surviving Victorian. She has the vigorous curiosity of the nineteenth-century autodidact, the brash stamina of the colonial settler, and the unselfconscious righteousness of the imperial missionary. Her claim that the writer is an "instrument of change for good or for bad" sounds like an undelivered Nobel acceptance speech, but it's hard to scoff at her requirement that for a novel to matter to readers it must convey "a statement of faith in man himself." During a prolific career that began with the publication of The Grass Is Singing in 1950 and which has included short-story collections, novels, utopian fantasies, operas, plays, memoirs, and essays, Lessing has excoriated ethical lapses with increasing energy and often at the cost of narrative nicety.

She is at her messianic bluntest in The Sweetest Dream. That it's packed with memories of her infatuation with Trotskyite politics, with criticism of the ruinous na´vetÚ of the '60s, the "nastiness" of the '70s, and the "cold greed" of the '80s, as well as with moral exhortations to save humankind, will not disconcert her fans. However, Lessing herself seems uncomfortable casting this work as fiction.

In an author's note she explains that she rejected writing it as autobiography "because of possible hurt to vulnerable people." This excuse coming from a memoirist who delivered vigorous indictments of husbands, lovers, and fellow travelers in the first two volumes of her autobiography is disappointing. Fiction and memoir, even when covering the same material, are hardly interchangeable.

Conceived as a novel by an author famously indifferent to euphony and impatient with creating characters and dramatizing scenes, The Sweetest Dream lacks both the compelling liveliness of the nineteenth-century novels Lessing admires and the acuity, accountability, and density of her own autobiographical writings. The good news for her many admirers who avoided the "Canopus in Argos" series is that she has returned to some semblance of the realist novel. The action takes place in London, Germany, and sub-Saharan Africa instead of in imagined galaxies.

The subject is vintage Lessing: apocalypse followed by (faintly New Age˝y) evolution. The end of the world is already here thanks to demagoguery, class envy, cupidity, nuclear buildup, racism, cultural relativism, poverty, illiteracy, superstition, aids, and, of course, men's routine mistreatment of women. (All these issues and more are addressed). Misplaced faith in political utopias has, like Stalinism, led to ruin.

Lessing's London is a bleak city, peopled with predators and poseurs, bullies and victims, parasites and crazies. Her sub-Saharan Africa is a corpse-littered amphitheater. In post-Soviet Somalia "the structure of decent living was destroyed. Warlords and bandits, tribal chiefs and family bosses, criminals and thieves, now ruled." The newly independent nation of Zimlia is "ill-governed . . . on ill-digested Marxism and tigs and tags of dogma, or remembered sentences from textbooks on economics."

 
     
     
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