- In Pursuit of Doris Lessing: Nine Nations Reading, and: Vocation and Identity in the Fiction of Muriel Spark
To review two books, one on Lessing and one on Spark, is to see the remarkable difference in the way these women writers have been approached by their critics. Claire Sprague edits a collection of essays that focuses on "Lessing's current status as an international figure." Borrowing a title used earlier by Dee Seligman, Sprague, who generously acknowledges the debt, notes that Lessing "has become our quarry, the object of our critical pursuit." Herein lies the tale. Much Lessing criticism has become a kind of quest for a mythic author called Doris Lessing, a journey after a grail of sorts.
Lessing as idol is certainly there in Claire Sprague's "Introduction" to the collection that included readings of Lessing's work in Canada, Spain, South Africa, France, the United States, England, the USSR, Germany, and Zimbabwe. As one might expect, Lessing's "status" varies from country to country, from reader to reader. Of particular interest to me are the readings from Zimbabwe, South Africa, the United States, and France. In "Reading Doris Lessing's Rhodesian Stories in Zimbabwe," Anthony Chennels offers a fascinating account of Lessing's marginalization "because she was white and because the sense of a Zimbabwan nation is not sufficiently strong in her works [principally her short stories]." Eve Bertelsen, always a critic worth reading, charts Lessing's changing fortunes among South African readers from the fifties through the eighties. In "The Quest and the Quotidian: Doris Lessing in South Africa," Bertelson traces the popularity of the first three novels in The Children of Violence and the decline in that popularity after the publication of The Golden Notebook. Lessing readership waned, especially on the Left, because as Bertelsen concludes, "In a society where the most intimate of human affairs are still oppressively controlled by legislation it is not possible to entertain a contempt for group solidarity and politics. Indeed, such a position seems scarcely 'human' at all."
Interestingly enough, it is the publication of The Golden Notebook in 1962 that, according to Ellen Cronan Rose, puts Lessing on the literary map in the United States. Rose offers a particularly informative overview of the growth of academic interest in Lessing's fiction in "From Supermarket to Schoolroom: Doris Lessing in the United States." She also provides interesting material on the beginnings of the Doris Lessing Society that, I would argue, has done much to promote scholarly interest in Lessing's work as well as to promote some academic idolatry.
Nicole Ward Jouve captures some of that double response to Lessing in "Doris through the French Looking-Glass." Ever a thoughtful critic, Jouve describes how the publication of a French edition of The Golden Notebook in 1976 turned Lessing into a public figure. Up until then only The Grass Is Singing had been available [End Page 310] in French (1953); Le Carnet d'or changed everything. "All that was known about Lessing herself, and there was much that was by 1976, was channelled by the publishers and used to construct Lessing the novelist as almost more important or of more concern than the novel that was currently coming out." Jouve goes on to offer a shrewd conjecture that this situation may have led Lessing "to devise the Jane Somers hoax." For now, I want to suggest that the doubleness that Nicole Ward Jouve attaches to the publication of Le Carnet d'or is present in much Lessing criticism, including In Pursuit of Doris Lessing.
There is no Muriel Spark Society, and Spark criticism seems none the worse for it. Vocation and Identity in the Fiction of Muriel Spark focuses on five novels: The Bachelors, The Girls of Slender Means, The Mandlebaum Gate, The Abbess of Crewe and The Takeover. Rodney Edgecombe, of the University of Cape Town, reads each novel in terms...