Miscellanies don't come much more miscellaneous than this. In the new collection of essays and reviews by Doris Lessing, one piece dates...
“Time Bites: Views and Reviews”
by Doris Lessing
HarperCollins, 376 pp., $27.95
Miscellanies don’t come much more miscellaneous than this. In the new collection of essays and reviews by Doris Lessing, one piece dates back to the 1960s and another was written as recently as last year. But there’s no chronological order to these “Time Bites.” Nor is there any other discernible form of organization.
Randomly assembled though it is, the book still offers plenty of powerful or generous moments as it ranges in subject from politics to cats to Sufism to literature.
There are moving tributes to the work and personalities of novelist Muriel Spark and English short-story writer A.E. Coppard.
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There are passionate recommendations of books by dozens of other writers, including Christina Stead, George Meredith and Olive Schreiner. (A longer essay on Schreiner appeared in Lessing’s 1974 book “A Small Personal Voice.” Her publisher is wrong in calling “Time Bites” her first such collection.)
Lessing, whose formal schooling ended at age 14, takes issue with what she sees as the reductive, analytical approach to literature. Instead she prefers to come at her literary favorites with little introduction or provision of context.
At times it’s almost as if she’s flying alongside the narrative of the book in question, observing it, telling you what she sees. And what she sees is often exactly what is needed to illuminate the book.
Consider D.H. Lawrence’s “The Fox,” for instance. She acknowledges the novella’s post-World War I time frame, outlines its tale about a war veteran intruding on two women trying to make it as farmers, then quotes a few lines about the titular fox that keeps killing the farm chickens. “This beast,” she persuades you, “is more than itself … Strongly set as this tale is in its social place, we have left realism behind.”
Lessing reflects on her own work as well, with an essay on the continuing response she gets to her 1962 classic, “The Golden Notebook,” and some scattered pieces on her opera collaborations with Philip Glass. (“A week in Heidelberg” is one — and it’s typical Lessing, in that she doesn’t even mention Glass until the last two paragraphs of the essay, focusing instead on the songbirds of the German university town where she and Glass were preparing to mount their opera.)
Also here are reflections on the hazards of writing autobiography and of being the subject of an unauthorized biography (“It appears I had a deep relationship with Ronald Laing who claimed that I was his patient and he gave me six doses of LSD”).
Then, in a beautiful biographical sketch of her mother — a London nurse during World War I — Lessing launches into a pure fantasy containing a heartbreaking truth, as she pictures her mother visiting a modern London hospital and lamenting all the soldiers’ lives she could have saved if she’d had the knowledge and technology of 2002 at her command.
Just as affecting is “The Tragedy of Zimbabwe,” in which Lessing takes full measure of the calamity that leader Robert Mugabe has inflicted on his country (the former Southern Rhodesia, where Lessing grew up).
Long an opponent of white colonial racism, Lessing finds Mugabe’s reckless rejection of any vestige of colonial rule — productive farms, free education systems, a reliable national infrastructure — as damaging to Zimbabwe’s black population as anything the whites could have dreamed up.
“Time Bites” could have been more selective in its offerings. Some pieces here are sketchy or slapdash, and there’s some unnecessary repetition. It would have been nice, too, to have some clue as to why it’s thrown together the way it is.
But given the number of eloquent, worthy essays here, I’m happy to take it as it is.